Birds of Prey review

For F*** Magazine

BIRDS OF PREY

Director: Cathy Yan
Cast : Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina, Ella Jay Basco, Ewan McGregor
Genre: Action/Crime/Comics
Run Time : 1 h 49 mins
Opens : 6 February 2020
Rating : NC16

The DC Extended Universe has had its ups and downs. While the franchise has its ardent supporters, moviegoers at large have decided that in the cinematic battle between the two big boys in comics, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has emerged victorious. DC’s not going to take that lying down, and as the DCEU heads towards each of the movies being more of their own thing instead of having the close interconnectivity that was originally planned, there’s the opportunity for some exciting alchemy. Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is one such opportunity.

Harley Quinn/Harleen Quinzel (Margot Robbie) has struck out on her own and left the Joker – for good, as she tells herself. On a mission of reinvention, Harley finds herself in the crosshairs of mob boss and nightclub proprietor Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). Sionis is after Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), a young pickpocket who has stolen something priceless from him. Also caught in the mix are vengeful mafia daughter Helena Bertinelli/Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), nightclub singer-turned Sionis’ driver Dinah Lance/Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Gotham City Police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), who wants to bring Sionis to justice. These colourful characters collide on the battleground that is Gotham City as Harley brings her signature blend of chaos to the proceedings.

Birds of Prey knows and embraces what it is. This is a very smart adaptation –  screenwriter Christina Hodson, working closely with Robbie (who also produced the film), changes a lot from the comics but also combines the pieces in a way that works. The character of Harley Quinn is not a member of the Birds of Prey, and interestingly, the film doesn’t try to make her a member of the team – she’s narrating their origin story. Harley is an unreliable narrator, which gives the film license to mess around with the structure, rewinding and fast-forwarding as Harley gives telling the story her best shot. Director Cathy Yan has style to spare, and unlike several earlier DCEU movies, this isn’t one that feels like it has been obviously been meddled with by studio executives. There will inevitably be comparisons to Deadpool, but perhaps Birds of Prey owes a bit more of the oft-overlooked Tank Girl.

Birds of Prey is messy, but it’s messy in a way that feels natural. Robbie has only played Harley Quinn once before, yet displays such ownership of the character, understanding and embodying her in a way that demonstrates her investment in the character and the source material. The fear that many DC Comics fans had going in was that Robbie had turned a Birds of Prey movie into a Harley Quinn movie – this movie feels like a Harley Quinn movie that has collided with a Birds of Prey movie in a “You got your peanut butter on my chocolate!”/”You got your chocolate in my peanut butter!” way.

The movie’s messiness may work for some more than it does for others. The device of Harley as unreliable narrator means that what should be a straightforward narrative is sometimes unnecessarily complicated. The movie must cover multiple back-stories and does so efficiently, but it can still sometimes feel like it’s spreading itself too thin, the way other comic book hero team-up movies sometimes do.

Some deviations from the source material can be difficult to be come to terms with – Barbara Gordon/Batgirl/Oracle is often instrumental in forming the Birds of Prey but is entirely absent here. Harley has just one pet hyena because it was too expensive to animate two – not a big deal. The biggest change from the comics is the character of Cassandra Cain, and this doesn’t quite work. The character bears almost no similarities to her namesake from the comics, who was a mute, deadly daughter of assassins who eventually became Batgirl. This iteration of Cassandra has more in common with Catwoman supporting character Holly Robinson. None of this is Ella Jay Basco’s fault – she plays the mouthy kid with enough attitude and is often entertaining in the role – but it is frustrating that there technically is a Batgirl in a Birds of Prey movie, just not the right one.

Margot Robbie is a great Harley. This movie further explores the characters flaws and her desire to be a part of something bigger. That something might not necessarily be the Birds of Prey, but it is fun to watch her pop in and interact with the team just as it is forming.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is outstanding as Huntress – the crossbow-fu is dazzling stuff and she manages to be both formidable and endearing. After the brutal murder of her family at the hands of a rival mob, Helena trained to be an assassin and as such has no social skills to speak of. Winstead plays both the icy killer and the awkward member of the friend group equally well.

Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Black Canary is a riveting character – she’s trying to get out from under the thumb of Roman Sionis and is suppressing a power that she doesn’t quite know how to use. In the comics, Black Canary is an expert martial artist who favours kicking, and there’s quite a lot of that here.

Rosie Perez’s Renee Montoya is meant to be a cliché, a hard-drinking, one-liner-dispensing caricature of a tough cop from an 80s movie, which she pulls off well.

Ewan McGregor is having the time of his life. He’s over-the-top and goofy but also suitably intimidating and unhinged. Chris Messina’s Victor Zsasz is Sionis’ creepy, sycophantic lackey and they both play off each other well. Each time McGregor enters a scene, there’s the sense that he will not leave until he has stolen the show.

The film boasts some of the best action sequences of any DCEU film yet. The integration of gymnastics into Harley’s fights is done exceedingly well. The fights are stylised but also feel tactile – prepare to wince as many, many bones get broken with a loud crunch. There’s a motorbike-roller skates-car chase that is beautifully executed, and as mentioned above, all the crossbow stuff is impressive. Stunt coordinators Jonathan Eusebio, Jon Valera and Chad Stahelski of 87Eleven Action Design craft many enjoyable action sequences that while not as slick as what might be seen in a John Wick movie, do fit the overall feel of the film.

Summary: Birds of Prey is enjoyably grimy, a comic book movie that is breezily entertaining, packed with violent action and finished off with a generous sprinkle of zaniness. It’s a lot more cohesive than many previous DCEU outings and left this reviewer wanting to see more of these characters. Now can we please get that Gotham City Sirens movie already?

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

 

Doctor Sleep review

For F*** Magazine

DOCTOR SLEEP

Director: Mike Flanagan
Cast : Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, Carl Lumbly, Zahn McClarnon, Emily Alyn Lind, Bruce Greenwood, Jocelin Donahue, Alex Essoe, Cliff Curtis, Henry Thomas
Genre : Horror
Run Time : 2 h 32 mins
Opens : 7 November 2019
Rating : NC16

After nearly 40 years asleep, the Overlook Hotel reawakens. Doctor Sleep is based on the 2003 novel of the same name by Stephen King, which is in turn a sequel to King’s 1977 novel The Shining. That novel was famously adapted into a film directed by Stanley Kubrick, which is often considered one of the finest horror films of all time. Writer-director Mike Flanagan ushers audiences back into the cavernous lobby of the Overlook Hotel and into King’s world.

Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) was five years old when his father Jack was driven insane during the family’s stay at the Overlook Hotel. Dan has become an alcoholic and has never fully gotten closure or come to terms with what he experienced as a child. Dan’s psychic ability, called ‘the Shining’ by the Overlook Hotel’s head chef Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly), has never gone away. There are others who possess the Shining, and yet others who feed upon those who do.

Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran) is a young girl with unfathomable powers. She is pursued by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), the leader of the True Knot cult. Rose and her followers subsist on the “steam” of those who possess the Shining, particularly children. Dan wants nothing more than to forget about the past and never have to use his powers again, but when Abra reaches out to him, Dan is drawn back into the world he so wants to escape. Dan and Abra must face off against Rose, and their quest to bring her down takes them to the one place Dan never wanted to revisit: the Overlook Hotel.

Making a sequel to The Shining is a daunting task, so it is admirable that writer-director Mike Flanagan even tried. Flanagan has a good track record as a horror filmmaker – his body of work includes Oculus, Ouija: Origin of Evil, Gerald’s Game and the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House. His knack for exploring the inner emotional lives of characters rather than focusing merely on set-pieces and scares makes him the ideal candidate to make a movie about a character who confronts deep-seated childhood trauma and deals with addiction.

Doctor Sleep takes its time, making audiences eagerly anticipate the return to the Overlook Hotel and the horrors that lie in wait there. Even though the imagery of The Shining has featured heavily in the promotional material, this is not a movie about the Overlook Hotel. It’s a movie about Dan, how he has struggled in the intervening decades, and what happens when he is drawn back into the fray. Ewan McGregor is compelling and sympathetic in the role, convincingly portraying a man who has been through the wringer and is trying to outrun his past. Dan is always the centre of the story, and even when the movie gets carried away with callbacks to its predecessor, Dan’s journey is an important emotional anchor.

Once we get to the hotel (and in one scene before that), the movie goes full-bore fanservice. It becomes a seemingly endless parade of “look, here’s that thing you remember!” which might overstay its welcome. There’s a thrill in seeing locations and scenes from The Shining recreated again for the big screen, but especially given how remakes and belated sequels pile on the nostalgia, more cynical audiences might be unmoved by these scenes.

