The Dark Tower

For F*** Magazine

THE DARK TOWER 

Director : Nikolaj Arcel
Cast : Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Claudia Kim, Franz Kranz, Abbey Lee Kershaw, Jackie Earle Haley, Katheryn Winnick, Dennis Haysbert
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 1h 35m
Opens : 3 August 2017
Rating : PG13 (Violence)

After ten years in various stages of development, Stephen King’s Dark Tower series finally arrives on the big screen. At the centre of the universe stands the titular structure, protecting various realms from entities that seek to tear the universe apart. On Mid-World, the evil sorcerer Walter Padick/The Man in Black (McConaughey), has been conducting experiments on gifted children, attempting to use their minds to bring down the tower. The Man in Black’s nemesis is Roland Deschain/The Gunslinger (Elba), the last living descendant of his world’s version of King Arthur. On earth, teenager Jake Chambers (Taylor) has been plagued with nightmares in which he sees Walter and Roland. Locating an abandoned house he sees in his dream, Jake steps through a portal and into Mid-World, accompanying Roland on his quest to defeat Walter and prevent the collapse of the universe.

King’s series of eight books, with allusions to it scattered throughout his other works, has many devoted fans. This reviewer, being completely unfamiliar with the series, is not one of them. It must have been a challenge to adapt the series, which spans the genres of science-fantasy, western and horror, hence the succession of filmmakers who came and went. The approach with this is that it isn’t a straight adaptation, folding in elements from several books while also acting as kind of a sequel to them – we don’t fully understand the mechanics of that.

The resulting film is a serviceable fantasy adventure, but can’t help but feel underwhelming given the breadth of the source material. Director Nikolaj Arcel goes about the set-up with workmanlike efficiency, and the story isn’t difficult to follow at all. There’s just the nagging feeling that everything’s been condensed into its simplest form, and that the richness of the world that King has woven together is being sacrificed for something easier to digest. Visually, The Dark Tower isn’t too exciting, but the action sequences, especially Roland’s various reload tricks, are quite fun.

Actors including Viggo Mortensen, Javier Bardem and Russell Crowe have all been connected to the Roland Deschain role at some point. Elba is a fine choice for the part, cutting a heroic figure and possessing the stoic poise necessary to sell the character. There’s a strength and a grace to the way Elba moves, and he does have a larger-than-life quality to him. He just doesn’t have very much to do here, and even though Roland’s storied past is hinted at, the character feels a little flat.

The relationship between Roland and Jake is apparently key to the books, but it doesn’t get too much development here. It makes sense that Jake, as the audience identification character, is given more emphasis, but it detracts from the inherently interesting Gunslinger and Man in Black characters. Taylor, a relative newcomer, does his best as the troubled character and is generally sympathetic throughout the film. Jake winds up being an extreme example of the ‘chosen one’ trope, and the handling of the character nudges The Dark Tower into Young Adult fiction territory. He must overcome tragedy, has fantastical abilities he must hone, and stumbles into an adventure in a magical world. While this approach is too generic, it gets the job done.

McConaughey has as much fun as he can with the role of the mercurial, wicked Man in Black. There’s a seductiveness to his brand of menace, and McConaughey practices enough restraint so that he does not chew the mostly drab scenery to pieces. When McConaughey and Elba are pitted against each other, the sparks don’t fly as fiercely and as wildly as one hopes they would. Just as with this iteration of Roland Deschain however, the Man in Black doesn’t feel as substantial a character as he should.

There will be a TV series planned to bridge this film and its sequel, which Arcel has promised will be more faithful to the books than this film is. The Dark Tower is meant to launch a ‘Connected KINGdom’ cinematic universe uniting all of Stephen King’s works, with Easter Eggs from It, The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption, Cujo, Christine and others hidden in the film. Given all this, The Dark Tower feels sufficiently self-contained, and doesn’t come off as merely a long trailer for what’s to follow.

The Dark Tower is intermittently thrilling, sometimes entertaining, and runs a lean 95 minutes. It doesn’t have the feel of a sprawling epic, but that isn’t entirely a bad thing, since the audience isn’t overwhelmed with exposition-dumps and massive amounts of lore to process. However, it makes more of a dent than an impact, and isn’t especially memorable given the potential in its premise and the extent to which King has developed his universe. We’re far from the most qualified to judge how this stacks up against the source material, but we have a feeling that those who’ve been waiting a decade for a Dark Tower movie to materialise might feel indifferent if not disappointed.

Summary: The Dark Tower has charismatic leads and doesn’t twaddle in setting up its plot, but it comes off as generic and slight when it should be an absorbing epic.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

For F*** Magazine

KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD 

Director : Guy Ritchie
Cast : Charlie Hunnam, Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey, Djimon Hounsou Jude Law, Aidan Gillen, Eric Bana, Mikael Persbrandt, Lorraine Bruce, Hermione Corfield, Annabelle Wallis
Genre : Action/Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 2h 6min
Opens : 18 May 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence and Brief Coarse Language)

Mythical monarch King Arthur rears his head in not one, but two big-budget summer movies this year. Before Transformers: The Last Knight, we get this origin story. Orphan Arthur (Hunnam) has led a hardscrabble existence on the cobblestone streets of Londinium, unaware of his royal heritage. Arthur’s father, King Uther Pendragon (Bana), was deposed by Uther’s brother Vortigern (Law), who has become a power-mad sorcerer. Only Uther or his direct progeny can pull the sword Excalibur from the stone. When Arthur accomplishes this feat, he becomes the target of Vortigern’s fury. Arthur is assisted in his quest to defeat Vortigern by his friend Wetstick (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Uther’s loyal advisor Sir Bedivere (Hounsou), skilled archer Goosefat Bill (Gillen) and a mysterious woman who wields control over animals through magic, known only as the Mage (Bergès-Frisbey). Arthur must achieve mastery of Excalibur, as he and his allies fight to reclaim the throne that is rightfully his.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is the first in a planned series of six films. Legend of the Sword morphed continuously throughout its development: David Dobkin was originally set to direct a King Arthur film starring Kit Harington in the title role and Joel Kinnaman as Lancelot. Then, Colin Farrell was attached to the Arthur part, with Gary Oldman cast as Merlin. Under Guy Ritchie, it’s become Snatch meets Lord of the Rings. There have been countless big screen permutations of the Arthur legend, and this version smacks of a desperation to put a new spin – any new spin – on a public domain tale with name recognition. Legend of the Sword wants to be a superhero movie, a street level crime film, and a Game of Thrones-style epic of palace intrigue and high fantasy. Alas, it ends up being all those things and none at the same time; Ritchie struggling but failing to meld these disparate elements into a cohesive whole.

As with any legend so old and so widespread, there is no one true version of the King Arthur story. As evidenced by the floating fireballs and myriad outsized CGI animals, this isn’t intended to be “historical” in any sense. The screenplay by Ritchie and Lionel Wigram, rewritten from a draft by Joby Harold, attempts to distil several elements from various versions of the myth, but they wind up convoluting things in the process. Narrative gymnastics make the Sword in the Stone the same sword as Excalibur, when in earlier tellings, they were separate swords. As expected from Ritchie, there is a combination of flash and grit. James Herbert’s editing often makes this difficult to follow. Not only is it jittery and arrhythmic, but there are multiple sequences that cut between Arthur and co. discussing a plan, then enacting said plan – or maybe it’s a hypothetical scenario of how the plan will unfold. It’s supposed to make things interesting, but renders them confusing instead.

Hunnam is a fine leading man, and got into spectacular shape for the film, packing on the muscle. Hunnam wanted the role so much that he declared to Ritchie that he would physically fight Henry Cavill and Jai Courtney, who were also being considered, for the part. For all Hunnam’s effort, Arthur is borderline boring. It’s a standard hero’s journey, rejecting the quest, accepting the quest story. He’s Oliver Twist 13-14 centuries early (there’s a pickpocketing montage) who grows up to shoulder the burden of destiny. Despite Ritchie’s stylistic trappings, Arthur emerges as a standard, serviceable hero – nothing more than that.

Before Law dons Dumbledore’s robes, he plays a far less benevolent wizard. Vortigern is characterised as a mafioso, usurping power and stabbing those close to him in the back – often literally. He slouches in his throne, disrespectful of the seat of power. There’s little nuance to the part, and while Vortigern is appropriately treacherous, he’s never truly scary.

Arthur’s associates in this film are proto-Knights of the Roundtable – Bedivere served King Uther, while Wetstick grew up on the streets of Londinium alongside Arthur. There’s an attempt to make this an eclectic bunch – we don’t know of another Arthurian movie featuring a Chinese martial artist named George (Tom Wu), who trains young Arthur in combat. While there’s the veneer of personality, the supporting characters are insufficiently defined. Gillen is fun to watch, owing more to his own flair as a performer than to the writing.

Bergès-Frisbey’s character is apparently Guinevere, though she’s only called ‘the Mage’ in the film. As the female lead, one would expect Bergès-Frisbey to get more to do, beyond issuing ominous warnings and standing offscreen as digital critters do her bidding. Speaking of the digital critters, the menagerie of elephants, snakes, eagles, wolves, bats and other beasts aren’t nearly as awesome (or as believable) as the Rabbit of Caerbannog from a certain other Arthurian movie.

Bana is in precious little of the film, and his appearance made us wonder what a King Arthur movie starring him would be like (probably better). Thankfully, the David Beckham cameo isn’t nearly as goofy as we feared.

While the Welsh and Scottish shooting locations are breath-taking, Legend of the Sword feels like a spectacle movie that is markedly unspectacular. For better and worse, but mostly worse, it is unmistakably a Guy Ritchie film. Ritchie’s sensibilities fail to coalesce with the mystique and grandeur he wants this film to possess. Perhaps with the origin story out of the way, the sequel will be more entertaining – but hoping for six of these is just giddy optimism.

Summary: Legend of the Sword is a flashy but somewhat incoherent remix of Arthurian myth that is caught in limbo between street-level grit and full-on fantasy.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Power Rangers

For F*** Magazine

POWER RANGERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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

Kong: Skull Island

For F*** Magazine

KONG: SKULL ISLAND 

Director : Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Cast : Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, Toby Kebbell, Corey Hawkins, Jing Tian, John Ortiz, Jason Mitchell, Shea Wigham, Terry Notary
Genre : Action/Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 1h 58min
Opens : 9 March 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence and Coarse Language)

12 years after Peter Jackson’s King Kong, the classic movie monster lumbers back onto the big screen. It is 1973, and Bill Randa (Goodman), a senior official of the secret government organisation Monarch, is in search of monsters. He plans an expedition to an uncharted land mass nicknamed as ‘Skull Island’. Randa hires James Conrad (Hiddleston), a former SAS Captain who served in the Vietnam War, as a hunter-tracker. U.S. Army Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Jackson) is a helicopter squadron leader, and is brought on to escort the expedition. The team also comprises war photojournalist Mason Weaver (Larson), geologist Houston Brooks (Hawkins), biologist San Lin (Jing), Landsat official Victor Nieves (Ortiz) and Maj. Jack Chapman (Kebbell), Packard’s right-hand man. When explosives are detonated as part of the survey, an enormous ape called Kong (Notary/Kebbell) is provoked. The survivors of Kong’s initial attack come across Hank Marlow (Reilly), a pilot who has been stranded on Skull Island since World War II. The expedition soon learns that Kong is far from the only beast to call the island home, embarking on a survival odyssey.

Kong: Skull Island exists in the ‘MonsterVerse’, a planned cinematic universe which includes 2014’s Godzilla. This is a B-movie with A-list stars and a big budget, mostly living up to the potential to be a thrilling adventure yarn and a throwback to the creature features of yore. This is the first large-scale tentpole blockbuster for director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who directed Kings of Summer and Nick Offerman: American Ham. He acquits himself well, delivering top grade escapism. Taking place in the waning days of the Vietnam War, the film makes great use of its period setting, taking inspiration from works like Apocalypse Now. There’s a healthy amount of humour and while Kong: Skull Island doesn’t take itself too seriously, it’s a nail-biter when it needs to be. This is the kind of film that would be enhanced by the audience reacting, with jump scares and unexpected deaths sure to elicit gasps and shrieks.

Kong: Skull Island is not a strikingly original work – fantasy artist Joe DeVito, who co-wrote and illustrated the book King Kong of Skull Island, sued Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures for allegedly stealing his ideas, having had a pitch meeting with the studios. While there are familiar elements to Kong: Skull Island, there’s still plenty of imagination at work. The native Iwi people have distinctive tattoos and markings, and the creature designs are effective and awe-inspiring. In designing the Skullcrawlers, Kong’s Reptilian nemeses, Vogt-Roberts drew on the pit lizard from the 1933 King Kong film, Sachiel from Evangelion, No-Face from Spirited Away and Cubone from Pokémon.

The titular creature is performed via motion capture by Terry Notary and Toby Kebbell from the Planet of the Apes reboot films, and great effort is taken to establish the sheer enormousness of this reimagined Kong, scaled larger so he can one day take on Godzilla. Larry Fong’s cinematography captures the blend of natural beauty and extraordinary danger contained within Skull Island, with location filming in northern Vietnam, Hawaii and Australia’s Gold Coast selling the island as an actual, tangible place.

For all his charms, Hiddleston doesn’t exactly fit the archetype of a rugged, square-jawed action hero. Looking for all the world like he’s cosplaying Nathan Drake from the Uncharted video games, he does seem a little out of his element but is trying his best to sell it. The character’s name, “Conrad”, is a reference to Joseph Conrad, the novelist best known for Heart of Darkness. By the time he dons a gas mask to slash at flying Pterodactylus creatures with a katana amidst a swirl of noxious fumes, we were sold.

Jackson is playing the badass as usual, but there are layers to the Preston Packard character that make him stand out from the typical Samuel L. Jackson role. He’s disillusioned as the Vietnam War ends, and hunting down Kong to avenge his men gives him new purpose. It’s the ‘great white hunter’ archetype, and Jackson has compared his character to Captain Ahab from Moby-Dick.

Goodman is an ever-dependable presence, with Reilly providing comic relief and surprising pathos as a castaway who has spent nearly three decades stuck on Skull Island. Larson’s anti-war photographer helps to mitigate all that testosterone to a degree. While Kong doesn’t get a doomed romance like in almost every earlier incarnation, it’s referenced by having him share a moment or two with Mason.

Most of the supporting characters exist purely to be picked off one by one by the island’s denizens. Jing Tian sticks out, her casting an obvious bid to pander to Mainland Chinese audiences – which is something we’re only going to be seeing more of. After all, Legendary Pictures is now owned by China’s Dalian Wanda group.

Kong: Skull Island kicks off with an intriguing prologue, hits a bit of a lull when all the characters are being established and the mission is being set up, then hits its stride once the expedition arrives on the island. With beautiful scenery, solid visual effects spectacle and thrilling set-pieces in which various characters meet their untimely and inventive ends, Kong: Skull Island makes us wish big-budget monster movies were a little more common. Stick around for a post-credit scene which teases the future of the MonsterVerse.

Summary: Kong: Skull Island is a monster movie that doesn’t skimp on the monsters, a rousing adventure bolstered by its period setting and stellar cast.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Assassin’s Creed

For F*** Magazine

ASSASSIN’S CREED 

Director : Justin Kurzel
Cast : Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Ariane Labed, Denis Ménochet, Michael K. Williams, Charlotte Rampling, Brendan Gleeson
Genre : Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 1h 56min
Opens : 22 December 2016
Rating : PG13 (Violence and Brief Coarse Language)

assassins-creed-posterNobody expects the Spanish Inquisition – least of all Callum Lynch (Fassbender), a death row inmate who is spirited away to the late 15th Century. It’s not time travel per se, but regression via ‘genetic memories’. Callum is the descendant of Aguilar de Nerha, a warrior who belonged to the secret society known as the Assassins. The Assassins have long been at war with the Templars. Alan Rikkin (Irons), the CEO of Abstergo Industries, is a Templar. Callum lives out the experiences of Aguilar using a machine called the Animus, developed by Alan and his daughter Sophia (Cotillard). Alan endeavours to discover the whereabouts of an artefact known as the Apple of Eden, which is said to contain the origins of free will. Callum must come to grips with his destiny as he finds himself caught in the conflict between the Assassins and the Templars, a conflict that is about to reach its tipping point.

assassins-creed-michael-fassbender-1

It’s no secret that films based on video games have long had a bad rap, and many had hoped that Assassin’s Creed would mark a watershed moment, proving that good movies based on video games could actually exist. After all, promising director Justin Kurzel was picked to direct, with Michael Fassbender starring and co-producing. Alas, a video game movie that can be universally considered ‘good’ remains elusive. Assassin’s Creed has the task of appealing to fans of the game franchise, while remaining easy enough for neophytes to get into. The decision to create an original story that would not be a direct adaptation of any of the games in the series seemed like a wise one. While this should have freed Kurzel and the film’s creative team from the burden of condensing a sprawling plot into one film, the end result is infuriatingly muddled.

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The suspension of one’s disbelief is key to buying into the premise of Assassin’s Creed. A sinister corporation seeking out the descendants of a sect of assassins and tapping into their genetic memories for their own ends sounds silly on paper, but could be worked into something compelling. The screenplay is credited to Michael Lesslie, who adapted Shakespeare’s Macbeth for Kurzel; and the team of Adam Cooper and Bill Collage, who wrote The Transporter: Refueled and Exodus: Gods and Kings. Assassin’s Creed is an inchoate work, a mish-mash of history, sci-fi and philosophy that refuses to gel into a workable whole.

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The Apple of Eden is as ludicrous a MacGuffin as they come. In the games, the mystical orbs are the creations of the godlike Isu, and have granted incredible power to figures from Moses to George Washington. In the film, the Apple contains, uh the cure to violence? Or something. It’s one of many ways in which Assassin’s Creed is stubbornly hokey.

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The scenes set during the Spanish Inquisition are the best bits of the film. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw treats us to sweeping establishing shots, the environments are rich with period detail and the action choreography is slick. It is difficult to get into the ‘flashbacks’ because we’re constantly jerked back to the present day and reminded that it’s all a simulation (even though ‘simulation’ is not an entirely accurate description). The big parkour chase set piece is executed well, making us wish there was more of that and less wading through an exposition swamp. The Spanish Inquisition has been codified as an example of oppression through religion. As expected, it’s not depicted with much nuance; the Catholics portrayed here as moustache-twirling villains. The violence is as brutal as a PG-13 rating will allow, and it’s clear that a movie about assassins shouldn’t have to pull this many punches.

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Fassbender has leading man charisma to spare and is a believable action hero, which is why it’s so frustrating that Callum Lynch is kind of a nothing protagonist. He has a tragic past, has been dealt a bad hand in life and becomes a pawn in a far-reaching conspiracy. Those are fine ingredients for a hero, but something’s missing here. Perhaps it’s in how the film gets bogged down in the mechanics of the plot, instead of letting the characters carry the story forward.

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Cotillard delivers her poorly-written dialogue with admirable conviction, while Irons stands around and looks solemn. Aguilar’s fellow Assassin Maria (Labed) could’ve been the character to steal the show, but she’s just required to look cool. It’s difficult to get invested in the relationship between Aguilar and Maria, or in the relationships between any of the characters, for that matter. Moussa (Williams) a descendant of the Haitian Assassin Baptiste, emerges as the character with the most personality.

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Kurzel’s brother Jed composed the film’s score, as he’s done for most of the director’s films. It’s tinged with world music flair, and like the rest of the atmospherics, is fine. While there’s something of a silver lining to be found in a filmmaker treating a video game-based film as seriously as Kurzel has here, Assassin’s Creed is po-faced to a detrimental extent. Dull and convoluted rather than spirited and entertaining, this is a let-down for anyone who was hoping it would herald the success for video game movies that comic book movies have been enjoying lately.

SUMMARY: Assassins are deft and swift; this movie is clumsy and plodding. The sequences set in the thick of the Spanish Inquisition are the closest Assassin’s Creed gets to actually being entertaining.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

For F*** Magazine

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM 

Director : David Yates
Cast : Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Ron Perlman, Jon Voight
Genre : Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 2h 13min
Opens : 17 November 2016
Rating : PG (Some Disturbing Scenes)

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-posterHow exciting can a film based on a textbook be? If the textbook’s about all manner of magical creatures, pretty exciting. It is 1926 and magizoologist Newt Scamander (Redmayne), future author of the textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, arrives in New York. When several animals escape from his briefcase, Newt runs afoul of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), headed by President Seraphina Picquery (Ejogo). MACUSA’s director of security Percival Graves (Farrell) is tasked with capturing Newt. Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Waterston), a former MACUSA agent, aids Newt in tracking the creatures down. Jacob Kowalski (Fogler), a non-magic user or No-Maj, is inadvertently drawn into the fray, and falls for Tina’s telepathic sister Queenie (Sudol).

In the meantime, anti-wizard sentiment in the U.S. is mounting, with the New Salem Preservation Society (NSPS) gaining ground. The hate group is led by Mary Lou Barebone (Morton), whose adopted son Credence (Miller) bears the brunt of her abuse. Mary Lou petitions newspaper magnate Henry Shaw Sr. (Voight) for his support of the NSPS. Henry’s son Henry Shaw Jr. (Josh Cowdery), a U.S. senator, is attacked at a rally by an Obscurus, a sinister parasitic entity. As the wizarding is under threat from all sides, Newt and his newfound allies must restore order to a city flung into mayhem.

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This spin-off of the Harry Potter franchise is intended to expand the film series into a cinematic universe known as the Wizarding World. While we’ve all grown wary of cash-grab franchise extensions, there’s no rule that says they must be devoid of artistic merit. Director David Yates and screenwriter J.K. Rowling are no strangers to the Potterverse – he directed the last four instalments in the series and, well, she created the whole thing. It is a savvy move to make Fantastic Beasts a period piece, giving it a markedly different setting from the Potter films with which we’re familiar. Instead of being a direct prequel, it’s mostly removed from the narrative of the boy wizard and his family history, meaning this serves as an ideal jumping-on point for neophytes and younger viewers who didn’t grow up with the Potter books or films.

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The world-building on display in Fantastic Beasts is meticulous, benefitting from Rowling’s detail-oriented tendencies. Newt experiences some culture shock, and there are little touches which demonstrate how the Brits and Americans do things different. For example, non-magic users are called ‘Muggles’ in the U.K., but are referred to as “No-Majs” across the pond. The 20s New York setting, just before the onset of the Great Depression, is well-realised and immersive. There’s a scene set in a wizard speakeasy and an action set-piece set in the Central Park zoo. We watched the film in IMAX 3D, and the stereoscopic effects are satisfyingly plentiful. James Newton Howard’s score envelops the viewer, and there’s some playful jazz weaved in.

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The titular beasts are plenty of fun, and spectacle isn’t in short supply here. The Niffler, part-badger, part-pangolin and all kleptomaniac, is an adorable mischief-maker. The rhinoceros-esque Erumpent sets the stage for an inspired moment of physical comedy, and Newt has his own Baby Groot in the form of a shy plant-like creature called the Bowtruckle. Newt’s struggles in wrangling the creatures are entertaining, and many of his interactions with the animals are endearing. The visual effects, supervised by Tim Burke and Christian Manz, are extensive and generally impressive. However, this reviewer would like to have seen more practical animatronic creatures mixed in with the computer-generated ones. While Yates does a fine job, we couldn’t help imagining what a director like Guillermo del Toro would’ve created.

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Rowling alludes to the classic film Citizen Kane with Voight’s newspaper owner character and his senator son. Unfortunately, this subplot is under-developed and doesn’t sit cohesively enough with the main plot of Newt’s adventures. The NSPS, with its cult-like nature and cruel matron, is clearly Rowling’s reaction to the religious groups who called for boycotts of the Potter books and films because of their supposedly Satanic content. Newt mentions how he finds the MACUSA’s laws against marrying or even befriending No-Majs to be retrograde. While we appreciate the social commentary and the attempts to give this whimsical fantasy some real-world grounding, it’s not particularly subtle.

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Redmayne is a wonderful fit for this franchise. He seems most at home in period films, and it’s easy to buy him as a tweedy, earnest academic. Redmayne also proves adept at acting against things that aren’t there. As a markedly different type of female lead than Emma Watson’s Hermione Granger, Waterston turns in an appealing, low-key performance. Sudol gets to ham it up a little as the coquettish flapper. Fogler has been a low-rent Jack Black or Seth Rogen for much of his career, but this reviewer enjoyed him as the comic relief sidekick/audience-identification character.

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While the Harry Potter franchise boasts an abundance of colourful supporting characters, those in Fantastic Beasts don’t quite measure up. Farrell’s Graves is the Inspector Javert-type, not unlike his character in Minority Report. There’s a bit of a spin put on things, but perhaps it should’ve been played with more panache. Miller’s Credence is meant to be at once sympathetic and creepy, which he does fine. Ejogo’s Picquery is the equivalent of a police chief on a procedural show, and Voight is woefully underused.

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Fantastic Beasts has enough to offer fans who span the spectrum from “this is kinda interesting” to “legally changed my name to ‘Severus Snape’”. While its story isn’t spectacularly riveting and its social commentary is on the nose, it features likeable lead characters and entertaining spectacle. At 133 minutes though, it is about 15 minutes too long and lapses into multiple endings. It has been announced that there will be five films in the series, but thankfully, this Fantastic Beasts doesn’t do an obnoxious amount of sequel-baiting. Keep an eye out for a certain A-lister as a certain key player in Potter lore.

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Summary: This new chapter in the Wizarding World caters to devotees and newcomers alike, even if the setting is more interesting than the story itself.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Fallen

For F*** Magazine

FALLEN 

Director : Scott Hicks
Cast : Addison Timlin, Jeremy Irvine, Harrison Gilbertson, Joely Richardson, Lola Kirke, Sianoa Smit-McPhee, Daisy Head, Hermione Corfield, Malachi Kirby
Genre : Drama/Fantasy
Run Time : 1h 31min
Opens : 10 November 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language)

fallen-posterBefore sexy vampires were as a big a thing as they became, sexy angels were all the rage. The likes of City of Angels, Meet Joe Black and A Life Less Ordinary played into the fascination with someone who could quite literally sweep a girl off her feet. Sexy angels haven’t completely flown away – look at Supernatural’s Castiel. And of course, there are romantic fantasy novels in which the protagonists have the hots for the heavenly host. The Young Adult book Fallen, by Lauren Kate, is one such novel.

Lucinda “Luce” Price (Timlin) is enrolled in the Sword and Cross academy, a boarding school for troubled teenagers. Luce has been seeing disturbing, unexplainable visions, and is trying to escape a traumatic event in her recent past. While she’s treated with hostility by schoolmate Molly (Smit-McPhee), Luce befriends Pennyweather “Penn” Van-Syckle Lockwood (Kirke). Two of the boys in the school immediately catch Luce’s attention: there’s Daniel Grigori (Irvine), who keeps to himself and seems oddly familiar; and there’s Cameron “Cam” Briel (Gilbertson), the rebel without a cause. Sophia Bliss (Richardson), one of the teachers at Sword and Cross, seem to know more than she’s letting on. It’s not long before Luce discovers she’s entangled in an eons-old struggle between three otherworldly factions: the angels who sided with God, those who followed Lucifer into hell, and the undecided angels cursed to walk the earth, dubbed “the Fallen”.

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When it’s not being quite dull, Fallen is delightfully hilarious. This is a film that is one clever editing job and a character who makes metafictional jokes away from being a full-tilt parody of YA fantasy romance. It’s quite baffling that director Scott Hicks didn’t realise how unintentionally funny this all is – or maybe he did, and is hoping the teenage girl demographic just won’t notice. The love triangle in a prep school setting is cheesy enough, but on top of that, we have pseudo-theological gobbledygook slathered on thick. Not only does the film begin with a voiceover prologue explaining the three factions of angels, there’s an expository lecture that covers the same ground.

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The production values aren’t too shabby, with the 19th Century Schossberger Castle in Tura, Hungary playing the part of the Sword and Cross academy. Hungary provides not only the tax breaks, but also the old-world European sensibilities that make Fallen seem grander than it has any right to be. Alar Kivilo’s cinematography is often quite beautiful, though Fallen is guilty of believing that “blurry equals romantic”. Angels must have wings, and the CGI used to create said appendages is quite terrible. While the design team is obviously aiming for a different aesthetic than the traditional tactile, birdlike feathers, it just ends up looking like the production didn’t have the budget for proper wings.

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The acting in Fallen isn’t terrible, it’s just that the movie seems to be littered with clearly labelled boxes, with each character climbing into their allotted box and just never leaving it. The archetypes and the purpose they serve in the plot are so obvious that the turning gears of the narrative are made very noticeable. We have our chosen one protagonist who has a dark and troubled past ™, the slightly boring handsome guy, the dangerous bad boy, the garrulous, chipper geeky best friend, the edgy girl with the torn nylon stockings and dyed bob, and the shifty authority figure who’s hiding something. All present and accounted for. And yes, all the actors playing high school-aged kids look a smidgen too old, but that’s something we’re already used to.

We’ve gone this far without making this comparison, so here goes: Fallen is sub-Twilight, which is saying something. Luce is pretty much Bella Swan, but Timlin is considerably less annoying than Kristen Stewart was in the Twilight films. We’ve got two guys fighting over who’s better suited to protect the girl and stalker-ish tendencies from all three parties. Kirke is pretty tolerable as the designated muggle, and while most YA movies have at least three somewhat respectable actors as the adult supporting characters, we have to make do with one Joely Richardson. One can’t help but think of Richardson’s role in Vampire Academy, which for its tonal issues, had its tongue planted firmly in cheek.

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By the time the Hawkman and Hawkgirl-style millennia-spanning romance is laid out in full, it’s clear that Fallen’s reach exceeds its grasp, in the most laughable way possible. The on-the-nose symbolism – why yes, “Luce” is derived from “Lucifer” – is the cherry on top. This is deeply silly stuff that’s clearly well past its sell-by date. An adaptation of Torment (yes, it’s actually called that), the second book in the series, is apparently in development, which seems awfully optimistic.

Summary: If you roll your eyes when you hear the term “YA paranormal romance”, this is the very thing you’re thinking of.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The 9th Life of Louis Drax

For F*** Magazine

THE 9th LIFE OF LOUIS DRAX 

Director : Alexandre Aja
Cast : Jamie Dornan, Sarah Gadon, Aiden Longworth, Oliver Platt, Molly Parker, Aaron Paul, Julian Wadham, Barbara Hershey
Genre : Thriller
Run Time : 1 hr 48 mins
Opens : 22 September 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Disturbing Scenes)

the-9th-life-of-louis-drax-posterDirector Alexandre Aja takes us past the plane of consciousness in this supernatural mystery thriller. Louis Drax (Longworth) is a peculiar, disturbed and highly accident-prone boy who is rescued after a fall from a cliff on his 9th birthday. Louis remains comatose, and Dr. Allan Pascal (Dornan), a paediatric coma specialist, is brought on to see if Louis can be revived. Louis was with his mother Natalie (Gadon) and his father Peter (Paul) at a picnic atop a cliff. The police try to ascertain whether it was an accident or Louis was deliberately pushed, with suspicion falling on Peter, who has vanished after the incident. Dr. Pascal contacts Dr. Perez (Platt), a psychiatrist who was treating Louis, to gain insight into the way Louis’ mind works. In the meantime, temptation rears its head, as Natalie and the married Dr. Pascal find themselves drawn to each other. Trapped ins an otherworldly realm, Louis befriends a mysterious entity known only as ‘the sea monster’, attempting to reach back out to our world.

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The 9th Life of Louis Drax is adapted from the 2004 novel of the same name by Liz Jensen. Director Aja is part of the ‘splat pack’, and is known for gory, shocking horror films like Haute Tension and the remake of The Hills Have Eyes. The 9th Life of Louis Drax has elements of horror, but can’t quite be classified as that. In fact, it can’t quite be classified as much else – “supernatural mystery thriller” is as close as we got. This film is at once a whodunit, a relationship soap opera, a philosophical musing on the nature of the subconscious, a fantasy adventure and a noir mystery. Somewhere in there, a barnacle-encrusted creature reminiscent of the DC character Swamp Thing stalks about. Screenwriter Max Minghella appears to struggle with stitching these disparate components into a concinnate whole. The tone is difficult to place: it’s sometimes quirky, sometimes cynical, and sometimes sentimental.

‘Weird’ doesn’t have to be a pejorative – we can think of many films that are enjoyable by dint of their weirdness. The quality of being strange and surreal can be compelling and pull the audience in, but it can also be alienating and hold the audience at bay. Much of The 9th Life of Louis Drax falls into the latter category. There’s a mannered archness to the film, with nearly all of the acting coming off as exceptionally stiff. It’s one of those movies that makes us wonder, “how much of a bad performance is the actor’s fault, and how much is the director’s?” The dialogue is clunky and peppered with unsubtle lines like “men always act like fools around pretty girls”. Aja makes several stylistic choices that help the film become more engaging than it would be otherwise, but they aren’t sufficiently inventive. Perhaps it’s just bad luck that the Netflix series Stranger Things, which features similar motifs including a creature who lurks about a parallel plane, was recently released.

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Another factor that kept this reviewer from getting fully involved in the story was that the main characters are all difficult to sympathise with. Louis is supposed to be more than the textbook troubled kid. He’s precocious and confrontational, exhibiting sinister proclivities. Longworth is unable to parse the ambiguity of the character, and as such Louis generally comes across as a budding serial killer instead of a brilliant but mal-adjusted child who needs guidance and bespoke care. There are several sequences in which Louis narrates the film, and while we understand the storytelling reasons behind perspective shifts, these seem twee and out of place.

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The smouldering, not especially charismatic Dornan plays Dr. Pascal as if he were a sexy doctor in Grey’s Anatomy. It’s extremely difficult to buy Dornan’s Pascal as an expert in his field, and all of the ‘forbidden romance’ intrigue feels terribly mundane when juxtaposed against the supernatural and psychological aspects of the story. And yes, he’s still audibly wrestling to suppress his Irish brogue.

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Gadon may not be an A-lister yet, but she has more or less established a niche for herself as a modern Hitchcock Blonde. She plays this to the hilt here: is Natalie a misunderstood and loving mother who is the victim of her husband’s abuse, or is she a malicious black widow who knows more than she’s letting on? The character isn’t quite one-dimensional, but is still very much a caricature. Natalie never feels like an actual person, which is another hindrance in The 9th Life of Louis Drax being genuinely absorbing.

Paul has comparatively little screen time, since much of the mystery is revolves around the true nature of Peter Drax. He’s an inherently likeable actor but he’s also adept and playing roles with a dark side, which serves him well here. Platt might be the best thing about The 9th Life of Louis Drax. We’ve been conditioned to be wary of psychiatrists and psychologists in suspense thrillers, but Platt manages to be a calm, comforting presence. Despite being treated with hostility by his patient Louis, Dr. Perez remains invested in his mental well-being.

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In an interview with ScreenwritingU magazine, Minghella explained that he deliberately set the film “in the heightened reality of movies…where the characters are all somewhat archetypal so then we can process these wild and abstract ideas more comfortably.” This makes sense, but there’s also the danger of the audience being painfully aware that they are watching a movie and thus being unable to dive into the story headfirst. With so many moving parts, this reviewer was distracted by the turning gears and thus couldn’t get lost in the mystery itself.

Summary: The 9th Life of Louis Drax is an interesting type of bad. Fascinating ideas and potentially moving moments are done a disservice by the stilted approach; its weirdness off-putting rather than beguiling.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The BFG

For F*** Magazine

THE BFG

Director : Steven Spielberg
Cast : Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Bill Hader, Rafe Spall, Rebecca Hall
Genre : Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 1 hr 57 mins
Opens : 18 August 2016
Rating : PG

The BFG posterDuring the 90s, Wall Street securities analyst Joe Tinker stated “there are only two brand names in the business: Disney and Spielberg.” Now, these two juggernaut childhood-shapers have joined forces with The BFG. Sophie (Barnhill) is a young orphan who is spirited away to Giant Country by the Big Friendly Giant, or BFG (Rylance). The BFG catches and distributes dreams to the children of London in the dead of night. Sophie is initially fearful of the BFG, but is soon convinced that he is benign. The other giants who call Giant Country home however, are not. The man-eating giants, led by the towering Fleshlumpeater (Clement) and his sidekick Bloodbottler (Hader), bully the BFG and suspect that he might be harbouring a tasty “human bean”. Sophie decides to set up an audience for the BFG with none other than Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II (Wilton), so the other nasty giants can be dealt with once and for all.

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The BFG is adapted from Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book of the same name. Steven Spielberg was once strongly associated with heart-warming escapist tales, but over the last two decades or so has turned most of his attention to prestige pictures like Lincoln and Bridge of Spies – though there’s still the occasional The Adventures of Tintin or Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The BFG re-teams Spielberg with the late screenwriter Melissa Mathison, who penned E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial; the film is dedicated to her memory. The BFG has plenty of charm, but lacks a narrative impetus, and is thus difficult to get into. Not every movie has to feature life-and-death stakes, but surely Spielberg of all people knows that a little peril can go a long way. For most of the film, Sophie is pretty much just hanging out with the BFG, and even when she’s threatened by the supposedly fearsome giants, the sense of danger just doesn’t take hold.

The BFG Mark Rylance Buckingham Palace breakfast

 

The BFG is very agreeable family entertainment, and in keeping in the “sweetness tinged with rudeness” spirit of Dahl’s writing, features what is likely the first-ever fart joke in a Spielberg movie. The performance capture work and the visual effects that integrate Sophie with the computer-generated giants are of excellent quality. Visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, whose credits include the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, Avatar, and Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, is a four-time Oscar winner, after all. There is, however, a noticeable trade-off: the giants, the villainous ones in particular, can sometimes come off as cartoony, because making them too realistic would result in falling headlong into the dreaded uncanny valley. As it stands, some audience members might find the BFG creepy rather than endearing, but this reviewer isn’t among them.

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Rylance, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his turn in Bridge of Spies, seems to have become Spielberg’s new favourite person: he’s already secured roles in the director’s next two films, Ready Player One and The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. The design of the BFG himself retains the defining features as drawn by Dahl’s regular illustrator Quentin Blake, and the performance capture approach allows for all of Rylance’s subtle expressions to shine through. The malapropisms and neologisms that pepper the BFG’s speech, as delivered by Rylance, give the character a folksy charm. He’s the absent-minded but well-meaning doddering grandfather, having taken on a larger-than-life form. The BFG also has a surprisingly tragic backstory that isn’t in the book, and as a tool for character development, it does work.

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Barnhill makes for a spirited Sophie, with a dash of another Dahl protagonist, Matilda, evident in this incarnation. The interaction between Sophie and the BFG is wonderfully acted by both performers, and Barnhill’s turn is all the more impressive when one remembers there wasn’t actually a giant there for her to act against. In some ways, its reminiscent of Neel Sethi’s Mowgli from The Jungle Book earlier this year. Barnhill certainly deserves a place in the pantheon of memorable child actors from Spielberg films.

The BFG evil giants

 

While a semblance of Rylance’s features is evident in the BFG’s digitally animated face, Fleshlumpeater, Bloodbottler and the other markedly less friendly giants do not resemble their respective voice/performance capture actors, meaning that less of the performers’ personality comes through. Wilton moves from Downton Abbey to Buckingham Palace, and her portrayal of the Queen is amusing and affectionate without becoming too much of a caricature. As the Queen’s butler Tibbs, Rafe Spall is on fine comic form. Rebecca Hall, Spall’s co-star from the Wide Sargasso Sea TV movie, is the picture of class as the Queen’s maid Mary.

The BFG Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Penelope Wilton and Ruby Barnhill

The scenes in which the BFG carefully crafts the dreams could be seen as a metaphor for filmmaking, and Spielberg is a consummate crafter of dreams. It’s pretty to look at and composer John Williams is in full Harry Potter mode here – unfortunately, the music is pleasant but nowhere as memorable. Alas, The BFG is far from his most magical work, and we’re not sure that the typical kid’s attention span would be able to withstand its unhurried pace.

Summary: The BFG features delightful performances from its two leads, but the lack of narrative drive means it’s only intermittently engaging.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong