Atomic Blonde

For F*** Magazine

ATOMIC BLONDE 

Director : David Leitch
Cast : Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Toby Jones, Sofia Boutella, Eddie Marsan, James Faulkner
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 55m
Opens : 27 July 2017
Rating : R21 (Some Homosexual Content)

Charlize Theron goes from traversing the arid, scorching desert of Mad Max: Fury Road to sauntering into the coldest city in this action thriller. It is 1989, days before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and MI6 agent James Gascoine (Sam Hargrave) is killed by a KGB operative in West Berlin. Gascoine’s colleague and former lover Lorraine Broughton (Theron), one of MI6’s deadliest operatives, is sent behind the Iron Curtain to recover sensitive information stolen from Gascoine. Lorraine must work alongside MI6’s Berlin station chief David Percival (McAvoy), who is often drunk and unreliable. Lorraine’s mission is to track down a mark known only as ‘Spyglass’ (Marsan). She gets entangled with French spy Delphine Lasalle (Boutella), and Lorraine’s actions frustrate her superiors Eric Gray (Jones) of MI6 and Emmet Kurzfeld (Goodman) of CIA. Caught in a geopolitical firestorm and pitted against the most treacherous of enemies, Lorraine must retrieve the documents at all costs.

Atomic Blonde is based on the graphic novel The Coldest City, written by Antony Johnston and illustrated by Sam Hart. Directing the film is David Leitch, who co-directed John Wick with Chad Stahelski and who is also helming the upcoming Deadpool 2. Leitch employs a great deal of stylisation, crafting a brutal, sexy ‘neon-noir’. However, unlike John Wick, Atomic Blonde doesn’t lean into its heightened absurdity as much, and takes itself a little too seriously.

As with any espionage thriller, the plot is a web of double-crosses, shifting alliances and twisty reveals. Atomic Blonde hints at the fraught geopolitical climate of the time, but is far from substantive. While Atomic Blonde succeeds as a mood piece, it is too coolly detached for audiences to get involved in the story. With its title cards rendered as spray-painted graffiti text and its action set to songs by Queen, David Bowie, Depeche Mode and Kanye West, Atomic Blonde is sometimes too enamoured with its coolness for its own good.

Coming from a stunt performer/coordinator background and having co-founded the stunt collective 87Eleven Action Design, Leitch knows a thing or two about action sequences. Atomic Blonde showcases several elaborate, wince-inducing combat sequences, and doesn’t skimp on the blood splatter when people get shot in the head. It is inevitable that this gets compared to John Wick – we’ve already done that earlier in this review. As masterfully as the stunts are executed, the balletic gunfights in John Wick were more dazzling, and that film’s juxtaposition of elegance and brutality more beguiling, than the action on show in Atomic Blonde.

Theron is an outspoken feminist, and Atomic Blonde has been characterised as a feminist action movie. The screenplay is written by Kurt Johnstad, who has penned such “manly men” flicks as 300 and Act of Valour, and the film’s female characters are very much sexualised. However, Theron owns the character’s sexuality, and while it can be argued that moments like a lesbian sex scene are exploitative, she displays such conviction that it doesn’t feel sleazy. This is a role that’s right in Theron’s wheelhouse – Lorraine is slinky, lethal and unafraid to get her hands very dirty. We get very little in the way of back-story or meaningful character motivations, but Lorraine is intended to be an enigma and Theron relishes the cloak and dagger machinations her character enacts.

As is expected of McAvoy when he gets to play characters a little on the wild side, he puts in an entertaining turn. David plays second fiddle to Lorraine, and McAvoy has no qualms letting Theron take the spotlight. The openly hostile dynamic between the two ostensible allies contains glimmers of fun, but McAvoy and Theron don’t get to play off each other as much as this reviewer hoped.

Boutella’s Delphine is very much the traditional Bond girl: she’s in her over depth, and is seduced and taken advantage of by the hero(ine). It can be argued that the much buzzed-about lesbian sex scene between Lorraine and Delphine is gratuitous, but Theron has argued that it’s an example of women owning their sexuality in a mainstream film, something we don’t see a lot of. In the meantime, Goodman and Jones show up mostly to facilitate the framing device of Lorraine being debriefed/interrogated in the aftermath of her Berlin mission. Unlike Theron and Boutella, they do not have a sex scene together.

As a platform for Charlize Theron to strut her action heroine stuff, Atomic Blonde works well. However, its convoluted spy vs. spy narrative is at odds with its stylishness and devil-may-care vibe. Atomic Blonde gets bogged down with considerable amounts of plot to get through in between the action while not possessing much depth, but Theron’s virtuosic badassery make it worthwhile.

Summary: While not as compulsively entertaining as it could’ve been, Atomic Blonde packs in plenty of style and showcases Charlize Theron in full action heroine mode.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Transformers: The Last Knight

For F*** Magazine

TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT 

Director : Michael Bay
Cast : Mark Wahlberg, Josh Duhamel, Laura Haddock, Anthony Hopkins, Stanley Tucci, Isabela Moner, Laura Haddock, Jerrod Carmichael, Liam Garrigan, Glenn Morshower. And the voices of: Peter Cullen, Frank Welker, Gemma Chan, John Goodman, John DiMaggio, Ken Watanabe, Omar Sy, Jim Carter
Genre : Action/Sci-Fi
Run Time : 2h 29min
Opens : 22 June 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

It might be hard to believe, but it’s been a whole decade since the first live-action Transformers movie clanged its way into theatres. In this fifth go-round, the Transformers have been declared enemy combatants and are hunted by the Transformers Reaction Force (TRF). Cade Yeager (Wahlberg) is a wanted fugitive for aiding and abetting the Autobots, including Bumblebee. He rescues young orphan Izabella (Moner) from a firefight, and in the process, is gifted a talisman by an alien knight whose ship crash-lands on earth. Cade is summoned by Sir Edmund Burton (Hopkins), the guardian of a sect sworn to protect the Transformers’ secret history on earth. It turns out that the wizard Merlin (Tucci) was bequeathed a magical staff by alien robots; the mythical object long vanished. Cybertronian sorceress Quintessa (Chan) sends Optimus Prime (Cullen) in search of the staff, turning him against his long-time allies. With the help of Oxford literature and history professor Viviane Wembly (Haddock) and reluctant TRF soldier William Lennox (Duhamel), Cade and Burton must unravel an ancient conspiracy to prevent the destruction of earth.

No other franchise in recent memory has been more critic-proof than the Transformers films. This summer alone, we’ve witnessed King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and The Mummy feebly attempt to kickstart would-be franchises, while this juggernaut based on Hasbro action figures trundles along. The Transformers movies have long been easy targets for critics, and this entry is particularly frustrating for us. The Last Knight does what this reviewer has always wanted from this series: it explores the alternate history built around the Transformers’ secret presence on earth – though it’s hard to imagine how giant alien robots can stay secret for too long. However, this ends up being expectedly ludicrous, with plot contrivances that beggar belief scattered throughout the film. It turns out that there is a Da Vinci Code-esque secret society entrusted with guarding said history, its members including William Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci, the Wright Brothers, Harriet Tubman, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. How giant alien robots traipsing around are kept secret is anybody’s guess.

This film strikes us as a spectacular waste of resources – with its $260 million budget, it’s the most expensive Transformers movie yet. In a way, every big blockbuster is, but some are better at justifying that waste than others. The Last Knight unfolds on a spectacular scale, and like Age of Extinction, its story spans continents and millennia. The visual effects supervised by Scott Farrar are extensive and commendable, and the action set pieces are marginally easier to follow than in previous instalments. However, there are only so many ways one can depict giant robots punching each other, and there are only so many variations on a car chase. While rival car-based franchise Fast and Furious has been continuously inventive, the action in Transformers is concussive and numbing. There’s so much going on that it’s easy to tune out instead of staying focused on the mayhem onscreen.

We held out hope that this might be an improvement because screenwriter Ehren Kruger has been jettisoned, replaced by Iron Man and Punisher: War Zone scribes Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, and Black Hawk Down writer Ken Nolan. Alas, narrative coherence is in short supply and director Michael Bay’s oppressively juvenile sense of humour smothers anything resembling wit.

There’s a scene in which Megatron (Welker) negotiates the release of his Decepticon compatriots with lawyers seated at folding tables in the middle of the desert. We also find General Morshower poring over battle plans in the Pentagon basement, declaring “this is where I deal with the dark s***”. And yes, there are racial stereotypes aplenty – Bay is endlessly amused at those stuffy Brits, Hot Rod (Sy) has a thick French accent, gold chain-wearing Decepticon Nitro Zeus (DiMaggio) paraphrases Martin Luther King Jr. while being released from prison, and Decepticon Mohawk (Reno Wilson) is characterised as a violent street thug. Any accusations that critics are “reading into things” are rendered moot by Bay’s insouciant rejection of subtlety in any form.

Wahlberg may be a better fit as the franchise’s leading man than Shia LaBeouf was, but even then, Wahlberg’s getting annoying. It’s a relief, then, that this is supposedly his last Transformers film. By making the female lead an Oxford professor, the film goes down the predictable route of having Cade and Viviane bicker endlessly while being set up as a couple. Haddock is by far the best actress to have played the female lead in this series, but that’s a low bar. She’s also the least overtly sexualised and has the most agency of all the female leads in the series – but that’s also a low bar, seeing as Viviane struts around in tight dresses and stilettos for the first half of the film.

With Izabella and her sidekick, transforming Vespa Sqweeks, Bay appears to steer the film back to the “a kid and their X” roots, as embodied by Sam Witwicky’s friendship with Bumblebee in the first movie. This feels like an afterthought, and Izabella is one of several characters who feel like hangers-on.

After starring in HBO’s Westworld, Sir Anthony Hopkins hangs out with far bigger robots here. He looks to be having a grand old time, playing the eccentric earl with a twinkle in his eye. A lot of his dialogue is incredibly stupid, but it helps that it’s being uttered by Hopkins. Burton is given a sidekick in the form of an idiosyncratic robot butler named Cogman (Carter), who is frequently annoying and is pretty much a more annoying version of Rogue One’s K2-SO.

Duhamel, Morshower, Turturro and others return from the earlier movies, begging the question of why LaBeouf isn’t in this, at least for a little. Not that we want to see him in this at all, but given that Sam is Bumblebee’s best friend, it stands to reason that Bumblebee should seek him out over the course of this film.

To its credit, The Last Knight does feel shorter than its 150-minute runtime, and features a novel submarine chase that’s different enough from the standard action sequences we’ve seen from this franchise. It’s fine for blockbusters to be silly, but when nothing less than the end of the world is at hand, The Last Knight should be more impactful and less superfluous than it is.

Summary: Bombastic and bloated, The Last Knight’s convoluted mythos and tedious action is enlivened by the joyous presence of Sir Anthony Hopkins. Audiences with the fortitude to surrender to its thunderous stupidity might get a modicum of enjoyment out of this.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Once Upon a Time in Venice

For F*** Magazine

ONCE UPON A TIME IN VENICE 

Director : Mark Cullen, Robb Cullen
Cast : Bruce Willis, Thomas Middleditch, Jason Momoa, John Goodman, Famke Janssen, Adam Goldberg, Stephanie Sigman, Jessica Gomes
Genre : Action/Comedy
Run Time : 1h 34min
Opens : 15 June 2017
Rating : M18 (Sexual Scenes And Nudity)

           In this action comedy, Bruce Willis is a dick. A private dick. Willis plays Steve Ford, a disgraced former LAPD officer who has set up shop as a detective. Steve’s domain is the Venice Beach area of Los Angeles, and with the help of his beleaguered assistant John (Middleditch), Steve helps track down missing persons. The house of Steve’s sister (Janssen) is burgled, with Buddy, Steve’s beloved Parson Russell Terrier, among the stolen items. The culprit, a drug lord named Spyder (Momoa), holds Buddy hostage, demanding that Steve run several errands for him before he can have his dog back. With the help of John and surf shop proprietor Dave (Goodman), Steve must retrieve Buddy by any means possible.

Willis has been absolutely slumming it in direct-to-DVD action movies, continuing that streak with Once Upon a Time in Venice. The movie is written and directed by brothers Mark and Robb Cullen, who wrote the Willis-starring Cop Out. It’s painful to watch Once Upon a Time in Venice strain so hard to be even remotely funny. This is listless, incoherent stuff which feels like it was rejected from a network TV comedy. The best set-piece, which involves Steve skate-boarding buck naked, takes place early in the movie, with nothing approaching that level of zaniness for the rest of its duration.

The premise and the posters try to sell this as a John Wick spoof, and Once Upon a Time in Venice would have been much better had it actually been an all-out parody of John Wick. There are also shades of the far more energetic and innovative Keanu, in which a hitman’s missing cat was the linchpin of the plot. Even with swearing, nudity and violence, Once Upon a Time in Venice fails to generate even a scintilla of excitement.

The cast that the Cullen Brothers has at their disposal is not too shabby. Willis is a shadow of his former A-lister self but his declining clout notwithstanding, he still was John McClane. One would think any filmmaker would be smart enough to play up that persona in an action comedy. Silicon Valley star Middleditch can play neurotic without being unbearably annoying, but in this movie, he’s saddled with dreadfully unfunny lines. The voiceover he performs is grating.

The dependable, talented John Goodman is completely wasted, and this movie makes poor use of Jason Momoa as well. He spends most of Once Upon a Time in Venice lounging around, participating in very few action scenes. Janssen shows up for a couple of scenes, and swimsuit model Jessica Gomes is only in this movie so she can go topless. She has a sex scene with Willis, who is 30 years her senior, which is as awkward as it sounds. Adam Goldberg plays a character named “Lou the Jew”, in one of several uncomfortable moments in which mild anti-Semitism is played for laughs. Kal Penn plays a store clerk in one scene, veteran character actor Christopher Macdonald shows up in a throwaway part, and for no discernible reason, there’s a David Arquette cameo.

At once a terrible comedy and a terrible action flick, Once Upon a Time in Venice is excruciating to watch. It’s uninspired, often tasteless and awash in wasted potential. A silly, devil-may-care action comedy spoof of John Wick could have been, if nothing more, diverting entertainment. Once Upon a Time in Venice isn’t even in the same area code as entertainment.

Summary: A dismal demonstration of how low erstwhile movie star Bruce Willis has sunk, Once Upon a Time in Venice will test the tolerance of even the most hardened direct-to-DVD action movie connoisseur.

RATING: 1.5 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

Patriots Day

For F*** Magazine

PATRIOTS DAY 

Director : Peter Berg
Cast : Mark Wahlberg, Kevin Bacon, John Goodman, J.K. Simmons, Michelle Monaghan, Alex Wolff, Themo Melikidze, Michael Beach, Jimmy O. Yang, Melissa Benoist, Rachel Brosnahan, Christopher O’Shea
Genre : Drama/Historical/Thriller
Run Time : 2 h 13 min
Opens : 12 January 2017
Rating : M18

patriots-day-posterFollowing Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon, director Peter Berg and star Mark Wahlberg have re-teamed for a third film based on a recent tragedy. Patriots Day centres on the bombing of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. Boston Police Department Sergeant Tommy Saunders (Wahlberg) is on duty at the finish line when the bombs go off. As the city is stricken by shock and grief, Saunders joins the effort to hunt down the perpetrators, brothers Dzhokhar (Wolff) and Tamerlan (Melikidze) Tsarnaev. Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis (Goodman) and FBI Special Agent Rick DesLauriers (Bacon) coordinate the manhunt. Dzhokhar and Tamerlan steal a car from Dun Meng (Yang), the brothers eventually engaging in a fierce firefight with Watertown Police Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (Simmons) and his men in a quiet Watertown neighbourhood.

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It’s a question that gets asked any time a film based on actual tragic events, particularly recent ones, is made: is this exploitative? There isn’t a clear answer to that question where a film like Patriots Day is concerned, since so many factors must be considered. Some who have lived through the Boston Marathon bombing have condemned the film as opportunistic and insensitive, while others have voluntarily taken part in its production in the hopes that the stories of the heroism and perseverance in the wake of the attack are told. Patriots Day concludes with tributes to the three civillians who were killed in the blast, in addition to interviews with survivors and law enforcement personnel. While it is respectful in that regard, one could argue that nobody really needs to see maimed victims lying in the streets, complete with close-ups on gory makeup effects.

One aspect of the story that’s noticeably omitted is the death of Sunil Tripathi, a student at Brown University who was misidentified as a suspect in the bombing and was hounded by online vigilantes. His death was ruled a suicide. While it’s likely that this is because there’s enough going on in the film as it is, it can be interpreted as a reluctance to confront challenging issues like racial profiling.

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Patriots Day works best as a procedural, detailing the detective work that went into tracking down those responsible for the terrorist attack. In a warehouse, crime scene analysts reconstruct a mock-up of Boylston Street, where the bombs went off, determining which security cameras might have caught a glimpse of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan. The firefight between the brothers and Watertown police is an intense, impactful action sequence that is visceral and unnerving. Berg avoids the gloss of blockbuster action thrillers while keeping things tense and propulsive. When Patriots Day goes the docu-drama route, it feels like a big-budget version of the re-enactments one would see in a National Geographic program. The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is not one of their most remarkable, but the droning electronica does an adequate job of signalling impending dread.

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The character of Tommy Saunders is a fictional one, a composite of Boston police officers who functions to string the events in a linear fashion. He’s there when the bombs go off, he’s there at the gas station after the Tsarnaev brothers escape, he’s there at the firefight, and he’s there when Dzhokhar is captured after hiding in a boat. Unfortunately, it couldn’t be more obvious that Saunders is a plot device, albeit one that’s justified. Wahlberg makes a valiant effort, but comes up short, especially when he’s sharing the screen with actors like Bacon, Goodman and Simmons. When Saunders objects to the way DesLauriers is running things, it comes off as petulant rather than impassioned. For most of the film, Wahlberg wears this expression which is someone between a look of surprise, and the face you make seconds before you sneeze.

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As with most procedurals, it is the characters’ function more than who they are which matters, which is just an exigency of films of this type. While the afore-mentioned trio of Bacon, Goodman and Simmons (a show about the three of them heading up a law firm would be insanely entertaining) don’t get to show the range they’re capable of, they’re all convincing and steadfast.

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Both Wolff and Melikdze refrain from going over the top as the Tsarnaev brothers, with Wolff being the right shade of annoying in the moments when Dzhokhar displays expected teenager traits. As Tamerlan’s wife Katharine, Melissa Benoist, TV’s Supergirl, displays her dramatic chops in an intense interrogation scene opposite Khandi Alexander. Alas, the female characters in general get overlooked, with Michelle Monaghan having close to nothing to do as Saunders’ wife. The closest Patriots Day gets to outright sentimentality are the scenes with newlyweds Patrick Downes (O’Shea) and Jessica Kensky (Brosnahan). Their story is as romantic as it is inspiring and moving, but the attempts at ‘aww shucks’ couples banter border on grating.

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For this reviewer, it was Jimmy O. Yang’s turn as Dun Meng that was the revelation. O. Yang is known to fans of Silicon Valley as Jian Yang, in which he displays impressive comedic chops. In Patriots Day, the scenes in which the Chinese app-developer is at the mercy of the Tsarnaev brothers turn out to the most harrowing and suspenseful in the film.

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Patriots Day is riveting, compelling and moving, but it’s difficult to shake the notion that even if it wasn’t made for the sole purpose of profiting off tragedy, it’s still profiting off tragedy. Then again, any studio film is made primarily to turn a profit, so at the risk of sliding down a slippery slope, we’ll end our review here.

Summary: Patriots Day is solidly constructed and resonant, but making its main hero a fictional character for expedience of storytelling is just one of several ways in which it is possibly distasteful.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

10 Cloverfield Lane

For F*** Magazine

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE

Director : Dan Trachtenberg
Cast : Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher Jr.
Genre : Sci-Fi/Thriller
Run Time : 103 mins
Opens : 7 April 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

In an age where secrets are pretty hard to keep, 10 Cloverfield Lane snuck right under the radar. Industry watchers didn’t think too much of the indie mystery thriller called “The Cellar” starring Winstead and Goodman, but once the connection to the 2008 found footage monster movie Cloverfield was revealed, everyone’s attention was grabbed. Winstead plays Michelle, a woman who is caught in a car accident and awakes trapped in the bunker of a stranger called Howard (Goodman). Howard claims that the outside world has been thoroughly contaminated in the wake of an unknown catastrophe, and that the occupants of the bunker are the only ones left alive. The third person in the shelter is Emmett (Gallagher), another survivor of the attack. Michelle is understandably suspicious of Howard, and she has to determine whether he’s captor or saviour as she tries to put the pieces together.
The original Cloverfield is one of the biggest victims of “director displacement” ever – Matt Reeves helmed the film, but it is most strongly linked with co-writer and producer J.J. Abrams, who also returns to produce 10 Cloverfield Lane under his Bad Robot production company. The Bad Robot offices contain Abrams’ extensive collection of Twilight Zone memorabilia, the classic television series being Abrams’ favourite show and an enduring influence on the filmmaker. 10 Cloverfield Lane does play like a Twilight Zone episode, with a corker of a mystery unfolding in claustrophobic confines, the protagonist plonked into the middle of a situation that appears to make no sense. The influence of Orson Welles’ iconic War of the Worlds radio broadcast is also felt.
The film marks the feature directorial debut of Dan Trachtenberg, who garnered attention for his fan film Portal: No Escape, based on the popular video games from Valve. 10 Cloverfield Lane has its origins in a spec script written by Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken, and originally had no ties to Cloverfield. When the script was picked up by Bad Robot, Abrams brought on Damien Chazelle to rewrite the script as a “spiritual sequel” to Cloverfield and to direct; he dropped out of directing after his film Whiplash was given the go-ahead. Of all the directions the much-demanded follow-up to Cloverfield could’ve gone in, it’s safe to say nobody saw this take coming.
Now, all this does sound confusing and the more cynical among us will arrive at the conclusion that the Cloverfield brand has been slapped onto this to boost this film’s visibility and lay the groundwork for a franchise. Rest assured that the connections to Cloverfield are quite subtle and one doesn’t have to be well-versed in the myriad fan theories to enjoy 10 Cloverfield Lane. According to Trachtenberg, this doesn’t even take place in the same fictional universe as Cloverfield, but the connections are there if you’re keeping your eyes peeled for them, and the possibility that the two films could be linked up in a future instalment remains.
Hitching this film to a successful predecessor in no way detracts from its artistry. The storytelling is efficient and taut, Trachtenberg sustaining tension with a real master’s touch. This could almost be a stage play, taking place in just a few rooms, but the end result is distinctly cinematic. Production designer Ramsey Avery’s bunker set has to be at once foreign and intimidating but also feel enough like home. Until Michelle gets a handle on the situation, she can never truly be at ease, and neither can the audience. Information is parcelled out in just the right amounts and the narrative rug-pulls occur in such a way as to not feel cheap or manipulative. A non-diegetic score was a luxury the found-footage Cloverfield did not possess. While Bear McCreary’s soundtrack does fall back on clichés like the use of “Psycho strings”, it is an effective factor in ratcheting up the pit-in-your-stomach sense of dread present throughout most of the film.
The film’s small cast work remarkably off of each other, the push and pull amongst the three of them never letting up as the story progresses. Winstead’s Michelle is terrified, and who wouldn’t be, but also has the presence of mind to be exceedingly resourceful, analytical and clear-headed in the face of danger and uncertainty. Goodman often exudes a friendly warmth, but he does have significant range as an actor and Howard’s ambiguity is something Goodman excels at playing. He has an imposing presence and the doomsday prepper always feels in charge, the king of this small, subterranean domain – and not necessarily a benevolent king. Gallagher comes off as an essential presence in the piece as opposed to a third wheel, Emmett’s apparent good nature easing the tension when it’s required.
There are many thrillers that stage an intriguing, engrossing build-up, only to squander the audience’s investment in the story with an unsatisfying payoff. While 10 Cloverfield Lane’s conclusion might not please all viewers, it’s a finale that this reviewer feels it has really earned. Regrettably, said ending is spoiled in the theatrical poster used in certain territories, including Singapore. Is it entirely necessary for the Cloverfield connection to exist? Perhaps not; it seems the film would work just as well on its own. However, the buzz that has built up around the project due to Abrams’ link to it has given it a wider audience than the film would’ve had otherwise.
Summary: A masterfully constructed nail-biter, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a self-contained mystery thriller that is engagingly performed and thoroughly engrossing.
RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong

Trumbo

For F*** Magazine

TRUMBO 

Director : Jay Roach
Cast : Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Michael Stuhlbarg, Alan Tudyk, Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje, Dean O’Gorman, David James Elliott, Christian Berkel
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 124 mins
Opens : 25 February 2016
Rating : PG13 (Coarse Language)

How agonising would it be to write something so spectacular and widely-lauded, yet be forcibly denied credit? This reviewer wouldn’t know because he’s never written anything nearly that good, but Dalton Trumbo (Cranston) certainly knew that feeling.

It is the late 1940s in Hollywood and Trumbo is highly in demand as a screenwriter. He is a member of the American Communist Party, he is one of the “Hollywood ten”, a group of screenwriters subpoenaed to testify before Congress. Trumbo is ostracised as his relationship with his wife Cleo (Lane) and three children is put under immense strain. Trumbo becomes a target of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Mirren) and his disavowed by his friend, actor Edward G. Robinson (Stuhlbarg) so Robinson can protect his own career. Trumbo is unable to find work after being blacklisted, so he lets his friend Ian McLellan Hunter (Tudyk) take credit for Roman Holiday, which eventually wins an Academy Award. Gradually, rumours begin to swirl surrounding Trumbo’s clandestine ghost-writing. As the likes of Kirk Douglas (O’Gorman) and Otto Preminger (Berkel) hire Trumbo to craft screenplays for them, Trumbo inches closer to finally getting the credit he is due.


            It’s no secret that Hollywood loves movies about itself, and as a biopic about a prominent Hollywood figure, set against the backdrop of Cold War political turmoil, Trumbo does come off as Oscar bait. It’s a noble story of a stridently principled and talented man who risks everything to stand by his ideals. It is the hope of the filmmakers that audiences at large will find something in this story to identify with, because Trumbo often plays a little too “inside baseball” to be readily accessible. It’s not a difficult story to understand and Dalton Trumbo does deserve to have his story told, but if one isn’t that big a cinephile, specifically of the era in Hollywood during which Trumbo and his peers were active, Trumbo can be difficult to get into. This might sound disparaging and rest assured we don’t mean it that way, but Trumbo does feel like a film made for HBO. Director Jay Roach and star Cranston will next collaborate on one such HBO film, the Lyndon B. Johnson biopic All The Way.

            John McNamara adapted the biography Dalton Trumbo by Bruce Alexander Cook into this film. It seems that any writer tackling a script about a titan in the same field would be painting a target of considerable size on his own back. Adding to the risk is the fact that such revered classics as Roman Holiday, The Brave One and Spartacus are not only referred to, but are key components of the story. There is a righteous indignation that McNamara brings out in his script, but Trumbo says in a speech that there were “no heroes and villains” while the witch-hunt for “commies” was ongoing, yet several characters do feel exaggerated in the name of artistic license. Director Roach is known for helming comedies such as the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents trilogies as well as Borat and The Campaign. Perhaps the closest he’s come to directing a drama is the HBO film Game Change, about Sarah Palin’s vice-presidential bid. While there are no obvious missteps in his direction, perhaps the material could have benefitted from a defter touch.

            The ace up Trumbo’s sleeve is Trumbo himself, brilliantly portrayed by Cranston. For audiences who only knew him as bumbling dad Hal from Malcolm in the Middle, Cranston made the world collectively drop its jaws with his staggering, indelible Walter White in Breaking Bad. Cranston’s Trumbo is not a boring hero, he can be frustratingly stubborn and ornery but that twinkle in his eye and the spark of true giftedness draws us to him.

Leading the supporting cast, Lane is wonderfully convincing as a woman of the 50s. She handles the role, particularly the scenes in which Cleo confronts her husband about being swallowed up by his ghost-writing and becoming hostile towards his family, with strength and grace. Elle Fanning portrays Trumbo’s eldest daughter Nikola, and her relationship with her father is contentious but understandably so. Louis C.K. and Alan Tudyk, both more often associated with comedic roles, both deliver solid dramatic turns. O’Gorman and Berkel’s impressions of Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger respectively are entertaining and just broad enough. Goodman is charismatically boorish and Mirren chomps down on the role of the catty, flamboyant gossip columnist with great relish.



            Trumbo is a biographical drama set in Hollywood with a talented actor in the lead role just waiting for the kudos to roll on in. In that regard, it’s a safe albeit not especially satisfying awards season offering. For those already enamoured with the period, the 50s style and décor might be eye-catching, but director Roach doesn’t do quite enough to hook the audience in and transport them right into the thick of 50s Hollywood. There’s earnestness aplenty, but a disappointing lack of pizazz.

Summary: Star Bryan Cranston is firing on all cylinders, but because it is only moderately successful at breathing life into the history it depicts, Trumboholds the audience at arm’s length.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Love the Coopers

For F*** Magazine

LOVE THE COOPERS

Director : Jessie Nelson
Cast : Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Diane Keaton, Amanda Seyfried, Ed Helms, Anthony Mackie, June Squibb, Marisa Tomei, Olivia Wilde, Jake Lacy, Steve Martin
Genre : Comedy
Run Time : 107 mins
Opens : 10 December 2015
Rating : PG13 (Some Sexual References)

Family reunions are often where grinning and bearing it is the order of the day. This Christmas comedy-drama follows four generations of the Cooper clan as they reunite to celebrate Christmas as one big, not-so-happy family. Sam (Goodman) and Charlotte (Keaton) have been married for 40 years but on the brink of calling it quits, both reluctantly agreeing to put on a brave front for everyone coming over. Their son Hank (Helms) is recently divorced from Angie (Borstein) and is looking for a job, having to provide for his kids Charlie (Timothée Chalamet), Madison (Blake Baumgartner) and Bo (Maxwell Simkins). Hank’s sister Eleanor (Wilde), a struggling playwright, meets military man Joe (Lacy) at an airport bar and they kind of hit it off. Meanwhile, Charlotte’s sister Emma (Tomei) gets arrested for shoplifting by Officer Percy Williams (Mackie). Grandpa Bucky (Arkin) befriends diner waitress Ruby (Seyfried). Christmas dinner doesn’t go according to plan as a series of events unfolds, events that could drive the family further apart or bring them together in the spirit of the holiday.

            Every Chinese New Year, we get star-studded comedies like All’s Well that Ends Well, with posters that have Andy Lau, Chow Yun Fatt, Cecilia Cheung or Carina Lau grinning and holding their chopsticks up in the air. Well, Hollywood has movies like Love the Coopers. This is the kind of film which one can bring grandpa and grandma to during the holidays and it’s meant to please everyone, naturally pleasing nobody in the process. The goings-on are at once mundane and over the top, with the Coopers depicted as dysfunctional in a relatively pedestrian manner. Before everyone gets together a little after the halfway mark, the film flits from character to character, stringing the vignettes together. Every line of screenwriter Steven Rogers’ dialogue sounds like stock romantic comedy-drama drivel and it’s altogether very cloying and syrupy. There are attempts to temper this with some cynicism, but it seems like Rogers and director Jessie Nelson are constantly asking themselves “we can be a little bitter here without alienating all the grandparents, right?”

            We’re going to dust off that old chestnut one hears whenever there’s a movie that entirely wastes the collective talents of its cast: “imagine what Robert Altman could do with these actors.” Indeed, the collective wattage of the star power could eclipse even the Star of Bethlehem itself. Love the Coopers manages to be tolerable in the slightest because many of the actors are innately watchable, Goodman in particular. While he and Keaton are believable as a squabbling elderly married couple, the material is still very rote. At one point, Sam even asks Charlotte “what happened to us?” Excuse us if we can’t gather up the sympathy. There are flashbacks to every single character when they were kids and it feels more like a cheap heartstring pull than a worthwhile storytelling device.

Wilde and Lacy have decent chemistry and there is a degree of development to their relationship, even though it is heavy on the “oh, he’s a Republican and she’s a Democrat!” jokes. Tomei is shrill and casting the usually-engaging Mackie as a stoic police officer and the token black guy is a crying shame. Arkin mopes about and looks sad a bunch with Seyfried playing opposite him as the diner waitress anyone would have a crush on. There are hints of romance in their interaction, which given the 52 year age difference, is creepy in spite of both actors’ best efforts. Helms is pretty much a non-entity and Squibb is the doddering senile aunt whose dementia is played for laughs. While nobody is sleepwalking through the movie per se, it’s obvious that Love the Coopersdemands precious little from its cast, literally half of whom have won or been nominated for Oscars.

While Love the Coopers isn’t an insufferable gag-heavy Christmas comedy in the Deck the Halls mould, it still provides plenty of cringe-worthy moments. All of this is tied together by painfully on-the-nose narration by Steve Martin, with an end reveal as to the mystery narrator’s true identity that is worthy of an almighty eye-roll. This isn’t one of those films that’s joy and cheer from start to finish and it does take stabs at drama, albeit very ham-fisted ones. Make no mistake, with the fluffy St. Bernard and the adorable moppet granddaughter, this is still engineered for maximum “aww” factor and that’s going to make a significant portion of the audience throw up in their mouths a little. It’s not even cheesy and corny in an endearing, old-fashioned manner. Love the Coopers oozes insincerity and sitting through it ends up being quite like being forced to spend the holidays with relatives you’re not entirely fond of.



Summary:A monumentally talented cast by any standards is entirely squandered in this schmaltzy holiday flick which repeatedly attempts to trick us into thinking it’s making wise observations about family.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Transformers: Age of Extinction

For F*** Magazine

TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION

Director : Michael Bay
Cast : Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor, Kelsey Grammer, Li Bingbing, Sophia Myles, Titus Welliver, T. J. Miller and the voices of: Peter Cullen, Robert Foxworth, John Goodman, John DiMaggio, Ken Watanabe, Frank Welker
Genre : Action, Sci-Fi
Opens : 26 June 2014
Running time: 165 mins

Lord Bay of House Boom has returned locked and loaded for the fourth live-action Transformers film despite saying he would quit the franchise, this time with a new human cast. It has been four years since Chicago was decimated in the battle between Autobots and Decepticons and the U. S. government has decided to end their partnership with the Autobots, declaring them enemies. CIA official Harold Attinger (Grammer) is in charge of hunting them down, engaging the services of mercenary Savoy (Welliver) and ruthless Decepticon bounty hunter Lockdown (Ryan). Joshua Joyce (Tucci), owner of tech giant KSI, has a lucrative government contract to manufacture man-made facsimiles of the Transformers by reverse-engineering captured and dismantled Autobots and Decepticons. Meanwhile, Texan inventor Cade Yeager (Wahlberg), his best friend Lucas (Miller), his daughter Tessa (Peltz) and Tessa’s boyfriend Shane (Reynor) get drawn into the conflict when they unwittingly come into the possession of a beat-up old truck that just happens to be Optimus Prime (Cullen) himself. With the extinction of humanity imminent, Optimus and the remaining Autobots must defeat Attinger and the Decepticons in pursuit.

            Tennis champ Boris Becker said “you get used to eating caviar and at some point it tastes as ordinary as everything else.” In the context of action movies, explosions are akin to caviar. More doesn’t necessarily mean better, but director Michael Bay has wilfully rejected this notion and continues to stuff his films with more and more. He promised a “less goofy” outing but as this reviewer has learnt the hard way, a Michael Bay cannot change his spots. The elements in the second and third films that led to them being critically panned are still here, just in slightly more controlled doses. There’s still juvenile humour, there’s still racism and sexism, there’s still obnoxious product placement, the action scenes are still overwhelming flurries of whirling, clanging metal, it’s just reined in a bit and therefore slightly more tolerable than before. Bumblebee still talks using voice clips. Instead of an annoying actual dog, there’s an annoying homemade robot dog. Instead of Linkin Park, there’s Imagine Dragons. The film’s stabs at self-aware winking at the audience (an elderly movie theatre proprietor bemoans how all major releases are remakes and sequels) are more awkward and on the nose than anything else.

            Apologists of this film series have often used the “this is not Citizen Kane” argument. Well, even Citizen Kane had a running time of 119 minutes. This bad boy clocks in at 165 minutes, the longest Transformers movie yet. It’s overkill. Were this around 100 minutes long, we might’ve been really entertained. Still, there are definitely parts of the movie to commend. Bay and screenwriter Ehren Kruger have decided to make the human villain a CIA official, which combined with the decreased role of the military, makes this less of a jingoism party than the earlier films in the series. Having human scientists attempting to create their own Transformers without comprehending the danger and complexity of the technology is a perfectly viable angle to come at the story from, if somewhat Terminator-esque. And best of all, our protagonist is no longer the useless, unbearably annoying Sam Witwicky.


            Mark Wahlberg is certainly an upgrade from Shia LaBeouf, even if Marky Mech doesn’t break into an off-key rendition of the Transformers theme song “The Touch” like in Boogie Nights. Cade Yeager is a bundle of clichés: All-American everyman turned hero, amateur inventor whose workshop is filled with knick-knacks plus he’s an over-protective single dad who utterly disapproves of his daughter’s boyfriend just on principle. But Wahlberg being significantly less punch-worthy than LaBeouf makes a difference. Nicola Peltz of The Last Airbender infamy fulfils the pre-requisites of being the female lead in this series: she can’t act and she rocks the Daisy Dukes. Reynor is a typical modern Hollywood imported pretty-boy; some kind of attempt made at explaining away the Irish actor’s accent – Cade ends up disparagingly referring to his would-be son-in-law as “Lucky Charms”. Once again, at least he’s significantly less annoying than Shia LaBeouf.

            While Stanley Tucci is subjected to a good deal of embarrassment as a send-up of tech icons like Steve Jobs, he is spared the depths of indignity that the likes of John Turturro and John Malkovich suffered in the previous movies. Kelsey Grammer takes his role as primary human antagonist surprisingly seriously and his frighteningly pragmatic Attinger is a bright spot in the film, so many steps up from Patrick Dempsey in Dark of the Moon. Titus Welliver is also quite imposing and the sequence in which he pursues Cade as they cling to the exterior of a Hong Kong apartment building is plenty of fun. As the head of KSI in China, Li Bingbing is the stock boss lady and without Sally Cahill to dub over her like in Resident Evil: Retribution, she valiantly battles the English language. The voice acting is good as well, not only is definitive Optimus Prime performer Peter Cullen back, but the legendary Frank Welker reprises his role as Galvatron from the various animated series. Thankfully, Ken Watanabe and John Goodman’s distinct voices are still recognizable even after being treated with that robot voice filter. Watanabe also gets to deliver the film’s funniest line, Drift’s reaction upon first seeing the Dinobots transform.

            One thing has been true about this series: no matter how bad the rest of the film gets, the visual effects work certainly can’t be faulted and we’d like to salute visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar and the armies of artists and technicians who brought the Autobots, Decepticons and those fan-favourite Dinobots to life. Amidst the bombast, we also get genuinely beautiful shots, like those of the Autobots convening in Monument Valley and a shot in which Lockdown’s ship is reflected in Chicago’s Cloud Gate sculpture. We saw this in IMAX 3D and even though it is often pretty to look at, the constantly shifting aspect ratios can be very distracting. Transformers: Age of Extinction is more bearable than Revenge of the Fallenand Dark of the Moon, albeit certainly not the paradigm shift in quality it is touted to be. But hey, this is a movie with a humanoid robot semi-truck astride a giant robot T-rex charging into battle, so it’s not like anything we say matters too much anyway.

SUMMARY: While relatively better than its predecessors thanks to more likeable leads and less superfluous subplots, many of the problems that plagued the earlier Transformers movies are still very present throughout the 165 minute duration.

Mark Wahlberg, Jack Reynor and Nicola Peltz do not love the smell of napalm any time of the day.



RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong