The Kitchen review

For inSing

THE KITCHEN

Director: Andrea Berloff
Cast : Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss, Domhnall Gleeson, Bill Camp, Margo Martindale, Common, Brian d’Arcy James, James Badge Dale, Jeremy Bobb
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 1 h 43 mins
Opens : 8 August 2019
Rating : NC16

It is 1978, and the New York underworld will come to know and fear three women.

Kathy Brennan (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby O’Caroll (Tiffany Haddish) and Claire Walsh (Elisabeth Moss) are the wives of three Irish mobsters who get caught by the FBI and are shipped off to prison. Seeing an opening and left with little choice, they decide to step in, running their own protection racket. This causes them to run afoul of their husbands’ compatriots like Little Jackie (Myk Watford) and Ruby’s mother-in-law, the mob matriarch Helen O’Caroll (Margo Martindale).

Further complicating matters is the return of Gabriel O’Malley (Domhnall Gleeson), an enforcer who escaped to lie low and is now back in town. Claire finds herself falling for Gabriel, while Kathy and Ruby butt heads over how the business is to be run. The ladies eventually find themselves dealing with powerful Italian mafia don Alfonso Coretti (Bill Camp), based out of Brooklyn. While they find success with their burgeoning criminal empire, the bodies start piling up and the women realise they may have bitten off more than they can chew.

The Kitchen is based on the DC/Vertigo graphic novel of the same name, written by Ollie Masters and illustrated by Ming Doyle. The film marks the directorial debut of Andrea Berloff, who was nominated for an Oscar for co-writing Straight Outta Compton. The Kitchen is a brash, stylish film that plays on audiences’ familiarity with gritty gangster movies. The 70s New York portrayed in The Kitchen looks authentically grimy at first but leans into the “I’m walking here!” stereotypes and the movie is beholden to expectations of mob-centric media.

The film lulls viewers into a false sense of security in knowing where everything’s headed, before a final act packed with explosive twists. This is an appropriately bloody, violent movie, but there is some levity sprinkled throughout. The Kitchen seems to face the dilemma of wanting to give us three-dimensional characters while delivering as many recognisable mafia movie elements as possible.

Another dilemma is that the film is presented as being empowering and is fronted by three women, but at the end of the day, they are committing crimes and it can be a bit uncomfortable to find oneself cheering as bodies get sawn up.  It is possible to say “it was a different time” and go along with that, to a point. Perhaps it is a way of reclaiming how movies like The Godfather, Scarface or Goodfellas seemed to model masculinity, but The Kitchen does not dig into its moral greyness as deeply as it could’ve.

A big part of what makes this work as well as it does is the cast, led by Melissa McCarthy. McCarthy’s Kathy is likeable, non-violent and innately decent, but is also ambitious and resourceful. Even though the characters are engaging in criminal activity, McCarthy’s sympathetic performance is often just enough to keep audiences in the protagonists’ corner. She knows there’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed, but the women keep barrelling towards – and past – said line.

One of the major changes from the source material is the Ruby O’Carroll character, who is depicted here as a black woman who has married into an Irish mob family and resents her status as an outsider. Haddish brings a fire to the role but can’t quite evince the same depths that McCarthy can and seems ever so slightly more limited as a performer.

Elisabeth Moss’ Claire has the arc of going from the victim of domestic abuse to revelling in practicing violence on anyone who stands in her way. Moss is entertaining when Claire is unhinged, but the character is overall less interesting than the other two, who also have more control of the narrative.

Domhnall Gleeson’s quietly, disconcertingly detached Vietnam veteran hitman character provides some of the film’s more memorable moments, but Gabriel’s romance with Claire seems played more for laughs than for drama.

The film’s supporting cast includes excellent character actors like Margo Martindale and Bill Camp doing fine work, with Common getting not a lot to do as an FBI agent who watches things go down from afar.

If you don’t watch many mob movies, there’s enough to like about The Kitchen, with director Berloff showing plenty of panache. The cast seem to enjoy making the film, and McCarthy is especially outstanding. However, the film doesn’t attain the level of complexity it seems to be shooting for and is sometimes torn between serving up visceral thrills and shocks and being a compelling character study. Still, it is a good change of pace from the typically male-driven 70s mob movie.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

November Criminals movie review

For inSing

NOVEMBER CRIMINALS

Director : Sacha Gervasi
Cast : Ansel Elgort, Chloë Grace Moretz, Tessa Albertson, Catherine Keener, David Strathairn, Cory Hardrict
Genre : Crime/Drama
Run Time : 1h 26m
Opens : 28 December 2017
Rating : NC16

Ansel Elgort and Chloë Grace Moretz are out to avenge their friend’s murder in this mystery thriller. Be warned: it’s not as exciting as it sounds, because this movie isn’t all that mysterious, nor is it very thrilling.