While Doctor Sleep is often effectively scary and includes some genuinely harrowing and disturbing scenes, some of the scares are unintentionally funny. The visual effects work is strong, especially in the dream/fantasy sequences, but several CGI-driven moments are not quite as creepy as intended. It isn’t nearly as noticeable as in IT Chapter 2, another Stephen King adaptation, but it still sticks out.

In Singapore, the film is rated NC16. In order to achieve this and avoid an M18 rating, some scenes featured a section of the screen censored with a blurry box. This is wont to pull many viewers out of the proceedings, but at least none of the scenes were cut.

Beyond McGregor, all the performances are good. Kyliegh Curran has a large amount of heavy lifting to do and is more than up to the task. Abra is powerful and eager, but also underestimates the immense danger she is up against. The mentor-mentee relationship between Dan and Abra adds even more heart to the film.

Rebecca Ferguson is clearly enjoying herself as the wicked Rose. She’s hamming it up just enough such that she’s still sinister and is surrounded by capable actors like Zahn McClarnon and Emily Alyn Lind as the True Knot devotees. The character is a villain out of a fairy tale, a wicked witch who preys on children, eating them to sustain her power. There is a poignancy to a fairy tale villainess being the person whom our heroes, one who survived trauma as a child and another who still is a child, must defeat.

Cliff Curtis is a warm, reassuring presence as Billy, a kind man who befriends Dan and helps him get back on his feet. The actors who play the characters from the previous film are all good matches, but Carl Lumbly is especially outstanding, uncannily echoing Scatman Crothers’ indelible turn as Hallorann in the first film.

While many hold Kubrick’s The Shining as the pinnacle of cinematic horror, the movie had its detractors, chief of which was King himself. Flanagan has tried to appease King by drawing on more elements of the Shining novel, while also including the iconography of Kubrick’s movie, striving to let the best of both worlds shine. This is very ambitious, and he is mostly successful.

The movie certainly works better if one has seen The Shining but does a fine job of explaining who Dan is and what he has gone through such that newcomers will not be lost and might be motivated to seek out the original film and book.

Summary: Making a sequel to a film that has an almost mythic status is a nigh-insurmountable task, one that writer-director Mike Flanagan is mostly up to. Doctor Sleep might lean just a bit too heavily on the imagery of The Shining but said imagery would be missed if it weren’t included in the film. This is an absorbing, intense and well-crafted exploration of confronting trauma and breaking free of substance abuse, and against all odds, a worthy follow-up to The Shining.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Christopher Robin review

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN

Director : Marc Forster
Cast : Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Bronte Carmichael, Mark Gatiss, Jim Cummings, Brad Garrett, Toby Jones, Nick Mohammed, Peter Capaldi, Sophie Okonedo, Sara Sheen
Genre : Comedy/Drama/Fantasy
Run Time : 104 mins
Opens : 2 August 2018
Rating : PG

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things,” so wrote the Apostle Paul in the Book of Corinthians. In this live-action/animation hybrid comedy-drama, Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) has put away childish things, but the time has come for him to rediscover them.

As a child, Christopher played in what he called the Hundred-Acre Wood with his stuffed animal friends, including the honey-loving Winnie the Pooh (Jim Cummings), ebullient Tigger (also Cummings), despondent donkey Eeyore (Brad Garrett), worrywart Piglet (Nick Mohammed), fastidious Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), intelligent Owl (Toby Jones), warm Kanga (Sophie Okonedo) and her joey Roo (Sara Sheen). They had tea parties and grand adventures, but Christopher has bidden them farewell.

Now an adult, Christopher is married to Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and they have a daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). Christopher is preoccupied with work at the luggage manufacturer Winslow Industries, and is treated poorly by his boss Giles Winslow (Mark Gatiss). When a crisis in the office pulls Christopher away from a weekend in the countryside with his wife and daughter, Pooh intervenes. Christopher is confused and unwilling, but eventually gets back in touch with the simple joys of his childhood, as the unexpected visit from his friends reorders his priorities.

This is an utterly devastating film that had this reviewer in tears almost from beginning to end. That is in no small part because it is emotionally manipulative, but just the premise is quite depressing: Christopher Robin has a mid-life crisis. This is not a movie meant for children, or at least primarily for children, judging by all the fidgeting kids in our screening. It’s a movie about what it’s like to lose and then regain a sense of wonderment and awe, and it’s something that’s readily relatable.

Last year, the biopic Goodbye Christopher Robin, about the toll that the success of the stories had on their author A. A. Milne and his family, especially his son Christopher Robin Milne, was released. That film was sad and poignant and might’ve ruined Winnie the Pooh for some, seeing how much pain that bear wound up costing its creator. Christopher Robin is sad and poignant in a different, perhaps more production line way.

Director Marc Forster revisits territory akin to that he covered in the 2004 film Finding Neverland, about the inspiration behind Peter Pan. Here, he works from a screenplay by Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy and Allison Schroeder, with Greg Brooker and Mark Steven Johnson receiving a “story by” credit. The number of writers indicates a cluttered script, but there is a refreshing simplicity to Christopher Robin. At times, it comes off as too simple in straining to be twee and nostalgic, but it generally works.

The dreary post-WWII London setting is contrasted with the idyll of the woods in Surrey. Above and beyond the period details, the visual effects in bringing the cuddly denizens of Hundred-Acre Wood to life are key in making audiences buy into the premise. The character animation, mostly done by visual effects houses Framestore and Method, is pitch-perfect – the way each character moves, the texture of their fur, the subtle nuances in the facial expressions – Pooh and company are all brought to life so lovingly.

Ewan McGregor’s performance as Christopher is reasonably endearing, but all the human characters are quite thinly drawn. We see how much pressure Christopher is under and how he is intent on his young daughter going away to boarding school, against her wishes. Because the titular character is intended as a cipher for all adults, there’s not much that makes him distinctive, apart from how he’s friends with a bunch of sentient stuffed animals.

Hayley Atwell is underused in a sparely written role as ‘the wife’, while Bronte Carmichael does inject some personality into Madeline, but again, it’s not much more than “I don’t get to spend enough time with my dad”. The whole thing is very “cats in the cradle” – or “bears in the honey jar”, if you will. Meanwhile, Mark Gatiss relishes playing the cruel boss.

Veteran voice actor Jim Cummings, who has voiced Pooh since 1988 and Tigger since 1989, is such a joy to hear. His performance as Pooh sounds natural emanating from the fluffy three-dimensional rendering of the beloved bear. While the rest of the voice cast are not as closely associated with their respective characters as Cummings is, everyone does well – especially Brad Garrett as Eeyore, who gets some of the best lines.

Disney has been leaning extremely hard on nostalgia, and Christopher Robin puts a bit of a spin on that by commenting on the nature of adulthood and of maintaining a connection to childhood after we’ve crossed that threshold. The film doesn’t comment on this in the most insightful manner, but there are moments that are sweet as honey, and, if you’re as emotionally fragile as this reviewer, as sad as an empty honey jar.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017)

Director : Bill Condon
Cast : Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Emma Thompson, Ian McKellen, Ewan McGregor
Genre : Musical/Fantasy/Romance
Run Time : 2h 9min
Opens : 16 March 2017
Rating : PG (Some Intense Sequences)

You know how this story goes: Belle (Watson), who lives in a provincial French town with her father Maurice (Kline), is misunderstood by the townsfolk because she’s intellectually-inclined and doesn’t conform to the norms of the time. Belle catches the eye of the boorish Gaston (Evans), always accompanied by his sidekick Lefou (Gad), but Belle rebuffs Gaston’s advances. When Maurice loses his way in the woods and is held prisoner by a frightening Beast (Stevens), Belle volunteers to take her father’s place as the Beast’s captive. The Beast was formerly a handsome prince, who has been cursed by an Enchantress for his haughtiness and unkindness. The household staff of the castle were also cursed: the suave head butler Lumiere (McGregor) is a candelabra, fussbudget majordomo Cogsworth (McKellen) is a clock, and matronly head of the kitchen Mrs. Potts (Thompson) is a teapot. Belle must fall in love with the Beast to break the curse, but when Gaston learns of the Beast’s existence, he will stop at nothing to kill the Beast and take Belle for himself.

These days, the foundation stones of the House of Mouse are nostalgia. Beauty and the Beast is a remake of the landmark 1991 animated film, which was in turn based on the 18th Century French fairy tale by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. It’s easy to be cynical about the practice of live-action remakes, a practice Disney is keen on continuing. While there are elements to this lushly designed, beautifully photographed live-action remake that are worthwhile, it does hew closely to the venerated 1991 version. Director Bill Condon, who earned his musical cred with Chicago and Dreamgirls, dutifully assembles a work of prefab nostalgia.

This is not to say Beauty and the Beast is not enjoyable. This reviewer had goosebumps through much of the film, and there’s a novelty in seeing flesh-and-blood actors (alongside multiple computer-generated characters) telling this tale. There is an effort to stick a little closer to the original story. For example, the Beast imprisons Maurice because Maurice plucked a rose from the castle gardens, Belle having requested her father bring a rose back from his travels. That’s in this version. Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos’ adaptation of Linda Woolverton’s screenplay includes flashes of rib-tickling wit.

The production design by four-time Oscar nominee Sarah Greenwood is sumptuous, with lots of dizzying details to take in. Jacqueline Durran’s costumes are similarly beautiful, but the friend whom this reviewer saw the film with noticed that the gold leaf details were printed onto the dress rather than sewn on. It’s also fun to parse when exactly this is set, given clues like Gaston having fought in “the war”, Belle reading Shakespeare to the Beast, the powdered wigs worn by the aristocrats, and the mention of the black plague, historical markers that were absent from the 1991 version.

Much of the nostalgia factor is directly linked to the music. The songs from the 1991 film, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by the late Howard Ashman, have been etched into the collective consciousness. In this iteration, there are lush orchestral arrangements and some very pretty harpsichord parts.

However, this reviewer couldn’t suppress his disappointment that the songs from the stage musical adaptation, including If I Can’t Love Her, Home, Me and Human Again, are conspicuously absent. Instead, Menken has re-teamed with Tim Rice, the lyricist for the additional songs in the stage musical, to write a few new numbers. These include the Beast’s solo Evermore, which is a sweet torch song but is an also-ran replacement for If I Can’t Love Her, and Days in the Sun, a more melancholic take on the wistful Human Again. It seems odd that given how this started out as a direct movie adaptation of the stage musical, those songs are all gone. Menken and Rice are plenty talented, so the new songs are good – just not as good as what we had on Broadway.

Watson has stated that the character of Belle was a big influence on her when she was growing up, and as such she’s honoured to get to play her. While Watson is fully convincing as a feisty bookworm, since she spent around ten years playing one earlier in her career, there seems to be something missing. Perhaps it’s how iconic the animated Belle is, that it’s hard not to see Watson the actress/activist when looking at this Belle. Her singing voice has also been autotuned into oblivion, disappointing when compared to how lively and engaging voice actress Paige O’Hara’s performance was in the 1991 version.

Stevens sounds remarkably like the Beast’s original voice actor, Robby Benson. This version makes multiple attempts to render him as sympathetic as possible, to tamp down the icky Stockholm Syndrome connotations. As such, the Beast is never really fearsome, even when he’s locking up Maurice in the beginning. At times, his computer-generated visage seems suitably animalistic, and at others, it looks like hair has been digitally flocked onto Stevens’ face. He also looks more than a little awkward while singing.

Gaston steals the show, as Gaston is wont to do. Evans flings himself into the part with great aplomb, seemingly channelling Hugh Jackman, who played Gaston on stage in the Sydney production. Much has been made of how Lefou is “officially” gay, and it can’t help but seem like a marketing device to generate controversy more than anything else. Gad is ideal casting and a fine complement to Evans. Maurice is less of the clumsy, absent-minded elderly man he was in the animated film, Kline lending the character warmth and a degree of grounding.

The all-star cast extends into the actors voicing the enchanted objects. McGregor seems to be putting in the most work, affecting a French accent and having fun with the role. He shares great vocal chemistry with McKellen, whose voice sounds apt emanating from a stuffy, unyielding worrywart. Thompson does a full-on Angela Lansbury impression, which is quite charming. This also marks a reunion for Hermione and Prof. Trelawney. Stanley Tucci voices a new character, the court composer-turned harpsichord Cadenza. Broadway star Audra McDonald voices the wardrobe Mme. Garderobe, and gets to perform an aria that seems awfully like Prima Donna from The Phantom of the Opera. The enchanted objects must’ve been the biggest stumbling block in translating the animated film into live-action, and there are several moments which work much better in the 1991 film, Be Our Guest being chief among them.

Beauty and the Beast will charm and entrance large sections of moviegoers, but it seems preoccupied with hitting its marks, glancing down at the floor on occasion. Things get lost in translation, and Disney devotees will be locked into continuously comparing this with its animated forebear. Still, it will be largely futile to resist gasping when each petal falls off the rose, even though we know how it’s going to end.

Summary: While it’s largely bound by an enforced slavishness to the now-classic 1991 animated film, more than enough delights await within this refurbished castle.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Our Kind of Traitor

For F*** Magazine

OUR KIND OF TRAITOR

Director : Susanna White
Cast : Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgård, Damian Lewis, Naomie Harris, Alicia von Rittberg, Mark Gatiss
Genre : Thriller
Run Time : 1 hr 48 mins
Opens : 7 July 2016
Rating : M18 (Some Sexual Scenes and Nudity)

Our Kind of Traitor posterBoth Ewan McGregor and Damian Lewis appeared in the largely forgotten Stormbreaker, and now reunite for a spy film of a very different stripe. McGregor plays Perry Makepeace, a poetics professor on holiday in Marrakech with his wife Gail (Harris). In a Moroccan restaurant, Perry befriends Dima (Skarsgård), who turns out to be the chief money launderer of the Russian Mafia. A powerful underworld player known as The Prince (Grigoriy Dobrygin) killed one of Dima’s associates, so Dima fears for the safety of his family, and enlists Perry in delivering key information to MI6, information that implicates powerful English bankers and politicians in colluding with the Russian Mafia. MI6 agent Hector (Lewis) naturally has his suspicions – can Dima be trusted? Why would he choose Perry as his messenger? Gail is also frustrated that her life has become upended because of her husband’s sudden involvement in this risky enterprise.

Our Kind of Traitor Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris 1

Our Kind of Traitor is adapted from the John le Carré novel of the same name. Our Kind of Traitor joins the illustrious list of films based on a Le Carré books, including A Most Wanted Man, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Constant Gardener and The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. One expects a Le Carré adaptation to boast a cerebral quality, leaning more on politics and interplay than chases and gunfights. Our Kind of Traitor is a slick and stylish picture, director Susanna White delivering a product with all the trappings of a spy thriller. While White is an accomplished television director, this is only her second feature, after Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang, and it does feel like the work of someone who is a dab hand at assembling thrillers. The exotic, glamourous locations include Marrakech, London, Paris, Bern and the Swiss Alps, and Oscar-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle is on hand to lend the visuals poetry and polish.

Our Kind of Traitor Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris 2

Our Kind of Traitor certainly looks the part, but the story never seems sufficiently grounded, with pretty big leaps of faith asked of the audience. There is a degree of intrigue to the premise: regular folks are yanked into the cloak-and-dagger realm of spies and gangsters. However, we never get a satisfyingly logical explanation for Perry’s involvement, and the story relies on several convenient turns in the plot to progress. While McGregor is an amiable leading man, Perry finds himself out of his depth and yet gets willingly strung along so often that it’s hard to not think of the character as exceedingly naïve. It seems the character is stuck in “sure, whatever you say” mode for the duration of the film, which can be frustrating. The tension between Perry and Gail, the two somewhat unhappy ten years into their marriage, does not get sufficient development.

Our Kind of Traitor Stellan Skarsgard and Ewan McGregor

Skarsgård’s Dima is gruff yet friendly, at once suspicious and charming. While the Russian accent he attempts isn’t great, Skarsgård manages to be convincing as a high-level mob figure who has had a change of heart and now fears for his life. There’s a warmth to him and a real sadness in the actor’s eyes when Dima needs to be vulnerable. Alas, the portrayal of the Russian Mafia doesn’t offer many insights, sticking close to the stereotypes and perceptions most already have, instead of delving into the inner workings of the criminal organisation. Lewis looks right at home in a film of this sort, but there isn’t much nuance he can bring to the role of Hector, who mostly stands about looking stern.

Our Kind of Traitor Damian Lewis

Our Kind of Traitor may not be the most involving or intricate spy yarn ever, but competent performances and glossy production values go a good way to papering over the cracks in the story. There is a bit of a lull in the middle, but the intrigue and smatterings of violence help to push it along.

Summary: It’s pretty to look at and ticks most of the spy thriller boxes, but thanks to an almost laughably gullible protagonist and a general lack of intensity, it’s not particularly easy to get into.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Jane Got a Gun

For F*** Magazine

JANE GOT A GUN

Director : Gavin O’Connor
Cast : Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Ewan McGregor, Rodrigo Santoro, Noah Emmerich, Boyd Holbrook, Alex Manette, Todd Stashwick, James Burnett, Sam Quinn
Genre : Action/Drama/Western
Run Time : 98 mins
Opens : 18 February 2016
Rating : NC-16 (Violence and Some Coarse Language)

In Marvel’s ongoing Thor comics series, Jane Foster is the current wielder of Mjolnir. In this western, Jane Hammond (Portman) wields more conventional weapons. It is 1871 in New Mexico territory and Jane lives with her husband Bill “Ham” Hammond (Emmerich) and their daughter Kate. When Ham rides home seriously wounded after a gun battle with the Bishop Boys gang, Jane has no choice but to turn to her ex-fiancée Dan Frost (Edgerton) for protection. John Bishop (McGregor), a notorious outlaw from Jane’s past, has returned to torment her. Dan is still broken after losing Jane to another man, but he resolves to help Jane protect her family and her home as the Bishop Boys come a-knocking.



            Jane Got a Gun was plagued by numerous production problems, and it will be remembered more for its behind-the-scenes tumult than on its own merit as a film. The original screenplay by Brian Duffield was a hot property, landing on the Black List of best-liked screenplays in Hollywood back in 2011. Natalie Portman was attached to star and produce, with Lynne Ramsay of We Need to Talk About Kevin fame directing. Severe disagreements led to Ramsay dropping out on the first day of principal photography, with a bitter legal battle ensuing. Warrior director Gavin O’Connor was roped in to replace her, but the film’s troubles were just beginning. Michael Fassbender, Jude Law and Bradley Cooper were all attached at different points and Edgerton ended up switching roles from the villain John Bishop to the ex-fiancée Dan Frost. The release date was shifted back multiple times, with distributor Relativity Media dropping the film and The Weinstein Company later acquiring it.

            For all the drama involved in getting the film made, one would expect it to, at the very least, be bad in an interesting way. No such luck. Jane Got a Gun is soporific and dreary, sorely lacking in a key element of any revenge story: passion. It looks, feels and sounds like a western, but there’s so little energy and momentum behind it. The title suggests a fun genre piece with a feminist twist, perhaps something akin to Kill Bill in the American frontier. Some of the expected ingredients are there, including a tragic back-story and a score to settle with an old enemy, but it’s so plodding and self-serious that getting invested in Jane’s tale is quite the task. It’s sometimes a pretty movie to look at, but most of the time it’s visually dull: the picture is sepia-tinted, then the flashbacks appear to have another layer of sepia tinting on top of that and this stylistic touch ends up creating even more distance between the audience and the story.

            Portman may be playing the titular protagonist and has championed the film through the myriad obstacles it faced in getting made, but Jane Hammond will not go down as one of the great ass-kicking female characters in cinema history. There’s some emotional impact to Jane’s tortured past, but her supposed transformation into a gun-toting damsel no longer in distress is underwhelming. The love triangle between Jane, Ham and Dan bogs the movie down in melodramatics instead of creating any fireworks and nothing unconventional comes of the dynamics between the three characters. The villain in a revenge western should get to chew a good deal of scenery, but McGregor has too little screen time and too little material to work with, unable to create a particularly intimidating or striking villain. With Padmé, Obi-Wan and Owen Lars in the same movie, it’s a mini Attack of the Clones reunion.



            Jane Got a Gun has a round or two in the chamber: the climactic standoff brims with tension and the sombre atmosphere is sometimes effective. It is morbidly fascinating to read about how a straight-forward western got mired in so many production troubles and it is admirable that last-minute replacement director O’Connor was able to salvage it all. However, in the aftermath of this hullabaloo, all Jane Got a Gun has to show for it is mediocrity.

Summary: Dour and slow, Jane Got a Gun fails to make good on its promise of a fun genre piece starring a dynamic female lead.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong