Frozen 2 review

For F*** Magazine

FROZEN 2

Director: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
Cast : Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Evan Rachel Wood, Alfred Molina, Martha Plimpton, Jason Ritter, Rachel Matthews, Ciarán Hinds
Genre : Animation, Musical
Run Time : 1 h 43 mins
Opens : 21 November 2019
Rating : PG

In 2013, Disney’s Frozen, based on The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen, became a worldwide phenomenon. The film was a critical and commercial success, becoming the highest-grossing animated film (until this year’s remake of The Lion King, if one defines that as ‘animated’). “Let It Go” became all but inescapable, winning the Oscar for Best Original Song. It seems like making a sequel would be a no-brainer, but the filmmakers took some time before committing to making Frozen 2, beginning work in earnest in early 2015.

Elsa (Idina Menzel) is settling into her role as the queen of Arendelle, but a mysterious voice that only she can hear beckons her to journey beyond the castle. Elsa initially resists, but when she realises that this voice reminds her of a lullaby her mother Queen Iduna (Evan Rachel Wood) used to sing, she is compelled to venture forth. Elsa’s sister Anna (Kristen Bell), Anna’s boyfriend Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), the snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) and Kristoff’s reindeer Sven join Elsa on her journey. They travel to the enchanted forest of Northuldra, which has for years been shut off from the outside world by a thick veil of mist. Revelations come to light as Elsa reckons with the secret origin of her cryokinetic powers, and the sisters learn truths both beautiful and hard to face about their family history.

One can see why directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee were initially hesitant to make a sequel to Frozen, because it has become difficult to separate the phenomenon from the movie itself. Frozen’s immense popularity brought about backlash and cries that it was overrated, and it’s easy to forget how good the movie was. Frozen 2 does not merely do everything the same, and is about something.

It is a spoiler to say what exactly some of Frozen 2’s themes are, but it does address the ideas of growth, change and maturity. After everything the characters have been through in the previous film, there is a sense that they’ve arrived, but the events of Frozen 2 push them further along in their character arcs. The sisterly bond between Elsa and Anna remains the beating heart of the film and there are genuinely emotional moments between them, especially when Anna feels that Elsa is still not trusting her fully.

The animation is superb, and the movie features multiple set-pieces in which the animators get to flex their prowess. Water and hair, elements that are notoriously difficult to realise with computer-generated imagery, are rendered beautifully in the film. The forces of nature feature heavily in the narrative, with wind, water, earth and flame all imbued with a dynamism and a consciousness. Also, the costumes in this movie are gorgeous – Elsa is given several show-stopping outfits that look like the world’s classiest figure skating dresses.

There is also a very cute salamander named Bruni, who is like a smaller, happier distant cousin of Tangled’s Pascal. He is very Pokémon-esque and we want one.

While it is commendable that Frozen 2 tackles heavy themes, the movie sometimes strains under the weight of this and is not fully able to support the exploration of those ideas, which requires nuance and time. There is a conversation about the movie’s themes of how history is framed to be had between parents and kids, and not every parent will be up to the task of explaining what Frozen 2 is really about in a kid-friendly way.

While Frozen 2 tries new things and is not a straight re-tread of the first film, there are times when it seems like it’s obligated to deliver what audiences love about the first. We’ll talk more about the songs next, but there are a few that feel like analogues of songs from the first movie and can as such come off as derivative.

Frozen 2 puts great emphasis on the characters from the first film and gives Elsa, Anna, Kristoff and Olaf more to do. However, this is sometimes at the expense of the newer characters, such as the likes of Northuldrans Yelana (Martha Plimpton), Ryder (Jason Ritter) and Honeymaren (Rachel Matthews) and Arendellian Lieutenant Mattias (Sterling K. Brown) feel somewhat perfunctory.

If you weren’t a fan of Olaf in the first one, Josh Gad is ever so slightly more annoying here, but there are several moments involving the character that work.

Music is arguably an even bigger part of Frozen 2 than the first one. Songwriting team Kristen and Robert Anderson-Lopez return from the first film, alongside composer Christophe Beck. The songs are a mixed bag: some are good and others feel somewhat derivative. The big number “Into the Unknown”, which is pitched as this movie’s “Let It Go”, can’t help but feel like inherently less than “Let It Go”. Thematically, it is the ‘refusal of the call’ stage of the archetypical Hero’s Journey in song form. It does feature a good use of countermelody, with Norwegian singer Aurora giving voice to the mysterious entity that calls out to Elsa.

The filmmakers seem to have realised how woefully underused Broadway star Jonathan Groff’s singing voice was in the first film, and as such have given Kristoff more songs. He gets what is arguably the film’s best number, “Lost in the Woods”, a playful riff on 80s-90s boyband ballads that is reminiscent of Peter Cetera’s “Glory of Love” and “You’re the Inspiration”.

The haunting lullaby “All is Found”, performed by Evan Rachel Wood, is analogous to “Frozen Heart” from the first film. It conveys a sense of foreboding but is also an emotional anchor to the piece.

The end credits feature pop versions of the film’s big songs: Panic! At the Disco sings “Into the Unknown”, Kacey Musgraves sings “All is Found” and Weezer sings “Lost in the Woods”. Brendon Urie’s famous four-octave rage gets showcased nicely in “Into the Unknown”.

There’s an authenticity to Frozen 2, which is respectful of the Nordic culture that is its inspiration. The filmmakers were unable to take the customary research trips for the first film, but made it a point to visit Iceland, Finland and Norway during pre-production on Frozen 2. One of the most interesting elements of Frozen 2 is itself an elemental, an entity called the Nokk that takes the form of a horse and with which Elsa has a dramatic encounter. The contrast between the fairytale-like Norway and the ancient, mythic Iceland is meant to represent the difference between Anna and Elsa.

Part of what’s interesting about Frozen 2 is the battle between being its own thing and being the sequel to Frozen, and the filmmakers have mostly struck a good balance here. Stick around for a post-credits scene.

Frozen 2 has a lot to live up to and delivers both breath-taking animation and a substantial story. While the strain of the weighty themes can sometimes be felt and some of the songs feel like also-rans versions of songs from the first film, Frozen 2 is mostly a lively and engaging experience.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

First Man review

FIRST MAN

Director : Damien Chazelle
Cast : Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Corey Stoll, Pablo Schreiber, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Christopher Abbott, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas, Shea Whigham, Brian D’Arcy James, Cory Michael Smith, Ciarán Hinds
Genre : Drama/Biography
Run Time : 143 mins
Opens : 18 October 2018
Rating : PG13

Call it ‘La La Moon Landing’: Damien Chazelle, the youngest winner of the Best Director Oscar, trains his sights on NASA’s quest to put the first man on the moon in this biopic.

It is 1961 and civillian test pilot Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is accepted into NASA Astronaut Group 2. Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler), NASA’s first Chief of the Astronaut Office, emphasises how the Soviet Union has beaten the US to every major milestone in the Space Race. This batch of astronauts, which also includes Ed White (Jason Clarke), David Scott (Christopher Abbott), Elliott See (Patrick Fugit), Michael Collins (Lukas Haas) and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin (Corey Stoll), among others, will take part in the Gemini Program. Gemini is NASA’s second human spaceflight program, and the tests conducted during the Gemini missions will lead to the Apollo Program, which aims to put a man on the moon.

The training is physically and mentally demanding, and the risk is high – several of the astronauts whom Neil becomes close to die in failed missions. This takes a toll on Neil’s wife Janet (Claire Foy), who fears that their children Rick (Gavin Warren and Luke Winters at different ages) and Mark (Paul Haney and Connor Blodgett at different ages) will be left without a father. NASA faces scrutiny and pressure in the aftermath of their high-profile failures, as many across the nation question the cost of the Space Race in dollars and in lives. This culminates in Neil, Buzz and Michael forming the crew of Apollo 11, with Neil becoming the first man to step foot on the lunar surface.

Following in the grand tradition of historical dramas about the Space Program like The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, First Man is an awards contender that hopes to also thrill audiences. Chazelle works from a script by Spotlight and The Post co-writer Josh Singer, who adapted history professor James R. Hansen’s book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong. First Man combines a documentary-like feel marked by lots of grainy verité handheld shots with grand cinematic spectacle, and it’s a balance that mostly works.

There are bits of First Man that do feel a bit dry, but the film does a fine job of covering the history and an even better job of putting audiences inside the spacecraft alongside the astronauts. Before the Gemini 8 mission takes off, we get close-up shots of all the rivets and bolts inside the capsule as it creaks on the launchpad – if just one tiny thing fails, it all goes up in smoke. First Man contains some of the most realistic depictions of spaceflight ever put on screen, and endeavours to shed light on the people who made the achievements of the Space Program possible.

Chazelle reunites with several collaborators from La La Land, including cinematographer Linus Sandgren and composer Justin Hurwitz, who also scored Whiplash. The 16 mm and 35 mm film stock give the film an authentic period feel, while the moon landing sequence is presented in all its 70 mm IMAX glory. There is careful attention to detail in capturing the specifics of the ‘60s NASA setting, and production designer Nathan Crowley’s reproductions of the spacecraft and facilities is entirely convincing.

The backlash against the film for omitting the moment in which the American flag is planted on the moon seems like a mountain out of a lunar molehill. The decision to leave this well-known part of the moon landing out seems to stem from a desire to pare back the iconography of this historical moment and focus the story into something personal, giving the movie an honesty and a rawness.

Gosling anchors the film with a quiet, well-considered performance. The film characterises Neil Armstrong as someone who’s intelligent and earnest, but who is not especially well-equipped to process the grief that befalls him and those he cares about all too often. He is consumed by his work and driven to succeed, while it looks like everything around him is in danger of crumbling away. There’s an earnestness and intensity that Gosling dials to just the right level.

Foy’s Janet Armstrong is stern but caring, and her take on the role is a lot more than “worried wife back home”. Her relationship with Neil underscores how the astronauts are people with their own lives, and that serving the higher call of the Space Program comes at the expense of those lives.

The film’s supporting cast, including Clarke, Chandler and Ciarán Hinds, all give serious, unassuming ‘character actor’-type performances. Stoll’s Buzz Aldrin is characterised as someone who’s not exactly likeable, and this is something Stoll visibly enjoys playing.

First Man is a finely crafted serious awards season drama, but watching it still feels a little bit like homework. The attempts to juxtapose the US’ involvement in the Space Race against the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights struggle are commendable but a little clumsy. In taking a matter-of-fact approach, the film loses some of the wonderment and awe associated with mankind “slipping the surly bonds of earth”. However, Chazelle and co. largely succeed in crafting a credible account of Neil Armstrong’s journey from the earth to the moon.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Red Sparrow movie review

For inSing

RED SPARROW

Director : Francis Lawrence
Cast : Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Ciaran Hinds, Jeremy Irons, Thekla Reuten, Joely Richardson, Sakina Jaffrey
Genre : Action, Crime, Drama
Run Time : 2h 20m
Opens : 1 March 2018
Rating : M18 (Violence and nudity)

The bird motif has followed Jennifer Lawrence in some of her biggest roles. As Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games series, she became the symbolic ‘Mockingjay’. In the X-Men films, Lawrence plays Mystique, whose given name is ‘Raven’. In this spy thriller, she becomes a ‘sparrow’.

Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a promising ballerina with the Bolshoi ballet. After a career-ending injury, Dominika is unable to provide for her ailing mother Nina (Joely Richardson). Dominika’s uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts) offers her a way out – he is the Deputy Director of the FSB, the Russian intelligence service, and sees spy potential in Dominika.

Dominika is eventually forced to enrol in ‘sparrow school’, where the unyielding Matron (Charlotte Rampling) trains her students in the art of seduction and psychological manipulation. Dominika’s first mission is to ingratiate herself with CIA agent Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton), to learn the identity of Nash’s asset, a mole within the FSB. Diving head first into geopolitical power games, Dominika must stay one step ahead of everyone else, as she decides how far she will go to serve her country.

Red Sparrow is based on the novel of the same name by Jason Matthews, a former CIA agent. This film re-teams Jennifer Lawrence with director Francis Lawrence (no relation), who helmed the second to fourth Hunger Games films.

Thanks to location filming in Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and the U.K., as well as Jo Willems’ gorgeous cinematography, Red Sparrow is a stylish picture. This is a film that wants to be classy yet visceral, and there is plenty of graphic nudity and violence. While Red Sparrow is often engaging, dramatic and thrilling, there are times when it’s stuck in a no-man’s-land between all-out spy movie hijinks and sober realism.

Red Sparrow feels like a spy movie, and while its heightened style is part of what draws the viewer in, it also makes the viewer conscious they are watching a spy movie. There are times when it feels like the sex and violence exist to shock the audience, such that they’re distracted from the more formulaic elements of the film. We know there are going to be double-crosses and that characters will play others against each other. While Red Sparrow has a few surprises up its sleeve, it doesn’t reinvent the genre.

Because it is based on a book written by a former CIA agent, Red Sparrow purports to shed light on the techniques that modern-day Russian spies are trained in. The Russian characters tend to have an air of cartoony menace to them, and as such Red Sparrow loses a bit of credibility. Sebastian Hülk’s deadly, sadistic Matorin seems like he’s stepped straight out of a Bond film. There’s also a goofiness to some of the dialogue – addressing her class for the first time, the Matron gravely declares, “The Cold War did not end. It shattered into a thousand dangerous pieces”.

That said, Red Sparrow often works, and star Lawrence is a big part of why. There’s a lot to the character for her to play with. While Lawrence isn’t exactly convincing as a Russian woman (lots of not-great Russian accents in this movie), she gives the role her all, and marshals an intensity quite unlike what we’ve seen from her before.

Dominika is a character who is backed into a corner but masterfully turns power against those who would try to wield it over her. It is fascinating to watch Dominika exercise this jiu-jitsu-like ability, gradually taking back control after it has been completely wrested from her. Dominika’s arc is compelling and is resolved in an exciting, satisfying manner

Schoenaerts is suitably slimy as Dominika’s shifty uncle. While Edgerton is unremarkable as the heroic but flawed American agent, it seems that’s how the character was intended to come off. The dynamic between Dominika and Nate doesn’t go quite how one would expect it to, but standard spy movie tropes are mostly adhered to when all’s said and done.

Charlotte Rampling delivers a deliciously icy performance as the matron. The scenes set in the spy school, in which students are forced to strip and perform other demeaning tasks as commanded, are some of the film’s most uncomfortable and consequently, most interesting. Ciaran Hinds and Jeremy Irons stand around and provide gravitas, which they have no problems with. Mary Louise-Parker’s appearance as the secretary of state to a US senator seems to be a poorly-judged attempt at adding humour to the mix; her scene comes off as awkward and silly.

While Red Sparrow is not as complex and layered as it would like to be and doesn’t offer too much that fans of the spy movie genre haven’t seen before, Lawrence’s performance anchors it. It’s a little too long, but the injections of sex and violence will jolt audiences out of any lulls.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Heroes United: Meet the Justice League

Heroes United: Meet the Justice League

Get to know the members of DC’s flagship cinematic superhero team

By Jedd Jong

In 1940, editor Sheldon Mayer and writer Gardner Fox created the first comic book superhero team: the Justice Society of America. Two decades later, after editor Julius Schwartz asked Fox to revisit the idea, Fox created the Justice League. The cover of The Brave and the Bold #28, depicting Green Lantern, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, the Flash and Martian Manhunter locked in battle with Starro the Conqueror, has become a defining image in the history of DC Comics.

47 years after that first appearance, the Justice League is finally coming to the big screen. In the intervening years, the team’s roster has expanded and changed, and various incarnations have appeared in comics, video games, animated and live-action TV shows and other media.

After a decade in development hell, during which Mad Max director George Miller was attached to direct a film called Justice League: Mortal, a Justice League film has come to fruition. This is the fifth instalment in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), following Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman. Zack Snyder directed the film, with Joss Whedon taking over during post-production and reshoots after Snyder left the project due to a family tragedy.

At the end of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Superman sacrifices himself to defeat Doomsday. To ensure that Superman’s heroism is not in vain, Batman and Wonder Woman seek out superpowered ‘metahumans’ to join them in a fight to save the earth from alien invaders. Leading the enemy charge is Steppenwolf, Darkseid’s right hand man from the planet Apokolips. With an army of Parademons at his command, Steppenwolf will stop at nothing to recover three powerful artefacts from Apokolips known as Mother Boxes, which are hidden on earth.

Here’s what you need to know about our heroes, and the supervillain they must defeat, before watching Justice League.

#1: BRUCE WAYNE/BATMAN (Ben Affleck)

In Batman v Superman, we saw a bitter, vengeful Batman blinded by rage. It seems that he’s become a little friendlier after realising the error of his ways, endeavouring to work better with others and taking on the role of bankrolling the Justice League. “In Batman v Superman, he was at the end of his rope. But in Justice League he’s finding hope again,” Affleck revealed. For fans who took issue with the dour tone of Batman v Superman, take heart: Affleck says Justice League is “very different from the tenor of the last movie.” Describing this depiction of Batman being “much more traditional,” Affleck promised fans that Batman is “heroic”.

As is expected of the billionaire crime-fighter, Batman’s bringing more hardware to bear: we’ll get to see specialized vehicles such as the Nightcrawler mecha and the massive Flying Fox transport plane in action. Naturally, the Batmobile will make an appearance too, and can be deployed from the Flying Fox.

#2: DIANA PRINCE/WONDER WOMAN (Gal Gadot)

The Wonder Woman solo film was a big success for DC, with the consensus being that the Patty Jenkins-directed movie is the best entry in the DCEU so far. The Amazonian warrior is back, and things get personal when Steppenwolf threatens Wonder Woman’s mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and all her compatriots on the island of Themyscira. “She understands the enemy better than anyone else,” Gadot said, hinting that this might not be the Amazons’ first encounter with the marauding Parademons. In her civilian guise, Diana is an antiquities dealer and restorer of ancient artefacts. It is speculated that since the Wonder Woman film was such a hit, the character’s role would be significantly increased during reshoots, but Gadot clarified this, saying “Diana serves as the glue of the team. She finds moments to support every one of the team and makes them feel stronger or believe in themselves, but this is not a Wonder Woman movie.”

On how the character has evolved over the 100 years between the events depicted in her solo movie and the Justice League film, Gadot said the character is “wiser and more educated about the complexities of life and the world and mankind,” but the is still the same at heart, and that “she’s always full of compassion and warmth and love for everyone.” Everyone, we assume, except Steppenwolf and the Parademons. After all the ass-kicking Wonder Woman did in her solo film, fans can expect Diana to be in the thick of the action again – after all, Gadot was a combat instructor in the Israeli Defense Forces in real life.

#3: CLARK KENT/SUPERMAN (Henry Cavill)

As mentioned earlier, the events of Batman v Superman have left the world without its powerful alien protector. The very last frame of Batman v Superman showed the dirt Lois Lane (Amy Adams) sprinkled on Superman’s grave levitating for a moment, hinting at the character’s resurrection. The death and return of Superman was a long, involved ordeal that played over several months in the comics in the 90s. While Superman will presumably rise from the grave in Justice League since Cavill is appearing in the film, the exact circumstances and details surrounding Superman’s return are being kept secret. Cavill was contractually obligated to keep the moustache he had grown for Mission: Impossible 6 when he had to do reshoots on Justice League, so Superman’s facial hair had to be digitally removed.

While Cavill has kept mum about what role Superman plays in the Justice League film, he has acknowledged that the DCEU might have made a few missteps along the way. Cavill conceded that the DCEU “hasn’t necessarily worked,” adding “yes, it has made money but it has not been a critical success; it hasn’t given everyone that sensation which superheroes should give the viewer.” Saying the “right mistake has been made” and calling the Wonder Woman film “the first step in the right direction,” Cavill assured fans that with Justice League, the DCEU is on the right track.

#4: BARRY ALLEN/FLASH (Ezra Miller)

Like in several previous other media versions of the Justice League, the Flash looks set to be the film’s comic relief. While Barry Allen is typically depicted as a Central City crime scene investigator, Ezra Miller’s incarnation of Barry is a little younger, and is a student at Central City University. Some elements of Barry’s back-story will be familiar to fans of the ongoing Flash television series on the CW. A scene in the trailer shows Barry visiting his father Henry (Billy Crudup) in prison – in the TV show and in the comics, Henry was wrongly convicted for killing his wife Nora.

Miller found it easy to relate to the character. “I definitely was feeling like Barry, stepping into the big leagues with this incredible group of collaborators,” he said, adding that just like Barry, he was focused on “trying to do the best job [he] could do.” Discussing the process of putting on the elaborate, multi-segmented Flash armour, Miller joked “I would feel like a Victorian lady with my chambermaids. Sometimes I would ask them if they could brush my hair and ask me about the boys whom I fancied.” One of the iconic, but arguably somewhat silly, elements of the character from the Silver Age comics is that the Flash’s costume can fit into a ring he wears. This will not be carried over into the Justice League film. “We want to apologize to the fans who are mad about the ring thing,” Miller quipped, adding that “there’s gonna be other cool things” for fans to look forward to in the film.

#5: ARTHUR CURRY/AQUAMAN (Jason Momoa)

The half-human, half-Atlantean warrior king Aquaman is a character who’s been the butt of jokes for a long time, owing to his silly portrayal in the Super Friends cartoon. The character was given a makeover in the comics in the 90s, complete with a scraggly beard and a hook for a hand. Jason Momoa’s take on the character seems to be tough, but not without a fun side – the character’s mannerisms in the trailer have led some to call this version ‘Aqua-bro’.

Momoa said that when director Snyder brought him in to audition, he was asked to read Batman’s lines, but Affleck had already been cast as Batman. Momoa was taken aback to find out the role he was up for was Aquaman. “All I could think of was the traditional Aquaman from the comics – who is white and blond and wears the orange and green costume. I thought he had to be joking,” Momoa recalled. However, Snyder sold him on his vision of Aquaman as an outsider, someone who belongs to two worlds but doesn’t feel he fits in either one. Momoa related to this because he was born in Hawaii but grew up in Iowa, where he felt like an outsider. He considers it “such an honour” to play Aquaman because Hawaiian culture, like that of many islands, has water gods.

Amber Heard is playing Aquaman’s wife Mera, with Willem Dafoe as Atlantean scientific advisor Nuidis Vulko. Both actors will reprise their roles alongside Momoa in the Aquaman movie that swims into theatres in December 2018.

#6: VIC STONE/CYBORG (Ray Fisher)

The former college football star-turned cybernetically-enhanced superhero Cyborg was a character created as part of the Teen Titans team. In 2011’s New 52 reboot in the comics, the character was promoted to a founding member of the Justice League. In Batman v Superman, we see Vic’s father Silas Stone (Joe Morton) attempt to create a robot body for his son, who is near-death. The key component that successfully animates Cyborg seems to be a Mother Box from Apokolips.

Fisher made his feature film debut in Batman v Superman, clinching a highly sought-after role. We’ll only see part of Fisher’s face in the film, with the rest of the character being computer-generated. According to Fisher, the character “attempts to deal with everything he’s lost: his body, his mother, and the life he once knew.” Morton says that some tonal changes were made to the Cyborg character during reshoots, so maybe he will end up closer to the goofy character we know and love from the Teen Titans cartoon. Fisher hinted at Cyborg’s constantly-evolving abilities, saying “He has powers within him that even he isn’t yet aware of…whenever he encounters an issue that he’s not initially equipped to handle, his technology can transmogrify and immediately adapt to that situation.

#7: STEPPENWOLF (Ciarán Hinds)

The fledgling Justice League will face a formidable opponent: Steppenwolf, who hails from the planet Apokolips. In a deleted scene from Batman v Superman which was restored for the Ultimate Edition, Lex Luthor can be seen communicating with Steppenwolf, who appears in hologram form. In the comics, Steppenwolf is the uncle of Darkseid, the tyrannical ruler of Apokolips, and serves as Darkseid’s right-hand man. Steppenwolf commands an army of Parademons – these insectoid soldiers were also glimpsed in Batman v Superman, as the troops fighting alongside an evil Superman in the dystopian future of Batman’s ‘Knightmare’ vision. While many might point out that Darkseid is similar to Marvel’s Thanos, Darkseid’s first appearance in the comics precedes Thanos’ by two years.

Irish actor Hinds is portraying the role via motion capture, and sought advice from his fellow countryman Liam Neeson, who played the titular monster in A Monster Calls. Hinds said that he’s “never read any of those comic books as a kid”, and that the offer to play Steppenwolf came “out of the blue”. Hinds called the motion capture suit “very tight and embarrassing”. Hinds described Steppenwolf as “old, tired, still trying to get out of his own enslavement to Darkseid,” hinting that while Steppenwolf is vicious and destructive, there might be some reluctance to his villainy.

Movie Review: Justice League

For inSing

JUSTICE LEAGUE 

Director : Zack Snyder
Cast : Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Ciarán Hinds, Amy Adams, Diane Lane, J.K. Simmons, Connie Nielsen
Genre : Action/Adventure/Comics
Run Time : 119 mins
Opens : 17 November 2017
Rating : PG

It’s time to join the big leagues: five years after Marvel’s Avengers team made their big-screen debut, the Justice League arrives in cinemas. While Wonder Woman was seen as reinvigorating the DC Extended Universe, it’s Justice League that is deemed the make-or-break moment for the franchise. Read on to see how it stacks up.

After the events of Batman v Superman, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) and Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) are gathering a team of superheroes to fend off an impending alien threat. The recruits to this group include college student/speedster Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), the ocean-dwelling Atlantean Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and a cybernetically-enhanced former college football star Vic Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher).

This team must face off against Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), a world-destroying alien warlord who hails from the planet Apokolips and answers to the tyrannical Darkseid. Under Steppenwolf’s command is an army of insectoid warriors known as Parademons. Now more than ever, earth needs Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill), who died at the end of Batman v Superman. The heroes must put on a united front as earth faces its doom.

There’s a great deal riding on Justice League, and Warner Bros. desperately needs this one to go over well. The film suffered its share of setbacks during production: director Zack Snyder withdrew from the film after a personal tragedy, with Joss Whedon stepping in to oversee reshoots and post-production. Then, rumour has it that the film’s 170-minute runtime was pared down to 119 minutes, under a mandate from Warner Bros. boss Kevin Tsujihara.

Justice League has a shape, but the seams are readily visible. At times, it feels choppy and fragmented, and it’s clear that quite a bit has been left on the cutting room floor. On the whole, it is a gratifying experience: there are moments that will induce cheers, and the action sequences are fun. The various abilities of the League’s members are realised in creative ways, and the visual effects work is more polished than in some previous DCEU entries, some dodgy moustache removal work notwithstanding.

The overall plot beats are familiar, and Justice League bears passing similarities to numerous recent comic book movies. There’s a motley crew with clashing personalities and astounding powers banding together to defeat the otherworldly threat of a faceless army led by a fearsome warlord.

Bits of backstory for each of the new characters are parcelled out, and one can notice the film trying to shuffle along from point A to point B. Tonally, there are some jokes that stick out as being a little unsubtle, but in trying to course-correct from being self-serious and morose to a little lighter on its feet, Justice League takes a few steps in the right direction.

 

Batman is no longer the irrational, weary, rage-driven character seen in Batman v Superman, but it’s to Affleck’s credit that it doesn’t feel like someone altogether different was swapped in. We see how the events of the earlier film have changed Batman’s attitudes, and witness him attempting to be a team player. It’s a bit of a shame that Affleck seems to be looking for an out, since he’s growing into the role nicely. He’s also got cool vehicles including the tank-like mecha Knightcrawler and the Flying Fox transport plane, which should sell a healthy number of toys. Geek gripe – the ears on the cowl look too similar to those of Nite-Owl’s from Watchmen.

Wonder Woman’s characterisation remains consistent, and Gadot continues to embody her badass side in addition to her empathy and wisdom. In many ways, Diana is the most mature of the team, who can sometimes behave like children. There are many opportunities to showcase the character’s abilities, and the introductory scene in which she foils a terrorist bombing is a stylish and exciting sequence. The dynamic that develops between Batman and Wonder Woman is the closest the movie comes to being poignant, and this reviewer wishes it were developed further.

The Flash will be the runaway favourite for many viewers. Miller eagerly conveys the character’s wide-eyed awe and just how thrilled he is to be part of the team. He’s the rookie and, since he’s prone to geeking out, is the audience-identification character. Barry, a budding criminologist, also appears to be a fan of Rick and Morty and the South Korean pop group Black Pink. He provides the lion’s share of the film’s comic relief, and never comes off as insufferably obnoxious.

Momoa’s iteration of Aquaman has been termed ‘Aquabro’ by some. While the irreverent jock personality isn’t exactly in line with how Aquaman has been portrayed in the comics, it works within the context of the larger team. It seems like more scenes set in Atlantis were cut – we only get a fleeting glimpse of Amber Heard as Mera, and Willem Dafoe as Nuidis Vulko is altogether absent.

Fisher’s Cyborg might be the most angst-ridden character, as he struggles to come to terms with his newfound existence as part man, mostly machine. He gets a RoboCop-style character arc. If the version you’re most familiar with is from the Teen Titans cartoon, this is a significant departure from that. He does eventually get to utter a fan-favourite catchphrase, though.

Steppenwolf’s design works well and Ciarán Hinds’ expressions contribute to a fairly mean-looking character, but he’s just never that scary. Steppenwolf is largely generic and is close in characterisation and his function in the plot to Ronan the Accuser from Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s a threat that never quite takes hold, despite multiple attempts to explain just how fearsome the character is.

Jeremy Irons’ sardonic Alfred cracks a few jokes, while J.K. Simmons’ Commissioner Gordon seems to have stepped straight off the comic book page. We can’t wait to see what he does with the role in future films.

When Whedon replaced Snyder, he dropped Junkie XL as composer, replacing him with Danny Elfman. It is a delight to hear Elfman’s Batman theme from the 1989 Batman movie in the theatre again. There are also hints of John Williams’ original Superman theme.

While Justice League has its issues and feels severely truncated, it has enough energy and verve to compensate for its shortcomings. Long-time fans of these characters will get at least a tiny bit of a thrill out of seeing them together on the big screen, and if you’ve complained about how gloomy earlier DCEU entries were, this might be more your speed.

Oh – stick around for a fun mid-credits scene, and a spectacular post-credits stinger that left this reviewer gobsmacked.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Silence

For F*** Magazine

SILENCE 

Director : Martin Scorsese
Cast : Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, Ciarán Hinds, Issei Ogata, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Yoshi Oida, Yosuke Kubozuka
Genre : Drama/History
Run Time : 161 mins
Opens : 9 February 2017
Rating : NC16 (Violence)

silence-posterMartin Scorsese’s 26-year-long odyssey to adapt Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence has finally come to fruition. It is the 17th Century, and Italian Jesuit priest Alessandro Valignano (Hinds) receives word that Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Neeson), a Portuguese Jesuit priest sent to Japan, has renounced his faith after withstanding years of torture. Ferreira’s young pupils Fathers Sebastião Rodrigues (Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Driver) journey to Japan in search of Ferreira, unconvinced by this report of Ferreira’s apostasy. Rodrigues and Garupe are surprised to be eagerly welcomed by the village of Tomogi, comprised of Japanese Christians who have been practising their faith in secret. The two priests and their followers find themselves hunted by Inoue Masashige (Ogata), a samurai whom the villagers call “the Inquisitor”. Rodrigues and Garupe become targets of the Tokugawa shogunate’s persecution, while still searching for their teacher Ferreira.

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Endō’s 1966 novel is considered to be among the most important pieces of 20th Century Japanese literature, and was adapted into film in 1971 by director Masahiro Shinoda. Scorsese bought the rights to the novel in 1988 and had been trying to get the project off the ground since 1990. Scorsese wrote the screenplay with Jay Cocks, who co-wrote Scorsese’s films The Age of Innocence and Gangs of New York. Scorsese and Cocks continuously revised the screenplay over 15 years. It’s evident that Silence is a labour of love for the director – to prevent the budget from ballooning, Scorsese and many of the cast and crew, including actors Driver and Neeson, worked for minimum pay. Filmed near Taipei in Taiwan, Silence’s period setting is painstakingly realised. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography conveys a sense of foreboding, while also giving the landscape a beguiling beauty.

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Many reviews have described Silence as “punishing”, and we’d be hard-pressed to find a better adjective. The film is filled with uncompromising scenes of torture and at 160 minutes long, is anything but a breezy Sunday afternoon watch. The plight of the Kakure Kirishitan, or “hidden Christians”, is a piece of history that’s not widely known. Stories of devotees suffering in the name of their faith are inherently compelling, but where involvement in the story is concerned, one’s personal beliefs do play a part. While Silence has its powerful moments, and is, from a technical standpoint, masterfully crafted, there are long stretches of the film that are soporific and unengaging. Those unfamiliar with the tenets of Catholicism in general and the Jesuits in particular might struggle to find an emotional foothold, even given the depths of pain experienced by the characters in the film.

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Garfield and Driver deliver tangibly committed performances, Rodrigues’ journey being an especially harrowing one. Rodrigues is the more patient of the pair, while Garupe is more impulsive, and the first act gives Garfield and Driver several opportunities to play off each other. Later on, most of Garfield’s interactions are with Tadanobu Asano, who plays the unnamed translator to Inoue Masashige. Rodrigues makes a spirited defence of his faith and Garfield sells the emotional and physical torment he undergoes. Despite all this, it is sometimes difficult to relate to the character because he seems to be defined solely by his faith, and his denial of self makes Rodrigues, purely in storytelling terms, less human.

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Veteran actor Ogata, known for playing Emperor Hirohito in Alexander Sokurov’s The Sun, makes for a memorable villain. Like several of the characters in Silence, Inoue Masashige was an actual historical figure. There is never doubt about Inoue’s cruelty, even when the character sometimes comes across as comic. Neeson can always be depended on to lend gravitas. While we’ve seen him play the role of mentor before, the role of Ferreira presents Neeson with more of an acting challenge than the action hero parts with which he’s become associated in his later career.

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While there is much in Silence for cineastes to savour and while it’s almost automatically become canonised as an “important film”, it’s easy to see why Silence failed to find much of an audience. Faith-based films tend to be pitched as inspirational, and Silence is near-relentlessly bleak. It is interesting that Scorsese, whose Last Temptation of the Christ was hotly controversial and widely deemed to be blasphemous, approaches the Catholic faith with such reverence here. Scorsese has said of his own faith, “I’m a lapsed Catholic. But I am Roman Catholic; there’s no way out of it.” The filmmaker has sunk his heart and soul into Silence, but it’s obvious that not everyone will be convicted by its meditation on faith.

Summary: Meticulously crafted and intense but plodding and somewhat arduous to sit through, cinephiles and the faithful will find Silence thought-provoking, while others will simply find it boring.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Last Days in the Desert

For F*** Magazine

LAST DAYS IN THE DESERT

Director : Rodrigo García
Cast : Ewan McGregor, Tye Sheridan, Ayelet Zurer, Ciarán Hinds
Run Time : 1 hr 38 mins
Opens : 23 June 2016
Rating : M18 (Some Nudity)

There was a meme going around a while back, of a framed photograph atop an altar of Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Attack of the Clones, the idea being that some old lady thought it was a picture of Jesus Christ. Here, McGregor actually plays Jesus, referred to as “Yeshua”. This film imagines an incident during Jesus’ sojourn to the desert, during which He was tempted by the Devil (also McGregor). Jesus comes across a family living in the desert, comprising an unnamed Father (Hinds), a sickly Mother (Zurer) and their son (Sheridan). The Devil poses a challenge to Jesus, wagering that the Son of God will not be able to find a solution that will please each member of the family. Jesus stays as a guest of the family, helping them out with a construction project, while wrestling with the Devil, Father God seemingly millions of miles away.



            Writer-director Rodrigo García has repeatedly clarified that this not your run of the mill Biblical epic, and is instead an intimate drama and character study. The story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert is told in three of the four gospels, and Christians will be familiar with how Jesus refuted each of Satan’s challenges to Him by quoting from the scripture. This film departs from tradition, but also does not feel like it’s courting controversy for the, uh, hell of it. García explained his decision to refer to Jesus as “Yeshua”, which is the original pronunciation, in an interview with Christianity Today. “I wrote a few pages in which I called Him ‘Jesus’, but when you’re writing a screenplay and it says ‘Jesus walks, Jesus says,’ after a while, the weight of the name is paralyzing,” García said.

            There are individual elements to García’s approach that are intriguing, but as a whole, the film often comes off as aimless and meandering. If it was his intention to make the audience feel like they’re spending 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness alongside Jesus, then García has succeeded. All things considered, the 108-minute running time is not particularly long, but even then, this feels interminable at times. It seems like three or four good ideas are spaced out, with a vast void in between. The Oscar-winning Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki is the cinematographer here, but it is a dull movie to look at, the desolate surroundings about as dull as one imagines the average desert to look. The film was shot on location in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in the Colorado Desert of Southern California, and it might sound silly, but for this reviewer at least, the knowledge that this was filmed in the United States did rob the movie of some authenticity.

            Speaking of authenticity, this is yet another Hollywood film in which a white man is cast as Jesus. We don’t want to harp about issues of race and sure, there’s always room for poetic license, but especially with an actor who feels as contemporary as Tye Sheridan running about, it’s very hard to take this very seriously as a film set in Ancient Israel. That said, McGregor does face the myriad challenges in portraying the iconic religious figure head-on. There’s enough of a humanity to Jesus and at one point, He even laughs at a fart joke, but McGregor’s portrayal does have an undercurrent of reverence to it.



One of the smartest ideas on display is that of having McGregor play the dual roles of Jesus and His tormentor Satan. A conversation they have about the nature of God is the closest the film gets to any real theological insight. For a movie that wants so much to depart from tradition though, it seems a cliché that Satan wears jewellery as a way to differentiate him from Jesus; that the bad guy has to be coded as flamboyant. The visual effects work in duplicating McGregor is seamless and one does forget that there aren’t two Ewan McGregors after a while.

            On one level, this is a family drama, with the parents and their child working out their issues while a house guest is present. Hinds’ Father is a realist, a practical man who has his doubts about issues of faith, but does not dismiss the holy man outright. The struggles of a father in understanding his son are very relatable. Sheridan shares some genuinely affecting moments in which the son bonds with Jesus, but as alluded to earlier, he’s ultimately too American to be believable in this setting. The mother is ill for most of the film, so Zurer has less to do compared to Hinds and Sheridan, but the character’s pain still resonates.



            Last Days in the Desert feels more like a filmmaking experiment than a well-told story, but García is largely able to strike a balance between portraying Jesus’ humanity and deity without getting caught up in that, or blazing down a blasphemous path Last Temptation of the Christ-style. Alas, it is likely that this will induce thumb-twiddling rather than soul-searching.


Summary: Ewan McGregor shines in his dual role, but Last Days in the Desert’s loose structure and lack of narrative drive keep its audience at a distance.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5Stars

Jedd Jong 

Hitman: Agent 47

For F*** Magazine

HITMAN: AGENT 47

Director : Aleksander Bach
Cast : Rupert Friend, Hannah Ware, Zachary Quinto, Ciaràn Hinds, Thomas Kretschmann, Emilio Rivera, Dan Bakkedahl, Angelababy
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 97 mins
Opens : 20 August 2015
Rating : NC-16 (Violence And Brief Nudity)
Agent 47, the perfect assassin, failed to make a killing at the box office with his 2007 cinematic outing and is back for a second go-round in this reboot. Agent 47 (Friend) is the result of a top-secret genetic engineering program spearheaded by Dr. Litvenko (Hinds). Horrified at what he had created, Dr. Litvenko vanished and went into hiding, deserting his daughter Katia (Ware), who has spent the better part of her life searching for her father. In Berlin, it appears that Agent 47 is out to kill Katia, and a mysterious man known as “John Smith” (Quinto) arrives to protect her. However, all is not as it seems, and everything converges in Singapore, where the sinister corporation Syndicate International has its headquarters. Syndicate’s chairman Le Clerq (Kretschmann) is determined to restart the Agent program and create more killing machines for his own nefarious ends, and it is up to 47 and Katia to stop him from doing so. 
Fans of I/O Interactive’s Hitman video game franchise were understandably wary when it was announced that there would be a film reboot. The 2007 movie starring Timothy Olyphant was cheap, dull, incoherent and lacking in thrills, but Olyphant was convincingly tough and looked the part. Paul Walker was initially cast as 47 and was replaced by Rupert Friend after Walker’s untimely death. All the warning signs were there: first-time feature director Aleksander Bach, who has worked mainly in music videos, is at the helm and Skip Woods, who wrote the first film in addition to X-Men Origins: Wolverine and A Good Day to Die Hard, has a screenwriting credit. While the video game series is very much stealth-based, there is precious little sneaking around and a lot of shootouts in public places in this film. 
The movie is primarily set in two locales, Berlin and Singapore. This is the first major Hollywood production to shoot in the Southeast Asian nation and as is expected, it looks like a tourism commercial, with plenty of sweeping establishing shots of the city’s skyline, with the CGI Syndicate International building plonked into it. There is a novelty factor to seeing Singapore featured so prominently and hopefully this paves the way for more Hollywood films to shoot here, but it’s amply clear that an exotic location does little good if there isn’t a substantial story to back it up. Singapore is widely regarded as a pretty safe place to live and has one of the toughest gun control laws in the world. There are guns all over the place in Hitman: Agent 47’s version of Singapore, with 47 himself getting his arsenal into the country without a hitch. The filmmakers hope that audiences will suspend their disbelief instead of laughing at how ridiculous these scenarios are. Also, one of 47’s enhancements is apparently tolerance to warm weather, since he barely breaks a sweat while clad in those suits in the middle of the equatorial heat. 
Rupert Friend has endeared himself to many viewers as Peter Quinn, the special operative with a heart of gold, on TV’s Homeland. He is a good actor, but it is extremely difficult to buy him as an emotionless, stoic, single-minded assassin. In an effort to sound tough, he sometimes speaks in a silly hoarse whisper-mumble and struggles at coming across as intimidating or imposing. He isn’t phoning it in and he is competent at performing the fight choreography, but with a character whose appearance is as iconic and as striking as Agent 47’s, looks matter more than with other adaptations. Zachary Quinto knows he’s in a silly action movie and hams it up as the snarling villain – it’s intended to be ambiguous as to whose side he’s on, but it’s pretty obvious that he’s the bad guy, the moral landscape of this film nowhere near as grey as the producers imagine it to be. 
Hannah Ware’s Katia isn’t a particularly interesting character and Ware isn’t a particularly interesting actress, coming across as a generic English brunette. The character begins as somewhat of a damsel in distress but gets to do her share of ass-kicking later on in the film. Ware is never believable for a second in these scenes – far be it from us to criticise an actor’s physique, but she often looks like she’s in danger of snapping clean in half. Ciarán Hinds is probably happy to cash his paycheque and Thomas Kretschmann, no stranger to playing villains, does very little besides sitting behind a desk in a shiny high-rise office and barking orders to his minions. Hong Kong singer/actress Angela Yeung, better known as “Angelababy”, has what amounts to a cameo as 47’s boss Diana.  
The action sequences can be fun, if one overlooks the overuse of shaky-cam. It’s a shame that the camera never stays on the fights, because the action choreography is handled by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, directors of last year’s John Wick. It makes one wonder how much better this would have turned out under their control, even with the same sub-par script. The movie isn’t boring, moving along at a decent clip with an adequate collection of fisticuffs, shootouts and chases. Hitman: Agent 47 also benefits from its NC-16 (R in the U.S.) rating, meaning that it doesn’t have to pull its punches and can showcase a number of appropriately brutal kills. This is a movie about a hitman, after all. It’s too bad that a lot of the computer-generated imagery is unintentionally hilarious – any time a CGI stuntman went flying through the air, it took this reviewer out of the movie completely. 

If you’re a particularly undemanding action movie fan, Hitman: Agent 47 is certainly not the worst way to kill 108 minutes ever. It might be possible to overlook the thoroughly generic plot and enjoy the action and the locales, but this possesses a higher “leave your brain at the door” quotient than most “leave your brain at your door” movies. What is most entertaining is the thought that some Singaporean government official will have to pretend this is a good movie to justify its use of the country as a filming location. 

Summary: Cheesy and generic but bloody and fast-paced, Hitman: Agent 47 is reasonably fun to laugh at and is somewhat entertaining if one can embrace the dumbness wholeheartedly. 

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars 
Jedd Jong