Elgort and Moretz play Addison and Phoebe respectively. They’re not exactly boyfriend and girlfriend – ‘friends with benefits’ is more like it, but that’s not exactly right, either. Anyway, their friend Kevin (Jared Kemp) is shot dead at the coffee shop where he works. The police write it off as a gang-related killing, but Addison insists that there’s no way Kevin, a trombonist in the school band who loved literature and wrote poetry, would’ve been in a gang. Addison refuses to let the matter lie, much to the chagrin of the school principal Mr. Karlstadt (Terry Kinney). Addison’s father Theo (David Strathairn) grows concerned about his son, especially since Addison’s mother passed away recently. Phoebe’s mother Fiona (Catherine Keener) is none too pleased that her daughter is involved with Addison, whom she deems trouble. As Addison and Phoebe get further in over their heads, the criminal elements who killed Kevin threaten their own lives.

November Criminals is based on the novel The November Criminals by Sam Munson. The film is directed and co-written by Sacha Gervasi – co-writer Steven Knight was initially set to direct, with Gervasi replacing him at the helm. Gervasi made a living as a journalist while he was studying screenwriting at UCLA. As such, it’s a shame that the investigative aspect of the plot is downplayed, and the whodunit ostensibly at the story’s core is so uninvolving. Gervasi comes from a family who have been involved in both journalism and politics, but he doesn’t bring his understanding of either field to bear in this film, which would be a natural vehicle to do so. After all, it is a murder mystery set in Washington D.C. This reviewer was hoping for a far-reaching conspiracy to swallow up our young heroes. What we get is far more mundane.

November Criminals hinges on the somewhat unconventional relationship between its two leads. Elgort and Moretz seem like a pairing that would work on paper, but the writing only serves to render both actors unlikeable, instead of highlighting their charm. This is especially true of Elgort, whose persona has often been described as off-putting. While the recent Baby Driver smartly showcased Elgort at his very best, in November Criminals, he comes off as a smug, twitchy, and ultimately insufferable know-it-all. The character’s Jewishness, which was apparently a key element in the novel, is not mentioned at all.

Much as the film does not want Phoebe to end up as a stock girlfriend character, and despite Moretz’s efforts to keep the character from being an example of that, Phoebe is little more than ‘the girlfriend’. Phoebe makes her intention to lose her virginity to Addison known early in the film, leading to an incredibly awkward sex scene – the thing is, we cannot determine how much of said awkwardness was intentional, and how much was accidental. Phoebe often comes off as whiny, and while Elgort and Moretz are passably convincing as a couple, their chemistry often lacks energy.

Strathairn and Keener, dependable actors they are, show up and do their jobs but don’t make too much of an impact. Keener’s character apparently works in government, but this plays almost zero part in the plot. Cory Hardrict’s drug dealer character D. Cash is little more than a caricature, and doesn’t have enough personality or intimidation factor.

November Criminals doesn’t balance the giddy rush of young love with the intensity of a mystery thriller, resulting in a film that’s flat-footed and dull instead of deftly exciting. Oddly enough, the least endearing traits of its leads are brought to the forefront, and there aren’t really any stakes to speak of. This would’ve been a borderline okay TV film, but is too underwhelming to see on the big screen.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

 

Wind River movie review

For inSing

WIND RIVER

Director : Taylor Sheridan
Cast : Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham, Jon Bernthal, Julia Jones, Kelsey Chow
Genre : Crime/Thriller/Mystery
Run Time : 108 mins
Opens : 23 November 2017
Rating : M18

Wind-River-posterWriter-director Taylor Sheridan takes audiences into the frozen wilds of Wyoming with this sombre mystery thriller. The setting: the Wind River Native American reservation. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a U.S. Fish and Wildlife service agent, comes across the body of 18-year-old Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow) in the snow. Natalie’s parents Martin (Gil Birmingham) and Annie (Althea Sam) are inconsolable. Natalie appears to have been raped and murdered, and rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) arrives to assist Tribal Police Chief Ben (Graham Greene) with the investigation. Far outside her comfort zone, Jane must summon her wits and resourcefulness to catch the perpetrator and avenge Natalie’s death.

Sheridan is a former actor who has quickly become a sought-after screenwriter, penning Sicario and the Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water. This time, he is directing in addition to writing. He has a knack for crime thrillers with a socially conscious bent, and with Wind River, Sheridan seeks to highlight how female Native American victims of murder or kidnapping often go unnoticed. This intense story unfolds against the beautiful desolation of the American northwest, with Park City, Utah doubling for Wyoming. The surroundings hammer home the bleakness of the story, emphasising the sense of being forgotten by society at large, far from the creature comforts of the city.

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Wind River is a slow burn, and requires the audience to stick with it before things heat up. This isn’t a movie that’s intended to be entertaining or even particularly thrilling, and as such, it might be difficult for some audiences to sit through. When it gets brutal, Wind River is uncompromising and raw. There is a scene of sexual violence which is difficult to stomach, and there are a few bloody shootouts. The title card at the beginning of the film stating the film is “inspired by true events” refers to not one specific incident, but thousands of stories about sexual assault of women on Native American reservations, where few outside the community notice their plight.

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This is one of Renner’s best performances, and the Cory Lambert character is a finely-realised hero. Renner’s turn is understated and strong, and he is convincing as a rugged guy who lives off the land, rifle in hand. The character could easily have come off as generic, especially since he has lived through a personal tragedy, but Renner commands the audience’s attention. He balances out the steeliness with quiet humanity – Cory is depicted as a devoted father to his young son Casey (Teo Briones). Cory comes across as someone who values human connection but who has been burned by past experiences, hence his detachedness. While Cory was married to a Native American woman, he will always be viewed as an outsider in the community.

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Olsen looks like she’s out of her depth, which is exactly what the role calls for. Jane Banner recalls Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer character in Sicario: the principled newcomer who is about to undergo a trial by fire. The dynamic that develops between Cory and Jane is satisfying to watch, in part because Cory acknowledges Jane’s strength and isn’t deliberately giving her a hard time about not knowing her way around the territory. It’s also fun to imagine that we’re watching Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch teaming up on their own adventure.

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Birmingham’s performance as the grieving father is honest and affecting, but the Native American characters take a backseat in a story that’s ostensibly about Native Americans. While the film consciously avoids the ‘white saviour’ narrative, it is a valid criticism that a movie about the injustices suffered by Native Americans has two white people as its protagonists, and focuses on Native Americans as a group rather than as individual characters.

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Wind River keeps in line with Sheridan’s penchant for thought-provoking films which aren’t necessarily all that exciting on their face, but which bring attention to social issues in a non-preachy manner. This is yet another auspicious indicator that Sheridan has a stellar career behind the camera ahead of him, but audiences should take note that Wind River is sometimes punishing, thanks to its painful subject matter.

RATING: 3.5 out of Stars

Jedd Jong

Mean Dreams

For F*** Magazine

MEAN DREAMS 

Director : Nathan Morlando
Cast : Sophie Nélisse, Josh Wiggins, Bill Paxton, Colm Feore, Joe Cobden, Vickie Papavs
Genre : Crime/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 45min
Opens : 13 April 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language)

This is a movie about a boy, a girl, a dog and a duffel bag full of money. It sounds like it could be a comedic romp, but it really isn’t. The boy in question is Jonas Ford (Wiggins), a farmer’s son who quickly falls for his new neighbour, Casey (Nélisse). Casey’s father Wayne (Paxton) is a police sergeant who is abusive towards Casey. When Jonas tries to protect Casey from her father, Wayne threatens Jonas and his family. When Jonas comes across a duffel bag filled with nearly a million dollars, he spirits Casey away. Together with Casey’s dog Blaze, the young couple go on the run, pursued by Wayne’s boss, the sheriff known only as ‘the Chief’ (Feore). The teenage fugitives must fend for themselves, their respective futures hanging in the balance.

Mean Dreams comes from Canadian director Nathan Morlando and is written by Kevin Coughlin and Ryan Grassby. An indie crime thriller melded with a coming-of-age romance, Mean Dreams is intense, but never quite reaches the emotional high this reviewer was hoping it would. Cinematographer Steve Cosens presents the Canadian landscape of Sault Ste. Marie with equal measures of grace and dread, and the score by Son Lux features some exciting percussion work. It’s shot in Canada, but appears to be set in the U.S. Rust Belt. Mean Dreams doesn’t lack in atmosphere, but because it’s as dreary as it is, it can be a slog to sit through, feeling significantly longer than its 105 minutes. It’s set in the present day, but feels like a film that could’ve been made in the 70s. Dialogue like “it’s a mean world the angels left us” could’ve easily felt silly, but instead is effectively fatalistic.

The film is carried by its young leads. Nélisse’s moving turn in The Book Thief endeared her to many a filmgoer even if the film itself was too treacly, and her performance in Mean Dreams indicates that she continues to be a young talent to look out for. While there’s an obvious vulnerability to Casey, seeing as she is a victim of abuse, she also challenges Jonas’ perception that she is the damsel in need of rescuing.

Wiggins gives off young Matt Damon vibes, making for a wholesome, winsome lead. Both Jonas and Casey seem ill-equipped to face the adult world, having to do a whole lot of growing up overnight. While there are elements to the romance that seem too syrupy and twee, this feeling is offset by the film’s overall grim tone.

Mean Dreams is one of the late Paxton’s final films. Paxton may be best-remembered for his roles in James Cameron’s films, and he did star in HBO’s Big Love, but he’s never really been viewed as a leading man. He was a consummate character actor, and is wholly intimidating without resorting to wanton scenery chomping as the main antagonist of the film. When he’s first introduced, Wayne is acting all sweet towards his daughter, but her uneasy manner indicates that something’s not quite right with the man. Feore backs Paxton up as the sneering authority figure, and the fact that the movie’s villains are cops, who are supposedly sworn to uphold the law, makes them even scarier.

Mean Dreams presents us with cruel adults shattering the innocence of kids, with said kids running away and possibly fighting back. We have seen indie films tackle these themes before, but the strong performances and evocative cinematography give Mean Dreams a verve, even if it lacks the snap it needs to be truly engaging.

Summary: A straight-forward, small-scale crime thriller, Mean Dreams’ talented leads sell its central romance but the film never quite shifts out of second gear.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Extraordinary Mission (非凡任务)

For F*** Magazine

EXTRAORDINARY MISSION (非凡任务)

Director : Alan Mak, Anthony Pun
Cast : Huang Xuan, Duan Yihong, Lang Yueting, Zu Feng, Xing Jiadong, David Wang
Genre : Action/Crime
Run Time : 2h 1min
Opens : 6 April 2017
Rating : NC16 (Drug Use and Violence)

In this action thriller, undercover cop Lin Kai’s (Huang) mission, should he choose to accept it, is to infiltrate a drug cartel. He accepts. Lin Kai works his way up the ladder, making supply runs for the syndicate in China. He reports his findings about the syndicate’s contacts and organisational structure to his supervisor, Captain Li Jianguo (Xing). To gain the trust of Eagle (Duan), the boss of the Twin Eagles cartel, Lin Kai is taken to the cartel’s base of operations in the heart of the Golden Triangle, where he is forcibly made an addict to prove his loyalty. Lin Kai attempts to sway Eagle’s daughter and right-hand woman Qingshui (Lang) to the side of good, as the mission unearths ghosts from Jianguo’s past as a field agent.

Extraordinary Mission is directed by Alan Mak and Anthony Pun and is written by Felix Chong. Pun is also the film’s cinematographer. The team has been involved in the Infernal Affairs and Overhead series, having garnered considerable cred in the crime thriller genre in Hong Kong. The title ‘Extraordinary Mission’ recalls the 80s action flicks in which Chuck Norris helicopters in to a jungle to take out some dictator’s private army. It takes a while for Extraordinary Mission to get into gear, and for its first two acts, it’s mostly a twisty game of mental cat-and-mouse between our brave undercover cop hero and the devious criminal mastermind. Then during its final 20 minutes, Extraordinary Mission lets loose with an elaborate, protracted action sequence that goes from the rooftops to the streets. Our heroes are outnumbered by Eagle’s mercenaries, and there are joyously ridiculous motorcycle stunts to behold.

Extraordinary Mission suffers from a bit of an identity crisis, because things are played straight and circumstances are supposed to be grave – but everything leads up to a gleefully explosive finale which is self-indulgent in every regard. Entertaining, sure, but still self-indulgent. Action choreographer Nicky Li, whose credits also include Wolf Warrior and Invisible Target, stages intense shootouts, crunchy vehicular collisions and a large assortment of explosions. The production values benefit from location filming in Thailand, and the sprawling Twin Eagles compound sells the power and reach of the illicit operation. We see large factory floor where scores of workers are mixing and packing the heroin, then Eagle shows Lin Kai a vertical greenhouse in which multiple storeys of poppy plants are being cultivated via hydroponics. It does lend this a sense of scale.

For all its action spectacle, the story beats in Extraordinary Mission are familiar. There are several twists and reveals, as is a trademark of Mak and Pun’s filmography, but the filmmakers seem to think these are cleverer than they really are. Several scenes, accompanied by a mournfully cooing female vocalist and an acoustic guitar, are too melodramatic. Tiny things like gunshot wounds or drug addictions only affect the characters when it’s convenient for it to affect them. There are also scenes in which characters yell at the top of their lungs to convey intensity, which can get unintentionally silly.

Huang Xuan makes for a decent tortured hero and handles the action beats ably. Like many films of its ilk, Extraordinary Mission suffers from having its hero be a lot less compelling than its villain. Lin Kai gets a bog-standard tragic back-story, and while Eagle’s back-story is similarly predictable, Duan Yihong is more fun to watch than leading man Huang. Duan hits the right pitch of devilish charisma and unrepentant sadism, while still being convincing as a savvy businessman who could run such a massive outfit.

While the subplot of Lin Kai attempting to turn Eagle’s daughter against him is intriguing, it isn’t given enough development. That said, Lang Yueting gets to play a more complex role than the typical action movie interest. Xing Jiadong has sufficient presence as the police Captain who must confront a botched mission from a decade ago, a character that could’ve easily been quite boring.

Extraordinary Mission’s 121-minute runtime is slightly too long and it does spend a lot of time setting up straightforward back-stories, but action aficionados will be rewarded for their patience with a rip-roaring ending battle for which directors Mak and Pun pull out all the stops.

Summary: While its plot beats are largely predictable, Extraordinary Mission’s solid production values and spectacular finale make it worth a look for fans of Hong Kong action cinema.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Sleepless

For F*** Magazine

SLEEPLESS

Director : Baran bo Odar
Cast : Jamie Foxx, Michelle Monaghan, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Scoot McNairy, Gabrielle Union, David Harbour, Dermot Mulroney, Octavius J. Johnson
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 35min
Opens : 23 February 2017
Rating : NC16 (Violence and Coarse Language)

sleepless-posterJamie Foxx is up all night trying not to get killed in this action thriller. Foxx plays Vincent Downs, a crooked Las Vegas cop. Along with his accomplice Sean Cass (Harris), Vincent steals a shipment of cocaine from business tycoon Stanley Rubino (Mulroney). Rubino is in cahoots with the unhinged mobster Rob Novak (McNairy), heir to a Vegas criminal empire. When Rubino finds out about Vincent’s involvement, his men kidnap Vincent’s teenage son Thomas (Johnson). Vincent goes about rescuing his son, while keeping the kidnapping a secret from his estranged ex-wife Dena (Union). Meanwhile, Vincent earns the suspicion of Internal Affairs investigators Jennifer Bryant (Monaghan) and Doug Dennison (Harbour). All parties clash over the course of one night in a battle that tears through the Luxus Casino and Hotel.

Sleepless is a remake of the 2011 film Sleepless Night, a French-Belgian-Luxembourgian co-production. Sleepless Night was also remade as the Tamil-language action thriller Thoongam Vanam. Sleepless might star A-lister Foxx and possess fairly slick production values, but it’s hard to shake the vibe of a disposable direct-to-DVD action thriller. Despite all the twists and turns the story takes, Sleepless never becomes more than a blandly generic crime movie, failing to put a spin on familiar tropes. Seeing as the bulk of the film is set in the span of one night, it should have a breathless, pulse-pounding momentum. No such luck. This feels considerably longer than its 95-minute running time, even with a healthy number of action sequences.

sleepless-t-i-and-jamie-foxxThe official Twitter account for the film brazenly declares it “the action event of the year”. We would like to have seen the PR person stifle laughter as they typed this. While it by no means even approaches that hyperbolic statement, the action in this is not terrible, thanks to the involvement of veteran stunt coordinator Jeff Imada. Imada’s credits include the first three Bourne movies and several of the Fast and Furious films, so the fights in Sleepless do look brutal, if uninventive. Foxx and Harbour throw down in a spa, and the climactic showdown that moves from the casino floor to the garage does generate some excitement. Alas, it’s all too rote to stick in the mind of any action aficionado, and director Odar’s workmanlike style, heavy on the shaky-cam, lacks panache.

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Foxx’s natural charisma is rendered moot in a role which is all knitted brows and gritted teeth. We’re introduced to Vincent as he steals drugs from a crime lord, but fret not, all is not as it seems and Vincent emerges as a typically heroic figure. Dispensing with the realism, Vincent shakes off being stabbed in the stomach like it’s no big deal. Monaghan is miscast as a dogged, tough cop, unable to shake her innate sweetness and coming off as unconvincing when she has to deliver silly hard-boiled dialogue. Both Harbour and McNairy are interesting actors despite not yet having that high a profile, Harbour being best known for Stranger Things and McNairy for Argo. Neither actor phones it in, but there’s not much they can do with this material. McNairy does try to have fun as the violent mobster scion, but is unable to significantly enliven the proceedings.

While Sleepless never plumbs the depths of bad movies that are dumped into theatres by studios in the beginning of each year, its mediocrity is still frustrating. It’s too dour to be fun and silly and too sluggish to be a piece of throwaway escapism.

 

Summary: An exercise in going through the motions, Sleepless is a crime thriller that fails to quicken the pulse.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

A Kind of Murder

For F*** Magazine

A KIND OF MURDER 

Director : Andy Goddard
Cast : Patrick Wilson, Jessica Biel, Vincent Kartheiser, Haley Bennett, Eddie Marsan
Genre : Drama/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 36min
Opens : 2 February 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language)

a-kind-of-murder-posterNovelist Patricia Highsmith’s psychological thrillers, including Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Two Faces of January, have lent themselves well to many masterful adaptations in the past. A Kind of Murder is based on Highsmith’s third novel The Blunderer, and is set in 1960s New York. Walter Stackhouse (Wilson) is an architect and aspiring crime novelist, who is unhappily married to his wife Clara (Biel). Walter becomes fascinated with the case of bookstore owner Kimmel (Marsan), who was suspected of killing his wife. Walter finds himself attracted to singer Ellie Briess (Bennett), further feeding his fantasies of killing Clara. Walter earns the suspicion of NYPD Detective Lawrence Corby (Kartheiser) and soon finds his sanity unravelling.

The Blunderer was earlier adapted into the 1963 French film Enough Rope. This new adaptation is directed by Andy Goddard, who has helmed episodes of Downton Abbey, and is written for the screen by Susan Boyd, who optioned the novel with her screenwriter/novelist husband William. A Kind of Murder wears its 60s New York setting as an affectation, and never feels like it authentically takes place in that world. The costumes, automobiles and sets all look convincing and the cinematography is often beautiful, but the film is pervaded with a sense of artifice. Because it’s so mannered and manicured, A Kind of Murder fails to grip the audience and pull them into the mystery. The acting is so stilted across the board that the cast seems like high school students stumbling through an amateur production of Death of a Salesman.

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Walter Stackhouse has the makings of a compelling character: he’s wealthy but unsatisfied with his existence, and his preoccupation with true crime and crime fiction might be driving him to commit murder himself. While Wilson could pass for a leading man in a 60s crime drama, between the stilted delivery and clunky dialogue, Walter becomes a bland cipher who is difficult to care about. The rocky relationship between Walter and Clara is at the heart of the film’s conflict. However, their brief interactions fail to paint a clear picture of why this marriage has deteriorated to the point where Walter would entertain the thought of murder to extricate himself from it.

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Biel’s Clara should be a compelling character in her own right, justifiably jealous when her husband makes eyes at a beguiling younger woman. Instead, we see Clara haranguing Walter and doing little else. Bennett makes for an alluring ‘other woman’, who might be innocent or a devious femme fatale. However, Ellie becomes increasingly extraneous as the story progresses. Walter’s entanglement with the murder suspect Kimmel and the possibly unstable police detective Corby lack the potent mind games a psychological thriller should possess.

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Director Goddard seems intent on capturing the superficial look of a noir thriller, and when we get to men in heavy coats and hats pursuing each other through foggy streets, A Kind of Murder is visually captivating. Unfortunately, the whodunit plot is so mangled in an effort to make things more complicated than they need to be, such that the audience is held at a distance. The film also feels far longer than its 95-minute running time, soporific rather than thrilling.

Summary: A Kind of Murder has a glossy exterior, but fails to deliver the engaging thrills expected of a Patricia Highsmith adaptation.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Imperium

For F*** Magazine

IMPERIUM

Director : Daniel Ragussis
Cast : Daniel Radcliffe, Toni Collette, Tracy Letts, Sam Trammell, Nestor Carbonell, Pawel Szajda, Chris Sullivan
Genre : Crime/Drama
Run Time : 1h 49min
Opens : 29 September 2016
Rating : M18 (Coarse Language)

imperium-posterDaniel Radcliffe solemnly swears he is up to no good, and that’s putting it very mildly. In this thriller, Radcliffe plays Nate Foster, a promising FBI analyst. His superior agent Angela Zamparo (Collette) gives Nate the assignment of infiltrating a Neo-Nazi white supremacist group, in order to foil an impending terror attack. Agent-in-charge Tom Hernandez (Carbonell) thinks that Nate and Zamparo are barking up the wrong tree, but Nate is determined to prove him wrong. Nate fully immerses himself in the role of a skinhead, with the intention of getting close to radio host Dallas Wolf (Letts), whom Nate believes is plotting something big. While he is initially accepted by Vince (Szajda) and his gang, Nate finds himself drawn to Gerry (Trammell), who appears to be a mild-mannered engineer and family man, worlds away from your typical white supremacist thug. At every turn, Nate is in danger of having his cover blown, as he starts to wonder if the risky endeavour was worth it.

Imperium claims to be inspired by real events – it isn’t based on a specific case, but former FBI agent Michael German, who receives a story credit, did have similar experiences on the job. Writer-director Daniel Ragussis makes his feature debut with this gripping film. Imperium invites audiences to not just stare evil in the face, but to dig beneath its skin and see what makes it tick. The scenarios presented are chillingly plausible, and we gain insight into the different facets of the white supremacist movement. The motivations and rationale of these people are established clearly enough. Some of these scenes are heavy on the exposition, but the film stops short of unspooling a manifesto and making the audience read through it line by line. All of the obstacles one imagines Nate might run up against when going undercover do present themselves, but the momentum of the story means it’s easy to overlook some fairly standard procedural plot developments.

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There are a few lines in the screenplay that are unintentionally funny – “we can’t control the ketchup, but we can control the streets” comes to mind (no, we’re not giving any context for that). However, most of the writing is engagingly clever, and it’s evident that Ragussis has given the premise a good amount of consideration. Nate thinks his way out of some truly daunting binds, and we are presented with characters who are very satisfyingly developed. It might be tempting to portray militant racists as one-note monsters or bumbling buffoons, but that would end up quite boring. It’s scarier when we see them as actual people. We learn that there isn’t just one type of white supremacist, and that there are rivalries of ideology even within that community. Imperium details why some would be drawn to the cause, while also acknowledging its danger.

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That’s not to say that Imperium is a work of unparalleled nuance: Ragussis falls back on familiar shock tactics, including sweet-looking children spouting hateful rhetoric. Flashing images of marching hate groups fill the screen, which comes quite close to hitting the audience over the head.

Many child actors dive headlong into eyebrow-raising, ‘adult’ roles in an effort to shake off any potential type-casting. One could dismiss Radcliffe as doing just that, but his varied post-Harry Potter career on the stage and screen shows that he is putting in the work to cement himself as a serious actor. He gives an Oscar-worthy performance here, creating a fully-rounded character whose harrowing journey is easy to go along with. Nate starts out looking like John Oliver Jr., and then goes full skinhead. Not the most drastic physical transformation, but striking all the same. This is an intelligent character who is able to apply what he’s studied to practical use, and who does his homework – there’s a montage of Nate diligently poring over Mein Kampf, Essays of a Klansmen and books of their ilk. He doesn’t look like he’s cut out for undercover work, but goes on to prove that he has a real knack for it. It’s a generalization, but English actors seem to struggle with American accents – we’ll be darned if Radcliffe doesn’t sound really natural here.

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Collette’s Zamparo is the authoritative maternal figure, and she seems to play the role a little too broadly. However, the interactions between Zamparo and Nate do reveal just enough about their respective characters, with a big part of Nate’s motivation being his eagerness to impress his superior. Letts avoids turning his radio host character into a blustery blowhard, and the character is all the more insidious for it. Trammell’s charming turn is disarming – Gerry is the friendly neighbour who builds a treehouse for his kids and throws barbeque parties; his wife makes cupcakes – albeit cupcakes that are decorated with Swastika frosting. The way Gerry views Nate as a potential successor in the movement and the hospitality he shows to Nate provide nail-biting tension cloaked in suburban normalcy.

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Imperium succeeds as a blistering thriller and a searing voyage down some foreboding paths. It may not be terribly complex, but there is a palpable effort to ask difficult questions, and it will give your skin a workout from all that crawling it’ll be doing. A likeable protagonist trying to keep a grip on his sanity as he plunges into the lion’s den ties it all together.

Summary: Placing the audience on the razor’s edge alongside its protagonist, Imperium is an affecting and deeply engrossing thriller boasting a captivating lead performance by Daniel Radcliffe.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

I Am Wrath

For F*** Magazine

I AM WRATH

Director : Chuck Russell
Cast : John Travolta, Christopher Meloni, Amanda Schull, Rebecca De Mornay, Sam Trammell, Luis Da Silva, Patrick St. Esprit
Genre : Action/Crime/Drama
Run Time : 90 mins
Opens : 12 May 2016
Rating : NC16 (Violence)

John Travolta is very angry, and you won’t like him when he’s angry. In this action thriller, Travolta plays Stanley Hill, a mild-mannered auto manufacturing plant manager whose wife Vivian (De Mornay) is murdered in cold blood by some thugs right in front of his eyes. Frustrated by the inefficiency of the justice system, Stanley decides to take matters into his own hands in his quest for vengeance. He turns to his old friend Dennis (Meloni), who runs a barbershop but who used to work alongside Stanley in the distant, shadowy past. As Stanley and Dennis cut a swath through the city’s criminal element and uncover a conspiracy involving state officials, Stanley’s daughter Abbie (Schull) finds herself in the thugs’ crosshairs too.

If you’re thinking, “Gee, this sounds like the kind of thing Nicolas Cage would sleepwalk through,” you’re absolutely right. Cage was apparently slated to star in I Am Wrath, with legendary director William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection) attached, but that incarnation fell through. Instead, we get the man with whom Cage once swapped faces. It’s no secret that every actor wants to be Liam Neeson in Taken, but not every actor has what it takes. Here, John Travolta is one of the least convincing action heroes in recent memory, complete with a paunch and a ghastly hairpiece. It seems odd that Dennis is a barber by trade, and doesn’t mention a word about how odd his pal’s hair looks.

This is a movie that takes itself very seriously, taking its title from Jeremiah 6:11 in the Bible, which begins, “But I am full of the wrath of the LORD, and I cannot hold it in”. Because it is so very difficult to take Travolta seriously as a badass, I Am Wrath flits between being unintentionally funny and just dreadfully dull. His co-star Meloni would make a much better lead – now there’s a believable middle-aged guy who could throw down with gun-toting, knife-wielding no-goodniks. To go earlier than Taken, I Am Wrath clearly wants to be Death Wish. Now, Charles Bronson was a grizzled guy nobody wanted to mess with. Travolta looks like he’s midway through a transformation into a wax statue of himself.

From the stock ‘dead wife motivation’ to the non-descript gangster villains to the corrupt authority figures, I Am Wrath has not a single original bone in its body. The decision to set the movie in Columbus, Ohio seems like an odd one, to say the least. We have nothing against Columbus, Ohio – we’ve never been to Columbus, Ohio – but as filmed by director Chuck Russell and cinematographer Andrzej Sekuła, it looks extremely boring. Incidentally, Sekuła was the Director of Photography on Pulp Fiction, which starred Travolta. I Am Wrath’s tagline is, “I lay my vengeance upon them,” obviously meant to evoke Ezekiel 25:17, the Bible verse famously paraphrased by Samuel L. Jackson’s character Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction. Let this be a lesson for every mediocre to terrible movie out there: do not remind the audience of far superior work.

Summary: John Travolta is as unconvincing an action hero as they come in this lazy, wholly forgettable sub-Taken dreck.

RATING: 1.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Legend

For F*** Magazine

LEGEND

Director : Brian Helgeland
Cast : Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, Christopher Eccleston, Taron Egerton, Paul Bettany, David Thewlis, Chazz Palminteri
Genre : Drama/Crime
Run Time : 132 mins
Opens : 12 November 2015
Rating : M18 (Violence and Coarse Language)
After going Mad earlier this year, Tom Hardy’s going Kray-zy in this gangster biopic. Hardy plays both Ronnie and Reggie Kray, identical twins who ruled the London criminal underworld in the 60s. Reggie is the savvy businessman while institutionalized Ronnie is the unhinged, unpredictable loose cannon. After threatening a psychiatrist into declaring Ronnie sane, the pair rise through the ranks, running protection rackets and buying up nightclubs. Reggie falls in love with Frances Shea (Browning) who eventually marries him, much to the disapproval of her mother (Tara Fitzgerald). In the meantime, Ronnie openly pursues a relationship with Teddy (Egerton). The twins become business associates of Philadelphia crime family don Angelo Bruno (Palminteri) and are pursued by Scotland Yard Detective Superintendent Leonard “Nipper” Read (Eccleston), intent on putting an end to their reign of terror. 
Legend is based on John Pearson’s biography The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins. The twins were the subject of the 1990 biopic The Krays as well as the straight-to-DVD 2015 film The Rise of the Krays, the latter apparently made to ride the coattails of this film. Writer-director Brian Helgeland earned his crime movie bona fides with 1997’s Oscar-winning L.A. Confidential and the Kray twins’ colourful history and trail of violence makes them attractive true crime biopic subjects. While Legend is a superb showcase for its star, it falls short in almost all other departments. Like many period gangster movies, Legend all too frequently invokes the classics of the genre while feeling like a mere echo. Its portrayal of 60s London is at once stylish and slightly artificial, Helgeland never achieving the authenticity he strives for. 
The film falls into a pattern of Ronnie doing something despicable and outrageous with Reggie cleaning up after him, the twins often coming into conflict with each other and those around them. It’s odd: even though the film spends a lot of time with its central characters, it doesn’t dig very deep into the psychology of the twins and by its conclusion, we only actually understand very little about them. It is eventful, but sometimes difficult to follow, everything tied together with a voiceover by Browning’s Frances. The voiceover is often heavy-handed and there are some clumsy attempts at breaking the fourth wall. In the end, it feels like the main purpose this voiceover serves is to give Frances some semblance of agency, since for most of the film, she is just there, just “the wife”.
Hardy has emerged as an A-lister who can headline big-budget blockbusters and prestige dramas with equal ease, and his dual role here is plenty impressive. Of course it’s gimmicky, but it’s a gimmick that works. With the help of body double Jacob Tomuri (who was Hardy’s stunt double in Mad Max: Fury Road and the upcoming The Revenant) and some clever visual effects trickery, two distinct versions of the actor co-exist and after a while, the sleight of hand becomes truly seamless. When Ronnie and Reggie come to blows during an especially heated argument, the fight is spectacularly convincing. Affecting an East End dialect, Hardy is able to play both twins as distinct characters, the end result far less stilted than when Armie Hammer’s head was duplicated and pasted onto Josh Pence’s body to play the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network. Reggie is the tortured antihero and Ronnie is the wild-eyed, mal-adjusted psychopath. In very loose terms, Reggie is the “good” twin, though that is of course relative. 
The afore-mentioned Browning looks gorgeous, appropriately retro-chic in a selection of 60s ensembles, but is given little to do beyond fretting over her husband’s illegal activities. Christopher Eccleston huffs and puffs as the cop on the Krays’ case, but Helgeland doesn’t seem too interest in the cat-and-mouse cops vs. criminals aspect of the story. Egerton, having made a splash in Kingsman: The Secret Service earlier this year, is also underused as Ron’s boy toy. Paul Bettany pops up very briefly as rival gangster Charlie Richardson. The British character actors who make up the Krays’ criminal posse come off as sufficiently tough and unsavoury, with Palminteri adding a touch of American mob movie cred. 
Given how Legend has been positioned as an awards contender, the film ends up surprisingly superficial. Even more so than other gangster films, it revolves around relationships, given its main characters are twins, but few of those relationships are satisfyingly developed and explored. Slick but formulaic and often unfocused, Legend offers very little real insight into the lives of the fascinating Kray twins. 
Summary: Tom Hardy’s dual role is dynamite stuff, but Legend is hampered by its heightened glossiness and is ultimately too shallow to pass as a gripping biopic. 

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars 
Jedd Jong