It

For inSing

IT 

Director : Andy Muschietti
Cast : Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgård, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Nicholas Hamilton, Jackson Robert Scott
Genre : Horror/Thriller
Run Time : 2h 15m
Opens : 7 September 2017
Rating : NC16 (Horror and violence)

Stephen King’s creation Pennywise the Dancing Clown is one of the best-known evil clowns in popular culture, and rears his grinning head again in this big screen adaptation of King’s 1986 novel It.

Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) is the default appearance of an evil entity known as It, that exploits and feeds on the specific fears of its victims. Pennywise is responsible for a spate of disappearing children in the town of Derry, Maine. Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) is one such child, and his brother Billy (Jaeden Lieberher) has been investigating Georgie’s disappearance. Billy is the de facto leader of The Losers’ Club, a collection of outcast kids that includes Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Beverly (Sophia Lillis), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Stanley (Waytt Oleff), Mike (Chosen Jacobs) and Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer). The group is tormented by a gang of bullies called the Bowers gang, led by the cruel, unhinged Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton). As the Losers’ Club goes about solving the mystery of the disappearing children, they uncover the dark history of Derry, with It/Pennywise seemingly at the centre of horrific events in the town’s past. This collection of misfits must band together to defeat an unimaginable evil and put a stop to its reign of terror.

This remake of It has long been anticipated, with a few bumps on the road on its way to the screen: director Cary Fukunaga was replaced by Andy Muschietti, and Will Poulter was originally cast as Pennywise, but was replaced by Skarsgård. The result shows no trace of any behind-the-scenes tumult. Muschietti establishes the period and place in which the story takes place, building the mythology without it feeling tedious and drawing the audience in. The characters are easy to care about and relate to, and there is intent in how each scene links to the next.

Muschietti pulls off quite the tonal balancing act: It is variously heart-warming, funny, even romantic, and yes – extremely scary. The humour derived from a bunch of kids hanging out and the friendly ribbing that arises from their friendship does not undercut or diminish the visceral, lingering horror that saturates the film. While there are the expected jump scares and the soundtrack is trying a little too hard to startle the audience, much of what makes this movie frightening is finely calibrated and well thought-out. There’s a whole bag of tricks here, such that the scares do not feel repetitive or stale. The set-piece involving a slide projector is an especially elegant, effective moment.

With Tim Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise from the miniseries being as iconic as it is, it would be difficult for anyone to step into those oversized shoes. Skarsgård turns in a menacing performance that is minimally campy. The redesign, which highlights how Pennywise has been around since the earliest days of Derry’s formation, is unsettling and is more understated than the classic Pennywise look. There’s some creepy physicality, and the different manifestations of It have elements that make them as scary as It’s Pennywise mode in their own way.

The Losers’ Club is one of the great assemblies of kid heroes, not unlike the boys in King’s Stand By Me. The characters are brought to life by a talented cast, led by Lieberher of Midnight Special fame. His portrayal of the stuttering Billy is sincere and intense, and he’s far from the ‘boring hero’ type one would expect to be leading a team. Wolfhard, best known as Mike on Stranger Things, steals the show as the loudmouth Richie, who is always handy with an insult. The characters appear to be defined by superficial traits, but are mostly meaningfully developed as the film progresses.

Lillis is destined to be the breakout star of the bunch: the camera adores her, and she handles some of the film’s most challenging and emotional scenes with admirable confidence. All the boys are immediately smitten with Beverly, and the way she integrates herself into the Losers’ Club, becoming a driving force, is compelling. Most of the adults in the film are either creepy or downright evil, with Beverly’s abusive father Alvin (Stephen Bogaert) being the foremost example. This plot point is handled without being gratuitously exploitative.

Packed with potent imagery, a finely-honed mythology, terrific performances from young actors and flat-out terrifying creepy clown, It ranks as one of the finest film adaptations of King’s work. It evokes nostalgia without relying solely on it and those who grew up in the 80s will recognise certain references, but enjoyment of the film is not contingent on that. Regardless of one’s background or prior familiarity with the source material, It is an affecting, haunting work.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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American Made

For F*** Magazine

AMERICAN MADE 

Director : Doug Liman
Cast : Tom Cruise, Sarah Wright Olsen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jayma Mays, Jesse Plemons, Lola Kirke, Lara Grice, Jed Rees, Caleb Landry Jones
Genre : Biopic/Comedy/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 55m
Opens : 31 August 2017
Rating : M18 (Sexual Scene And Coarse Language)

As the star of the Mission: Impossible franchise, Tom Cruise has performed many daring stunts. In American Made, he plays someone who, by his own admission, leaps before he looks. It is 1978, and TWA pilot Barry Seal (Cruise) is recruited by CIA operative Schaefer (Gleeson) to take surveillance photos of communist rebels in South America. Soon, Seal is tasked with supplying the Nicaraguan Contras with American-supplied arms. Seal is also hired by the Medellín Cartel, transporting shipments of cocaine from Colombia and Panama to the United States. Seal’s wife Lucy (Wright Olsen) and their young children relocate from Baton Rouge, Louisiana to Mena, Arkansas. Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport becomes the base of operations for Seal’s burgeoning concern, as Seal rakes in the cash and evades the long arm of the law by becoming a DEA informant and operative. As a player in a game with dizzyingly high stakes, it will take all of Seal’s wits to keep him from crashing and burning.

American Made reteams Cruise with his Edge of Tomorrow director Doug Liman, who crafts a free-wheeling retro comedy thriller which is as engaging as it is entertaining. This is based on a true story, and you might know the name ‘Barry Seal’ from films and TV shows like Doublecrossed, The Infiltrator and Narcos. American Made certainly feels like the ‘Hollywood version’ of Seal’s story: despite the twists and turns, the narrative is so straightforward as to feel simplified and streamlined to keep things moving along. This is to say nothing of the fact that Cruise doesn’t resemble the real-life Barry Seal, who was pudgy and balding, in the slightest.

However, the way the film is assembled and the way screenwriter Gary Spinelli structures the plot, it’s easy to get swept up in the proceedings. Much of the comedy is derived from the inherent absurdity of the situations that Seal gets caught up in, and the film open acknowledges how crazy everything is without coming off as too flippant. It’s comparable in tone to 1990’s Air America, which starred Robert Downey Jr. and Mel Gibson as unwitting drug smuggling pilots during the Vietnam War.

Liman has considerable fun with the film’s style: the opening Universal Studios logo is interrupted by the old-school logo from the 70s, and the other production companies get retro-fied logos too. Uruguayan cinematographer César Charlone of City of God fame provides a mix of slick sweeping aerial shots and 70s-style handheld closeups, with the heat of the South American jungles radiating off the screen. The plane pursuit sequences are realistic and hair-raising, but came at a cost. Tragically, stunt pilot Alan D. Purwin and his Venezuelan co-pilot, Carlos Berl, died in a crash caused by foggy weather near Medellin, Colombia.

Barry Seal was a cog in a much larger machine, but this film places him front and centre and the film is Cruise’s to carry the whole way. The embarrassing dud that was this year’s reboot of The Mummy made some feel that Cruise’s star power was starting to wane, but American Made sees him back in top form. As the morally ambiguous charming rogue who’s in over his head but loving it, the Seal character is right in Cruise’s wheelhouse.

Cruise eclipses everyone else in the movie, such that the supporting players barely make an impact. Gleeson affects a convincing American accent as CIA operative Schaefer, who registers as a cipher and a composite character of some kind. Wright Olsen is, as expected from films of this type, relegated to the role of ‘the wife’, fretting over her husband’s questionable activities but eager to enjoy the lifestyle that said activities fund. Caleb Landry Jones visibly enjoys playing Lucy’s troublemaking, ne’er-do-well brother, whose sloppiness puts Seal in danger of being found out. It all revolves around Cruise and the other characters seem incidental, reinforcing the ideal of Seal as a mythic antihero around whom other forces revolve. It’s fine because Cruise’s performance more than anchors the film, but it does remind us that we’re watching a movie, detracting some authenticity from the real story.

American Made is a movie that’s powered by Cruise’s megawatt grin. Because it’s pitched as a comedy, the murky morality never becomes something audiences will think too deeply about. We’re invited to join the antihero on the ride of his life, and Liman spins an engrossing, invigorating yarn. With Cruise in the cockpit, this ride is an eminently enjoyable one.

Summary: A high-spirited biopic that packs in the laughs and thrills, American Made doesn’t delve deeply enough into the political intrigue to be very substantive, but it’s an entertaining, well-made Tom Cruise vehicle all the same.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Bad Batch

For F*** Magazine

THE BAD BATCH 

Director : Ana Lily Amirpour
Cast : Suki Waterhouse, Jason Momoa, Yolonda Ross, Keanu Reeves, Jim Carrey, Diego Luna, Giovanni Ribisi, Jayda Fink
Genre : Romance/Sci-Fi
Run Time : 1h 58m
Opens : 20 July 2017
Rating : M18 (Some Disturbing Scenes and Drug Use)

There’s something about the desert that inspires madness. Whether it’s dehydration-induced hallucination, the sense of isolation in a vast open space, or just the arid heat, the desert is fine backdrop against which madness can unfold. This twisted, post-apocalyptic fairy tale is very mad indeed.

Our heroine is Arlen (Waterhouse), who wanders across the god-forsaken Texas desert. She is part of ‘the bad batch’, individuals deemed unproductive to society, and exiled to fend for themselves. Arlen is captured by cannibals, who saw off and eat her arm and leg. Arlen manages to escape, and is taken by a Hermit (Carrey) to a settlement called Comfort. The Dream (Reeves), a drug lord, rules over Comfort, keeping his followers compliant by supplying them with illicit substances during raves. Miami Man (Momoa), one of the cannibals who kidnapped Arlen, is searching for his lost daughter Honey (Fink), who has been adopted by The Dream. A relationship fraught with tension and attraction develops between Arlen and Miami Man, as they fight for survival in an unforgiving world.

The Bad Batch is written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, who made her feature film debut with the “Iranian vampire spaghetti western” A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. The Bad Batch is hard to describe, and even harder to review. It’s destined for cult status, and VICE Creative Director Eddy Moretti, who is an executive producer on this film, dubbed Amirpour “the next Tarantino”. This is a heady, trippy experience, abstract art painted on a canvas of post-apocalyptic desolation. Often graphic when it’s not moving very slowly, it’s often a challenge to watch. While vastly more expansive than Amirpour’s first film, she’s hardly ‘gone Hollywood’ with her sophomore effort, which is almost defiantly weird. There’s an audience for this, and it would probably play well at a festival like South by Southwest, but The Bad Batch is self-indulgent and meanders without a centre to anchor it.

Waterhouse, known mainly as a model and entrepreneur, comes off like a cross between Cara Delevingne and Kristen Stewart. The visual effects used to create the illusion that Arlen is an amputee are seamless, and the yellow shorts with a winking face printed on the back is a cool visual device. There’s every opportunity for Arlen to ascend to the pantheon of badass genre movie heroines, but it seems that isn’t exactly what Amirpour had in mind. The character floats through the story, such that when she does something that directly impacts the story, it feels less significant than it should.

Momoa plays a musclebound, tattooed antihero – while this doesn’t sound like a stretch for him, it’s probably the most acting he’s done in his career. Momoa strives to evince a depth from the Miami Man character, who is a knife-wielding cannibal but also has a soft side and is a gifted artist. The relationship that develops between Arlen and Miami Man seems purposely vague and under-developed.

Reeves’ character, The Dream, who lives in luxury surrounded by a harem who bears him children, is clearly inspired by notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar. It comes off more as an odd bit of stunt casting than anything else, even if Reeve is fairly fun in the role. The raves that The Dream presides over are strongly reminiscent of music festivals like Burning Man, and it turns out that Amirpour went to Burning Man and took acid, which inspired the acid trip scene in the film.

Carrey, gaunt, grimy and nigh-unrecognisable beneath a scraggly beard, seems to relish playing the Hermit. It’s the kind of character actor part he wouldn’t have done in his comedy movie A-lister heyday, and it’s the right pitch of quirky comic relief for this movie.

The Bad Batch will remind connoisseurs of the exploitation films that came out of Italy in the 70s and 80s, or of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s trippy psychedelic westerns. Amirpour has described the film as “El Topo meets Dirty Dancing”. While there’s a seductiveness to The Bad Batch’s scorched dreaminess, the film lacks the energy and momentum to sweep the viewer up in its madness.

Summary: The Bad Batch’s peculiarity will attract some audiences but alienate others. It’s an arthouse exploitation cocktail that’s been spiked with a little something extra, and it’s very much an acquired taste.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Wish Upon

For F*** Magazine

WISH UPON 

Director : John R. Leonetti
Cast : Joey King, Ki-Hong Lee, Ryan Phillippe, Shannon Purser, Sydney Park, Daniela Barbosa, Sherilyn Fenn, Josephine Langford
Genre : Horror/Thriller
Run Time : 1hr 38min
Opens : 13 July 2017
Rating : PG13 (Horror)

Wishing upon a star seemed like a fairly harmless exercise for Pinocchio. Wishing upon a Chinese music box is a different story. In this horror flick, Clare Shannon receives a mysterious box from her father Jonathan (Phillippe), a rag-and-bone man. The box, inscribed with ancient Chinese characters, promises that it will grant the user seven wishes -for a price. Not taking its power seriously Clare uses the box to enact revenge on Darcie (Langford), who has been bullying Clare at school. She also wishes for Paul (Mitchell Slaggert), the boy she has a crush on, to fall madly in love with her. Clare’s best friends Meredith (Park) and June (Purser) get drawn into the eerie goings-on and deaths that seem to follow Clare around. Ryan (Ki-Hong Lee), who has a crush on Clare, offers to take the box to his cousin Gina (Alice Lee), so she can translate the inscription. Gina uncovers the box’s dark secret, and everyone is powerless to stop the horrors it unleashes.

Wish Upon plays on the old ‘be careful what you wish for’ adage, while also hinging on the classic horror movie device of a cursed artefact. It’s a variation on the short story The Monkey’s Paw by W. W. Jacobs, in which the titular object grants wishes but punishes the user for meddling with fate. Wish Upon also recalls the Wishmaster series with its sinister genie, and the deaths depicted are Final Destination-esque, albeit not as elaborate. As with many a teen-aimed movie before it, the dialogue strains to sound contemporary, and is sometimes unintentionally silly. Because of its PG-13 rating, Wish Upon doesn’t linger on the gruesome deaths. This means it isn’t gratuitous, but it also means that the consequences don’t carry too much weight. Final Destination let its inventive, gory deaths play out in full, because cutting away from them would diminish the selling point. Because we don’t see the deaths play out, they aren’t as unsettling or disturbing as they could’ve been.

The film also employs a familiar structure, in which in the protagonist unwittingly makes a deal with the devil – her wishes will be granted, but horrible fates will befall those she holds dear. We also get the requisite exposition-heavy scene of the characters doing a Google search to figure out what’s going on, as we are told the back-story of the music box. While the music box prop itself looks finely crafted and is reasonably spooky when it opens by itself, the accompanying mythos isn’t sufficiently interesting. The invoking of Chinese culture and superstition is meant to add a textural element, but this is under-developed. We’re relieved Wish Upon doesn’t fall back on an elderly Asian antique store owner to explain its central cursed artefact – instead, we get a tattooed young woman to fulfil that function in the plot.

Horror movies starring teenagers tend to have annoying characters, and one of Wish Upon’s strengths is that it acknowledges its heroine’s flaws while keeping her sympathetic. Having suffered from a family tragedy and being bullied by the popular kids in school, it’s easy to see why Clare might be frustrated. King, who also starred in the horror films The Conjuring and Quarantine, does a fine job as a relatable teen character. It does get to a point where one wonders why Clare isn’t more suspicious of this box that eerily unlatches and plays music on its own any earlier in the story.

Ki-Hong Lee demonstrates his ability to pass for a high-schooler at age 30, and is likeable enough as the guy whom Clare places in the dreaded friend zone. Park can come off as a little annoying, and her character seems more like she would fit in with the stuck-up popular kids than with Clare. Purser, best known as Barb from Stranger Things, is underused as “the other friend”. Twin Peaks star Sherilyn Fenn doesn’t get too much to do either. The film aims for depth in depicted the strained relationship between Clare and her father, but because Phillippe is as handsome as he is, it’s hard to buy him as a down-on-his-luck average joe digging through the trash for scraps.

Wish Upon might not be as actively grating as most teen-centric horror films of its ilk, but it’s too derivative to be truly scary. Director John R. Leonetti, who also helmed Annabelle, passes up a chance to meaningfully develop an engrossing mythology around the music box, and the ending is as unsatisfying as it is shocking. Stick around past the main-on-end titles for a sequel bait stinger scene.

Summary: The teen target audience might be spooked, but horror aficionados won’t find too much of value when they look in the cursed music box.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Dead Awake

For F*** Magazine

DEAD AWAKE 

Director : Phillip Guzman
Cast : Jocelin Donahue, Jesse Bradford, Lori Petty, Jesse Borrego, Brea Grant, James Eckhouse
Genre : Horror/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 39min
Opens : 11 May 2017
Rating : NC16 (Some Drug Use and Horror)

The heroes of this horror movie have something to get off their chests – that something is a supernatural entity known as the Night Hag. Beth Bowman (Donahue) is recovering from a substance abuse problem and has been experiencing night terrors. Beth’s boyfriend Evan (Bradford) and Beth’s twin sister Kate (also Donahue) try to get to the bottom of this, uncovering a string of mysterious incidents in which perfectly healthy people die suddenly in their sleep. While Dr. Sykes (Petty), an expert in sleep science, assures Beth and Kate that sleep paralysis is completely normal and harmless, the sisters aren’t so sure. Their search for answers takes them to the eccentric Hassan Davies (Borrego), who believes that sleep paralysis is caused by a ghoulish being who sits on people’s chests and suffocates them while they’re caught between sleep and wakefulness. Kate must confront her own demons as she attempts to defeat an eons-old evil.

Dead Awake is helmed by Texan director Phillip Guzman, and written by Jeffrey Reddick. Reddick wrote the original draft of Final Destination, and has been a long-time fan of the A Nightmare on Elm Street series. At 14, he wrote a treatment for a prequel to A Nightmare on Elm Street, which eventually landed him a job as assistant to New Line Cinema boss Robert Shaye. It stands to reason that Reddick would want to create his own sleep-centric horror series, as the phenomenon of sleep paralysis is a spooky one indeed. In Dead Awake, we are presented with the rational explanation for seemingly unexplainable deaths, before the horrifying, supernatural truth is unveiled. The problem is, Dead Awake spends far too much time explaining what sleep paralysis is, when it’s a simple concept to grasp.

One would expect the writer of Final Destination to, at the very least, devise some creative deaths. Dead Awake is cripplingly repetitive, in that there’s really only one way the Night Hag can kill – crawl onto her victims and suffocate them as they are helpless to fight back. The Night Hag is far from a distinctive movie monster, and lacks the personality that defines, say, Freddy Krueger from the Nightmare films. It’s a generic design, and the physicality of the Night Hag, who drags herself across the floor and makes jittery movements, isn’t particularly fresh either. The film’s best scene, which depicts the horrifying extent one man goes to in order to stay awake, doesn’t even feature the Night Hag.

Donahue, whom horror fans might recognise from House of the Devil and Insidious: Chapter 2, plays the dual roles of twin sisters. The film uses lo-fi techniques such as clever framing and body doubles to achieve the illusion, but it isn’t as seamless as in some other films in which one actor plays twins.

While Dead Awake avoids the common horror movie pitfall of making its characters utterly insufferable, Kate, Beth and Bradford’s Evan making for boring protagonists. Petty is wasted as a strait-laced skeptic, while Borrego’s performance borders dangerously on over-the-top.

Dead Awake tries but fails to fully exploit a premise that’s inherently disturbing sleep paralysis could happen to anybody, and has happened to many, including this reviewer. After watching Dead Awake, one should be terrified to shut one’s eyes, even for a moment. The film doesn’t burrow deep enough under one’s skin, and instead of giving the phenomenon a terrifying new dimension, instead takes away its mystique by offering a pat answer as to why sleep paralysis happens.

Summary: With its generic monster and uninteresting lead characters, Dead Awake’s potential as a truly unsettling horror flick is largely unmined.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Alien: Covenant

For F*** Magazine

ALIEN: COVENANT 

Director : Ridley Scott
Cast : Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollett, Amy Seimetz, Callie Hernandez, James Franco
Genre : Sci-Fi/Horror
Running time: 2h 3min
Release Date: 10th May 2017
Rating: M18

Five years after the divisive Prometheus, Ridley Scott takes audiences back to the realm of sci-fi horror he helped create with 1979’s Alien. It is the year 2104, 10 years after the events of Prometheus, and the colony ship Covenant is bound for the planet Origae-6. After a neutrino blast wakes the crew early, and a mysterious transmission is intercepted, Captain Christopher Oram (Crudup) decides to make a detour. Against the protests of terraforming specialist Daniels (Waterston), the Covenant sends a lander down to the planet where the transmission originated from. The android Walter (Fassbender) joins Oram, Daniels and other crew members on the expedition, as pilot Tennessee (McBride) awaits their safe return to the Covenant. On this uncharted planet, the crew encounters vicious, hitherto unknown life forms, resulting in multiple casualties. They also meet David (also Fassbender), an android who was the sole survivor of the Prometheus mission. Daniels, Oram and Walter quickly realise that the planet is home to something far more terrifying than the monsters that are pursuing them.

Prometheus left many unanswered questions in its wake. Since there are at least two more films planned after Covenant before the chronology links up to the original Alien, many of those questions remain unanswered. Alien: Covenant is executed with technical polish, boasting marvellous production values and convincing design elements. However, it is also a frustrating work. There are bits of the film that are reminiscent of Alien, and others that evoke the high-octane Aliens, but for most of its duration, Covenant is stuck in limbo between those two.

John Logan and Dante Harper penned the script, from a draft by Jack Paglen and Michael Green. It’s largely a serious-minded film and wants to be philosophical, just not as upfront with the ‘big questions’ as Prometheus was. Then, in its final act, Covenant becomes an action film, leaving audiences with the sense that the film took one-and-a-half hours to get into gear. The first time something genuinely exciting occurs, it’s 40 minutes into the movie.

There are parts of Covenant that are scary, and there are parts that are thrilling, but they remain parts instead of coalescing into a whole. The basic plot structure is a familiar one: the crew of a ship receives a distress call of some kind, go to investigate the source of the signal, then all hell breaks loose. Because of the plans to continue the franchise, Covenant ends up feeling very much like a middle instalment, which introduces some interesting ideas but is reluctant to push the overall narrative arc forward very far. Fans of the series might get a kick out of seeing the classic, sinuous Xenomorph (or at least something very close to it) on the big screen again. However, because it and the other creatures in the film are achieved mostly using computer-generated effects, we lose the tactility that helped make the old-school Xenomorphs in the earlier films so scary. The goblin-like Neomorph is sometimes creepy, but also sometimes too cartoony.

With any sci-fi movie named after a ship, audiences must fall in love with – or at least be interested in – the crew. Several of them are married couples, meaning there’s potential for heart-rending emotional moments. Alas, the characters who staff the Covenant are mostly bland and under-developed. There are also too many for them to be distinct. They do make dumb decisions, but not to the extent of the Prometheus crew.

Waterston does a fine job, and ably handles the pressure of living up to Sigourney Weaver. While Daniels is mostly a Ripley knockoff, Waterston lends the film a tremulous humanity. She gets to partake in big action set-pieces, including a fun one involving an excavator-like crane arm. However, she’s not fearless or unrealistically tough.

Crudup is also serviceable as the First Mate who gets promoted to the position of Captain, a stubborn man of faith who struggles with leading the crew. Since religious themes and imagery played a key role in Prometheus, which was about man’s search for his creator, it’s disappointing that this aspect of Oram remains largely superficial. While one might assume McBride is on hand to provide comic relief, and he does, he also displays solid acting chops, and stays a safe distance from being the annoying quippy sidekick this reviewer feared the character would become.

Fassbender is the best thing about Covenant. He shines in his dual roles: Walter, ostensibly the ‘good’ android, sounds American, whereas the amoral and possibly evil David speaks with a clipped English accent. David’s murky motivations get further explored, and he’s meant to remind viewers of the Nazis: David has an affinity for Wagner, is interested with eugenics, and may yearn for the complete eradication of a certain species. The tension between creation and creator that is at the core of the character gets further play. Walter is programmed with less autonomy, and is therefore less likely to go off the rails. David and Walter’s interactions are as riveting, if not more so, than the scenes involving the alien monsters. The visual effects work required to make Fassbender act opposite a second, identical Fassbender is seamless.

Fans who were hoping that Alien: Covenant would return the series to its roots will likely have mixed feelings about the film. It seems that Scott felt the pressure to deliver a Xenomorph that was closer to the original H.R. Giger designs than the prototypical beasts seen in Prometheus. It’s a sporadically fascinating, but ultimately unsatisfying entry in the series; and there’s just enough to recommend here for the faithful.

Summary: This Alien instalment will make you scream, but as much out of frustration as in terror, its grandeur undercut by an unremarkable stable of characters and an uninspired plot.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Sex Doll

For F*** Magazine

SEX DOLL 

Director : Sylvie Verheyde
Cast : Hafsia Herzi, Ash Stymest, Karole Rocher, Paul Hamy, Ira Max, Lindsay Karamoh
Genre : Drama/Thriller
Run Time : 103 mins
Opens : 4 May 2017
Rating : M18 (Sexual Scenes)

Did that title catch your attention? It’s the only thing about this movie that will. This drama takes place in the underground realm of London’s high-priced escorts. Virginie’s (Herzi) family back in France believes she is working as an estate agent. In reality, she’s a sought-after prostitute working for Madame Raphäelle (Rocher). While partying with her friend Electre (Karamoh), Virginie meets a mysterious young man named Rupert (Stymest), who takes an interest in Virginie. While Virginie is initially dismissive of Rupert, she finds herself drawn to him, but is unsure of his motives. Virginie is tasked with showing new girl Sofia (Max) the ropes, but things go awry during Sofia’s first night on the job. Virginie, Sofia and Rupert go on the run, with the powerful men they’ve upset gaining on them.

Sex Doll’s original French title Amoureux Solitaires translates to ‘Lonley Lovers’. The film is written and directed by Sylvie Verheyde, who seems unsure of the kind of film’s she set out to make. From the premise of an erotic thriller set in the world of high class call girls, the film could go in one of two directions: a sobering, uncompromising, look at the realities of sex work, or an over-the-top exploitative fantasy. Sex Doll does neither, spending most of its running time meandering in limbo. It’s a film that has arthouse aspirations, but there’s little depth to be found beneath the endless parade of soft focus extreme closeups. While there is a lot of grunting, the sex scenes aren’t as graphic as one would expect – especially given that this a French film, and Fifty Shades of Grey was infamously passed with an “ages 12 and above” rating in France.

The film doesn’t work as a character study because the characters are so poorly defined and underdeveloped. While Herzi possesses sufficient elegance and poise to convincingly play a seductress, the character of Virginie isn’t especially fascinating. We suppose Verheyde was aiming for a sense of poetic irony in naming a prostitute “Virgin(ie)”, which is quite on the nose. Aspects of Virginie’s work that would make sense to explore, including how she climbed the ranks, how she maintains her relationships with her regular clients, and what’s at stake if she should run afoul of them, are barely examined.

Stymest is an English model whose lanky proportions give him what one might describe as “an interesting editorial look”. Unfortunately, he’s painfully stiff. The character is intended to seem aloof while hiding something beneath that façade, but Stymest merely comes off as bored.  Rocher doesn’t play up the stereotype of a stern, uncompromising madam, but has too little screen time and interaction with Herzi to make much of an impact.

For a film set in an environment rich with illicit thrills and tragedy, Sex Doll is a slow, passionless affair. Sex Doll doesn’t play enough with the ‘diary of a call girl’ formula, and is neither exciting nor, to be frank, all that sexy.

Summary: Fidget-inducing rather than provocative or alluring, Sex Doll is a dull portrait of a high-end prostitute’s life.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

From a House on Willow Street

For F*** Magazine

FROM A HOUSE ON WILLOW STREET 

Director : Alastair Orr
Cast : Sharni Vinson, Steven John Ward, Gustav Gerdener, Zino Ventura, Carlyn Burchell
Genre : Horror/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 27min
Opens : 30 March 2017
Rating : NC-16

Don’t you just hate it when decent, honest, hardworking people fall victim to a cruel twist of fate? In this horror flick, a band of decent, honest, hardworking kidnappers get more than they bargained for after they unwittingly abduct the host of a powerful demon. Hazel (Vinson) leads a team of criminals including her boyfriend Ade (Ward), Ade’s cousin James (Gerdener), and Mark (Ventura). Over six weeks, they plan the kidnapping of Katherine (Burchell), the teenage daughter of a wealthy couple, demanding that the ransom be paid in diamonds. Alas, what was meant to be an easy job turns out to be anything but, when the demon that has possessed Katherine wreaks havoc. Hazel and her cohorts must face their deepest, darkest fears, made manifest by the demon’s power, as the tables are turned and the criminals become the victims.

From a House on Willow Street has a rather novel premise: mash up the home invasion thriller and supernatural horror subgenres to deliver twice the tension. While director Alastair Orr displays an affinity for the horror genre, the execution here leaves quite a bit to be desired. The back-story is conveyed through clunky exposition, and the audience is fed a lot of information about the history of the titular house at one go. Things get tedious rather than suspenseful, such that this feels longer than its 87 minutes.

Even though there is an effort made to humanise our protagonists, they’re still largely unlikeable by dint of being career criminals. Then there are the shocks, which are almost all basic jump scares of the “there’s nobody behind you, THEN THERE’S SOMEBODY BEHIND YOU!” variety. Out of all the scares, the most effective is probably a relatively lo-fi gag involving a framed portrait that transforms when one looks away from it.

There is a large amount of appropriately gruesome makeup effects on display, created by South African studio Dreamsmith. Jaco Snyman, who supervised the creature effects, has worked on films such as Mad Max: Fury Road and District 9. If gory, ghoulish figures stalking our ‘heroes’ are what you’re after, From a House on Willow Street has plenty of that. Orr wisely doesn’t overuse computer-generated effects, with the barbed, slimy tongue-like appendage that emanates from Katherine’s mouth looking just as disgusting as that description sounds.

Australian actress Vinson is building her ‘scream queen’ repertoire, after starring in the hit horror film You’re Next. She gives the role her best shot, summoning the toughness that Hazel should exhibit, but is saddled with poorly-written dialogue. The relationships between the four members of Hazel’s crew are roughly defined. Just as in many home invasion thrillers, the people doing the invading are constantly at each other’s throats. Everyone has a tragic backstory that is exploited by the demon, but the bloodied and maimed ghosts popping up throughout the movie lose their frightening effect because of how repetitive things get.

From a House on Willow Street has decent makeup effects and is competently shot, but its potential is gradually eroded thanks to director Orr falling back on too many tried and tested genre tricks. The film relies on the soundtrack lunging at the audience repeatedly, and while the jump scares provide a few jolts to start with, they soon become predictable.

Summary: This horror film promises a different spin on things with its kidnap plot set-up, but ends up falling back on genre devices we’ve all seen before. Star Sharni Vinson and some grisly special effects makeup work barely lift it above mediocrity.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Personal Shopper

PERSONAL SHOPPER

Director : Olivier Assayas
Cast : Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Nora von Waldstätten, Anders Danielsen Lie, Sigrid Bouaziz, Ty Olwin
Genre : Drama/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 46min
Opens : 23 March 2017
Rating : NC-16

Kristen Stewart is no stranger to the paranormal, having been entangled with vampires and werewolves. In this psychological drama, she encounters – to borrow a joke from the Ghostbusters reboot – ghosts from her past: both literally and figuratively.

Stewart plays Maureen Cartwright, a 27-year-old American working as a personal shopper in Paris. She can’t stand her boss, the haughty, well-heeled socialite Kyra (von Waldstätten), and misses her boyfriend Gary (Olwin), who is working as an I.T. technician in Oman. In addition to discerning taste, Maureen has another gift: the ability to communicate with the dead. When she notices eerie goings-on, Maureen suspects that her recently-deceased twin brother Lewis might be reaching back from the great beyond. She begins receiving ominous text messages from an unknown sender, and finds her life upended by unexplainable other-worldly occurrences.

Writer-director Olivier Assayas has described Personal Shopper as a companion piece to his previous film, Clouds of Sils Maria, in which Stewart also played the assistant to a wealthy woman. Personal Shopper is difficult to classify, and while it is somewhat infamous for eliciting boos at a press screening during the Cannes Film Festival, many critics later rushed to its defence. Assayas also bagged the Best Director Award, tying with Graduation helmer Cristian Mungiu. It’s the kind of film that will leave some audiences entranced, others puzzled, and drive yet others positively mad. This reviewer’s reading of the film as a deliberately inscrutable arthouse take on the ghost story genre might be a shallow one, but we just couldn’t get into Personal Shopper.

Assayas approaches the supernatural premise with the straightest of straight faces, the film never even hinting that it acknowledges its inherent absurdity. Personal Shopper demands the audience’s suspension of disbelief, yet seems unconcerned with earning it. It’s unlike any ghost story you’ve seen, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. There are several creepy scenes and a couple of effective set pieces, but in flitting from supernatural horror to quiet character study, Personal Shopper comes off as half-baked. There are frightening moments, but because the central mystery goes nowhere and multiple loose ends are left untied, the film doesn’t burrow under one’s skin the way it was likely intended to. One crucial scene seems reminiscent of a sequence in the afore-mentioned Ghostbusters reboot, but since both films were in production at the same time, it’s most likely mere coincidence.

This reviewer views Kristen Stewart as the female Jesse Eisenberg – their similarity is probably why they’ve worked so well together in Adventureland, American Ultra and Café Society. Both are known for nervous tics, an awkward public persona and can sometimes come off as aloof. They’ve both floundered about in big-budget blockbusters but excelled in smaller, character-driven projects. While Stewart has been praised for her role in Personal Shopper, we found her performance less than compelling. She displays a lot of the neurotic twitchiness and restlessness we’ve come to expect of her, and Maureen’s conflicting disdain for and desire to emulate Kyra is underplayed. For a film set in the world of Parisian high fashion, there’s very little vanity in Stewart’s performance, but there’s also little to capture the attention – that is, if one can’t muster up any excitement over seeing Stewart topless.

One of the arthouse touches that Assayas attempts to spice up this cold, soporific ghost story with is Maureen being fascinated with artists said to have been in contact with the spirit world. Maureen looks up Swedish artist Hilma af Klint, who claimed that spirits painted through her and whose work predates the known invention of abstract art. Maureen also watches a TV movie about Victor Hugo’s séances, with French singer Benjamin Biolay portraying Hugo in this show-within-a-show. It isn’t chintzy enough to look like a 60s TV movie, and these ideas are merely presented in the film, rather than worked into its fabric.

Personal Shopper might be regarded as a cult oddity of European cinema, reaching a wider audience than your average arthouse curiosity thanks to its American star. While there are glimmers of promise in auteur Assayas’ unorthodox take on the supernatural, it’s too detached and preoccupied with being abstruse to truly be haunting.

Summary: A high-falutin’ blend of supernatural thriller and character drama, Personal Shopper is an odd beast which alienates more than it frightens.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Logan

LOGAN

Director : James Mangold
Cast : Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Stephen Merchant, Richard E. Grant, Boyd Holbrook
Genre : Action/Drama/Thriller
Run Time : 2h 17min
Opens : 2 March 2017
Rating : M18 (Violence and Coarse Language)

The conclusion to the Wolverine trilogy sees our rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem not to be born, but to face his reckoning. It is 2029, and most of mutantkind has died out. Logan/Wolverine (Jackman) lays low as a limo driver in El Paso, Texas, now almost 200-years-old. The adamantium with which his bones were laced is poisoning him from the inside out, and his powers are waning. Logan makes medicine runs for Charles Xavier/Professor X (Stewart), a now-senile nonagenarian who is cared for by the albino tracker Caliban (Merchant). Logan finds himself in danger upon encountering Laura Kinney/X-23 (Keen), a young girl who was cloned from him and bred as a super-soldier by the evil scientist Zander Rice (Grant). Rice sends the Reavers, a cybernetic mercenary army led by Donald Pierce (Holbrook), after Logan, Charles and Laura. The makeshift family unit must traverse the United States to make it to Eden, a fabled oasis for mutants in Canada.

Hugh Jackman has portrayed Wolverine for 17 years – and to think it all began when the initially-cast Dougray Scott had to drop out of X-Men due to a scheduling conflict with Mission: Impossible II. Loosely inspired by the Old Man Logan story arc in the comics written by Mark Millar and illustrated by Steve McNiven, Jackman bids farewell to his signature role in grim, heart-rending fashion. Audiences feel fatigued from comic book movies in part because of how every franchise craves longevity, how every film must now set up the next few instalments in the series. The X-Men movies will not end with Logan, but there is a finality to this film that sinks its claws into the viewer, at once satisfying and sad. Logan does not busy itself with dropping breadcrumbs for fans to speculate about how this story will continue, nor is there some shadowy, ultimate villain who makes a cameo before manifesting in a later film.

Executive meddling is often bemoaned by fans – we’ve all heard too many stories of a director’s specific vision being cramped by the suits fretting over the bottom line. Seeing how expensive most superhero blockbusters are, it’s justifiable to a certain extent. After the explosive success of Deadpool, a movie which Fox repeatedly tried to prevent from coming to fruition, it seems the higher-ups at the studio have learnt their lesson. Director James Mangold seems completely free to make the movie he wanted to. A neo-western with a post-apocalyptic tinge, the Wolverine character suits the scenario which Mangold has placed him in to a tee. Mangold’s influences, from Mad Max to Johnny Cash to the 1953 Western Shane, create a rich tapestry, imbuing a linear, simply plotted film with genuine depth and resonance.

Much has been made of Logan’s R rating. At first, it was cynically rationalised as only being a direct result of the R-rated Deadpool being a hit. However, one would argue that if any superhero deserved an R-rated movie of his own, it would be one with metal claws extending from his knuckles, and who frequently flies into a ‘berserker rage’. Make no bones about it: Logan is brutal. Dismemberments, impalements and arterial spray abound. However, rather than relishing in the violence, Mangold uses it to make a point, to emphasise that all bets are off and that the consequences are realer than ever. Because it largely eschews elaborately-designed set-pieces in favour of visceral bloodshed, the spectacle in Logan might not be as memorable as in some of the earlier X-Men films, but it works.

Many tentpole genre films have claimed to be “character-driven”, and Logan is one of the few that deserves that label. Jackman’s swansong packs quite the punch. He essays a tenderness which the nigh-invulnerable Wolverine rarely exhibits, and it does ache to see the ravages of time finally catch up with the character. His worn visage partially hidden behind a scraggly beard, this is some of the finest acting Jackman has done in his career.

Stewart’s Xavier provides some of the film’s most gut-wrenching moments. Just as it is painful to see the powerful Wolverine reduced to a shambling ghost of his former self, it stings to see Professor X’s formidable mind rendered to mush. The kindness, wisdom and glimmers of mischief that have been visible throughout Stewart’s portrayal of Xavier remain, but we see it flickering and desperately want to capture it before it’s altogether extinguished. Giving beloved characters such fragility after so many years makes viewers cherish them, and is key to why it’s so easy to engage with Logan.

Keen’s Laura rounds out this dysfunctional but sympathetic and compelling family. The X-23 character, who debuted in the animated series X-Men: Evolution and who has now taken on the mantle of Wolverine in the comics, has great cinematic potential. The idea of a child grown in a lab who is mal-adjusted to the outside world and who forms a bond with a parental figure is not new, but Keen’s quietly stirring presence and X-23’s own formidable abilities make it feel like this is something we haven’t seen before. The distastefulness of imperilling a child for dramatic tension is mitigated by the fact that X-23’s own abilities are equal and perhaps outstrip those of Logan himself.

Previous X-Men films have suffered from trying to parcel out attention between way too many characters, and Logan benefits from keeping the circle small. English stand-up comic Merchant, known for his lanky proportions and awkward demeanour, delivers a surprisingly dramatic turn as Caliban. Holbrook’s Donald Pierce is little more than a hired gun, but it serves the story and his snarling manner is just the right pitch of evil. Similarly, Grant refrains from chewing the scenery as a stock mad scientist, his inhuman coldness towards his victims quite unnerving. There is a quiet interlude in which small-town farmer Will (Eriq Lasalle) invites Logan and company into his home, and they share a meal with Will and his family, a good example of letting the story breathe.

While Logan’s individual components might not break much new ground, they add up to something astounding, something powerful. If one has felt any kind of attachment to the Wolverine character as played by Jackman over the last 17 years, this heartfelt, visceral journey will tear you to shreds.

Summary: As thoughtful as it is brutal and as fresh as it is familiar, we can’t think of a better way for Wolverine to ride off into the sunset.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong