The Young Messiah

For F*** Magazine 

THE YOUNG MESSIAH

Director : Cyrus Nowrasteh
Cast : Adam Greaves-Neal, Sara Lazzaro, Vincent Walsh, Christian McKay, Sean Bean, David Bradley, Jonathan Bailey, Rory Keenan
Genre : Drama/Biblical
Run Time : 111 mins
Opens : 24 March 2016
Rating : PG (Some Violence)

The Bible doesn’t give us many details about Jesus’ childhood. We jump from the Nativity to Jesus at age 12 speaking to the temple elders and then skip to Him at age 30. This Biblical drama attempts to offer a glimpse into the life of the Holy Family, with young Jesus at its centre.

Our story finds Jesus (Greaves-Neal) at seven years of age. He has lived in Alexandria, Egypt with his parents Joseph (Walsh) and Mary (Lazzaro) since they fled Israel, when King Herod the Great decreed that all boys aged under two be slaughtered. Acting on a vision he has received, Joseph takes Mary and Jesus back to Nazareth. The family unit also includes Jesus’ cousin/adopted brother James (Finn Ireland), Joseph’s brother Cleopas (McKay) and Cleopas’ wife Miriam (Agni Scott). The new king, Herod the Great’s son Herod Antipas (Bailey), charges Roman centurion Severus (Bean) with tracking down and killing the young Jesus, after hearing rumours of a boy performing miracles. In treacherous times, the Young Messiah must come to grips with the truth about why He is on this earth.

The Young Messiah is based on the novel Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, by Anne Rice. Rice, known for her vampire novels, has had a fascinating personal journey, having been raised Roman Catholic, leaving the religion at age 18, returning to Catholicism in 1998, then distancing herself from Christianity at large in 2010, expressing her grievances with the state of organised Christianity. Unfortunately, The Young Messiah is not quite as interesting a story, and it’s easy to see why the filmmakers were boxed in. First, there’s the fact that the Holy Family is revered by large numbers, and their depiction cannot offend the sensibilities of the faithful. Second, there’s the “prequel trap” – we already know where Jesus ends up, so it will take a fair bit to get us invested in this story set earlier in His life. Working within these boundaries, the tale can’t help but feel stifled and slow at times.

The Young Messiah is directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh, an American filmmaker of Persian descent. He adapted Rice’s novel into a screenplay alongside his wife Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh. Nowrasteh’s work has attracted controversy in the past; he wrote the docu-drama miniseries The Path to 9/11 alongside his wife and also wrote and directed The Stoning of Soraya M., about the human rights crisis in Iran. 

Being released around Easter and marketed to believers, The Young Messiah is very tame by comparison. There is a valiant effort made to humanise the Holy Family without committing blasphemy, and the anguish experienced by Joseph and Mary as they make sense of how to bring up God incarnate does have some emotional resonance. The family dynamics get fleshed out to a satisfactory degree, even if nothing quite riveting comes of it. Considerable stakes are established, but because we know it’s not Jesus’ time to die yet, none of them actually take hold. The way Mary and Joseph talk about Jesus’ abilities in hushed tones, it seems like a bald guy in a chrome wheelchair will show up at any moment to whisk Jesus to a school for gifted youngsters.

Portraying Jesus Christ, a widely-worshipped religious figure, is a challenge for any actor, seeing as how different theologians and believers at large view Him differently. Portraying Jesus as a child has its own set of challenges on top of that. How human is too human? How “wise beyond His years” is too much? What should Jesus’ level of awareness of His divinity be exactly? Should the young Jesus be innocent and filled with hope, or already world-weary and burdened with His destiny? For Greaves-Neal, known to Sherlock fans as the pageboy Archie from The Sign of Three, it’s all too much to parse. He seems unable to eloquently package this into a performance, so unfortunately, Greaves-Neal often comes off as awkwardly stilted.

Walsh’s Joseph is as sturdy and reliable as the furniture he builds and Lazarro finds an adequate blend of maternal warmth and youthful vulnerability as Mary. McKay provides some much-needed levity as the comic relief uncle without causing too jarring a tonal shift. Bean is the biggest name by far here and seems reluctant to be present, trundling through his part as the designated antagonist. When Herod Antipas is berating Severus for failing in his mission on the first try, Bean mutters “yes, my lord, I understand. It’s difficult,” with a laughable flatness. Bailey’s flamboyant, fey portrayal of Herod Antipas is silly rather than threatening. Keenan’s character, credited as “the Demon”, can only be seen by Jesus, wears eyeliner and a black cloak and is first seen crunching on an apple. Subtle.

The production values are passable – the film was shot on location in Matera, Italy, which has doubled for ancient Israel in numerous Biblical movies before. By focusing on Jesus at age seven, The Young Messiah treads ground that has not been covered countless times in earlier Biblical productions. It should play relatively well to faithful audiences, depending on one’s specific beliefs – for example, there are some who hold to the idea that Jesus did not perform miracles prior to turning the water into wine at the wedding of Cana, and here we see the young Jesus work wonders long before that incident. There is a “preaching to the choir” quotient here, if not as overwhelmingly as in other faith-based films, but it’s unlikely to result in mass conversions in the cinema.

Summary: The Young Messiah has to play by established rules and thus cannot take any significant risks in its portrayal of Jesus’ childhood. It’s almost moving at times, but clunky at others.

RATING: 2.5out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

The Martian

For F*** Magazine

THE MARTIAN

Director : Ridley Scott
Cast : Matt Damon, Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, Benedict Wong
Genre : Sci-Fi/Adventure
Run Time : 142 mins
Opens : 1 October 2015
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language and Disturbing Scenes)

Someone alert David Bowie – there is life on Mars after all. It comes in the form of astronaut Mark Watney (Damon), who is stranded on the planet after being presumed dead when a sandstorm strikes his crew. The rest of the Ares III astronauts, Lewis (Chastain), Martinez (Peña), Johanssen (Mara), Beck (Stan) and Vogel (Hennie) are bound for home, unaware that Watney is still alive. Watney is left to fend for himself, drawing on every ounce of resourcefulness as he makes the most out of extremely limited supplies, eking out an existence on Mars. Back on earth, NASA director Teddy Sanders (Daniels), Mars missions director Vincent Kapoor (Ejiofor), public relations manager Annie Montrose (Wiig), Jet Propulsion Lab director Bruce Ng (Wong) and others labour over devising a rescue plan once they discover Watney did not die as they had believed. In the face of sheer adversity, the “Martian” must survive and work towards finally coming home. 
The Martian is based on Andy Weir’s 2011 novel of the same name, which was lauded for being thoroughly researched. There exists a scale, albeit a subjective one, of science fiction “hardness”, with something like Guardians of the Galaxy on the “soft” side and 2001: A Space Odyssey on the “hard” side. The Martian is a rare big-budget Hollywood hard sci-fi film and it emerges triumphant. Director Ridley Scott hasn’t had a spotless track record, coming off last year’s below-average Biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings. His previous sci-fi film, 2012’s Prometheus, proved hugely divisive. With most of the key crew from Prometheus including director of photography Dariusz Wolski, editor Pietro Scalia, production designer Arthur Max and costume designer Janty Yates returning, Scott has managed to more than redeem himself. 
The Martian boasts a sweeping, epic majesty juxtaposed with the intimate tale of one man’s survival. Jordan’s Wadi Rum seems to have made a steady career doubling for the fourth planet from the sun in films like Mission to Mars, Red Planet, The Last Days on Mars and this one. While everything does look a little too slick and Hollywood-ised, there’s still a sense of authenticity, the harsh environs and the sheer remoteness of the Martian landscape driving home how slim Watney’s chances of making it out alive are. Real-life NASA staffers must be drooling at seeing manned Mars missions depicted so gloriously on the big screen, given how bureaucracy, a lack of funds and myriad other obstacles stand in the way of this actually being realized. The 3D effects are superb, most noticeably when we get to see astronauts floating through the long hallways of their spacecraft and in the exterior shots of the detailed and realistic Hermes ship drifting through space. 
Screenwriter Drew Goddard adapted Weir’s novel for the screen, and on paper, The Martian certainly sounds like it could be boring, with too many finicky technical details potentially holding the viewer at arm’s length. A good portion of the story unfolds in voice-overs that are packed with scientific exposition, but there is just as much showing as there is telling and the script is light enough on its feet, not getting weighed down by the “boring stuff”. This is a film that celebrates and champions science, all of its characters being the best and brightest. It’s also an extremely human survival story that almost defiantly refuses to spiral into mawkish sentimentality, while still hitting many emotional beats. Perhaps most surprisingly, The Martian is extremely funny. There are stakes and dire straits, but the tone is pleasantly upbeat and optimistic throughout. Sean Bean even gets to make a Lord of the Rings reference, sending many audience members in this reviewer’s screening howling with laughter. 
The Martian has been described as Apollo 13 meets Cast Away, and both films happen to star Tom Hanks. Here, Damon exudes an irresistible likeability that gives even Hanks a run for his money. Watney’s indomitable spirit and how he keeps his sense of humour intact throughout his ordeal keep us keen in seeing him alive. We cheer each instance in which his MacGyvering succeeds and wince whenever he’s hit by another setback. “Mars will come to fear my botany powers,” Watney jokingly proclaims as he sets about growing potatoes. Naturally, there are moments of introspection in which Watney considers the magnitude of his plight, and Damon is able to play those moments earnestly and compellingly. 
While the film is squarely Damon’s to carry, Scott has assembled a robust supporting cast to back him up. Cheesy as it sounds, there is something inspiring about seeing so many people put their heads together in working towards a common goal. Chastain proudly carries on the tradition of capable female characters in Ridley Scott movies, her Commander Melissa Lewis steely yet calm, a natural leader with an amusing penchant for 70s disco music. As NASA director Teddy Sanders, Daniels is the hard-nosed, pragmatic bureaucrat, but in his hands, the character does not become the stereotypical authority figure who’s standing in everyone’s way. Ejiofor does his share of hand-wringing, but it makes sense given the immense pressure on his character. Wiig is fine in a role that is not overtly comedic, though her presence at Mission Control might be distracting to those familiar with her prolific comedic exploits. 
There are places where the film falls back on formulaic genre trappings: the pilot Martinez tells engineer Johanssen to explain something “in English”; there are many scenes where characters take objects like pens and salt shakers and use them as stand-ins for spacecraft and planets in demonstrating manoeuvres and Donald Glover shows up as a hyperactive genius prone to Eureka moments. That said, it is remarkable just how refreshing The Martian is. In this day and age, it seems everything has been done before, especially in big sci-fi blockbusters. That The Martian manages to be so unique and engaging is certainly commendable. In telling the story of the efforts to bring Mark Watney home, Scott has hit a home run. 
Summary: A thrilling, surprisingly funny survival film with a grounding in actual science, The Martian features one of Matt Damon’s most charming performances to date and is a joyous ode to the merits of ingenuity and perseverance. 
RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong 

Pixels

For F*** Magazine

PIXELS

Director : Chris Columbus
Cast : Adam Sandler, Michelle Monaghan, Josh Gad, Kevin James, Jane Krakowski, Peter Dinklage, Brian Cox, Ashley Benson, Sean Bean, James Preston Roger
Genre : Comedy/Sci-Fi
Run Time : 106 mins
Opens : 13 August 2015
Rating : PG

Beloved characters from days of gaming past are no longer confined to arcade cabinets, rampaging through the streets and tearing across the skies in this sci-fi action comedy. When aliens invade earth in the guise of classic arcade characters like Galaga and Pac-Man, President Will Cooper (James) calls upon his childhood best friend Sam Brenner (Sandler) to combat the threat. Brenner was once a Pac-Man champion, but was beaten at Donkey Kong by his rival Eddie Plant (Dinklage), who is provisionally released from prison to help fight the aliens. Rounding out the team is the mal-adjusted conspiracy theorist Ludlow Lamonsoff (Gad), who has an unhealthy obsession with buxom video game character Lady Lisa (Benson). They answer to Lieutenant Colonel Violet Van Patten (Monaghan), who has helped develop cutting-edge light ray guns to use against the invaders. Brenner and his team, branded “The Arcaders”, are all that stands in the way of the disintegration of the planet. 

Pixels is based on Patrick Jean’s 2010 short film that quickly became an internet sensation. It’s not the first good idea that has been completely mishandled by Adam Sandler and his Happy Madison production company, nor will it be the last. It’s an utter disappointment that Sandler got his hands on this – it may seem fashionable to hate on the actor/producer, but it’s completely understandable that many filmgoers are not swayed by his frat boy humour and his penchant for varying shades of prejudice in his movies. His lack of popularity is such that there have even been only semi-joking conspiracy theories that his films are elaborate money laundering schemes. Director Chris Columbus does not have a spotless track record, but having directed the first two Harry Potter and Home Alone movies, is more successful than Sandler oft-collaborators Dennis Dugan and Frank Coraci. This gave this reviewer a glimmer of hope that Pixels would end up better than other Sandler movies. This glimmer was quickly extinguished. 

This is especially a shame considering the technical polish with which Pixels is made. The visual effects work, supervised by Matthew Butler and produced by Denise Davis, is excellent and some of the imagery is eye-catching and inventive. A battle against the Centipede from the Atari game of the same name is an absolute blast and the film makes great use of stereoscopic effects, with visual gags like the game scores floating off the screen. The sequence in which our heroes hop into kitted-out Mini Coopers (with the license plates “Pinky”, “Inky”, “Blinky” and “Clyde”) to fight Pac-Man in a high-speed skirmish on the streets of New York is plenty of fun as well, even if it owes a huge debt to Ghostbusters

This might have worked with a different plot and different characters, because the characters are generally very unlikeable. Sandler stars as a ne’er-do-well home theatre system installer, his ego overwhelmingly apparent as he’s cast himself as the underdog who is “the only man for the job” and is eventually adored by the public as an international hero. Kevin James is the least believable movie president since Charlie Sheen in Machete Kills. Granted, it’s supposed to be a joke, but the casting of a credible actor as the President would have given the film at least some grounding, because if it’s all a joke, then the stakes are diminished. 


Josh Gad plays the stereotypical basement-dwelling, mouth-breathing nerd, who actually seems to have some very serious issues that we’re supposed to laugh at instead of be concerned about. It’s a shame that the character is as loathsome and unimaginative a caricature as he is, since Gad has displayed a fair amount of charm in other roles. Peter Dinklage is similarly wasted as the show-boating Eddie Plant, who was apparently modelled after real-life Pac-Man and Donkey Kong champion Billy Mitchell. Dinklage is clearly having a lot of fun in the role, but his character is so repulsive that’s it’s difficult to enjoy his performance. Part of Eddie’s terms in order to help the government fight the aliens is that he gets to have a threesome with two unlikely female celebrities, a joke which is followed up on instead of being treated as an absurd and offensive request. 

This brings us to the lead female character, Michelle Monaghan’s Lt. Col. Van Patten. We’re left picking at scraps, and at the very least, this reviewer is grateful that there’s a woman in a position of power in the film and Monaghan carries herself with as much dignity as she can. Of course, there’s an inane romantic subplot involving Van Patten and Brenner, complete with the “they start out hating each other!” romantic comedy arc. Ludlow’s slobbering obsession with the Red Sonja-esque Lady Lisa is nauseating, and one of the takeaways of the film is that women are trophies who can be won and owned. On top of that, there are multiple casual sexist remarks, such that the film’s atrocious attitude towards women is impossible to ignore. Not content with being flagrantly misogynistic, Pixels also tosses in a stereotypical portrayal of Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani (Denis Akiyama) and a nigh-incomprehensible, buffoonish British Prime Minister (Penelope Wilton). A scene set in India takes place in front of the Taj Mahal, because how else are audiences supposed to recognise that it’s India otherwise? 

Pixels is Adam Sandler’s attempt to hop on the geek bandwagon in a bid to cash in on the retro nostalgia trend. The film bombed upon its opening in the U.S., another blow for Sony just as the studio has been reeling from a massive cyber-attack. This could have been excellent in the hands of someone with a genuine love for classic arcade games, a passion that was palpable in Wreck-It Ralph, which was fuelled with lots of heart and had jokes that were actually funny instead of offensive and cringe-worthy. Animated sci-fi comedy series Futurama also did the “aliens attack earth in the guise of video game characters” plot way back in 2002 – and, needless to say, far better. It’s truly a shame that all Pixels amounts to is Adam Sandler hurling barrels at the audience for two hours. 



Summary: Pixels has Adam Sandler’s grubby fingerprints all over it, smearing a fun premise and some engaging visuals with crass, tasteless jokes and unlikeable characters.

RATING: 1.5 out of 5 Stars 


Jedd Jong 

Jupiter Ascending

For F*** Magazine

JUPITER ASCENDING 

Director : Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Cast : Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, Sean Bean
Genre : Sci-Fi/Action/Fantasy
Opens : 5 February 2015

It seems that The Wachowskis enjoyed working on the futuristic “An Orison of Sonmi~451” section of Cloud Atlas, because with Jupiter Ascending, Lana and Andy go full-on sci-fi space opera. The title refers not only to the planet but also to the character Jupiter Jones (Kunis). The daughter of an astronomer and a Russian immigrant, Jones lives with her mother’s extended family and works as a maid, scrubbing toilets for rich families. Interplanetary warrior Caine Wise (Tatum) arrives on earth to guide and protect Jupiter, who is in reality the reincarnation of the queen of the universe. The queen’s three children, Balem (Redmayne), Titus (Booth) and Kalique (Middleton) Abrasax, are vying for inheritance of the planet earth, Jupiter’s emergence throwing a spanner in the works. Breaking free of her mundane existence, Jupiter comes face to face with her larger-than-life future among the stars.

            A friend of this reviewer remarked that she thought Jupiter Ascendingwas an adaptation of a young adult novel, and it’s not hard to see why. The Wachowskis follow the “chosen girl” template to the letter, with the Mary Sue trope of an ordinary girl who discovers her extraordinary destiny in full effect. The foremost example of the space opera subgenre in film is the Star Wars saga – unfortunately, Jupiter Ascending has more in common with the prequel trilogy than the original three films. The Star Wars prequels were preoccupied with political nitty-gritties that didn’t exactly make for very thrilling storytelling. There, it was trade negotiations, here, it’s a dynasty-run corporation. A good portion of this film is Mila Kunis about to sign contracts. With the three siblings jostling for control of an intergalactic corporate empire, this is Dallas in outer space.

            While the story isn’t the greatest, the milieu in which it takes place is quite impressive. This is a visual feast and everywhere one looks in Jupiter Ascending, care and effort is evident. From the production design by Hugh Bateup to the costume design by Kym Barrett to the visual effects work supervised by Dan Glass, this does not feel like hastily slapped-together sci-fi schlock. Sure, the visual ideas may not be earth-shatteringly unique, but this is the kind of film in which every little prop feels like a work of art. When there are low budget productions out there painting NERF guns black and hoping the audience doesn’t notice, that is worth something. A scene in which Caine swoops between skyscrapers on anti-gravity boots makes far better use of the Chicago skyline as an action sequence environment than the Transformers movies ever did. One of the locales is a city inside the storm of the planet Jupiter’s red spot. There is the feeling that there is a rich mythology and the potential for an engrossing universe somewhere waiting to be built upon that this particular story doesn’t tap into.


            There is an effort made to have Jupiter Jones be at least a little more than the tabula rasa protagonists of her type often are – Mila Kunis is sufficiently charming in the role and finds the right balance for the character such that she doesn’t come off as wholly annoying. We also get to see her relatives, their squabbles juxtaposed against the grand intergalactic family dispute. Points there, seeing as it would be easier to go the “conveniently an orphan” route. That said, it is still difficult to buy Jupiter as little more than a plot device.

            Caine is also very much a stock character – stoic, tough, not necessarily a romantic guy. We stand by the opinion that Channing Tatum’s true calling is comedy and he’s not the greatest at the straight-up man of action thing, but he does give it a good attempt here. He does look slightly goofy playing a space warrior spliced with wolf DNA and, naturally, he goes shirtless for a portion of the film. Going off Eddie Redmayne’s performance here alone, it’s hard to believe that he is an Oscar nominee. As the supercilious aristocratic villain, Redmayne opts for a hoarse, mumbling line delivery and his outbursts aren’t as hammily entertaining as this reviewer was hoping for. Douglas Booth’s Titus is preening and vain; these just aren’t very original interpretations for characters of this type. Sean Bean is as reliable as he usually is, but as “the mentor”, it’s another stock character without many dimensions to him.

            When Jupiter Ascending was pushed back from its summer 2014 release date, speculation was rife that it was because of a certain Marvel space opera flick that posed heavy competition and there and then, many made up their minds that the film would be a train-wreck. While there are potentially laughable elements, Jupiter Ascending is middle of the road rather than outright terrible and it is very competently made. The abundance of visual splendour does make up somewhat for the “been there done that”-ness of the plot.

Summary: Jupiter Ascending’s generic, sometimes uninteresting plot is rescued by exciting, meticulously-crafted visuals and fun action sequences.
RATING: 3out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong