The Upside review

THE UPSIDE

Director : Neil Burger
Cast : Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart, Nicole Kidman, Aja Naomi King, Jahi Di’Allo Winston, Genevieve Angelson, Juliana Marguiles, Golshifteh Farahani, Tate Donovan
Genre : Drama/Comedy
Run Time : 2 h 6 mins
Opens : 17 January 2019
Rating : PG13

There’s a specificity to the ‘unlikely buddy comedy-drama’ subgenre: the movies in this category like Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester or Scent of a Woman aren’t typical buddy movies. They’re often required to have an element of uplift and inspiration, in addition to humour arising from mismatched leads who might not get along at first. At the end of the day, each party learns something unexpected from the other. The 2011 French film The Intouchables is one of the more memorable recent entries in this subgenre, and The Upside is the Hollywood remake of it.

Phillip Lacasse (Bryan Cranston) is a wealthy venture capitalist and investment guru who became a quadriplegic after a paragliding accident. His assistant Yvonne (Nicole Kidman) is helping him vet applicants to be his auxiliary nurse, helping him with everyday tasks. Ex-convict Dell Scott (Kevin Hart) applies for the job not because he wants it, but because he needs to show his parole officer that he has been looking for work. Against Yvonne’s wishes, Phillip takes a liking to Dell.

While Dell is unqualified for the position, he and Phillip gradually warm to each other. Phillip introduces Dell to art and opera, while Dell bounces his ideas for businesses off Phillip. Dell tries to make amends with his ex-wife Latrice (Aja Naomi King) and his young son Anthony (Jahi Di’Allo). However, it’s not all smooth sailing, as Phillip and Dell have their disagreements and must evaluate what each want out of life, finding themselves at a crossroads together despite their very different backgrounds.

The Upside has been getting a lot of flack from fans of The Intouchables, who have readily written it off as a rip-off.  The French film was inspired by the true story of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, a wealthy hotelier who became friends with his ex-convict carer Abdel Sellou. The film has already been remade: in Spanish as Inseparables and in Telugu and Tamil as Oopiri/ Thozha, with a Hindi remake in development.

Being a remake is not one of The Upside’s biggest problems. The Intouchables has received its share of criticism for its problematic handling of race, and for falling back on stereotypes – even if it was based on a true story. With this remake, there was an opportunity to recontextualise the story and explore the sensitive subjects of race, privilege, social inequality and disability within an American setting. Unfortunately, while the film hints at these themes, it is not astute or deft enough to handle them in an insightful manner. The movie wants to be a feel-good inspirational drama, but in keeping the social issues key to the story at arm’s length, it often feels shallow.

Director Neil Burger, working from a screenplay by Jon Hartmere, appears to have trouble depicting the progression of the friendship between Phillip and Dell in a way that makes sense. They have disagreements, get over them, then have more disagreements, but each seems to react disproportionately to key incidences in the story. Dell starts out confrontational and obnoxious, while Phillip is patient, until he suddenly isn’t. It’s hard to get a handle on the two main characters even though they get a lot of screen time, because there isn’t a lot of flow in the development of their relationship.

Cranston is excellent as expected, finding the quiet sadness and ironic sense of humour in a character who has everything but mobility from the neck down. While there is a debate to be had about able-bodied actors playing disabled characters, Cranston plays the role with enough care that Phillip is sympathetic even though he’s incredibly wealthy, and not just because he is a quadriplegic.

Kevin Hart is staggeringly miscast. There’s no rule that says comedians cannot try their hand at drama, and there are many comedians who have excelled in dramatic roles, but Hart’s smart-mouth persona and shrillness threaten to smother the character, even though he is trying to dial it down here. When Dell is rude and confrontational, it feels like he’s just out to get a rise of others, rather than it coming from a place of real struggle.

While it’s not a focal point of the movie, it’s also hard not to wince at a scene in which Dell baulks at changing Phillip’s catheter, freaks out over Phillip’s accidental erection and can’t even bring himself to say the word “penis”, given former future Oscar host Hart’s history of homophobic remarks.

Nicole Kidman puts in a respectable low-key performance – it’s clear she’s looking for depth in the limited material she has but figured early on that she didn’t have to do too much. The subplot about Dell’s ex-wife and son could’ve done with more development, but the film is right to place the focus on Dell and Phillip’s relationship. Juliana Marguiles shows up for one scene, that is one of the film’s better scenes because Hart isn’t in it.

The filmmakers of The Upside must’ve known they were stepping into a minefield, given that the politics of disability, race and inequality are central to the story. In aiming for a safe, crowd-pleasing feel-good drama, The Upside does not fall into outright shameful sentimentality, but still suffers from a lack of nuance and passes up the opportunity to reframe the original story against the backdrop of urban American society.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Last Flag Flying movie review

For inSing

LAST FLAG FLYING

Director : Richard Linklater
Cast : Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, J. Quinton Johnson, Cicely Tyson, Yul Vasquez
Genre : Comedy/Drama
Run Time : 2h 5mins
Opens : 25 Jan 2018
Rating : NC16

In this comedy-drama, three Vietnam war veterans reunite and rekindle their friendship, but under less-than-ideal circumstances. It is December 2003, and Larry “Doc” Shepard (Steve Carell), a former Navy Corpsman, receives the devastating news that his son Larry Jr. has been killed in Iraq. Doc asks bar owner Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and pastor Rev. Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), who served in the Marines in Vietnam alongside Doc, to accompany him to retrieve and bury his son’s body.

Doc, Sal and Mueller arrive at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, to receive the body of Larry Jr. There, the trio meets LCpl. Charlie Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), who was Larry’s best friend in the Marines. Sal butts heads with Lt. Col. Willitis (Yul Vasquez), as Doc tries to process the loss of his son and Mueller attempts to counsel him. Despite the tragedy that brought them back together, the three men rediscover their friendship and work through each of their own issues which have been remained unresolved over the last 30 years.

Last Flag Flying is based on the novel of the same name by Darryl Ponicsan, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Richard Linklater. Ponicsan is known for the 1970 novel The Last Detail, which was adapted into a film starring Jack Nicholson, Otis Young and Randy Quaid. While the novel was a direct sequel to The Last Detail, featuring some of the same characters, the film adaptation of Last Flag Flying is a spiritual sequel to The Last Detail instead.

Last Flag Flying deals with some heady themes, including those of loss, faith, patriotism and friendship. It packages this into a male bonding comedy-drama, and winds being a modest, moving film. The film pays respect to veterans without veering into overblown chest-thumping territory. There are times when the film feels hampered by its road trip structure, but the dialogue is well-written and balances interaction between the characters with exposition. Our trio of protagonists must face truths about themselves and confront long-buried secrets, each man at a different point on his respective journey to make peace with himself and his past.

In recent years, Carell has made considerable efforts to push past his comfort zone as a comedic actor, and he puts in a quiet, sombre performance. Sadness weighs on Doc, sadness he doesn’t know how to express. There are times when the withdrawn meekness comes off as an affectation, but Carell is largely convincing in his portrayal of a man in the throes of crushing grief.

Cranston is the movie’s dynamo. As the belligerent, alcoholic Sal, Cranston gets all the movie’s best lines. Sal is confrontational and speaks his mind, and is wildly expressive, giving Cranston the chance to display his physical comedy chops. Naturally, there’s a hollowness at the centre of all this, and Sal is a broken man using humour to cope. He is the instigator of much of the conflict, and keeps things moving.

Of the three protagonists, Mueller is the most at peace with himself, having found God and heeded his calling to become a preacher. Fishburne starts out calm, but there are points when Mueller is pushed to his breaking point. The character often acts as mediator, and it’s to the film’s credit that his faith is treated seriously rather than mocked outright. The arguments that Mueller and Sal have over the existence of God aren’t anything we haven’t heard before, but Mueller’s point of view registers as a valid one.

Quinton Johnson, who recently made his Broadway debut in Hamilton, is warm and likeable as Charlie. Charlie is the only real link audiences have to Larry Jr., as most of what we know about Doc’s slain son is conveyed by Charlie. Veteran actress Cicely Tyson shows up in an emotional, subtly sad scene.

“Every generation has its war,” Sal observes pithily, adding “Men make the wars; wars make the men”. There might not be as much depth here as we would’ve liked, but there still is resonance to Last Flag Flying. It’s a low-key film that can sometimes feel a little slow, but is given life by its trio of protagonists. The screenplay balances sensitivity with ‘guy’s night out’ brashness, never coming across as sanctimonious or preachy even as it deals with serious issues. It could stand to be a little tighter, but there’s warmth, wisdom and just a dash of silliness that makes Last Flag Flying worthwhile and thought-provoking.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Power Rangers

For F*** Magazine

POWER RANGERS

Director : Dean Israelite
Cast : Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, R.J. Cyler, Ludi Lin, Becky G, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Banks, Bill Hader
Genre : Action/Fantasy
Run Time : 2h 3min
Opens : 23 March 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

   It’s time for another lesson in morphology with the return of the Power Rangers to the big screen. In the seaside town of Angel Grove, teenagers Jason (Montgomery), Kimberly (Scott), Billy (Cyler), Zack (Lin) and Trini (Becky G) are working through their issues. By happenstance, they find themselves at the same quarry outside Angel Grove at the same time. This is the resting place of a long-buried alien spacecraft. They find themselves possessing superpowers, and upon exploring further, enter the alien ship. There, they meet the robot assistant Alpha 5 (Hader), and Zordon (Cranston), a former Power Ranger whose consciousness is trapped in the walls of the ship. Zordon charges Jason, Kimberly, Billy, Zack and Trini with the responsibility of becoming a new team of Power Rangers. They must train their minds and bodies, and master control of bio-mechanical robot vehicles called Zords. This is so they can face the evil alien witch Rita Repulsa (Banks), who has awakened to wreak havoc after a millennia-long slumber.

Nostalgia being the booming business it is now, it was only a matter of time before a big-budget movie reboot of Power Rangers came to fruition. Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, an American adaptation of the Japanese tokusatsu franchise Super Sentai, first aired in 1993. The kids who watched it then have spending power now, and some have kids of their own. We would caution against taking younger ones (under 9 or thereabouts) to see this, since there are certain scenes that children could find genuinely unsettling, and because there are sexual overtones during one intense fight.

One of the biggest challenges facing director Dean Israelite is tone. The cheesiness of the TV show, which recycled footage from its Japanese progenitor, is a big part of its charm. However, a contemporary Power Rangers movie must stand-to-toe with such polished, expensive products as the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. Surprisingly, Power Rangers strikes an adequate balance – for the most part. We do get a discernible Young Adult (YA) fiction vibe, and there is some moodiness – as can be expected from teenage characters. However, the film doesn’t take itself too seriously. For example, there’s a scene in which Zack’s Zord narrowly avoids an actual bus full of nuns. There’s also a running gag/spot of product placement involving a donut chain.

Much of Power Rangers unfolds predictably, doing the same old origin story song-and-dance. There is a training montage or two, and it’s almost 90 minutes into the film before our quintet of heroes dons their full armour. However, we do appreciate the palpable effort in getting some character development in. Instead of a breathless string of action sequences, audiences get to know each of the five characters enough before they’re plunged into battle. Some emotional moments are awkwardly written and performed, but scenes like a fireside gathering during which the characters try to get to know each other better feel welcome in a sci-fi action blockbuster.

Much has been made of the designs, with some long-time fans being sharply against the reimagined looks. Production designer Andrew Menzies rationalises the drastic aesthetic updates as emphasising the alien nature of the technology. The underlying concept makes sense, even if the suits end up being a little too busy. When they’re in the thick of the action, it’s sometimes hard to discern which prehistoric creatures each Zord is based on. However, compared to the designs in the live-action Transformers movies, this is an exercise in minimalism. And unlike the character designs in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle reboot films, they’re not viscerally off-putting to look at. Weta Workshop and Legacy Effects worked on the physical suits, which are worlds away from the traditional spandex look. The visual effects work by vendors Digital Domain, Image Engine, Method Studios, Pixomondo and Scanline is uniformly impressive.

Whether one finds the main characters annoying will depend on one’s tolerance of millennials. There are moments when Power Rangers tries too hard to be hip and cool, but Israelite and his writers are trying to develop the characters beyond the archetypes they embody.

Australian actor Montgomery, who resembles the love child of Rob Lowe and Zac Efron, is a serviceable ‘boring’ team leader. Cyler is sweet and endearing if a tad grating as Billy, who is on the autism spectrum, putting a few too many tics into his performance. Scott’s Kimberly, a cheerleader rebelling against perfection, will make some eyes roll. Lin is pretty fun as the most free-spirited and impulsive member of the team, who’s hiding a vulnerable side. Singer Becky G cranks up the attitude as the sullen, hoodie-clad Trini. It’s possible that this bunch could develop compelling chemistry after a sequel or two.

Cranston is an excellent choice to play the wise mentor, and Power Rangers augments that character type slightly by giving Zordon possibly selfish motivations. Zordon is portrayed via computer-generated pinscreen animation (think the Kryptonian displays in Man of Steel), so some of Cranston’s facial expressions are retained in the performance.

Banks is, naturally, the best part of the whole thing. She’s a pitch-perfect Rita Repulsa, fully aware of the type of role she’s playing. While she fulfils the cackling, scenery-chewing quotient long associated with the character, there are moments when Banks is genuinely frightening. The makeup effects, supervised by Supernatural makeup effects artist Toby Lindala, are suitably creepy.

As with any reboot of an established franchise, some fans will detest certain changes made in Power Rangers. However, thanks to its surprising emphasis on character development and rock-solid production values, this is a worthy reboot, if far from a perfect one. Studio Lionsgate are hoping for at least six films, which might be a touch optimistic, but we can see this going somewhere. Look out for a cameo from original stars Amy Jo Johnson and Jason David Frank, and stick around for a mid-credits scene teasing the addition of a popular character.

SUMMARY: Power Rangers’ updating of the beloved TV show is not a seamless one, but it works more than it doesn’t, serving as an efficient set-up for the mythos of this reboot. It’s also just edgy enough without being ridiculously mopey.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Why Him?

For F*** Magazine

WHY HIM?

Director : John Hamburg
Cast : Bryan Cranston, James Franco, Zoey Deutch, Megan Mullally, Griffin Gluck, Keagan Michael-Key
Genre : Comedy
Run Time : 1h 51min
Opens : 29 December 2016
Rating : NC16 (Coarse Language And Sexual References)

why-him-posterIt’s every father’s nightmare: your daughter falls in love with (dramatic pause) James Franco. The father in this case is Ned Fleming (Cranston), who owns a printing company in Michigan. While studying at Stanford, Ned’s daughter Stephanie (Deutch) falls for Laird Mayhew (Franco), a Silicon Valley billionaire. Laird invites Ned, his wife Barb (Mullally) and their son Scotty (Gluck) over for the holidays. Ned is shocked by Laird’s over-the-top antics and lack of a filter, creating endless awkwardness. Ned flies into a panic when Laird tells Ned his plans to propose to Stephanie. As the rest of the family begins to warm to Laird, Ned takes drastic measures to prevent Laird from becoming his son-in-law.

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Why Him? is directed and co-written by John Hamburg, who co-wrote the Meet the Parents series of films. There’s not a lot of originality in the premise of Why Him?, which pits a strait-laced dad against a free-spirited, outrageous potential son-in-law. The film’s brand of humour is crass and unsophisticated, awash in scatological jokes and an abundance of coarse language. Why Him? also possesses several traits seen in many recent big studio comedies, such as falling back on celebrity cameos for laughs, and attempting to offset wanton ribaldry with sweetness. However, it is frequently funny, thanks to extremely effective casting.

why-him-james-franco-and-megan-mullally

Cranston has proven to be a gifted performer in both comedic and dramatic roles. Even when doing as little as looking aghast or wringing his hands, Cranston is a thoroughly entertaining presence. Ned is a boring family man: to hammer this home, we see that his 55th birthday party is being held at an Applebees restaurant. He’s also expectedly protective over his daughter. The ways in which Ned and Laird come into conflict are mostly predictable, but Cranston doesn’t phone it in at all here.

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We’ll come right out and say it: Franco has a reputation for being at least a little weird. He’s an Oscar-nominated multi-hyphenate with a prolific list of credits both in front of and behind the camera, but he can’t help being the target of parody and accusations that he’s an attention-seeker. This seems like a part that’s tailor-made for Franco, and he has great fun with the goofy role. Franco and Cranston share palpable comic chemistry, and they power through the hackneyed jokes and toilet humour to deliver the laughs.

why-him-james-franco-and-griffin-gluck

Deutch is an exceedingly appealing actress, it’s just a pity that she’s popped up in so many cringe-inducing comedies as of late. As with Cranston and Franco, this is casting that just works. Deutch looks sensible and intelligent, so we’re meant to question “why him?” alongside Ned. Since the bulk of the movie is about Ned and Laird’s rivalry, it means that Deutch’s part isn’t as substantial as it should be. Mullally and Gluck are good as Ned’s wife and son respectively. Mullally gamely works her way through a scene in which Barb, high on marijuana, aggressively comes on to Ned (that’s not how weed works). Scotty is business-savvy and focused on self-improvement, but is swayed by the lavish trappings of Laird’s lifestyle all the same.

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Why Him? pokes fun at Silicon Valley excesses via Laird’s contemporary art collection, his parties deejayed by Steve Aoki, fancy-pants haute cuisine served up by Top Chef alum Richard Blais, and a Siri-like smart home system named Justine, voiced by Kaley Cuoco. While material like this is done much better on HBO’s Silicon Valley, there are still laughs to be had from the culture shock that Grand Rapids native Ned experiences when confronted with Laird’s California tech elite lifestyle. Keagan Michael-Key steals the show as Gustav, the German-accented manservant who springs surprise attacks on Laird so Laird can improve his self-defence skills.

why-him-adam-devine-andrew-rannells-and-casey-wilson

Why Him’s lowbrow jokes are punctuated with semi-inspired visual gags and even though some of the set pieces go on for too long, the acting is just enough to sustain in. The subplot of Ned’s I.T. guy Kevin Dingle (Zack Pearlman) having a creepy, perverse obsession with Stephanie that’s played for laughs is particularly distasteful.

Why Him? is far from the best use of its talented cast and its cynicism and crassness won’t sit well with some audiences, but it’s almost as funny as it is stupid. We mean this in the best way possible.

Summary: Inelegant and vulgar but entertainingly acted by its excellent cast, Why Him? showcases energetic performances overcoming a tired script and some tasteless jokes.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

The Infiltrator

For F*** Magazine

THE INFILTRATOR 

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

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

The Infiltrator Bryan Cranston and John Leguizamo

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

The Infiltrator Bryan Cranston

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

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

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

The Infiltrator Benjamin Bratt and Bryan Cranston

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

The Infiltrator Bryan Cranston and cartel members

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

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

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Kung Fu Panda 3

F*** Magazine

KUNG FU PANDA 3

Director : Jennifer Yuh Nelson, Alessandro Carloni
Cast : Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Kate Hudson, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, James Hong, Randall Duk Kim, Bryan Cranston, J.K. Simmons
Genre : Animation
Run Time : 95 mins
Opens : 10 March 2016
Rating : G

The rotund, ever-enthusiastic harbinger of awesomeness himself, Po (Black) the Dragon Warrior, has returned to deliver swift justice and wolf down dumplings in the third instalment of the Kung Fu Panda series. The fiendish spirit warrior Kai (Simmons), who formerly fought alongside Master Oogway (Kim), is intent on capturing the chiof all the kung fu masters throughout the land, imprisoning them within jade amulets. In the meantime, Master Shifu (Hoffman) announces his retirement and tasks Po with training the Furious Five, comprising Tigress (Jolie), Viper (Liu), Monkey (Chan), Mantis (Rogen) and Crane (Cross). While Po struggles with his new responsibilities, his biological father Li Shan (Cranston) arrives to take his long-lost son to a secret panda village. This incites the jealousy of Po’s adoptive father Mr. Ping (Hong). When Kai has his sights set on the panda village, Po must transform his ungainly kin into a fearsome army to defeat their powerful foe.

            It can be said that 2008’s Kung Fu Panda was something of a turning point for Dreamworks Animation, eschewing excessive popular culture references (but still keeping an all-star voice cast) in favour of something more character-driven, drawing upon Chinese culture for design and story elements. Kung Fu Panda 3 retains much of what made the first two films appealing: it’s breath-taking to look at, the characters are loveable and it’s heartfelt. However, true poignancy seems just out of the movie’s grasp, and the philosophy being dispensed doesn’t go much deeper than “believe in yourself”. Also, even though the stakes seem pretty high, with an immortal villain going after all the kung fu masters in the land, the sense of devastation is insufficient. These films have to strike a balance between depicting battles against evil and kid-friendly goofing off. The scales are ever so slightly uneven here.

            What’s great about Po is there are still lessons for him to learn and challenges for him to conquer; he might have come a long way but there’s still a distance to go yet. This film delves into Po’s crisis of identity: he’s been raised by a goose his whole life, but then his actual dad enters stage left and introduces him to a whole village of pandas he’s never known. What does this make Po? It’s roly-poly slapstick first and depth second, but it counts for something that the filmmakers have figured out a way to keep Po’s character from reaching a comfortable plateau. Black wears the role like a second skin and Po’s earnestness, fanboy attitude and moments of self-doubt are traits many viewers identify with.

            Kai has all the makings of a formidable villain, but something’s missing and this reviewer can’t quite pinpoint what. As the series’ first supernatural baddie, he’s easily the most powerful of the foes Po and company have faced off against. Simmons does a decent gruff bellow and the character design is physically imposing. In terms of impact, he is perhaps on par with Tai Lung from the first film but lacks the almost unsettling menace of Kung Fu Panda 2’s Lord Shen. His motivations are also significantly less developed than those of the afore-mentioned previous antagonists.

            Cranston contributes an affable warmth to the part of Li Shan, with a “dopey dad” vibe that brings to mind his role as Hal in Malcolm in the Middle. The conflict between Po’s two dads seems like a stronger driving force for the story than the oncoming threat of Kai’s attacks. Ping’s initial suspicion of Li Shan and how he comes to terms with the fact that Po’s biological father is back in his life is both funny and touching, giving Hong a little more to do than just be the fussbudget. Of the Furious Five, Jolie’s Tigress gets the most screen time and the team’s resident stoic gets to show a little bit of a soft side as she bonds with a little panda girl. It seems like Mei Mei, a panda who has amorous designs on Po, was originally given more to do in the story. As it stands, the character is largely inconsequential. Perhaps it stems from the re-casting of the role, with Rebel Wilson replaced by Kate Hudson due to scheduling conflicts.

            The martial arts sequences choreographed by animator Randolph Guenoden continue to be outstanding and a portion of the film takes place in the Chinese spirit realm, which changes the look up a little. There are a number of specific lines and jokes that are direct call-backs to the first two movies, which should make watching all three back-to-back somewhat rewarding. As far as we’re concerned, the franchise has yet to outstay its welcome, but Kung Fu Panda 3 shows signs of why one might be worried.



Summary: Kung Fu Panda 3 is spectacularly animated and gives Po more character development, but its underwhelming villain and emotional arcs that show promise but fall short of sublime are a bit of a disappointment.

RATING: 3.5out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Trumbo

For F*** Magazine

TRUMBO 

Director : Jay Roach
Cast : Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Michael Stuhlbarg, Alan Tudyk, Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje, Dean O’Gorman, David James Elliott, Christian Berkel
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 124 mins
Opens : 25 February 2016
Rating : PG13 (Coarse Language)

How agonising would it be to write something so spectacular and widely-lauded, yet be forcibly denied credit? This reviewer wouldn’t know because he’s never written anything nearly that good, but Dalton Trumbo (Cranston) certainly knew that feeling.

It is the late 1940s in Hollywood and Trumbo is highly in demand as a screenwriter. He is a member of the American Communist Party, he is one of the “Hollywood ten”, a group of screenwriters subpoenaed to testify before Congress. Trumbo is ostracised as his relationship with his wife Cleo (Lane) and three children is put under immense strain. Trumbo becomes a target of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Mirren) and his disavowed by his friend, actor Edward G. Robinson (Stuhlbarg) so Robinson can protect his own career. Trumbo is unable to find work after being blacklisted, so he lets his friend Ian McLellan Hunter (Tudyk) take credit for Roman Holiday, which eventually wins an Academy Award. Gradually, rumours begin to swirl surrounding Trumbo’s clandestine ghost-writing. As the likes of Kirk Douglas (O’Gorman) and Otto Preminger (Berkel) hire Trumbo to craft screenplays for them, Trumbo inches closer to finally getting the credit he is due.


            It’s no secret that Hollywood loves movies about itself, and as a biopic about a prominent Hollywood figure, set against the backdrop of Cold War political turmoil, Trumbo does come off as Oscar bait. It’s a noble story of a stridently principled and talented man who risks everything to stand by his ideals. It is the hope of the filmmakers that audiences at large will find something in this story to identify with, because Trumbo often plays a little too “inside baseball” to be readily accessible. It’s not a difficult story to understand and Dalton Trumbo does deserve to have his story told, but if one isn’t that big a cinephile, specifically of the era in Hollywood during which Trumbo and his peers were active, Trumbo can be difficult to get into. This might sound disparaging and rest assured we don’t mean it that way, but Trumbo does feel like a film made for HBO. Director Jay Roach and star Cranston will next collaborate on one such HBO film, the Lyndon B. Johnson biopic All The Way.

            John McNamara adapted the biography Dalton Trumbo by Bruce Alexander Cook into this film. It seems that any writer tackling a script about a titan in the same field would be painting a target of considerable size on his own back. Adding to the risk is the fact that such revered classics as Roman Holiday, The Brave One and Spartacus are not only referred to, but are key components of the story. There is a righteous indignation that McNamara brings out in his script, but Trumbo says in a speech that there were “no heroes and villains” while the witch-hunt for “commies” was ongoing, yet several characters do feel exaggerated in the name of artistic license. Director Roach is known for helming comedies such as the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents trilogies as well as Borat and The Campaign. Perhaps the closest he’s come to directing a drama is the HBO film Game Change, about Sarah Palin’s vice-presidential bid. While there are no obvious missteps in his direction, perhaps the material could have benefitted from a defter touch.

            The ace up Trumbo’s sleeve is Trumbo himself, brilliantly portrayed by Cranston. For audiences who only knew him as bumbling dad Hal from Malcolm in the Middle, Cranston made the world collectively drop its jaws with his staggering, indelible Walter White in Breaking Bad. Cranston’s Trumbo is not a boring hero, he can be frustratingly stubborn and ornery but that twinkle in his eye and the spark of true giftedness draws us to him.

Leading the supporting cast, Lane is wonderfully convincing as a woman of the 50s. She handles the role, particularly the scenes in which Cleo confronts her husband about being swallowed up by his ghost-writing and becoming hostile towards his family, with strength and grace. Elle Fanning portrays Trumbo’s eldest daughter Nikola, and her relationship with her father is contentious but understandably so. Louis C.K. and Alan Tudyk, both more often associated with comedic roles, both deliver solid dramatic turns. O’Gorman and Berkel’s impressions of Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger respectively are entertaining and just broad enough. Goodman is charismatically boorish and Mirren chomps down on the role of the catty, flamboyant gossip columnist with great relish.



            Trumbo is a biographical drama set in Hollywood with a talented actor in the lead role just waiting for the kudos to roll on in. In that regard, it’s a safe albeit not especially satisfying awards season offering. For those already enamoured with the period, the 50s style and décor might be eye-catching, but director Roach doesn’t do quite enough to hook the audience in and transport them right into the thick of 50s Hollywood. There’s earnestness aplenty, but a disappointing lack of pizazz.

Summary: Star Bryan Cranston is firing on all cylinders, but because it is only moderately successful at breathing life into the history it depicts, Trumboholds the audience at arm’s length.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Godzilla (2014)

For F*** Magazine

GODZILLA

Director : Gareth Edwards
Cast : Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn
Genre : Action, Sci-fi
Opens: : 15 May 2014
Rating : PG (Some Intense Sequences)

It has been ten years since Godzilla: Final Wars, and the King of Monsters has returned to reclaim his rubble-built throne in this film. Lt. Ford Brody (Taylor-Johnson) is an explosive ordnance disposal technician, who has a young son (Carlson Bode) with his wife, nurse Elle (Olsen). As a child, Ford lived in Japan, where his parents Joe (Cranston) and Sandy (Binoche) were supervisors at a nuclear power plant. A catastrophic incident in which the power plant was attacked by a Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism, or MUTO, still haunts Ford. 15 years later, the MUTO has re-emerged and as the military scrambles to fight it, scientist Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Watanabe) believes only one thing can truly stop it: the powerful ancient creature known as Godzilla – but not without causing its share of damage.

The release of this Godzilla film marks Big G’s 60th anniversary; the creature has appeared in a staggering 30 official films (including this one) since 1954. The original film was a serious-minded one but over time, it’s become harder and harder to take the creation seriously, the iconic kaiju sometimes regarded as camp and mostly viewed as a friendly mascot (look for “Godzilla happy dance” on YouTube). Director Gareth Edwards, who became an overnight sensation with his micro-budget creature feature Monsters in 2010, has delivered an incarnation of the monster that can indeed be taken seriously. With Godzilla, the creature’s second proper Hollywood outing, Edwards has crafted an effective disaster movie which possesses admirable scope and scale. In an age where moviegoers are difficult to impress, this is pretty darn impressive. The sheer amount of visual effects work and the number of major action set-pieces in this one film is hard to wrap one’s head around and yet, it’s not overwhelming or repetitive. 

We’ll be upfront about it: the plot isn’t Godzilla’s strongest point. The protagonist is little more than “the soldier” and his wife is merely “the nurse”. There are more than a handful of contrivances which repeatedly position Ford Brody in the middle of the action and he must be followed around by the same guardian angel who was looking out for Brad Pitt’s Gerry Lane in World War Z, seeing how he survives multiple catastrophes with nary a scratch. Seeing the future Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver as a married couple might gross some of the geekier audience members out a tad. However, there are definitely things about the narrative that work: it’s couched as a conspiracy thriller of sorts and the downright terrific opening credits are presented as a montage of Godzilla’s appearances throughout history, which the relevant authorities have tried to conceal from the public. Even though the military plays a pivotal role, Godzilla does not come off as jingoistic.
In addition to essentially being a scaled-up take on Monsters, Godzilla also takes a handful of pages from Steven Spielberg’s playbook. The late reveal of the titular monster (it’s approximately an hour in before Godzilla shows up proper) echoes Jaws, as does the surname “Brody”. The post-9/11 disaster movie feel is reminiscent of War of the Worlds. The daddy issues are present in many of Spielberg’s works. The father who grows obsessed with an outré subject is from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And of course, there’s the Jurassic Park connection, not just with the giant creatures running amok but also in scenes like a helicopter approaching a jungle. But while Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla was an unsuccessful Jurassic Park rip-off, the above influences enrich Edwards’ work and do not stick out as being “stolen”. 

As of late, we’ve heard complaints of blockbusters being stuffed with too much wanton destruction, to the extent that scenes of major cities being levelled no longer carry any weight. Here, there is calamity with consequence; Edwards striking a difficult balance between the visceral thrill of seeing giant monsters punch each other and the solemnity of witnessing cities laid to waste and countless lives destroyed. Japanese fans have complained that Godzilla appears to have become the Burger King of all Monsters, having packed on the tons. Yes, Godzilla does seem a little pudgier here, but his presence is no less awe-inspiring and in spite of the extra weight and relatively small head, nothing seems very “off” about his look here. The character animation on Godzilla and his MUTO opponents is excellent; the creatures end up being great “actors” thanks to the emotion the visual effects artists imbue their facial expressions with. There’s also just enough of a nod in their movements to the heyday of men in rubber suits shoving each other about a model city without coming off as silly.  

Despite the cast not being the main draw, nobody in Godzilla is terrible. Taylor-Johnson borders on wooden but still brings a humanity to Brody, though at 23, he does seem a little young to be the father of a five-year-old. We do wish Elizabeth Olsen had more to do; she isn’t in the thick of the action for most of the film. Bryan Cranston is good as the troubled, slightly manic dad, though he isn’t in the film as much as the trailers would lead you to believe, playing more of a supporting role. Ken Watanabe is perfectly respectable, but he does constantly look worried/constipated. Sally Hawkins, in her first big-budget blockbuster, doesn’t have much to do either as his assistant. David Strathairn is the standard military type here but thankfully, isn’t characterized as ridiculously hard-nosed.
While the “human element” might be lacking somewhat, there is more than enough in Godzilla to get emotionally invested in and thanks to Edwards’ vision, this does stand above the loud, noisy blockbuster pack. The high-altitude low-opening parachute jump scene towards the film’s climax is gorgeously shot by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, a moment of calm in the midst of the storm. For the most part though, the 3D effects are not sufficiently noticeable. The spectacle is massive but not numbing and the film takes itself just seriously enough without being droll and depressing. It is respectful of the original 1954 film while offering enough to make modern jaded audiences sit up and take notice. And as an added bonus, at no point does Matthew Broderick remark “that’s a lot of fish”. 

Summary: While there isn’t as much to the human characters as there could’ve been, Gareth Edwards serves up a spectacular royal rumble fit for the king. 
RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong