Collateral Beauty

For F*** Magazine

COLLATERAL BEAUTY 

Director : David Frankel
Cast : Will Smith, Edward Norton, Keira Knightley, Michael Peña, Naomi Harris, Jacob Latimore, Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren, Kylie Rogers, Ann Dowd
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 1 h 36 min
Opens : 5 January 2017
Rating : PG-13

collateral-beauty-poster“Will Smith wants an Oscar.” That’s what we were thinking on first hearing about this film, and that’s what you probably were thinking too. Is this cynicism warranted? Let’s find out if beauty is, as they say, skin-deep.

Smith plays Howard Inlet, a successful New York advertising executive whose life has taken a downward spiral after the death of his six-year-old daughter. His estranged friends and partners at the advertising firm, Whit Yardsham (Edward Norton), Claire Wilson (Kate Winslet), and Simon Scott (Michael Peña), attempt an intervention out of concern for Howard’s well-being and the company’s future. They hire private investigator Sally Price (Dowd), who discovers that Howard has been writing letters to the abstract concepts of ‘love’, ‘time’ and ‘death’ as a therapeutic outlet. Whit, Claire and Simon engage the services of Love (Knightley), Time (Latimore) and Death (Mirren) themselves – we’ll get into the mechanics of this in the spoiler section below. Howard doesn’t know what to make of these encounters with the supposedly supernatural entities. In the meantime, he tries working up the courage to attend a support group for bereaved parents, led by Madeleine (Harris), who lost her daughter to cancer, leading to the dissolution of her marriage.

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Collateral Beauty has been roundly savaged by critics, with the consensus being that it’s overly sentimental, melodramatic, hokey and that its brand of inspiration will appeal to the ‘unwashed masses’. We aren’t saying that there’s no truth to this, but it needs to be contextualised. The hostility that Collateral Beauty has been met with can be partially attributed to its awards season-timed release and its big-name cast. If this were a stage play, or maybe a French film, it likely would’ve enjoyed a warmer reception. Collateral Beauty’s depiction of grief and healing might strike many as patronising and vaguely insulting, yet there are glimmers of profundity buried within. We’d hesitate to call this “original” seeing how it’s built on the template of A Christmas Carol/It’s a Wonderful Life. However, there’s an element of risk to a big studio putting out a drama with a premise that requires such a leap of faith to buy.

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Director David Frankel, best known for helming The Devil Wears Prada, stepped in after Alfonso Gomez-Rejon departed the project. His direction is largely competent and while the New York setting is familiar to anyone who’s seen a handful of American films, Maryse Alberti’s cinematography is inviting and sometimes even lyrical. The screenplay is written by Allan Loeb, whose credits include such mediocre romantic-comedies as The Dilemma, Just Go with It, Here Comes the Boom and the straight-to-DVD Miley Cyrus-starrer So Undercover. Some of the dialogue in Collateral Beauty is clunky, and the string of reveals in the closing minutes comes off as cheap, but we will argue that as inelegant as it is, there’s some wit and heart to the overarching concept.

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It’s safe to say that whatever works in Collateral Beauty works because of the actors more than anything else. This is as solid an ensemble as one can get – nearly everyone has prestige pic cred, but on top of that, there are certain choices that are truly inspired. Surprisingly, Smith isn’t in this as much as one is led to believe. While he does affect an exaggerated pained look in several scenes, the casting works because Smith’s persona is one of charisma and exuberance, so seeing him sullen and grieving does make us miss the ‘default’ Smith.

(l-r) Edward Norton as Whit, Kate Winslet as Claire and Michael Pena as Simon in COLLATERAL BEAUTY. ©Warner Bros. Entertainment. CR: Barry Wetcher.

Norton is slimy and unlikeable, and we’re not sure how intentional that is. Whit is meant to be Howard’s best friend, but it seems that most of his decision are financially motivated. He also hits on Love quite aggressively, when she repeatedly rebuffs his advances. Winslet’s talents are largely wasted in a career woman role; there’s a bit of Claire’s back-story that is borderline sexist. Of the three ‘friends’, Peña is the most sympathetic, but the reason for this can be seen as another helping of tragedy in a movie that’s already drowning in it. The next paragraph deals with the characters of Love, Death and Time, and will contain spoilers, so be warned.

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[SPOILER ALERT] This is revealed in the first act, but it’s something the trailer tries to obfuscate, so we’ll consider it a spoiler: Love, Death and Time are all portrayed by actors. Love is actually Aimee, Time is Raffi and Death is Brigitte, members of a small New York theatre troupe. Collateral Beauty does a surprisingly decent job of conveying an actor’s psyche, of the satisfaction that is derived from the pursuit of ‘truth’ and the balance between putting it all out there in the name of art, and drawing the line where ethics are concerned. Mirren handily walks away with the whole film, delivering an entertaining, engaging performance. Latimore, a promising young actor whom you might remember from The Maze Runner, is a good fit for the deliberately aggravating “millennial-on-edge” persona chosen for Time. Of the three, Knightley gets the short shrift, but her performance is still a safe distance from terrible. [END SPOILER]

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In the film, Simon has a young son named Oscar, which is the closest Collateral Beauty get to anything named “Oscar”. Standard film critic snarkiness aside, everyone deals with grief differently, and perhaps it helps to look at Collateral Beauty not as an instruction manual but as an interesting-if-flawed arthouse approach to the subject. Are there morally objectionable actions being passed off as uplift? Yes. But would we go far as to call it repulsive? No. Its execution does leave something to be desired, but we think this is not quite as worthless as the bulk of reviewers are making it out to be.

Summary: Collateral Beauty has a premise that’s as intriguing as it is problematic and while a significant portion of its talent is wasted, there are commendable performances here too.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Everest

For F*** Magazine

EVEREST

Director : Baltasar Kormákur
Cast : Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, John Hawkes, Josh Brolin, Keira Knightley, Robin Wright, Sam Worthington, Emily Watson, Martin Henderson
Genre : Adventure/Thriller
Run Time : 122 mins
Opens : 24 September 2015
Rating : PG (Some Intense Sequences)
There is a Chinese proverb that warns of the dangers of the oceans, which roughly translates to “bully the mountain but never bully the water”. It turns out that mountains aren’t to be trifled with either. It is 1996 and Rob Hall (Clarke), founder of expedition guide agency Adventure Consultants, is leading a group of climbers up Mount Everest. His clients for this season include Doug Hansen (Hawkes), a mailman who has made two failed attempts to ascend Everest; Beck Weathers (Brolin), a Texan doctor; Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), a Japanese woman who has climbed six of the world’s seven tallest peaks and is hoping to complete that list by reaching the top of Everest; and journalist Jon Krakauer (Kelly). Rob’s wife Jan (Knightley) is pregnant with their first child and is awaiting his safe return. It is a crowded climbing season at Everest base camp, with expeditions from various countries and Scott Fischer (Gyllenhaal), founder of the rival expedition agency Mountain Madness, also with their eyes on the prize. When disaster strikes at the roof of the world, every last ounce of determination and endurance will be required to stay alive in the most inhospitable of conditions. 
The 1996 Mount Everest disaster is a well-documented tragedy, covered by multiple books, documentaries and a TV movie. Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air is probably the best-known account, though some have called the veracity of his version of events into question. The poster claims Everest is “the most dangerous place on earth”, though mountains like Annapurna, K2 and the Eiger have claimed a larger ratio of lives. Still, that’s not to diminish the obvious risk inherent in climbing Everest. Director Baltasar Kormákur is clearly striving for a depiction that is as accurate, objective and respectful as possible, lending the movie the vibe of a National Geographic docu-drama re-enactment, but with a much larger budget and better actors. Movies allow audiences a glimpse into worlds they would never step into otherwise, and Everest achieves a sufficient degree of authenticity, thanks to location shooting in Italy’s Ötztal Alps, Iceland and Nepal itself. This is a film that was made for the IMAX 3D format and while there is an actual IMAX 3D Everest documentary, this film offers a more immersive and thrilling experience because of its narrative. 
The movie makes it crystal clear that ascending Mount Everest is a behemoth undertaking, involving training and acclimatisation, complex logistics, the harshest of elements and coming at a high monetary cost as well. The screenplay, credited to Simon Beaufoy and William Nicholson, tidily explains the rules and technicalities in layman’s terms while not dropping exposition into the audience’s lap wholesale. The film, via Michael Kelly’s portrayal of Krakauer, directly addresses the question most viewers would have on their minds – “why climb Everest at all?” The famous words of pioneering mountaineer George Mallory, “because it’s there”, are invoked, but the answer – if there is a singular one – seems far more ineffable and we are able to see just how much conquering the famous peak means to the various people in the story. 
Everest boasts an impressive cast by any standards, so there is the danger of it becoming “famous people on a mountain” and losing the verisimilitude of the true story. Thankfully, this is largely averted. Jason Clarke is excellent, portraying Rob Hall as diligent and attentive, while also aiming to turn a profit/make a living. Josh Brolin’s rugged charm is on full display, but it is John Hawkes who turns out to be the emotional core of the film. Hawkes’ portrayal of Doug, whose passion for mountaineering has rendered him near-penniless and has driven a wedge in his relationship with his wife and family, is quietly, painfully sympathetic. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Scott Fischer is the laid-back, free-spirited counterpoint to the by-the-book Rob, and the film benefits from never sensationalising the rivalry to cartoony proportions. 
We do wish Naoko Mori’s Yasuko Namba got more screen time – this is a woman who has successfully conquered six of the seven tallest mountains in the world by the age of 47, and is clearly a fascinating person. However, we concede that giving everyone their moment to shine in an ensemble picture is tricky, let alone when set against the staggering backdrop of a mountaineering disaster. The film also falls back on the “anxious wife back home” cliché, with Keira Knightley and Robin Wright as Rob’s wife Jan and Beck’s wife Peach respectively. The fact that Jan was pregnant at the time might come off as emotionally manipulative – but then again, that is what actually took place and while it’s a formula we’ve seen many times before, we can’t think of a viable alternative to portray what the climbers’ families were going through. 
While there is not a huge amount of room to establish the climbers as fully-developed characters, they are several notches up from being faceless victims and it easy to get invested in their plight. There are certain points where it might be difficult to tell the characters apart, since they are all clad in heavy-duty winter gear, are wearing goggles and mostly bearded. 
Many films are pitched as “celebrating the triumph of the human spirit”. There is an element of that in Everest, to be sure, but it is tempered with the idea of Mother Nature as a harsh mistress. As the line in the film goes, “the last word always belongs to the mountain.” There’s no sugar-coating, no manufactured “Hollywood ending”, with the conclusion bittersweet in that it’s 80% bitter and 20% sweet. Everest gets off to a slow start and because the tragedy it’s based on was so well-publicised, many viewers will know how it ends, but this is a journey that is largely worth the while. 
Summary: A respectful, credible account of the 1996 Everest disaster that overcomes the bits of survival drama formula it must include with some terrific performances and harrowing spectacle. 
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong 

The Imitation Game

For F*** Magazine

THE IMITATION GAME

Director : Morten Tyldum
Cast : Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Mark Strong, Matthew Goode, Charles Dance, Allen Leech, Vanessa Kirby, Rory Kinnear, Matthew Beard
Genre : Thriller/Drama
Run Time : 114 mins
Opens : 22 January 2015
Rating : NC16 
Alan Turing: mathematician, cryptanalyst, often considered the father of modern computing and a unique war hero who was persecuted later in his life. The man is as fascinating and compelling a biopic subject as they come. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing, the story shifting between three pivotal periods of Turing’s life: his school days, his secret wartime code-breaking work at Bletchley Park and his post-war conviction of gross indecency. Much more at home with puzzles and ciphers than in social settings, Turing’s co-workers at Bletchley Park’s Hut 8, particularly chess champion Hugh Alexander (Goode), find him insufferable. As the Second World War rages on, Commander Alastair Denniston (Dance) breathes down Turing’s neck for results. Turing goes about developing a machine with the goal of deciphering German messages encoded with the Enigma Machine – a task deemed impossible.

            The Imitation Game is based on Alan Hodges’ biography Alan Turing: The Enigma. Graham Moore’s screenplay landed at the top of the Black List, an annual survey of the most-liked unproduced scripts in Hollywood, in 2011. The title The Imitation Game refers to the Turing test, which determines how well a machine can imitate the thought processes of a human being. At face value, this looks entirely like an Oscar-bait biopic carefully engineered for maximum Academy voter appeal. Despite its Norwegian director Morten Tyldum and American screenwriter Moore, it does seem very British indeed, and if there’s anything the Academy loves, it’s British-y biopics built around an attention-grabbing tour de force performance – see The King’s Speech’s triumph over The Social Network at the 83rd Academy Awards. We reckon it is possible to go into the film harbouring all these cynical pre-conceived notions and to walk out of the theatre afterwards unmoved, but one would have to be a special brand of jaded to do so.

            The standard biopic tropes we’ve come to expect of awards-contender “based on a true story” prestige pictures are all there, but The Imitation Gamehandily transcends them, never letting up in just how absorbing it is. Naturally, this is due in no small part to Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Turing. Cumberbatch has captured the world’s imagination and is that rare combination of a superstar, a “serious actor”, a geek icon and, as he is probably tired of being described as, an unlikely sex symbol. We’ve become accustomed to “eccentric geniuses” in various media, the smartest people in the room who don’t suffer fools and have unorthodox but highly effective methods of solving problems – Cumberbatch’s take on Sherlock Holmes could definitely be classified as such. There have also been various explorations of the “dark side” of genius, the inner demons that misunderstood prodigies grapple with. As Alan Turing, Cumberbatch is able to paint a highly sympathetic portrait of a man who, if he were “normal”, would not have accomplished what he had. When audiences question the veracity of a biopic, it is often brought about as much by the shortcomings of the actor as by the script’s fictionalisation of real events. This reviewer did not detect that here. To dismiss Cumberbatch’s Turing as “just another troubled wunderkind who can’t make personal connections” would be a great disservice.

            While the film was in production, there was the worry that Turing’s homosexuality would not be mentioned. Thankfully, it is addressed, and as such Keira Knightley’s Joan Clarke is far from the superfluous love interest she could have been depicted as if such liberties were taken with the source material. Joan has to battle the deep-seated misogyny of the time, never mind that she has repeatedly proven herself as an expert code-breaker. The character’s introductory scene when she is almost turned away from an entrance test because it is automatically assumed she is up for a clerical position is dynamite. Knightley and Cumberbatch play off each other in a manner that steers clear of being cloying or saccharine and the relationship between Turing and Joan is a well-developed one.

            A surprising element of The Imitation Game, given its often heavy subject matter and wartime setting, is its humour. There are plenty of well-judged moments of levity, most derived from Turing’s interactions with others without feeling like they are at the man’s expense. As Hugh Alexander, Turing’s fellow code-breaker whose frustration is often justifiable, Matthew Goode is appealing and comes off more likeably caddish than smarmy. Charles Dance is also funny as the irascible Commander Denniston and Mark Strong is believable and coolly charming as spymaster Maj. Gen. Stewart Menzies.

            If there’s any particular weakness, it would be the quality of the computer-generated imagery used to depict the WWII battles in brief cutaways. However, this deficiency barely registers because of how expertly the film is put together on the whole, the story flowing naturally through those three time periods in Alan Turing’s life. It seems there’s the danger of the film being written off by some, ironically enough, for its pedigree and awards potential. Ignore those voices; see this, tell everyone you know to see it. It’s a cliché, but this is a story that needs to be told and to be heard.

Summary:Moving, entertaining, thrilling, thought-provoking, even funny, The Imitation Game is a powerful, well-made biopic anchored by a brilliant leading performance from Benedict Cumberbatch.
RATING: 4.5out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong

Begin Again

For F*** Magazine

BEGIN AGAIN

Director : John Carney
Cast : Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Adam Levine, Hailee Steinfeld, Mos Def, James Corden, CeeLo Green, Catherine Keener
Genre : Drama, Romance
Opens : 3 July 2014
Rating : NC16 (Coarse Language) 
Running time: 104 mins
Lovin’ a music man ain’t always what it’s supposed to be, and that goes for the music men behind the scenes as well. In this musical romantic comedy, Mark Ruffalo plays Dan Mulligan, the down-and-out exec of music label Distressed Records, who has an estranged wife (Keener) and daughter (Steinfeld). While drowning his sorrows at a bar one night, British singer-songwriter Gretta (Knightley) catches his attention and he immediately sets about getting a hold of her so they can collaborate on a record. It turns out that Gretta’s long-time boyfriend and songwriting partner Dave Kohl (Levine) has strayed after letting stardom get to his head. Gretta tries to leave Dave behind as she, Dan, her best friend Steve (Corden) and a motley crew of session musicians embark on recording an album on the streets of New York, guerrilla-style.
            Begin Again, formerly titled Can a Song Save Your Life?, is written and directed by John Carney of Oncefame. The micro-budget Irish indie flick became a cult favourite after netting a Best Original Song Oscar for Falling Slowly and was adapted into an acclaimed musical running on Broadway and the West End. Begin Again can be seen as Carney “going Hollywood”, trading in a cheap video camera for a fancy Red Digital and having Hollywood names and pop stars in the cast. While Begin Again is certainly a glossier, slicker affair, it still retains a good measure of earnestness and sweetness and is sure to appeal to fans of music movies. In what might be somewhat meta commentary, the theme of “indie vs. big record label” crops up. There’s also a rather surprising bit of anti-product placement: Dan takes a sip of Pepsi and wonders aloud “God damn, how do people drink that?!”

            Many of the elements in Begin Again can be described as “formulaic” – there’s the maverick music producer who has been reduced to an unkempt mess but who gets a second wind upon discovering an ingénue, the disapproving ex-wife and the rebellious daughter and the ingénue’s unfaithful rock star boyfriend. An early scene has a frustrated Dan tossing demo CDs out of his car window, fed up with inane pop and in search of “real music”. However, the film does possess enough self-awareness such that it doesn’t drown in a morass of clichés and that there’s a still a soul to it. Carney also has a little fun with the structure of the first half of the film, starting in medias res before rewinding to the start of that day, telling the story from Dan’s point of view – and then rewinding further and telling it from Gretta’s. There’s also a wonderfully whimsical moment of visual invention, when upon first hearing Gretta sing, Dan begins to imagine possible arrangements for the song; the piano, drums, cello and violin sitting on stage suddenly playing by themselves in his imagination.

            Mark Ruffalo is pretty much scruffy-sexy incarnate. Once again, he looks like he badly needs a shower and a shave, but perhaps that is part of his charm. He convincingly essays a man who has fallen on hard times but who clearly once had drive and inspiration, and when that returns to him he comes alive again. Keira Knightley’s role was originally intended for Scarlett Johansson – while we don’t get the Hulk and Black Widow making sweet music together, Knightley is a perfectly acceptable substitute. Her singing voice is very pleasant and she consciously avoids turning Gretta into an idealised “manic pixie dream girl” type. When she says “I’m not Judy Garland off the greyhound bus looking for stardom”, this reviewer believes her – but wants to see her make it in the music biz all the same.

            When it comes to the casting of established singers like Adam Levine and his fellow The Voice coach CeeLo Green, it’s a Catch-22 situation: on one hand, having actual musicians in your music movie gives it credibility but on the other, it can be distracting enough to pull one out of the experience. Green’s appearance in the film is more tolerable because as hip-hop star and old pal of Dan’s nicknamed Troublegum, he could well be playing himself. However, Levine is not a brilliant actor and this reviewer happens to find his high-pitched whine of a singing voice somewhat grating. We’re also 90% sure that the name “Dave Kohl” is some kind of a dig at the similarly-named Foo Fighters frontman.


            Begin Again is a great date movie because it isn’t yet another a production line rom com and it never becomes unbearably cheesy and sappy. It won’t redefine the music flick genre, but it does have its share of sweet moments. The songs, co-written by New Radicals frontman Gregg Alexander with Danielle Brisebois, Nick Lashley, Rick Nowels and Nick Southwood, Once star Glen Hansard and Carney himself, are all very listenable if not especially memorable or catchy. And this is quite possibly the first movie to make splitter cables seem like very romantic objects.
SUMMARY: Begin Again’s formulaic elements are offset by its measured sweetness and charm.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong