Allied

For F*** Magazine

ALLIED

Director : Robert Zemeckis
Cast : Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris, Lizzy Caplan, Matthew Goode, Simon McBurney
Genre : Romance/Drama/Historical
Run Time : 2 h 4 min
Opens : 5 January 2017
Rating : M18

allied-posterBrad Pitt is playing spy games again, and this time his partner is the slightest bit more fetching than Robert Redford. It is 1942 at the height of the Second World War, and Max Vatan (Pitt), a Royal Canadian Air Force intelligence officer, is dispatched to French Morocco. He is partnered with Marianne Beauséjour (Cotillard), a beguiling French Resistance fighter who is the lone survivor after the members of her resistance group were compromised and killed. Their mission is to assassinate the German ambassador Hobar (August Diehl) at a party in Casablanca. Against their better judgement, Max and Marianne fall in love with each other, eventually marrying and having a daughter. Just as he is growing accustomed to their new idyllic existence, Max winds up facing the possibility that there might be more to Marianne than meets the eye.

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Director Robert Zemeckis, whose credits include such influential films as Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Forrest Gump, has assembled a resolutely old-fashioned film with Allied. This is a throwback to the wartime romantic thrillers of days gone by, but with considerably more swearing, sex and violence (in that order) than the Hays Code would’ve allowed. In invoking classics like Casablanca by setting its first half in, well, Casablanca itself, Allied has its charms. However, despite the afore-mentioned adult content, Allied comes off feeling sanitized. Zemeckis and screenwriter Steven Knight seem to be going for the romanticised movie ideal of World War II over an authentic portrayal of the setting. The inadvertently makes Allied reminiscent of the Indiana Jones films, even though the tone here is markedly more serious.

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Zemeckis stages several suspenseful scenes with a master’s touch, and the moments in which Max and Marianne practice their spycraft are fun to watch. In hewing so close to established tropes and styles, Allied often teeters on the edge of cheesiness. For example, Max and Marianne share a steamy moment in the front seat of their car as a sandstorm rages outside, the camera lovingly swirling around them. It’s beautiful in its own way, yet ridiculous and snicker-inducing at the same time. Much of the film is like that, though it’s most obvious during the tryst-in-a-car-in-a-sandstorm.

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It’s a safe estimate that Pitt and/or Cotillard are in around 95% of the shots in Allied, with the supporting cast dwarfed by the leading stars. There was some salacious, sensationalist gossip that emerged at the time of the Brangelina divorce announcement, that Angelina Jolie had suspected Cotillard of coming on to Pitt while making this film. As such, it’s a bit of a shame that the pair share altogether too little chemistry. The earlier scenes in which the pair shares playful banter, which Marianne coaching Max on his Parisian accent, promise an explosive, passionate romance to remember. Alas, that is not the case.

Brad Pitt plays Max Vatan in Allied from Paramount Pictures.

Pitt spends most of the film looking morose, and Max Vatan emerges as a largely uninteresting character. Max is sometimes too credulous to be an elite spy, even with romance clouding his judgement factored in. Pitt is by no means a terrible performer, but Cotillard acts rings around him and is significantly more magnetic a presence. She’s sultry and slinky, but always more than a mere caricature of a femme fatale.

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The stars and the costumes they wear are pretty to look at, but Allied provides little more than that. Thanks to Zemeckis’ years of experience, it is competently assembled and there are no egregious missteps along the way, but neither the thrills nor the romance have the visceral impact the story needs to be truly affecting.

Summary: Allied’s megawatt star pairing should have yielded more excitement than this, but Robert Zemeckis’ direction saves this old-timey wartime romance from being a completely staid experience.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Passengers

For F*** Magazine

PASSENGERS 

Director : Morten Tyldum
Cast : Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne
Genre : Adventure/Sci-Fi
Run Time : 1h 56min
Opens : 22 December 2016
Rating : PG13 (Scenes of Intimacy)

passengers-posterMany of us have pleaded for “five more minutes” when struggling to get out of bed in the morning. Compared to Jim Preston’s (Pratt) predicament in this sci-fi romance, that’s nothing – Jim is awoken 90 years too early. He is among the 5000 passengers on the starship Avalon, bound for the colony planet Homestead II. A malfunction in his hibernation pod results in Jim’s 120-year-long slumber being cut short. Doomed to live out his days in solitude aboard the Avalon and with no way of returning to hibernation, Jim only has the android bartender Arthur (Sheen) for company. That is, until another passenger awakes: Aurora Lane (Lawrence), a writer from New York. Jim and Aurora fall in love – it’s not like they have too much else to do. However, the hibernation pod malfunction is only the first warning sign as it soon becomes apparent that the state-of-the-art ship is in jeopardy, putting the lives of Jim, Aurora and their fellow voyagers at risk.

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Jon Spaiht’s screenplay for Passengers landed on the 2007 Black List of most-liked unproduced scripts in Hollywood, with Keanu Reeves and Reese Witherspoon once attached to the project. It’s safe to say that Lawrence and Pratt have significantly more star wattage. They were the top-earning female and male movie stars of 2014 respectively, and while making the promotional rounds, the pair has given some entertaining interviews. While there’s a novelty in the premise of a sci-fi film carried mostly by two actors, Passengers ends up feeling too familiar. With Oscar-nominated director Morten Tyldum at the helm, it is solidly assembled, but the romance central to the film borders on the simplistic. There is conflict and a rom-com-style big misunderstanding writ large, but the film relies more on its stars’ charm than its wit.

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Passengers’ gleaming, futuristic aesthetic is pleasing, if not terribly ground-breaking. The corkscrew-like exterior of the Avalon is a departure from the traditional bulky star cruisers from most sci-fi media, but the interiors conform to expectations of Apple-esque sleekness. The Avalon is meant to be a space-borne luxury cruise liner, with the passengers spending the last four months before arrival to Homestead II enjoying its plush surrounds. This is one of several ways in which Passengers resembles WALL-E. Production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas, known for his work on Inception and Interstellar, does some beautiful work here and is successful in making the Avalon seem like an awesome place to take a vacation. Infinity pools have got nothing on infinity-and-beyond-pools.

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Both Lawrence and Pratt are interesting case studies in stardom. It’s affected the former more than the latter so far, but there are large swathes of moviegoers who find themselves put off by a perceived sense of ‘trying too hard’ projected by both actors. Lawrence has spoken up about pay inequality after being paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle, and secured a $20 million salary for Passengers – $8 million more than Pratt, despite Pratt having more screen time. Behind the scenes politics aside, they do make for perfectly-matched romantic leads, and their immense chemistry helps the film overcome some contrived moments of character development. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography also makes them both look as glamorous as ever.

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Michael Sheen’s Arthur the android bartender deliberately invokes Lloyd, the ghostly bartender in The Shining. The character is a clever creation, Arthur’s polite friendliness belying an unsettling uncanny valley vibe. Despite its fantastical setting, the film’s depiction of loneliness and despair resulting from isolation and the desire for meaningful companionship is relatable, if not exactly profound.

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Thomas Newman’s score is frequently guilty of being too obvious and intrusive, loudly dictating what the audience should feel rather than hinting at it. It’s a bit of a shame, given how many of Newman’s scores have been lyrical and moving.

The posters for Passengers feature the ominous tagline “there’s a reason they woke up”. This reviewer was hoping for a mind-bending conclusion and an audacious reveal of a massive conspiracy that Jim and Aurora get caught up in. There are flashes of wit in Spaiht’s screenplay – why yes, Sleeping Beauty’s real name is Aurora – but when it is explained why Jim’s hibernation pod opened early, this reviewer was disappointed. Passengers promised a marriage of fiendishly clever sci-fi with a tearjerker romance, but only takes audiences partway to that destination.

Summary: There was never any doubt that Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt would work wonderfully off each other, but past its sci-fi context, it’s a bit of a let-down that Passengers is as straightforward as it is.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

La La Land

For F*** Magazine

LA LA LAND 

Director : Damien Chazelle
Cast : Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock, Tom Everett Scott
Genre : Musical/Romance
Run Time : 2h 6min
Opens : 8 December 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language)

la-la-land-poster         If you’re looking to have stars in your eyes, a spring in your step and a song in your heart, boy, does writer-director Damien Chazelle have a show for you. This romantic musical comedy-drama is set in present day L.A., where we meet jazz pianist Sebastian (Gosling) and aspiring actress/playwright Mia (Stone). Sebastian and Mia have been chasing their dreams to little success: Mia works as a barista in a café on the Warner Bros. studio lot in between unsuccessful auditions, while Sebastian plays humiliating cocktail party gigs. After meeting and falling in love, Mia and Sebastian push each other to chase their dreams. Success comes knocking when Keith (Legend), Sebastian’s former classmate, offers Sebastian a gig with his new band, just as Mia begins writing a one-woman play. Will love survive in the City of Angels, a place that takes more than it gives?

In a pop culture landscape overdosed on nostalgia, referring to something as “a love letter to X” has inadvertently become a warning. La La Land proves it is possible to create a loving homage that doesn’t drown in schmaltz, with Chazelle’s own sensibilities as evident as his influences. Present-day Los Angeles isn’t exactly the most romantic city in the world, but Chazelle hones in on and amplifies its charms. It isn’t a fairy tale setting per se, but the injection of magic in just the right amounts makes La La Land an enchanting film.

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Linus Sandgren’s cinematography paints L.A. in vivid, inviting hues, the fuchsia skies looking like a cake one could cut into.  The film’s deliberate use of colour is refreshing and eye-catching. Mandy Moore (no, not that one) provides choreography that is a finely-executed throwback to the days of Busby Berkeley. Every last one of the songs, with music by Justin Hurwitz and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, is a shoo-in for an Oscar. Just try not tearing up on hearing Audition (The Fools Who Dream).

The opening number, edited to look like a continuous shot in which dancers leap over car doors in the middle of a traffic jam on a freeway, is a technical accomplishment and is joyously cheesy. However, it’s clear that La La Land isn’t a cheery Pollyanna fantasy musical. No, the sun might not come out tomorrow, the fact that it’s southern California notwithstanding. La La Land astutely captures the struggles of an artist climbing the Tinseltown ladder, without swinging to either extreme of self-pity or glibness. Chazelle experiments by letting the worlds of an all-singing, all-dancing Studio-era frothiness and real life collide. Despite its slick visual stylings and deliberate moments of artifice, La La Land’s blend of sincerity tempered with cynicism is resonant and heartfelt.

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La La Land’s genesis can be traced back to Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, which Chazelle made with Hurwitz as a senior thesis film at Harvard University. Chazelle, known for Whiplash, is a drummer himself, and has followed that film up with a vastly different take on the life of a musician. La La Land’s starry-eyed reminiscence is mesmerizing rather than bloated and self-indulgent, and Chazelle consciously avoids making things too ‘inside baseball’. There’s just the right amount of showbiz satire: for example, a screenwriter (played by actual screenwriter Jason Fuchs) introduces himself with “I have a knack for world-building”, and pitches his idea for a franchise – “Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but from the perspective of the bears”.

The film was originally set to star Miles Teller and Emma Watson, but we have a difficult time picturing them as a better pair than the leading couple we wound up with. Chazelle said Gosling and Stone “feel like the closest thing that we have right now to an old Hollywood couple”, comparing them to Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. After watching La La Land, we’re inclined to think that’s not hyperbole. Gosling and Stone displayed effervescent chemistry in Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad, and watching them sing and dance their way through an old-school movie musical is an utter delight.

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While we’ve seen the archetype of a struggling actress slogging through audition after audition in nigh-futile hope of her big break, Stone’s energy and comic sensibilities make Mia more than the “girl in Hollywood with a suitcase of dreams” cliché. Early on, Stone performs the group number Someone in the Crowd with Callie Hernandez, Sonoya Mizuno and Jessica Rothe, who play Mia’s housemates. At this point, Mia is disillusioned but not broken. The personal odyssey she embarks on and the effect that her relationship with Sebastian has on her artistic journey quickly draws the viewer in.

Gosling’s Sebastian is a jazz snob, thumbing his nose as what he perceives as perversions of the art form. “How are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?” Sebastian’s bandmate Keith chides. “You’re holding onto the past, but jazz is about the future.” If anyone can make crotchety sexy, it’s Gosling. There’s a roguishness that spices up his usual boyishness, and many a woman will melt at seeing Gosling tinkle the ivories. While composer, orchestrator and keyboard player Randy Kerber performed the piano pieces for the film, Gosling took intensive piano lessons and could play all the pieces by heart, without the need for a hand double or CGI replacements. Gosling’s singing voice isn’t particularly pretty, so phew, he isn’t perfect – but it does seem to fit the character.

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La La Land is as much a soaring, uplifting experience as it is an aching one. Big, brash Hollywood musicals with their hundreds-strong dance ensembles are not known for measured subtlety, but La La Land is infused with surprising, profound nuance. Ambitious and indelible, Chazelle harnesses his nostalgia for classic movie musicals while steering clear of gooey sentimentality. Gorgeous imagery, memorable tunes and perfectly-matched leads make La La Land a transcendent achievement.

Summary: Damien Chazelle weaves a spell-binding, toe-tapping tale, showcasing the talents of his lead couple and paying tribute to classic movie musicals of yesteryear. L.A.’s never looked this lovely.

RATING: 5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Fallen

For F*** Magazine

FALLEN 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Southside with You

For F*** Magazine

SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU 

Director : Richard Tanne
Cast : Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers, Vanessa Bell Calloway
Genre : Biography, Drama, Romance
Run Time : 1h 24min
Opens : 29 September 2016
Rating : PG13 (Brief Coarse Language)

southside-with-you-posterHaving one’s first date be dramatized and put up on the big screen for all to see must be a daunting, slightly unnerving notion. Public figures with as high a profile as the President and First Lady of the United States are probably fair game for this treatment, though. Southside with You depicts the summer’s day in 1989, when young law associate Barack Obama (Sawyers) and Michelle Robinson (Sumpter), the lawyer assigned to mentor him, go on their first date. They visit an Afro-centric art exhibit and admire the paintings of Ernie Barnes, eat sandwiches in the park, go to a community organisation meeting, watch Spike Lee’s movie Do the Right Thing and finally have ice cream. Michelle starts out adamantly refusing Barack’s advances, but as the day goes on, the two learn more about each other and Michelle begins to think that maybe getting into a relationship with the guy is not so bad after all.

For the sake of easy reading, we’re going to refer to the President and First Lady of the United States by their first names. We mean no disrespect, and after all, this story takes place before they took on those positions.

On hearing of the premise for this film, a number of doubts began to form. What if it’s heavy-handed? What if it’s painfully cheesy? What if it comes off as propaganda? Southside with You has the easy-going, pleasant vibe of your typical indie romance, but because of its protagonists, the stakes are raised considerably. It’s an inspired premise, though one would need considerable finesse to pull it off – finesse that writer-director Richard Tanne mostly possesses. This is Tanne’s feature film debut, and what a calling card it is. The Obamas have briefly discussed their first date in various interviews, and Tanne extrapolated that into the conversations they might have had at and between the events they went to that day. Some of the dialogue is not terribly subtle, but we end up learning a fair bit about what makes Barack and Michelle the people they are. When the soon-to-be couple have arguments, the conflict arises and is resolved organically.

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Another worry this reviewer had was that this would fall into the “prequel trap” of laying down obvious hints to the characters’ future that the audience would already be cognisant of. Tanne displays admirable restraint, and his reach does not exceed his grasp. Far from a sweeping cradle-to-the-grave biopic, this is modest in scope, the events unfolding over a single day, and all the better for it. Southside with You does succumb to several rom-com clichés, chief of which being Michelle’s repeated insistence that “this is not a date!” Barack’s repeated attempts to woo Michelle, who initially is having none of it, are eminently relatable. The greatest triumph is that Barack and Michelle end up feeling like real, multi-faceted people.

Stephen James Taylor’s world music-tinged score is refreshingly different from the standard romantic swelling strings we’ve become accustomed to. An original instrument called the “transcendello”, a cross between a pedal steel guitar and a cello invented by David Rivinus, gives the music a unique textural quality.

Casting is obviously crucial, given how familiar the general public is with the way Barack and Michelle Obama look and sound. Sumpter is given top billing and co-produces in addition to starring. While we spend most of the film with both Barack and Michelle, we open on Michelle at her parents’ house, getting ready for her day out. Sumpter can be a little stiff at times, but she has Michelle’s distinctive vocal cadence down pat. Her fiery assertiveness is magnetic, and the back-and-forth between the pair is almost thrilling. She spends most of the film sizing Barack up, while he’s already smitten, and there is an aww shucks quality to how Michelle’s attitude towards Barack evolves as the day progresses (spoiler: they end up together).

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Sawyers is magnificent, proving himself to be bona fide A-list leading man material. According to Tanne, Sawyers’ initial audition was an over-the-top impression of Barack Obama, but once he was directed to tone it down, it became clear that he was the ideal choice for the role. The charisma, winsome charm and affability that are key components of Barack’s personality all shine through in Sawyers’ portrayal. A scene in which Barack addresses a community organisation and rouses the crowd with a phrase that’s a proto-“Yes we can” is acted with irresistible confidence. Barack discusses his upbringing and expresses bitterness at his late father, and while this is largely a hagiography, there’s a great deal of humanity in Sawyers’ portrayal.

“I just want to do more,” Michelle sighs as she shares a beer with Barack.

“Maybe wanting is enough for right now,” Barack replies. This disarming honesty is Southside with You’s greatest strength. In addressing politics and race relations, Tanne never uses the Obamas as delivery vehicles for ideologies, and always brings things back to how they’re affected as people. Southside with You manages to be quietly moving and genuinely romantic, not overly-engineered faux-Nicholas Sparks romantic. As Barack Obama’s presidency draws to a close, this is as wistfully affectionate a farewell as they come.

Summary: While it’s tender, insightful, gently funny and finely acted, Southside with You won’t win over the vehemently anti-Obama set, but it isn’t intended for that demographic anyway.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

High Strung

For F*** Magazine

HIGH STRUNG

Director : Michael Damian
Cast : Keenan Kampa, Nicholas Galitzine, Jane Seymour, Sonoya Mizuno, Richard Southgate, Anabel Kutay, Paul Freeman, Marcus Mitchell
Genre : Dance/Music/Romance
Run Time : 97 mins
Opens : 14 April 2016
Rating : PG

Dextrous fingers and fleet feet work in concert to create something magical in this dance movie. Ruby (Kampa) is a dancer who has received a scholarship to study at the prestigious Manhattan Conservatory of the Arts. She befriends her outgoing roommate Jazzy (Mizuno) and runs afoul of the catty April (Kutay). One day, Ruby comes across a hip hop violinist busking in the subway station. This is Johnnie (Galitzine), a brooding young man from England in search of a Green Card since his Visa has expired and there’s nothing for him back home. Johnnie draws the ire of Kyle (Southgate), a classical violinist and Ruby’s schoolmate at the conservatory. Ruby proposes that she and Johnnie jointly enter the Peterson Strings and Dance competition, in collaboration with a hip-hop dance crew headed by Johnnie’s downstairs neighbour Hayward (Mitchell). However, this burgeoning relationship begins to distract Ruby, with her teachers including contemporary dance instructor Oksana (Seymour) and respected ballet teacher Kamrovsky (Freeman) pushing her to up her game.

            High Strung is directed by Michael Damian, who co-wrote the screenplay with his wife Janeen. The couple have created an incredibly cheesy affair packed with very familiar story beats. It’s the streets vs. the conservatory, the cool kids vs. the snobs, and the realisation that the two worlds need not be discrete. The production values definitely possess a satisfactory degree of polish, and one would be hard-pressed to tell that the film was also shot in Bucharest, Romania in addition to on location in New York. The camerawork and music production is slick and Dave Scott’s dance choreography is dynamic if not spectacularly inventive. However, it’s hard to shake that “student film” feeling, primarily owing to the predictability of the plot and the clunkiness of the dialogue. While most of the cast are talented dancers, it looks like acting comes second (or, for some of them, third).

            When we first see Johnnie he’s shirtless, tattoos and abs on display, sitting on the edge of his bed playing the violin as sunlight streams in through the window. “The music is always there, burning inside me,” he says dreamily in voiceover. “I don’t know where it comes from. I only know that if it stays trapped, I will be consumed.” This is a character that seems like the result of a group of 14-year-old-girls holding hands around a pentagram drawn on the floor, summoning some improbable dreamboat who is tormented, but sexily tormented. Galitzine has wannabe-James Dean written all over him, but it’s easy to see why the ladies will swoon. He does look great playing the violin though, and does an excellent job of approximating some complex finger placement – though those in the know will be able to spot a few spots where the finger placements don’t match up to the notes being played.

            Kampa is a professional dancer who was the first American to join Russia’s Mariinsky Ballet in 2012. After several injuries and feeling overworked, Kampa moved back to the U.S. The film is it its best when it simply allows the dancers to dance and does not demand that they act. Therefore, the plot proceeds on autopilot, hitting dance sequences that are as varied in styles and settings as possible. Ruby is very much a tabula rasa character for young female viewers to project themselves upon. As the requisite best friend, Mizuno’s Jazzy has few defining qualities, other than she likes to party. Southgate’s Kyle is intended as a foil and romantic rival for Johnnie, but he stays in the middle of the dial, failing to make the audience feel conflicted about whether they want Ruby to end up with Johnnie or with him. Freeman and Seymour, somewhat recognisable names (he was the villain in Raiders of the Lost Ark and she was the Bond girl in Live and Let Die) are on hand to lend authority, but they mainly stand by the piano and shout orders to the class.

            High Strung is as paint by numbers as they come, but then again, people don’t go to dance movies for the plot. Director Damian is well aware of this and delivers several lengthy dance/musical sequences, the most memorable being an Irish jig and a duelling violins set piece. Instead of moving the formulaic plot along though, it feels like the story is put on hold for these scenes to dutifully unfold. The film’s corniness and stubborn refusal to rework the shopworn tropes that it piles on thick are the equivalent of tying a ballerina’s legs together with violin strings.



Summary: Laughable dialogue and stiff acting detract from the strikingly performed dance and music numbers in this generic dance movie.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

By the Sea

For F*** Magazine

BY THE SEA

Director : Angelina Jolie Pitt
Cast : Angelina Jolie Pitt, Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud, Niels Arestrup
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 132 mins
Opens : 31 December 2015
Rating : M18 (Sexual Scenes and Nudity)
Brangelina are back together on the big screen for the first time in ten years, after continuously teasing – or threatening, depending on your point of view – the possibility of doing a movie as a couple again. Alas, it’s not Mr. & Mrs. Smith 2: Little Smiths, but this romantic drama instead. It is the mid-1970s, and Roland (Pitt) and his wife Vanessa (Jolie) are holidaying in a French seaside town. Roland is a struggling writer and Vanessa is a former dancer, and after 14 years of marriage, the couple have grown apart. In the hotel room next to theirs, newlyweds Francois (Poupaud) and Lea (Laurent) are having their honeymoon. Vanessa becomes envious of their wedded bliss as both she and Roland become increasingly frustrated with each other, unable to work things out. The fairy-tale setting’s there, now all they need is that happily ever after.

            Jolie is By the Sea’s writer and director and, alongside her husband, its star. There’s no point denying this isn’t a vanity project; it’s pretty much the dictionary definition of one. The foremost task any vanity project has to accomplish is that of convincing the audience that there’s a point or at least some semblance of value to the enterprise beyond a vigorous ego massage. There’s not even the faintest attempt at such justification here. The film has already been roundly savaged by critics, so excuse us for picking at its carcass. Jolie and Pitt are movie stars and where movie stars go, their egos are wont to follow. An ego is not necessarily a bad thing; some might say it’s an integral ingredient in the “star quality” cocktail. What Jolie and Pitt have done here is assume that the very notion of the two of them on the screen is enough to send audiences into a tizzy, and that there doesn’t need to be anything more than that. It’s ShamWow levels of self-absorption.

            Yes, By the Sea is pretty to look at. Then again, most people would like to have Christian Berger or a cinematographer of his calibre film their honeymoon in Malta as a keepsake if given a chance. Then again, most people wouldn’t foist it upon the movie-going public under the assumption that anyone other than themselves would want to watch it. There’s a good deal of style, with Jolie going for a 70s-type laid-back romance vibe. The climate may be Mediterranean, but the pace is glacial, with very little actually happening over the course of the film’s 132 minute duration. There is meant to be a sense of mystery as to why exactly Roland and Vanessa are so unhappy, with fleeting, initially indiscernible flashes serving as clues to what that is. When the root of the couple’s discontent is finally revealed, it comes across as little more than contrived and clichéd.

            Both Jolie and Pitt are talented and have delivered entertaining performances before, but their delusions to arthouse-ness do them no favours. When we first meet these characters, they’re charmless, and they pretty much stay that way right up until just before the very end, maybe. In her third film as director, Jolie has yet to find a distinct voice. That wild child streak, the fiery unpredictability and the brazen sexuality, qualities that made her such a magnet for fascination in the beginning of her career, are all but absent here. We have to make do with traces of it. The frank nudity in the film, including from Jolie, appears to be an attempt at honesty and intimacy, embracing a more European sensibility instead of mass-market Hollywood prudishness, but it is largely superficial. With the sun hats and the sunglasses, Jolie does pull off the classic Sophia Loren thing. There’s the feeling that this would work a lot better as a photo spread in a magazine than with any attempt at a plot tacked onto it.

            Jolie and Pitt leave little room for the supporting players, but they aren’t bad. Poupaud and Laurent are the frisky younger couple, whom Vanessa and Roland voyeuristically observe through a peep hole in the wall of their room. It’s a decent idea, one of a yearning for blissful days past, but because there’s so little to Roland and Vanessa and even less to Francois and Lea, it’s difficult to be affected by the sentiment. There are traits of an erotic thriller creeping into the film at times, but in Jolie’s attempt to be as tastefully arty as possible in the film’s depiction of sex, the film avoids straight-up appealing to any base instincts. Veteran French actor Niels Arestrup is wholly believable as Michel, the aging restaurant proprietor who is mourning the recent death of his wife, but his dialogue contains little more than vague aphorisms about marriage.

            By the Sea may boast the wattage of a Hollywood megastar couple and it might have an air of class about it, but when it comes down to it, this film is a great deal like those Adam Sandler movies that he’s admitted are basically paid vacations. Believe it or not, Jolie and Pitt were not the only things that made Mr. & Mrs. Smith enjoyable. It was a tongue-in-cheek action comedy that was buoyed by their undeniable chemistry and boosted by the swirling rumours of romance on the set, rumours that were soon confirmed. Ten years on, now that the pair are officially married, it’s not scandalous or even particularly romantic, just moderately aggravating. It’s odd, but seeing Jolie and Pitt in a relationship that has lost most of its spark is even more cloying and cringe-inducing than seeing them all lovey-dovey.



Summary:Spectacularly self-indulgent and utterly pointless, By the Sea is ample proof that a real-life relationship alone is a very flimsy foundation on which to build a romantic movie.

RATING: 1.5out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Focus

For F*** Magazine

FOCUS

Director : Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Cast : Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, BD Wong, Robert Taylor, Adrian Martinez
Genre : Romance/Drama
Run Time : 105 mins
Opens : 26 February 2015
Rating : NC-16 (Scene of Intimacy and Coarse Language)
In Batman Begins, Henri Ducard had this piece of advice for Bruce Wayne – “always mind your surroundings”. In Focus, Will Smith plays Nicky Spurgeon, someone whose stock in trade is preying on those who don’t mind their surroundings. A seasoned, talented conman, Nicky is skilled in the art of persuasion and deception. He’s prepared for everything – everything except Jess Barrett (Robbie), an attractive young woman eager to learn the tricks of the trade and become a grifter herself. Nicky has never let down his guard and let his feelings get the better of him, but Jess gets closer than anyone else does. While Nicky is in the employ of billionaire racing team owner Garriga (Santoro), Jess’ presence threatens to throw him off his finely-honed game.

            Escapism is a large part of what makes going to the movies appealing and there’s an undeniable allure to movies that offer a peek into worlds only the privileged few have access to. Focus very effectively seduces the audience, beckoning them into a dizzying, dazzling world of lies and shiny objects. There are certain dangers associated with the subgenre of conman movies – the audience should feel like they’ve been taken on a ride, but not for a ride, the difference almost imperceptible. Nobody likes the feeling of being invested in a film for two hours only to feel played out by the big reveal. Writing-directing duo Glenn Ficarra and John Requa manage to quite masterfully negotiate that, having a firm grasp on the film’s tone throughout. It’s funny and playfully sexy, but there are stakes and the thrills click right into the proceedings where they could have easily felt out of place.

            The other danger of conman movies is that they can often come off as smug, as if the filmmakers are taking particular delight in feeling smarter than the audience. There is a little bit of that in Focus, to be sure, but that’s definitely better than if it were an altogether dumb affair. Real-life sleight-of-hand artist and “deception specialist” Apollo Robbins serves as the consultant on the film, choreographing the elaborate pickpocketing sequences which are very exciting to watch. While most of the jokes do work, there are a few too many at the expense of overweight comic relief sidekick Farhad, played by Adrian Martinez. The character also supplies more crass sexual innuendo than is strictly necessary.

            Remember how Will Smith tried to play against type as a stern, emotionless father in After Earth, to disastrous results? Focus is far more in his wheelhouse and absolutely plays to his strength as an actor. Three parts charming, one part goofy, it’s very easy to buy Smith as the shark with a heart of gold. He’s also the kind of guy who could go out with a woman 22 years his junior and it really isn’t that creepy because he’s that likeable. Margot Robbie, who impressed in The Wolf of Wall Street, is excellent here as well. Jess is simultaneously an ingénue and a femme fatale, Robbie nailing both aspects of the character. We can’t wait to see them together onscreen in next year’s Suicide Squad. At one point, Ben Affleck and Kristen Stewart were attached to star – I think we can all agree that would have had, uh, markedly different results. The devilishly handsome Rodrigo Santoro makes for a sufficiently formidable romantic rival to Smith. B.D. Wong threatens to steal the show in his one scene as an overly-excited high roller.  

            Ficarra and Requa’s previous film was the romantic comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love, which is considered one of the better examples of the genre in recent memory. With Focus, they have crafted what is almost the ideal date movie. Romantic comedies that crowbar in elements intended to appeal to men have often fallen flat on their faces – This Means War or Killers, anyone? Focus does more than serve up a shirtless Will Smith and Margot Robbie in a bikini, it attains an admirable balance of sexiness, laughs and intelligence and features a central romantic pairing that is unique and happens to really work.

Summary: Focus is sharp, slick and sexy, gliding along on the chemistry of its leads.
RATING: 4out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 


The Crossing – Part 1 (太平轮: 乱世浮生 –上)

THE CROSSING – PART 1(太平轮: 乱世浮生 –上)

Director : John Woo
Cast : Zhang Ziyi, Song Hye Kyo, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Huang Xiaoming, Tong Dawei, Masami Nagasawa, Hitomi Kuroki, Lin Mei Hsiu, Jack Kao
Genre : Romance/Drama
Run Time : 129 mins
Opens : 5 December 2014
Rating : NC-16 (Battle Scenes)
It’s been five years since the release of Red Cliff – Part 2 and director John Woo is back with the first film of another two-part historical epic, albeit one of a different stripe. It is 1945 and Chinese general Lei Yi Fang (Huang) defeats the Japanese troops, resulting in the capture of Yan Ze Kun (Kaneshiro), a Taiwanese doctor working for the Japanese army. Lei falls in love with Zhou Yun Fen (Song), who comes from a wealthy Shanghainese family. After Yan is released from the prisoner-of-war camp, he discovers his girlfriend Masako (Nagasawa) has been repatriated back to Japan. In 1948, as the Chinese Revolution begins to take shape, Lei is thrown back into the thick of battle. In the meantime, signaller Tong Daqing (Tong) has a chance encounter with volunteer nurse Yu Zhen (Zhang), with whom he is immediately smitten. Unbeknownst to him, Yu Zhen has to moonlight as a prostitute in order to make ends meet. We follow these three couples as their paths converge, leading them to the Taiping, a Chinese steamer bound for Taiwan, a last ray of hope as the Revolution heats up.

            Everyone has been referring to this film as the Chinese equivalent of Titanic. Well, that will have to wait until Part 2. First, we have to sit through what can be described as the Chinese equivalent of Pearl Harbour, a big, tragic wartime romance. Just as Michael Bay, a filmmaker known for bombastic action films, struggled with the hokey romance in Pearl Harbour, John Woo seems to have difficulty reconciling the tender love stories with the battlefield carnage in The Crossing – Part 1. The film lurches awkwardly from bodies being blasted apart in combat to lovers casting longing glances at each other, without ever really gelling. This is a decidedly unsubtle film and to call it “overwrought” would be an understatement. Every last wartime romance cliché in the book is flung into Wang Hui-ling’s screenplay – there’s even a “wife writes a love letter as we cut to the husband caught in battle” scene. This isn’t just cheesy, it’s cheese that’s set on fire and one can almost hear director Woo exclaiming “Saganaki!” in the background.

            Yes, this can be called “lush”, with faithful period recreations of post-war Shanghai and explosive battle scenes, but the beautiful cinematography by Zhao Fei is undercut by stilted editing and transitions, not to mention gobs of slow-motion even where it’s plainly unnecessary. The film’s pacing suffers in places and it is often painfully obvious that things are being padded out so the story can be split into two films. This is a war movie that features a subplot in which a woman struggles to compose a song for her husband. While it is evident that this is a big-budget production (by Mainland Chinese film standards), there are lapses in production values such as some unconvincing digital seagulls. We saw the 2D version but even then, a moment in which a tank hatch hurtles straight at the audience is embarrassingly gimmicky. If you have a thing for trucks flipping over as they explode, then the climactic battle between the Nationalists and Communists will leave you satisfied.

            The three male leads are appealingly charming in their own ways. Huang Xiaoming is classically heroic and dashing, Takeshi Kaneshiro has the sexy/vulnerable thing down pat and Tong Dawei’s goofy earnestness does provide welcome respite from the heaviness of the rest of the film. Unfortunately, the female characters are somewhat side-lined and mostly relegated to the role of “pining for significant other while he is out at war”. Of the women in the film, Zhang Ziyi has the most significant role, paring down her usual glamour to play the poor, illiterate Yu Zhen. Of the three central relationships, that between Tong Daqing and Yu Zhen is the most interesting – having never met before, Daqing takes a phony “family photo” with Yu Zhen and a random baby so he can be granted extra rations. It’s a shame that Lei Yi Fang and Zhou Yun Feng’s love story is downright dreary in comparison.

            The Crossing – Part 1 is a better war movie than it is a sweeping romance, and even then it isn’t an outstanding war movie at all. Constructed as a crowd-pleasing historical epic, the film’s transitions from brutal war violence to soppy sentimentality are jarring to say the least. John Woo is in his element for less than half the time here and at least there’s an all-star cast to enact all the shop-worn tropes. Here’s hoping Part 2, centred on the sinking of the Taiping itself, is more focused.


Summary: The Crossing – Part 1 is unsuccessful at being a passionate romantic epic and fares only slightly better as an explosive war movie. Also, you’ll have to wait until May 2015 for any actual “crossing” to happen.
RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

But Always (一生一世)

For F*** Magazine

BUT ALWAYS (一生一世) 

Director : Snow Zou
Cast : Nicholas Tse, Gao Yuanyuan, Du Haitao, Alice Li, Luo Shi, Qin Hao
Genre : Drama/Romance
Opens : 4 September 2014
Rating : TBA
Running time: 106 mins
 

         Paris may be the city of love, but many find New York pretty romantic too. Well, parts of New York, anyway. In this romantic drama from director Snow Zou, long-lost childhood sweethearts Yongyuan (Tse) and Anran (Gao) find themselves reunited in the Big Apple – she studying biomedical engineering in Columbia with a restaurant dishwasher job on the side and he branching out his self-made textile manufacturing business to the States. The film tracks their childhoods in rural Beijing in the 70s and early 80s, to when they journey separately to America in the 90s. Of course, it’s far from smooth sailing for the couple – having parted on less-than-amicable terms, Yongyuan arrives in New York to find his long-time paramour in a relationship with struggling artist and restaurant co-worker Michael (Qin). With the support of his friends and business partners (Du and Li) who have accompanied him to New York, Yongyuan sets about winning Anran’s heart once again.

            The subject of childhood sweethearts rekindling their romances has always been a popular one; the upcoming Nicholas Sparks adaptation The Best of Me revolves around this too. Writer-director Snow Zuo adds to this formula the element of lovers reuniting in a foreign land, but this is hardly the first film to do that either. But Always is pretty to look at, cinematographer Li Bingqiang favouring lots sunlight streaming in through the windows in soft focus. Its opening scenes, which feature moments like young Anran buying young Yongyuan a stick of haw fruit candy, are cute but also most certainly cloying. It’s all very earnest and innocently cheesy.

However, as But Always progresses, it wades into ever-deepening pools of melodrama – cue the maudlin pop ballad montages. Things go from being merely hokey to emotionally manipulative and actually kind of tasteless by the time the twist ending rolls around. It’s not even that shocking, given that the movie telegraphs this with its in medias res prologue. Very few films can open with a scene from its conclusion without giving the whole game away – Inception is the only one that immediately comes to mind. We’re probably going into mild spoiler territory so skip past this paragraph if you wish, but we’ll pose this question – remember the ending of Remember Me and how it was called “borderline offensive”? Yeah, you can bet But Always is going to ruffle at least a few feathers, particularly since it will also be released stateside.


But Always marks heartthrob Nicholas Tse’s return as a romantic leading man after spending the last several years of his film career in period pieces like Bodyguards and Assassinsand The Bullet Vanishes and action flicks like Invisible Target and The Viral Factor. He is suitably dreamy here, whether he’s serving breakfast in bed like all fantasy boyfriends do or when he’s chivalrously sheltering his gal in the rain. We also get to glimpse those rippling abs and there is a rather amusing moment during a love scene when the camera seems like it’s about to get lost in his scapulae. Unfortunately, he can’t seem to muster up the necessary chemistry with Gao Yuanyuan. She puts in a bland performance; all those distant forlorn glances not quite enough to sell the yearning and passion that is central to the story.

But Always tries to use its New York setting to distinguish itself from the other romantic dramas that come out of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Well, New York is just about the most-filmed city in the world. We get our main characters strolling through Central Park – which isn’t all that exciting, really. For the most part, anachronisms are avoided, but a few inevitably pop up. Speaking of the 90s setting, the flavour of that decade never really permeates the film, TV news coverage of the Hong Kong handover ceremony and of Princess Diana’s death being the most specific references we get – until that cringe-worthy ending. That’s when But Always crosses the line from being mawkish to being shameless.


Summary: It’s pretty to look at and Nicholas Tse turns up the charm, but this is a movie that gets cheesier and cheesier until it smacks the audience upside the head with its overwrought ending.
RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong