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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Star Trek Beyond

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STAR TREK BEYOND 

Director : Justin Lin
Cast : Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Idris Elba, Sofia Boutella, Shohreh Aghdashloo
Genre : Action/Sci-Fi
Run Time : 123 mins
Opens : 21 July 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

Star Trek Beyond poster          The crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise are marooned in the third instalment of the rebooted Star Trek movie series. It is three years into the Enterprise’s five-year deep space exploration mission, and Captain James T. Kirk (Pine) is beginning to feel fatigued. Kirk, Commander Spock (Quinto), Lieutenant Nyota Uhura (Saldana), medical officer Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Urban), chief engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott (Pegg), helmsman Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu (Cho), navigator Ensign Pavel Chekov (Yelchin) and the rest of the ship’s crew arrive at the Federation’s new Yorktown space station for a well-deserved break. However, they are abruptly called into action again on a rescue mission, and are suddenly besieged by an unknown enemy. The ruthless alien Krall (Elba) is after an artefact held aboard the Enterprise, and stranded on the planet Altimid with no means of escape, the crew must fend for themselves. Luckily, they have the help of a warrior named Jaylah, who has a long-standing vendetta against Krall.

Star Trek Beyond Simon Pegg, Sofia Boutella and Chris Pine

The rebooted Star Trek films, 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness in particular, have proven divisive amongst audiences. Stalwart fans of the originals 60s TV show decry the reboots as being too action-oriented and straying from the spirit of Gene Roddenberry’s sci-fi creation, while general audiences and the majority of critics have lauded the films for revitalising the franchise. Owing to his duties helming the seventh instalment of that other sci-fi juggernaut, J. J. Abrams passes the directorial baton on to Justin Lin of Fast and Furious fame. Screenwriting duo Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who have not exactly been popular amongst fans, are replaced by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung. Star Trek Beyond is very much a straightforward adventure, close enough to the spirit of the original series, while also showcasing the wham-bam action spectacle Lin has become known for.

Star Trek Beyond Zachary Quinto, Sofia Boutella and Karl Urban

Star Trek Beyond does feel a little scaled down from Into Darkness, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s still an epic sweep here: we’re treated to a jaw-dropping establishing shot of the gleaming, futuristic bauble that is the Yorktown space station, accompanied by a stirring, uplifting score from composer Michael Giacchino. The scene in which Kirk pulls off some rad motorcycle stunts did induce its share of eye-rolling when it was glimpsed in the trailer, but it doesn’t feel out of place in the movie itself. The climactic zero-g melee is reasonably inventive too. The destruction of the Enterprise is suitably intense and dramatic, but is marred by an overuse of shaky-cam, which affects most of the close quarters fights in the movie.

Star Trek Beyond Krall vs. Enterprise crew member

The biggest shortcoming here is the central villain Krall. One can’t help but feel that the layers of prosthetic makeup somewhat diminish Elba’s innately towering presence, and as a brutish baddie chasing a MacGuffin that our heroes have in their possession, he’s a somewhat generic action movie villain. Say what you will about the big twist in Into Darkness, but Benedict Cumberbatch’s performances was that film’s centre and was nothing short of electrifying. Yes, there is an element of mystery to Krall, but when his back-story is revealed, it can’t help but come off as underwhelming.

Star Trek Beyond Enterprise crew on the bridge

Fortunately, Star Trek Beyond makes excellent use of its returning characters. The cast for Star Trek ’09 remains one of the finest remake/reboot casts ever assembled, with each actor grasping the essence of those iconic figures without doing a mere impression. The camaraderie and banter amongst the crew continues to feel earnest. Urban’s cantankerous Bones has always been this reviewer’s favourite character in the rebooted films, and here, he gets to steal the show on multiple occasions, with Urban delivering several side-splitting lines. Pine is allotted multiple moments to be the dashing action hero, while Quinto masterfully parses the humour inherent in Spock’s obtuseness and the character’s dedication to the crew.

Star Trek Beyond Anton Yelchin, Chris Pine and John Cho

There has been considerable furore surrounding the decision to establish Sulu as gay in this continuity, with original Sulu actor George Takei himself being one of the biggest opposing voices. In the film, we see Sulu greeted by his husband and their young daughter as he arrives at Yorktown spaceport. It’s a sweet scene and is really no big deal. The passing of Leonard Nimoy, who originally played Spock and appeared in the first two reboot movies as Spock Prime, is handled with admirable sensitivity within the film. The ending credits include dedications to both Nimoy and Anton Yelchin, who recently died in a freak accident. We missed Spock Prime, and will definitely miss Chekov when the fourth film arrives.

Star Trek Beyond Sofia Boutella and Simon Pegg

Jaylah was apparently inspired by Jennifer Lawrence’s character in Winter’s Bone (say the name ‘Jaylah’ out loud). The character’s design is striking and Boutella, best known as Gazelle in Kingsman: The Secret Service, possesses the requisite physicality to play the badass warrior. Unfortunately, the character can’t help but come off as a standard-issue tough, resourceful woman at times – a studio-mandated ‘strong female character’. That said, Jaylah feels like a natural addition to the Star Trek universe and allows Boutella to further exhibit the star quality which served her so well in Kingsman.

Left to right: Zoe Saldana plays Uhura and John Cho plays Sulu in Star Trek Beyond from Paramount Pictures, Skydance, Bad Robot, Sneaky Shark and Perfect Storm Entertainment

Star Trek Beyond is generally entertaining and thrives on the excellent chemistry this particular cast has fostered, but it does tend towards the generic. There aren’t too many surprises in store, but Lin’s valuing of the emotional beats in addition to the action does benefit the tone. It’s also reasonably self-contained, and newcomers unfamiliar with volumes of Trek lore won’t feel left out.

Star Trek Beyond Anton Yelchin and Chris Pine escaping explosion

Summary: Star Trek Beyond strives to reach a compromise between the feel of the original series and the rebooted films, generally succeeding in this regard. A lack of surprises and an uninteresting villain are made up for with entertaining character dynamics and well-executed action.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Finding Dory

For F*** Magazine

FINDING DORY

Director : Andrew Stanton
Cast : Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Hayden Rolence, Ed O’Neill, Kaitlin Olson, Ty Burrell, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Idris Elba, Dominic West
Genre : Animation
Run Time : 1 hr 40 mins
Opens : 16 June 2016
Rating : PG

Pixar beckons us back fathoms below in the sequel to Finding Nemo. In real life, it’s been 13 years since the first film, but our story picks up a year after the events of Finding Nemo. Dory (DeGeneres), the blue tang stricken with acute short-term memory loss, begins to have flashbacks to her childhood, hitherto entirely forgotten. Dory recalls her parents Charlie (Levy) and Jenny (Keaton), and sets out on a quest to track them down. Dory’s friends, the clownfish Marlin (Brooks) and his son Nemo (Rolence), accompany her from the Great Barrier Reef to the Marine Life Institute in California. There, they become acquainted with the cantankerous ‘septopus’ (he’s lost an arm) named Hank (O’Neill); Destiny (Olson), a near-sighted whale shark who was Dory’s childhood friend; Bailey (Burrell), a beluga whale with self-confidence issue, and the sea lions Fluke (Elba) and Rudder (West). While Marlin wants nothing more than to stay home, he has to brave the unexpected yet again so his friend can be reunited with her family.

Over the years, DeGeneres has relentlessly lobbied for a Finding Nemo sequel on her talk show. Not only has she gotten her wish, Dory has been bumped up to the main character. In addition to voice actors DeGeneres and Brooks, director Andrew Stanton has returned. Stanton also co-wrote the screenplay with Victoria Strouse, with Bob Peterson and Stanton receiving a “story by” credit. There was always the danger of this being a mere retread of the first film, now considered a classic of contemporary animation. While it does cover some of the same territory and doesn’t arrive at the same purity of emotion that Finding Nemo did, the sequel is still packed with heart and offers entertainment by the tank-full.

Sequels have a tendency to lose sight of what made the first film work in their pursuit of being “bigger and better”. Finding Dory is actually smaller in scope than the first film, with most of the action taking place within the Marine Life Institute, modelled on the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. As we’ve come to expect from the studio, the animation is awe-inspiring and suffused with life, the environments spilling over with realistic detail. The animators have a lot of fun guiding Dory through the various mini-environments within the Marine Life Institute and the action sequences have a dynamic theme park ride feel about them.

Like its predecessor, it’s still a road movie: our heroes meet weird and wonderful personalities as they journey far from home in search of something, or someone. The story possesses a crucial forward momentum: there’s never a dull moment and the characters get from point A to point B in increasingly inventive ways. Not only is it fast-paced, it’s also frequently funny, with many jokes eliciting guffaws from this reviewer. A well-known actor who has appeared in a Pixar film before gets a riotous vocal cameo.

This reviewer was worried that Dory would be the latest victim of what we call “breakout character-itis”, wherein a supporting character becomes such a hit with audiences that their screen-time is massively increased in the sequel, sometimes to the film’s detriment. Dory’s appeal remains untarnished – much comedy is derived from the character’s ailment, but the film also recognises it as a source of profound tragedy, and this becomes the driving force in the plot. Dory’s back-story is established from the outset, and while it doesn’t quite tug on the heartstrings the way Nemo and Marlin’s bond did in the first one, there will still be no shortage of tears. Keaton and Levy bring understated warmth to the roles of Dory’s long-lost parents.

Marlin and Nemo receive just the right amount of character development: while they’ve both learned from their harrowing adventure, the essence of who they are remains unchanged. The pragmatism and impatience that Brooks brings to his performances ensure that Marlin remains an excellent example of the “comically serious” trope, while Rolence is as ideal a replacement for original Nemo voice actor Alexander Gould as any imaginable. Gould, now 22, has a vocal cameo.

O’Neill can play the curmudgeon in his sleep, and Hank is eminently endearing despite, or perhaps because of, his crankiness. Hank is the focus of many clever visual gags that make playful use of an octopus’ ability to contort itself and change its skin colour with the help of chromatophores to blend seamlessly into the background. Some of the other new characters, while often amusing, are not quite so memorable, and each of them have an obvious hook which seems like something a lesser animated film might fall back on. It’s always great to hear Elba’s distinct baritone, but he was better in Zootopia earlier this year.

Finding Dory isn’t as good as Finding Nemo, but considering the stratospheric watermark that film set, it’s to be expected. This film reunites us with the characters we love, just as we remember them, plunged into zany new scenarios. Pixar knows how to reel an audience in, and there’s so much here to hook on to. The short film preceding the feature, Piper, is an exercise in straightforward storytelling, starring a particularly adorable feathered hero and boasting some of the most sublime computer-generated animation this reviewer has ever seen. Oh, stick around for a post-credits stinger!

Summary: Seek and ye shall find all those Pixar hallmarks: beautiful animation, humour, moving sentiment and family-friendly thrills. It’s not as profound as some of the studio’s other work, but it’s so entertaining that its shortcomings are easy to forgive.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Bastille Day

For F*** Magazine

BASTILLE DAY

Director : James Watkins
Cast : Idris Elba, Richard Madden, Charlotte Le Bon, José Garcia, Eriq Ebouaney, Thierry Godard, Kelly Reilly
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 92 mins
Opens : 21 April 2016
Rating : NC-16 (Some Nudity and Violence)

Two actors often named as prospective James Bonds become unlikely partners in this action thriller. Michael Mason (Madden), an American eking out an existence as a pickpocket in Paris, finds himself implicated in a bomb attack. Zoe Naville (Le Bon), whose boyfriend built the bomb, is tasked with planting the explosives, but has a crisis of conscience. CIA agent Sean Briar (Elba) goes off in pursuit of Michael, a wanted fugitive after he is caught on security footage apparently planting the bomb. French Minister of the Interior Victor Gamieux (Garcia) decrees that the upcoming Bastille Day parade will go ahead as planned, in spite of the heightened threat level. Wanting to tie up loose ends, the terrorist leader Rafi Bertrand (Garcia) targets Michael, Briar and Zoe. In the meantime, Briar’s fellow CIA operative Karen Dacre (Reilly) uncovers a conspiracy within an elite task force of the French police, as societal tensions mount and rioters overrun the streets.

            What really is little more than an adequately diverting spy flick takes on a sobering quality in the wake of the November 2015 Paris terror attacks – production occurred before the tragedy. In this regard, Bastille Day shares similarities with London Has Fallen. Bastille Day is markedly less ridiculous, though there’s still the “Americans save the day” quotient and a huge pile of fairly silly action movie clichés. Our hero is a hard-nosed secret agent whose introductory scene has him being berated by his superiors for being a loose cannon, and the guy he has to team up with is a ne’er-do-well thief whose skills come in handy when the pair are after the bad guys. “Briar, this isn’t Baghdad, it’s Paris,” a CIA official chides. “Red wine, the Louvre, Louis Vuitton.”

            The film’s attempts at being topical are far from subtle, but are not as ham-fisted as in many other recent action films. The ways in which the perpetrators of the attack manipulate the masses into forming angry mobs, including blaming a local mosque and posting calls to arms on social media, seem sufficiently logical. However, one would have to work extra hard to stifle laughter when the terrorist mastermind proclaims to his cronies, in all seriousness, “the hashtags will tip it over.”

            Our two protagonists serve as foils for each other: Briar is prone to reckless violence and is an old-school action hero of the “punch/shoot everything” variety, while Michael’s modus operandi is devilish sleight of hand. It’s easy to buy the physically imposing Elba beating up the bad guys and dishing out a one-liner or two, but Briar is all brute force, and Elba is at his most watchable when he’s exercising his brand of suavity – an opportunity he’s denied in Bastille Day.

Game of Thronesheartthrob Richard Madden plays a guy who’s just in the wrong place at the wrong time – but when you’ve got that pretty a face, who needs luck, right? Madden trained with professional pickpocket/entertainer Keith ‘The Thief’ Charnley, who called the actor “a natural” with “a very light-fingered touch”. Indeed, the sequences where Madden struts his artful dodger stuff end up more exciting than most of the action scenes.

Le Bon looks worried and on the brink of tears through the whole film, as the stock “woman who’s been dragged into some nasty business because she didn’t know any better” character. For what it’s worth, she does have a role to play in the climactic face-off. The villains, led by Godard as Rafi Bertrand, are relatively unremarkable and the twists and turns in their scheme, especially the revelation of their actual motive, are predictable.

The stunts, which include a rooftop foot chase and a bank siege, aren’t anything to shout about – but the production values definitely pass muster. Crowd scenes in low-to-mid-budget action movies can often look phony, but the finale involving a throng of protestors being held back by riot police manages to be convincing. Bastille Day is very much your standard-issue post-Bourne spy action movie, packed with tropes and characters that will be immediately recognisable to genre fans. It scrapes by on Elba’s charisma, even if he doesn’t actively showcase it – and that brisk 92-minute running time certainly doesn’t hurt either.

Summary: Bastille Day is formulaic but watchable, though its depiction of Paris besieged by terrorists will understandably affect those still raw from the recent real-life terror attacks.

RATING: 3out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong
           

            

The Jungle Book

For F*** Magazine

THE JUNGLE BOOK

Director : Jon Favreau
Cast : Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson, Lupita Nyong’o, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 106 mins
Opens : 7 April 2016
Rating : PG (Some Intense Sequences)
Disney recently took us to a vividly-imagined concrete jungle with Zootopia. Now, it’s time for a sojourn to a jungle of a more traditional sort. Mowgli (Sethi) is a human boy, or ‘man-cub’, raised by a pack of wolves led by Raksha (Nyong’o) and Akela (Esposito). The panther Bagheera (Kingsley) brought Mowgli to them when the man cub was but an infant. The powerful, menacing tiger Shere Khan (Elba) is disgusted by the presence of man in the jungle, threatening Raksha and Akela. Mowgli voluntarily leaves his adoptive family, Bagheera guiding him back to a human village. Along the way, he befriends Baloo (Murray) the bear, and encounters less friendly creatures in the form of Kaa (Johansson) the python and King Louie (Walken) the Gigantopithecus. Mowgli must come to terms with his identity as Shere Khan stops at nothing in his bloodthirsty hunt for the man-cub.

            The Jungle Bookis a remake of the classic 1967 animated film, which in turn was an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s collected stories. For those worried that this is yet another pointless grim and gritty remake, rest assured that The Jungle Book is plenty of fun. There are also stakes and a good deal of peril, but these are necessary ingredients in any riveting adventure. This might seem an odd thing to say, considering the countless times Kipling’s stories have been adapted, but there’s a certain freshness about this take on The Jungle Book. Justin Marks’ screenplay is focused and coherent, incorporating just the right amount of Kipling-isms. Director Jon Favreau manages to deliver just the right dose of nostalgia for those who hold the cartoon movie near and dear, while also delivering breath-taking scale and pulse-pounding action sequences that are awe-inspiring in 3D.

            Not only are the animals fully computer-generated, the backgrounds are as well. This is an excellent example of new ground in filmmaking technology being broken not merely for the sake of it, but in service of a good story. The visual effects were primarily created by the Moving Picture Company and Weta Digital, with Avatar’s Robert Legato serving as one of the visual effects supervisors. Favreau made the choice to have the animal characters created via key frame animation instead of relying on performance capture, in an effort to avoid the highly undesirable “uncanny valley” effect. The animal acting on display here rivals that seen in Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. There’s life and nuance; the characters becoming far more than a mere assemblage of soulless voxels. You’d think talking animals in a realistic setting might pull the viewer out of it, but The Jungle Bookdraws one in, and the viewer soon forgets that all of this was built in a computer.

            A great deal rests on newcomer Sethi’s slight shoulders; the child actor picked from over 2000 hopefuls in an “exhaustive worldwide search”. Quite a lot is demanded from Sethi, who is the sole human being onscreen for the bulk of the film. Jim Henson’s Creature Shop built life-sized animatronic animal puppets for Sethi to react to in order to aid his performance, so he wasn’t exactly “acting against nothing”, but that’s not to take away from the how challenging the role is. There are some spots where this reviewer found Sethi lacklustre, overshadowed by the dazzling imagery around him, but all things considered, it’s a commendable performance.

            The star-studded voice ensemble Favreau has gathered may seem gimmicky, until one realises how perfect each actor is for their respective characters. Kingsley brings dignity and warmth to the watchful Bagheera, while Murray’s lackadaisical charm and casual friendliness ensures Baloo is as loveable as ever. It’s very easy to believe that Elba’s baritone would emanate from a fearsome tiger and his impactful turn as Shere Khan is terrifying yet restrained, making for a worthy villain.

Nyong’o is a luminous presence onscreen, and just her voice has almost the same effect. Raksha’s bond with Mowgli provides some of the film’s most heartfelt moments; her kindness standing in contrast with Esposito’s sternness as Akela. Johansson gets just one scene, but she puts that husky femme fatale timbre to fantastic use. This film’s realisation of Kaa’s hypnotic gaze is also delightfully effective. King Louie is characterised like a mob kingpin; Walken supremely entertaining yet also subtly sinister as the orangutan-like Gigantopithecus. There’s also a great in-joke: right before meeting King Louie, Mowgli picks up a cowbell; a sly reference to Walken’s famous “needs more cowbell” sketch on Saturday Night Live.

Any number of things could have gone horribly wrong with this version of The Jungle Book: the tone could’ve been too grave, the animals could’ve looked silly, the references to the cartoon could’ve been clumsy, the cast could’ve comprised big-name stars who weren’t great voice actors, this list goes on. Favreau has managed to avoid a large number of pitfalls and we’re sure many audiences will be extremely pleased that the iconic songs “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wan’na Be Like You” weren’t excised; the latter featuring revised lyrics by Richard M. Sherman. This Jungle doesn’t merely rumble, it rocks.



Summary: The Jungle Book is visually enthralling, thrilling, funny and meticulously crafted, quality family entertainment in almost every respect.

RATING: 4.5out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Zootopia

For F*** Magazine

ZOOTOPIA

Director : Byron Howard, Rich Moore
Cast : Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, J.K. Simmons, Jenny Slate, J.K. Simmons, Octavia Spencer, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake, Alan Tudyk
Genre : Animation
Run Time : 109 mins
Opens : 25 February 2016
Rating : PG

Cat Stevens told us “baby, baby it’s a wild world”, and the makers of this animated film have taken this to heart. In a world populated entirely by a variety of anthropomorphic mammals, Judy Hopps (Goodwin) is a principled, spirited young rabbit from Bunnyburrow. She has her heart set on becoming a police officer, even though her parents (Hunt and Lake) would prefer her to become a carrot farmer like them. Hopps gets inducted into the Zootopia Police Department, but Chief Bogo (Elba) has little faith in her abilities. While on the case of a missing otter, Judy crosses paths with Nick Wilde (Bateman), a red fox con artist. They have to overcome their natural animosity to work together in solving a spate of mysterious disappearances, as societal tensions between “prey” and “predators” bubble over.


            Zootopia’s marketing campaign seemed to indicate a film that might be too cutesy for some audiences’ tastes, appearing like it would serve up an endless parade of anthropomorphic animals performing adorable, amusing antics. To this reviewer’s surprise, Zootopia ends up far deeper than it initially appears, gamely and sensitively tackling the themes of prejudice and tolerance in the context of an animated family film. Directors Howard, Moore and Bush tread very fragile ground and ensure that Zootopia doesn’t come off as preachy or painfully on-the-nose in delivering its message to impressionable kids. At the same time, there’s plenty of wit and visual invention on display and the liveliness of the presentation helps ease the audience into the surprisingly mature allegory at the heart of the film.



            Walt Disney Animation’s entirely computer-animated films got off to a rocky start with Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons, the studio still firmly stuck in Pixar’s looming shadow. With the likes of Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen and Big Hero 6, suffice it to say that things have improved. The army of animators involved in breathing life into Zootopia have done a marvellous job, with impeccable fur textures and environmental effects in every frame. The characters are expressive, with just the right blend of human and animal traits combined to sell the anthropomorphism. There is a thoroughness to the way the world has been conceived, with a distinct animism to the architecture and plenty of clever visual gags emphasizing how animals of drastically different scales and sizes co-exist in the same milieu. With the pop culture allusions that include winks at The Godfather and Breaking Bad for the parents in tow, there’s a degree of Dreamworks-ness at work here, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

            This is essentially a buddy cop movie, of the “one’s a cop and one’s not a cop” subset. It sticks very closely to established tropes: our hero is a kind-hearted but tough straight arrow, her foil is a charming rogue lacking in scruples, the police chief is unconvinced that the rookie has what it takes, colourful characters including organised crime elements show up and there’s a mystery to unravel. Even though Zootopia is comprised of familiar story components, the setting does lend it a freshness.



            Goodwin, who has a connection to Disney in the form of starring as Snow White in the TV show Once Upon a Time, gives Judy an eagerness that never crosses over into being annoying. She’s literally wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. Bateman is a dab hand at the smooth talker shtick, but there’s more to Nick than his conman façade and Bateman and Goodwin deliver some moving emotional beats. Elba’s unmistakable baritone is always a joy to listen to, and this year, we’ll also get to hear his voice work in The Jungle Book and Finding Dory.

Veteran voice actor Maurice LaMarche turns in a side-splitting Marlon Brando impression as Mr. Big, the arctic shrew mafia don. This reviewer was worried that Shakira’s presence as the pop star Gazelle would be too gimmicky, but the character is used judiciously and her main appearance is in a musical number during the end credits. Some big laughs come courtesy of Raymond S. Persi, who voices the sloth Flash. Kristen Bell has a vocal cameo as Flash’s colleague Priscilla, a fun inside joke seeing as Bell is famously, endearingly obsessed with sloths.



            There’s certainly more than meets the eye with Zootopia. While it’s perfectly enjoyable on the level of an animated adventure comedy with the jokes flying at a steady pace, it also eloquently and thoughtfully comments upon issues of race and diversity, without feeling like it’s merely hopping on some kind of social justice bandwagon. The self-aware comedy sometimes veers into Shrek territory, but pop culture references only account for a portion of the humour. While not on the same level as last year’s Inside Out, Zootopia does a commendable job of packaging challenging themes for younger audiences without being condescending or tripping up over itself.

Summary: Entertaining, funny, visually engaging and thought-provoking, Zootopia is so much more than silly talking animals.

RATING: 4out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong


The Gunman

For F*** Magazine

THE GUNMAN

Director : Pierre Morel
Cast : Sean Penn, Jasmine Trinca, Javier Bardem, Idris Elba, Peter Franzén, Ray Winstone, Mark Rylance
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 105 mins
Opens : 9 April 2015
Rating : NC-16 (Violence and Scene of Intimacy)
Middle-aged, grimacing, gun-toting heroes seem to be in vogue. Sean Penn probably looked at Liam Neeson’s recent output and went “hey, I can do that.” In this action thriller, Penn plays Jim Terrier, a former private military contractor hired by a mining corporation to assassinate the minister of mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo circa 2006. Also a part of the team were Felix (Bardem) and Cox (Rylance). Eight years later, Terrier believes he has escaped his former life, working for a non-government organization in the Congo, when his past comes calling, reopening old wounds. With the help of his old friend Stan (Winstone), Terrier tracks down his former partners to get to the bottom of things, trekking from the Congo to London to Barcelona to Gibraltar. In the meantime, he has caught the attention of Interpol agent Barnes (Elba). Caught in the crossfire is Annie (Trinca), Terrier’s ex-girlfriend whom he has never quite managed to forget.

            From beginning to end, The Gunman just feels like a wholly cynical exercise. First, there’s the matter of its name – the film is based on Jean-Patrick Manchette’s novel The Prone Gunman and that is a cooler, more distinctive title. We know we’re not supposed to let our personal attitudes towards actors’ off-screen personas colour our critique but here, it’s impossible not to think the only reason Sean Penn did this is because he smugly thought it was just that easy. This is Penn’s first action movie, and we can just picture him looking at Taken and saying “pfft, I can do that in my sleep”. He’s even hired the director of the first Taken film, Pierre Morel, to helm this project. Penn sports bulging biceps and looks to be in fighting fit shape, but somehow, he can’t quite pull it off, his physique coming off more like an ill-fitting suit than anything else. It appears that this particular archetype is a mite trickier to convincingly execute than Penn first thought – even for an Oscar-winner like himself.

            There is nothing special to the action here at all. With the bog-standard shootouts, fisticuffs and explosions, it’s a snooze for anyone who’s seen more than a couple of action flicks in their lifetime. The climactic confrontation takes place in a bull-fighting ring, which seems like a great setting for a unique set-piece, but the finale is still quite anticlimactic. It’s also difficult to take this self-styled gritty, contemplative action movie seriously thanks to the half-baked, sometimes hilarious dialogue. The screenplay, credited to Don MacPherson, Pete Travis and Penn himself, contains some jaw-dropping clunkers. For example, Idris Elba, who can usually make anything sound awesome, is given an unwieldy speech which begins with the line “ever have one of those days where every law is Murphy’s Law?” This then segues into an incredibly clumsy treehouse analogy, and ends with Elba quipping “get my drift, cowboy?”

            Likely thanks to its status as a vanity project, what looks on the surface like a top-shelf supporting cast plays second fiddle to Penn – big time. Elba gets the shortest shrift, his talents woefully underused here. Javier Bardem also isn’t in this for as much as the trailers imply, squeezing in a hammy performance before his time onscreen is up. Ray Winstone plays the same character he always does – the street-smart, wizened Brit tough guy, except here he’s “trustworthy ally” rather than “scary gangster’. Penn had apparently wanted to work with Mark Rylance so much he moved the shooting schedule around to accommodate him. The acclaimed stage and screen actor, who’ll next be seen in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, does have fun with the limited material he’s given to work with. Jasmine Trinca’s Annie is a female lead of the most stereotypical sort – she works for an NGO, as antihero mercenaries’ girlfriends often do, and knows nothing about her ex-boyfriends dangerous past, needing to be rescued at every turn.

            The Gunman is neither entertainingly explosive enough to pass as escapist spectacle nor is it sufficiently cerebral and intense to be a dramatic action thriller. Our lead character could’ve been played by anyone really, but ironically enough, Penn with all his plaudits just can’t carry this action movie.

Summary: Sean Penn makes for an awkward action hero and the film wastes its supporting cast, The Gunman shooting mostly blanks.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong