1917 review

For F*** Magazine

1917

Director: Sam Mendes
Cast : George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Mays, Jamie Parker
Genre : War/Drama
Run Time : 1 h 59 mins
Opens : 9 January 2020
Rating : PG13

1917-posterHollywood has made many World War II epics, but not quite as many World War I movies, likely because of America’s increased participation in World War II compared to World War I. Still, there are several movies set during the Great War which are considered masterpieces, including All Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory. Sam Mendes directs and, with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, co-writes this relentless war film that takes place over two days in April 1917.

In Northern France, British soldiers Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are tasked with a vital and seemingly insurmountable mission: they must deliver an order from Army Command to tell a battalion of 1600 soldiers to stand down from an assault, as a trap set by the Germans lies in wait for them. Schofield and Blake must cross No Man’s Land into treacherous enemy-controlled territory to deliver the message in time. For Blake, the stakes are personal too, as his older brother is among the soldiers who will die if this information is not conveyed. Braving enemy gunfire and the elements, Schofield and Blake bravely undertake the mission of their lives.

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Filmmakers strive to achieve immersion, to make the audience feel so engrossed in watching the movie that they forget they’re doing so. 1917 achieves this. This is an awards season film, but unlike many prestige movies that vie for the Oscars and other awards, 1917 is far from a stuffy, airless affair. Mendes breathes life into the historical event, closing the 100-plus-year gap between World War I and the present day with an intense and involving epic. He was inspired by the stories of his grandfather Alfred H. Mendes, a Trinidadian World War I veteran and novelist, which increases the personal investment Mendes has in the subject matter. The result is almost akin to a cutting-edge exhibit at a museum, not entirely unlike The Scale of Our War at Te Papa Museum in Wellington, New Zealand, an exhibit that tells the story of the Gallipoli campaign using oversized hyper-realistic sculptures.

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There is an immediacy to 1917, but while the movie seems constantly gripping, it is also a masterclass in pacing – there are peaks and valleys, quiet moments and frenetic, intense ones, all carefully yet organically situated within the story. This is a movie that effectively essays anxiety, with the throb of Thomas Newman’s percussion-heavy score signalling dangers around every corner. Several set-pieces are among the most visceral and thrilling of any war film in recent memory, yet Mendes executes them with just enough restraint.

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George MacKay anchors the film, with Dean-Charles Chapman right alongside him. The film doesn’t need much to make these characters feel compelling, and just a few interactions between the two establish who they are as soldiers and as people. MacKay is remarkable in the role, especially when the film calls for him to look exhausted and tired. Our two heroes are put through the wringer and face obstacles which are incredible but never implausible.

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There’s not a lot that doesn’t work here. Some reviews have cited the lack of character development as a flaw, but this movie is focused on the experience of the characters and on putting the audience in their shoes, and doesn’t need a lot of back-story or a heartfelt monologue about their childhood to accomplish that.

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One element of the film that is possibly distracting is its big-name supporting cast. The structure of the movie means that actors like Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Richard Madden and Andrew Scott show up for roughly one scene each. They play people whom our two heroes meet along the way, meaning there is even less to them as characters than to Schofield and Blake. As such, it is possible that their appearances, which almost seem like cameos, might break the immersion, but this did not happen for us.

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Spectre, the second Bond film directed by Sam Mendes, opened with a pre-credits sequence shot and edited to look like one continuous take. Mendes ups the ante here, presenting the entirety of 1917 as if it was filmed in one continuous take. This might sound like a gimmick, but the film deploys it as an excellent storytelling tool. The film’s first moment of violence is a small one – Schofield cuts his hand on barbed wire. This reviewer winced more than he normally would, realising this is because the single take approach increases the subjectivity. Cutting away means retreating, however momentarily, to safety. 1917 offers no such safety.

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Acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins can add yet another notch to his belt, and credit must also go to Steadicam operators like Pete Cavaciuti. Deakins also deployed remote-controlled cameras on wires, flying across the battlefield. Editor Lee Smith deserves plaudits too, as after a while, the game of looking for the hidden cuts becomes just too hard to play. The device of making the film look like it was magically filmed in a single take calls attention to itself because it is hard not to marvel at the technical mastery required to pull it off, and yet, it is also invisible, creating immersion rather than detracting from it.

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Summary: 1917 drops audiences onto the Western Front and is exciting, emotional and harrowing, its visceral impact the result of finely calibrated filmmaking. Inspired by his grandfather’s war stories, Sam Mendes crafts a masterpiece. 1917 captures the weariness, the adrenaline, the desperation, the horror and the sadness of war like few movies before it have.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Operation Red Sea (红海行动) movie review

For inSing

OPERATION RED SEA  (红海行动)

Director : Dante Lam
Cast : Zhang Yi, Huang Jingyu, Hai Qing, Du Jiang, Zhang Hanyu, Jiang Luxia, Fang Yin, Wang Yutian, Guo Jiahao, Henry Mak
Genre : Action
Run Time : 2h 18m
Opens : 15 February 2018
Rating : M18 (Gore And Violence)

With the record-breaking box office success of Wolf Warrior 2, Chinese filmgoing audiences have further demonstrated an appetite for over-the-top, nationalistic action films. Dante Lam’s Operation Red Sea, a showcase for the Chinese Navy, aims to feed that appetite.

The film centres on a unit of the elite Jiaolong (Sea Dragon) assault team. The team is lead by Yang Rui (Zhang Yi), and its members include sniper Gu Shun (Huang Jingyu), gunner Tong Li (Luxia Jiang), Zhang Tiande (Yutian Wang) and Tong Li (Luxia Jiang).

After a successful mission rescuing the crew of a Chinese cargo ship from Somali pirates off the Gulf of Aden, the Jiaolong unit is sent into the North African nation of Yewaire. A coup in Yewaire has left the terrorist organisation Zaka with control of the nation. Among the hostages being held by Zaka are Chinese citizens. The Jiaolong team must rescue the hostages and prevent Zaka from getting their hands on yellowcake uranium to make dirty bombs.

 

Lam’s previous film, 2016’s Operation Mekong, was a bombastic action adventure that featured elaborately-staged action sequences, showcased Chinese military might and claimed to be based on a true story. Operation Red Sea ups the ante in the same aspects but is so overblown and bloated it paradoxically ends up less entertaining than Operation Mekong was. Operation Red Sea takes the loosest inspiration from the real-life evacuation of hundreds of Chinese citizens and foreign nationals from Yemen by the Chinese Navy in 2015.

There isn’t even the slightest effort made to disguise Operation Red Sea’s reason for existence: as a long recruitment film for the Chinese Navy. Just as the 2017 film Sky Hunter was made with the cooperation of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, the Chinese Navy is portrayed in only the most glorious, flattering light in Operation Red Sea. It’s akin to how Michael Bay idolises the military in his films, since that’s how he gains access to the latest hardware.

Operation Red Sea, like Operation Mekong, Sky Hunter, Wolf Warrior and other recent military action films that have come out of China, is patterned after the jingoistic Hollywood blockbusters of the 80s like Rambo and Top Gun. This is interesting because China ostensibly sits at the opposite end of the socio-political spectrum, and yet we get flag-waving accompanied by innumerable explosions.

The sheer scale of the spectacle here is astounding. The production values are high, and it looks like the production took over the whole of Morocco to shoot Operation Red Sea. This reviewer’s favourite action sequence is a ridiculous tank chase in which our heroes are pursued across the desert as a sandstorm closes in on them, and they’re firing artillery rounds at the enemy tanks.

Despite the technical competence and resources on display, it’s easy to tune out during the action sequences because they’re so numbing. The major battles in the city are so chaotic that they’re difficult to follow. A good action sequence should have its own mini-narrative, its own three-act structure. Lots of cars flipping over, soldiers traversing between buildings on ziplines, and high-calibre gunfire raining down from helicopters sounds exciting, but when it’s all mashed together in an indistinguishable mass, it just becomes enervating.

You’ll notice we haven’t discussed any of the characters at length, because there isn’t much to discuss. Operation Red Sea isn’t interested in any of the journeys of its characters, who mostly exist to operate machinery. The only character who stands out is plucky journalist Xia Nan (Hai Qing), but even then, she’s a stock type. It’s difficult to care when characters get horribly maimed, and even for an action movie, the gore seems excessive. Emotional scenes are melodramatic and unintentionally funny.

The villains are stereotypical in every way. Hollywood has conditioned audiences to panic any time they hear dialogue in Arabic, and Operation Red Sea sticks to this dictum. The whole thing plays like a Call of Duty-style video game, and the terrorist forces serve as hordes of faceless enemies to mow down.

While military action blockbusters are more in this reviewer’s wheelhouse than the typical comedies released during Chinese New Year, Operation Red Sea is difficult to recommend. While some might enjoy its chest-thumping patriotism and deafening, bombastic violence, Operation Red Sea will wear other less resilient audiences down.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

12 Strong movie review

For inSing

12 STRONG

Director : Nicolai Fuglsig
Cast : Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, Trevante Rhodes, Navid Negahban, William Fichtner, Rob Riggle, Elsa Pataky
Genre : War/Action
Run Time : 2 h 10 min
Opens : 18 January 2018
Rating : NC16

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. Armed Forces leapt into action, sending troops into Afghanistan to combat the Taliban. 12 Strong tells the story of Task Force Dagger, who were the first personnel to take on the Taliban in the weeks following 9/11.

Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) has no combat experience, but volunteers to lead Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 595. He is backed up by Chief Warrant Officer Cal Spencer (Michael Shannon), with whom Nelson has trained. Nelson’s team also includes Sergeant First Class Sam Diller (Michael Peña) and Sergeant First Class Ben Milo (Trevante Rhodes).

The men of ODA 595 must win the trust of General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban), the leader of the Northern Alliance who has plenty of experience fighting the Taliban. Nelson and company traverse the mountainous terrain on horseback, towards the strategic city of Mazar-i-Sharif. If the Northern Alliance and the U.S. Forces can wrest control of Mazar-i-Sharif from the Taliban, it will strike a crushing blow to the enemy. Outnumbered forty to one, Nelson, Dostum and those under their command wage a bloody, explosive battle.

12 Strong is based on the nonfiction book Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of US Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan, by journalist Doug Stanton. The book was adapted for the screen by Silence of the Lambs screenwriter Ted Tally and Hunger Games scribe Peter Craig. This film marks the directorial debut of Danish filmmaker Nicolai Fuglsig – his experience as a war photojournalist must have informed the making of this film.

There are many films set during World War II which are couched as inspirational and uplifting, some of them in danger of romanticising the war. The protracted war in Afghanistan and Iraq has weighed heavily on the consciousness of the American public. 12 Strong is an account of a recently-declassified battle that took place early on in this war. While the movie wants to be thrilling and emotional, it’s difficult to overlook the larger context which is not presented in the movie.

12 Strong wants to be an old-fashioned epic, complete with majestic, sweeping establishing shots, and our heroes riding on horseback as explosions go off behind them in slow motion. It also wants to reframe the narrative by emphasising that there were Afghans who allied themselves with the U.S. troops. However, the film’s handling of this comes off as a naive “there were good Afghans! Who would’ve thought?” viewpoint.

The film has some pacing issues, and the countless sequences of our heroes on horseback rounding yet another mountain pass, in between cutting back to the other characters who are back at the base, becomes repetitive. However, the payoff is spectacular: the climactic battle is drawn out and overstuffed, but is visceral and exciting. It must’ve been quite the logistical undertaking: there are tanks, explosions, guns, rocket launchers, helicopters, bombers and yes, horses. However, there’s the niggling feeling that since this is based on a true story, we shouldn’t be ‘enjoying’ the action sequences the way we’d revel in the thrills of a sci-fi action movie or a fantasy picture.

Hemsworth cuts quite the heroic figure astride a horse. While he and the other actors in the cast attempt to imbue their characters with some personality, as is often the case in military movies like this, the characters can become indistinct and blur together. It is fun that Hemsworth’s real-life wife Elsa Pataky makes a cameo as Nelson’s wife in this film.

Shannon, one of the more interesting actors out there, doesn’t get too much to do. Shannon is often cast in villainous roles, but maybe he’s just more interesting playing those characters, as opposed to the straight arrow Spencer. Even then, he’s played heroic characters who were more engaging to watch before.

Negahban is charismatic as Dostum, battle-hardened and commanding. The film’s portrayal of the warlord seems a little simplified for the sake of convenience. Dostum is a polarising, controversial figure, but in 12 Strong, he occupies the role of ‘wise native’. “Stop being a soldier,” Dostum counsels Nelson, motioning to Nelson’s heart. “Start using this”.

“America is famous for making propaganda movies,” Negahban said, adding that he hopes 12 Strong shows “we are acknowledging, we are honouring those people who put their lives on the line to help get rid of terrorism or war, to bring peace.” Maybe it’s a start.

            12 Strong is co-produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, famous for his high-octane mega-blockbusters. While the film is thrilling and rousing at times, it’s hard to shake the feeling that recent military history has been put through an action movie lens. While there’s spectacle and Chris Hemsworth makes for a great action hero, 12 Strong would like us to believe that Chris Hemsworth can save the day riding in on horseback, when we know it’s far from that simple.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Darkest Hour movie review

For inSing

DARKEST HOUR

Director : Joe Wright
Cast : Gary Oldman, Ben Mendelsohn, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, Nicholas Jones, Richard Lumsden, Jeremy Child, Samuel West
Genre : Drama/Historical/War
Run Time : 2h 6m
Opens : 4 January 2018
Rating : PG

Having directed Pride & Prejudice, Atonement and Anna Karenina, director Joe Wright is no stranger to prestige films. After taking a perhaps ill-advised detour into the realm of fantasy adventure with Pan, Wright is back in awards season territory with this historical drama. His subject: one of the most iconic Britons in recent history – Winston Churchill.

It is May 1940, and Nazi forces are advancing across western Europe. In the United Kingdom, the Opposition Labour Party demands for the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), who is deemed ill-suited to lead Britain in war. Chamberlain’s first choice to succeed him is the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), but Halifax declines. Chamberlain then appoints the one man whom the Opposition party would support: Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman).

Churchill is dogged by military failures in his earlier career, including the Gallipoli Campaign during WWI. King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) is not the biggest fan of Churchill, since Churchill supported the abdication of George’s brother Edward VIII. Churchill’s wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) and his new secretary Elizabeth (Lily James) bear the brunt of his irritability – Clementine is used to it, Elizabeth less so.

Churchill is immediately faced with a barrage of tough decisions: Halifax and Chamberlain place pressure on Churchill to consider negotiating with Hitler, just as the British Expeditionary Forces are trapped at Dunkirk and Calais in France. The War Cabinet Crisis is brewing, with Chamberlain and Halifax hoping to engineer a Vote of No Confidence in Churchill to force his removal from office. As the British Empire is plunged headlong into war, can Churchill lead them to victory? (Spoiler alert: he does)

Darkest Hour is written by New Zealander novelist and playwright Anthony McCarten, who received an Oscar nomination for The Theory of Everything. On the surface, Darkest Hour seems like standard awards season fare, and yet another example of “Englishness = prestige”. While this political drama could have turned out stodgy, director Wright and writer McCarten ensure it is anything but.

There’s an invigorating forcefulness to the film, a momentum and urgency which other similar movies, including 2017’s Churchill starring Brian Cox, lack. There’s a propulsive energy to Darkest Hour, such that things are never standing still, even when two characters are having a quiet conversation. The writing bubbles over with wit, and the grave stakes are firmly established while leaving room for some much-needed humour.

The film’s atmospherics reel the viewer in as much as the performances, which we’ll get to in a bit, do. Darkest Hour is cinematic in that it feels deliberately constructed and staged, but this never pulls one out of it. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel employs lighting boldly and exquisitely – Churchill is revealed by way of his face being illuminated by a lit match. The sound design and editing is given precedence over the score, and it creates a uniquely immersive effect. Sarah Greenwood’s production design is authentic, with the subterranean military citadels beneath Whitehall where the War Cabinet is huddled being an especially realistic set. One can almost smell the cigar smoke wafting off the screen.

Said cigars are typically held between the stubby fingers of Oldman’s Churchill. This is an audacious bit of casting which has more than paid off. Oldman takes on this daunting role with unbridled brio, carefully crafting an entertaining, astounding performance. The special effects makeup required to transform Oldman into Churchill was designed by Kazuhiro Tsuji, and took four hours to put on each day. Oldman captures Churchill’s distinctive physicality in ways obvious and subtle. This is an actor long overdue for an Oscar, and it’s hard to argue that this performance doesn’t deserve that honour.

Because Oldman’s presence in the film is so forceful, and because the film’s focus is trained so squarely on Churchill, the supporting players don’t get too much of the spotlight. However, they ideally complement the film’s star.

Mendelsohn conveys King George VI’s awkwardness and hints at his temper. While Colin Firth’s portrayal of “Bertie” might have won hearts (and an Oscar), Mendelsohn does bear more of a physical resemblance to the historical figure. The evolution of the working relationship between the King and the new Prime Minister, which starts out quite testy indeed, is sensitively portrayed.

Kristin Scott Thomas is the picture of refined grace as Clementine. Nobody quite knows Churchill like his beloved wife does, and Thomas’ twinkle-in-the-eye performance is appealing.

James’ Elizabeth is based on a real-life figure, but the real Elizabeth Layton didn’t become Churchill’s secretary until around a year after the events depicted in the film. James is proper and charming as always, and Elizabeth serves as a fine audience identification character. One of this reviewer’s favourite moments in the film is when Elizabeth manages to momentarily break her boss’s unyielding exterior and they share a hearty laugh over a silly mistake Churchill has made.

Halifax and Chamberlain are depicted as being in opposition to Churchill, but the film makes sure to articulate their point of view. To them, Churchill’s insistence on fighting on at all costs and his stubborn refusal to even entertain the thought of peace talks is foolhardy. That’s not an entirely unjustified point of view, given the circumstances. The late John Hurt was slated to play Chamberlain, but was replaced by Ronald Pickup after Hurt died in early 2017.

There are a few moments in Darkest Hour that ring false, most notably an impromptu meet-the-people session in an unusual locale. As in any historical drama, there are moments that have been embellished for dramatic effect. However, an impressive, bravura performance from a masterful actor and some confident stylistic flourishes keep Darkest Hour thrilling and compelling.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Dunkirk

For F*** Magazine

DUNKIRK 

Director : Christopher Nolan
Cast : Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy
Genre : Action/War
Run Time : 1h 47m
Opens : 20 July 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language)

There have been plenty of films set during the Second World War, and plenty of excellent ones at that, but you’ve never seen a war movie quite like Dunkirk. It is May 1940, and 400 000 Allied soldiers from Britain, Belgium, Canada and France have been trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, France, by German forces. With the waters surrounding the beach too shallow for naval vessels, hundreds of small personal craft are called into service to evacuate the soldiers from Dunkirk. British Army private Tommy (Whitehead) is just trying to get home, while Commander Bolton (Branagh) and Colonel Winnat (D’Arcy) oversee the evacuation on the ground. Making his way to Dunkirk in his boat is Mr. Dawson (Rylance), accompanied by his son Peter (Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s best friend George (Keoghan). On the way to Dunkirk, they pick up the Shivering Soldier (Murphy), a shell-shocked survivor of a German U-Boat attack. In the skies overhead flies Farrier (Hardy), a Royal Air Force Spitfire pilot warding off attacks from German fighters. As time runs out for the soldiers stranded at Dunkirk, all they need to be victorious is to survive.

The very notion of Christopher Nolan writing and directing a WWII movie sent expectations for Dunkirk sky-rocketing. The film has lived up to, and maybe even surpassed, those expectations. Cutting through the stodginess that can sometimes plague period pieces, Nolan delivers something revelatory. There’s no glamour, no romance, no treacly sentimentality, no pomp, no circumstance – from the opening moments, viewers are plunged into the thick of unspooling chaos, trapped alongside the film’s characters in a variety of panic-inducing circumstances.

Taut and running a lean 107 minutes, unusual for a movie of this type, Dunkirk unfolds with searing immediacy. Dunkirk is not about the strength and sheer might of its heroes – Winston Churchill characterised the events that led to the stranding of the 400 000 Allied soldiers at Dunkirk as a “colossal military disaster”. Dunkirk is not a chest-thumping ode to a bygone age of ‘true heroism’, nor is it a withering, cynical proclamation that ‘war is hell’. It’s not making any grand statements, it’s transporting the audience into situations so hopeless and so desperate that they’ll be gasping for air.

Putting the film together was a staggering logistical undertaking, and Nolan waited to accrue experience making large-scale blockbusters before tackling this film, which he has wanted to make since he was a student. Nolan makes the massive scope of the film digestible for audiences by dividing Dunkirk into three perspectives: the land, the sea and the air. The Germans are a faceless enemy, making their presence felt through the ordnance they bombard the beach with. With each cluster of protagonists having clear objectives to complete, Dunkirk is easy to follow, and doesn’t contain unwieldy stretches of exposition.

Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography provides both the breathless immersion of being stuck below decks in a sinking ship and the soaring majesty of Spitfires tearing across the sky, an expanse of ocean beneath the planes. Hans Zimmer’s frantic score contains no lush, sweeping melodies, incorporating interesting textural elements including the ticking sound of Nolan’s own pocket watch.

Another thing that sets Dunkirk apart from its prestige drama ilk is that there are no showy performances finely tuned for maximum Academy appeal. Make no mistake, the acting is excellent, it’s just that it doesn’t call attention to itself and character back-stories and motivations are deliberately scarce, so we can focus on the moment. It’s unusual that a thespian of Branagh’s calibre is given relatively little to do, but it works. Newcomer Whitehead aptly captures the wide-eyed innocence and desperation of a young soldier swept up in a colossal conflict, while Harry Styles, to his credit, is barely distracting.

 

Murphy’s turn as the PTSD-stricken Shivering Soldier, who is otherwise unnamed, is probably the closest thing Dunkirk has to a virtuoso turn, and even then, it isn’t overplayed. Rylance showcases the masterful restraint he’s become known for, his character embodying the quiet, everyday heroism displayed by the mariners who came to the soldiers’ rescue. While Hardy is at his best when playing antiheroes, roguish types or straight-up villains, but he’s easy to root for as the pilot who tries to save the day.

Stripping away the stylistic trappings often associated with WWII epics, Nolan shapes Dunkirk into a film that’s visceral and affecting, but is also spectacular and deserves to be seen on as large a screen as one can find. While it’s not the easiest film to watch, Nolan skilfully refrains from gratuitous blood and gore – it’s horrifying without being unnecessarily so. Because of its heavy subject matter and the tension with which it is brought to life, Dunkirk does feel longer than its running time and is not necessarily a film that begs to be re-watched immediately, but it is an effectively harrowing masterpiece all the same.

Summary: A war film that evokes helplessness and desperation like few before it, Dunkirk will thrill, shock and shake audiences to their core.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Hacksaw Ridge

For F*** Magazine

HACKSAW RIDGE 

Cast : Andrew Garfield, Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Hugo Weaving, Ryan Corr, Teresa Palmer, Rachel Griffiths
Genre : Drama/History/War
Run Time : 2h 19min
Opens : 19 January 2017
Rating : M18 (Violence and Gore)

hacksaw-ridge-posterStepping behind the camera for his first film as director in ten years, Mel Gibson tells the true story of war hero Desmond T. Doss (Garfield). Doss was born in Lynchburg, Virginia. Doss’ father Tom (Weaving), a traumatised World War I veteran, often lashes out at his wife Bertha (Griffiths). Doss’ brother Harold (Nathaniel Buzolic) enlists in the military to serve in World War II. Doss decides to enlist, but his strongly-held beliefs as a Seventh-day Adventist forbid him from taking a life, or even touching a weapon. Doss’ superiors Sergeant Howell (Vaughn) and Captain Glover (Worthington) try to get Doss discharged out of fear that Doss will be unable to contribute as a soldier. Doss persists, training as a medic, and his unit is eventually deployed to the Pacific theatre. In the Battle of Okinawa, Doss’ unit faces off against hordes of Japanese troops atop the cliff face of the Maeda Escarpment, nicknamed “Hacksaw Ridge”. Without firing a single bullet, Doss goes about rescuing his fellow men who are wounded on the battlefield, hoping to make it home to his wife Dorothy (Palmer).

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For years, the real-life Desmond Doss, who passed away in 2006 at the age of 87, resisted the idea of a film being made about him. Doss feared that his religious beliefs would be misrepresented on the big screen, and was finally convinced in 2001. Hacksaw Ridge was stuck in development hell, as producers Bill Mechanic and David Permut tried for 14 years to get the film made. Mechanic sought Gibson to direct, and Gibson agreed after turning Hacksaw Ridge down twice. While Gibson has some ways to go if Hollywood at large is to forgive him for his inflammatory anti-Semitic outbursts, homophobic remarks and other erratic behaviour, Hacksaw Ridge is a big step along Gibson’s path to redemption. Permut, himself Jewish and gay, has publicly stated that Gibson is not the man that tabloid headlines make him out to be.

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It’s a positive thing that Hacksaw Ridge finally got made and that Doss’ story will now reach a wider audience than it ever has. The real-life Doss is worlds away from the pre-conceived notion of a square-jawed action hero who charges into battle with guns blazing, and this underdog quality is quietly compelling. Garfield, as rangy and awkward as he is charming, imbues Doss with a folksy charm and an unwavering earnestness. Through its depiction of Doss’ Seventh-day Adventist beliefs and the opposition with which he was met, Hacksaw Ridge paints a vivid portrait of someone who stuck to his guns. Maybe that’s not the best way of putting it, but you get what we mean.

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Hacksaw Ridge spends a little too long setting up Doss’ childhood and his training at Fort Jackson before his deployment. We understand the need for meaningful character development, but in between Doss’ courtship of Dorothy and his tumultuous relationship with his father, these earlier scenes feel embellished for dramatic effect. The character of Smitty (Bracey), Doss’ squad mate who accuses Doss of cowardice, is fictional. However, the journey Smitty undertakes to respect Doss’ beliefs and his heroism is moving all the same.

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On a relatively modest budget of $40 million, Gibson pulls off explosive battle sequences which are effectively concussive and chaotic. The Japanese forces are depicted as ferocious, relentless and faceless – this is not a war movie which even remotely attempts to give the enemy a shred of empathy. The battlefield carnage is excessive – we see viscera strewn all over the place, limbs blasted off and rats picking at corpses of the fallen. Perhaps it’s a moot point to call out a war film for being “too violent”, but Gibson sometimes crosses the line from authentically grim to self-indulgently gory. It’s not as pronounced as in The Passion of the Christ, which was also a graphically violent faith-based film, but is in that vein.

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Hacksaw Ridge is squarely Garfield’s to carry, but there are supporting performances of note here too. Vaughn plays very much against type as a harsh drill sergeant and is surprisingly believable in the part. Weaving’s portrayal of Doss’ father Tom is menacing but also sympathetic, with the audience understanding that it’s the trauma of war that has made Tom this way. Palmer brings a dose of old Hollywood glamour to the part of Dorothy, but as is often the case in war films, the character amounts to little more than “the wife waiting back home”.

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The screenplay by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan contains moments that border on being cheesy, including when Sgt. Howell announces “we’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy”. Perhaps it should be expected from a war movie about a pacifist, but Hacksaw Ridge’s message of standing by one’s principles seems a little at odds with how the camera lingers on grisly brutality. Even taking all this into account, Hacksaw Ridge manages to be rousing and emotional, a grand tribute to an unlikely hero.

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Summary: Beneath the over-the-top carnage and war movie clichés lies a fascinating true story brought to life by a remarkable performance from Andrew Garfield.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Eye in the Sky

For F*** Magazine

EYE IN THE SKY

Director : Gavin Hood
Cast : Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Jeremy Northam, Iain Glen, Phoebe Fox
Genre : Drama/Thriller
Run Time : 102 mins
Opens : 7 April 2016
The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones in warfare has, to put it mildly, opened up quite the can of worms. This thriller delves into the myriad complications involved as UAVs are deployed high above the battlefield. British Colonel Katherine Powell (Mirren) is in charge of a secret mission to capture a group of wanted Al-Shabab terrorists in Nairobi, Kenya. Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Rickman) is keeping a close watch on the proceedings in the Cabinet Office Briefing Room A, or COBRA, at Whitehall. At Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, American drone pilot Steve Watts (Paul) has the responsibility of pulling the trigger. When a nine-year-old girl named Alia (Aisha Takow) enters the blast radius, it throws a spanner in the works, with Kenyan intelligence operative Jama Farah (Abdi) sent in to try and mitigate the situation. As the window to hit their high-value targets closes, Col. Powell and the others running the operation will have to make life or death judgements while taking the various consequences into consideration.
            Movies about hot-button issues have the power to generate meaningful and thought-provoking conversations, at the risk of coming off as preachy, heavy-handed or ill-informed. The politics and the human cost of drone warfare are heavy subjects indeed, so it is to the credit of director Gavin Hood and writer Guy Hibbert that Eye in the Sky is taut and thrilling even as it delves into the relevant quandaries. Eye in the Sky unfolds in real time, with an unrelenting urgency sustained throughout its duration. The film unexpectedly steps into political satire, almost as if In the Loop has snuck into this tense thriller. The intentional yet uncomfortable moments of humour are derived from the lattice of red tape that has to be navigated as the decision to deploy the drones’ missiles or not is made. Instead of undercutting the tension, these instances add to the viewer’s frustration, further immersing us in the proceedings. The film effectively highlights how protocol is necessary yet can often stand in the way of things getting done.

            This is not a movie that calls for explosive theatrics, and most of the actors are seated or standing about in small rooms for the bulk of the film. In fact, Mirren, Rickman, Paul and Abdi did not even meet each other during production. Mirren effortlessly projects authority as Col. Powell, modulating her performance such that the character does not come off as a typical military hard-ass type. She eloquently puts across Powell’s thought process and when the character has to make tough calls, we understand she’s backed into a corner yet still question the validity of her judgement. Paul has an inner decency and earnestness which makes up for the fact that there’s not too much to the character. While the “conflicted drone pilot” might be on its way to becoming a cliché in and of itself, the way Paul’s Steve Watts attempts to reconcile his anguish and his obligation to duty is suitably compelling.


            The late Rickman, in one of his final roles, reminds us why his passing is such a loss to film. As General Benson, Rickman is level-headed and focused, and the actor does so much with little more than a withering stare and that sonorous baritone. A scene in which he’s buying a doll for his granddaughter does come off as a too-obvious attempt at humanising the character.

Abdi, best known for his Oscar-nominated role in Captain Phillips, is authentic as the resourceful man on the ground who is in charge of piloting a high-tech surveillance robot disguised as a beetle. The actor was struggling to get by even after his critically-acclaimed turn in that film, so one hopes more roles like that of Jama Farah find him. Iain Glen’s British Foreign Secretary James Willett, recovering from food poisoning while attending an arms manufacturing convention in Singapore, is the most Iannucci-esque the film gets and it does threaten to turn a little silly, but thankfully backs away from that cliff.

            From the film’s opening, which shows Alia’s father ensuring she gets an education and gets to play even as their town is oppressed by religious fanatics, we know we’re in for a degree of emotional manipulation. However, director Hood (who also plays a supporting role as an American Air Force Colonel) displays considerable nuance and the film strives to send the message that there are no clean-cut “good options” in war, no matter how high-tech the arsenal gets. While the multiple settings of London, Nevada, Hawaii, Nairobi, Singapore and Beijing create a sense of scale, there are also points where it feels the story is stretched a little too thin. This Singaporean writer also couldn’t help but notice that the wrong type of traffic lights is seen out the window in the scene set in the Southeast Asian nation. Still, that’s but a small nit to pick in this engrossing and provocative but even-handed thriller.


Summary: Even as it poses heady, heavy questions regarding the ethics of drone warfare, Eye in the Sky does not get bogged down in politics and provides edge-of-your-seat entertainment in addition to food for thought. 

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

The Crossing II (太平轮:惊涛挚爱)

For F*** Magazine

THE CROSSING II (太平轮:惊涛挚爱)
Director : John Woo
Cast : Zhang Ziyi, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Song Hye-Kyo, Huang Xiaoming, Tong Dawei, Masami Nagasawa, Amanda Qin, Yu Feihong, Tony Yang, Qianyuan Wang, Bowie Lam
Genre : Drama/Romance
Run Time : 126 mins
Opens : 13 August 2015
Rating : PG13 (Some Disturbing Scenes)

The second and final part of John Woo’s historical disaster epic washes ashore. Picking up where the first film left off, we continue following the three central romances as all parties are swept up in the aftermath of the Chinese Revolution in 1949. Taiwanese Doctor Yan Zekun (Kaneshiro) is caught in a bind, his mother intending that he marry Meifang (Angeles Woo), the widow of his brother. Zekun’s heart still belongs to Masako (Nagasawa), who has been writing letters to him, letters that Mrs. Yan has burned in the hopes of putting an end to that relationship. Yuzhen (Ziyi) is desperate to get on a boat out of Shanghai, believing that her fiancé is waiting for her in Taiwan. At the hospital where she volunteers, she is briefly reunited with a severely wounded Tong Daqing (Tong). Yunfen (Song), the pregnant wife of General Lei Yifang (Huang), boards the steamer Taiping with her family. The Taiping, overladen with passengers and cargo, embarks on its fateful voyage for Taiwan, a voyage the vessel will not complete.

Just when we thought nothing could be more pointless that The Crossing: Part 1, Part 2 comes along. Essentially, audiences were being told “before you get to the big sinking, let’s spend some time with the characters and get to know them.” “Some time” turns out to be one and half movies, by which point most viewers will have to restrain themselves from yelling “just sink already!” at the screen. The first film was filled with languid romantic interludes of lovers gazing longingly into each other’s eyes, in between requisite battlefield carnage. Instead of getting right into the action, we are saddled with even more set-up, in which characters rattle off long passages of exposition establishing how the main characters are connected. It turns out that it’s coincidence and not love that holds the world together in the most tumultuous of times.

The Crossing has been called “the Chinese Titanic” and it seems director Woo doesn’t mind the comparison: after all, Titanic is the second highest-grossing film of all time. The similarities are apparent: both films aspire to be sweeping period romances that revolve around fictional characters and are set against a historical disaster at sea. While Titanic is often regarded as cheesy, The Crossing surpasses it in this regard by far. At every turn, the film is melodramatic rather than moving. While Titanic had one romantic relationship as its focus, The Crossing has to split its time between three romances that have to converge in a triumph of contrivance. The intention seems to be that the audience is equally invested in each of the three love stories presented, but that is ultimately too much to ask.

Huang Xiaoming and Tong Dawei take a backseat in this installment, with the bulk of the screen time going to Takeshi Kaneshiro and Zhang Ziyi. Kaneshiro is effective as a noble figure forced into a bind and it certainly helps that he’s very easy on the eye. Zhang Ziyi continues to essay Yuzhen’s tenacity, and one of the film’s few genuinely heart-breaking moments is when Yuzhen agrees to have sex with sleazy businessman Peter (Lam) for a boat ticket. In the midst of the unpleasant act, she peeks through a small crack in the wall, looking expectantly at the ferry moored in the harbor.


The actual sinking of the Taiping is an adequately spectacular sequence of unfolding chaos, even if the computer-generated effects lack polish. The sets and practical effects are well done and it does feel like our protagonists are in legitimate danger. However, after more than three hours of build-up over two films, it’s far from sufficient payoff. We are aware that we sound like heartless beasts, baying for more carnage and less interpersonal drama, but the film’s selling point is, after all, the sinking.

With the conclusion of the two-part movie, Woo has created something that’s not so much sweeping and epic as it is waterlogged. Thrill at people folding paper cranes, composing love songs and taking very long walks through the tall silvergrass! Often unbearably, painfully cheesy, it’s difficult to truly appreciate the authenticity of crowd scenes such as mass student protests being broken up by the military police, and indeed the climactic disaster itself. Treacly and sentimental rather than emotional and containing far from enough spectacle for the slow parts to be tolerable, The Crossing is stranded adrift at sea.

Summary: John Woo’s attempt at re-creating an Old Hollywood-style wartime disaster epic ends up drowning in its own cheesiness.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Unbroken

For F*** Magazine

UNBROKEN

Director : Angelina Jolie
Cast : Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Miyavi, Garrett Hedlund, Finn Wittrock, Jai Courtney
Genre : Biopic/Drama
Run Time : 137 mins
Opens : 5 February 2015
Rating : PG – Some Violence

Many are all too familiar with the tragedy of war, but there is no shortage of truly uplifting accounts of those who were able to weather inhospitable conditions and tremendous odds to emerge victorious on the other side. Unbroken tells the remarkable true story of Louis “Louie” Zamperini, played by Jack O’Connell with C.J. Valleroy portraying Zamperini as a child. A record-breaking track and field athlete who represented the United States at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Zamperini goes on to enlist in the Air Force during the Second World War. After a rescue mission goes awry and his plane crashes into the water, Zamperini is stranded at sea alongside two fellow servicemen Mac (Wittrock) and Phil (Gleeson). Zamperini and Phil are found 47 days later, only to be thrown into a Japanese Prisoner-of-War camp. Their captor Cpl. Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe (Miyavi) makes repeated cruel attempts to break Zamperini’s spirit, but he remains steadfast.

            Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, the non-fiction book by Seabiscuit author Laura Hillenbrand, served as the basis for this film. Zamperini’s true story really is an inspiring one and seemed a natural candidate for an awards-worthy biopic. There is some major pedigree behind the scenes, with the screenplay written by the Coen Brothers, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson, cinematography by Roger Deakins and music by Alexandre Desplat, all no strangers to “big important movies”. A considerable amount of hype was attached to the film because this is Angelina Jolie’s second feature film as director, following her Bosnian War drama In The Land Of Blood and Honey. It seems that on the surface, all the elements are in place, yet there clearly is a spark missing in Unbroken. What should naturally be compelling elicits indifference instead, the proceedings static rather than dynamic.

            It would be tempting to put the blame squarely on Angelina Jolie, seeing as actors-turned-directors are something of an easy target. The fact of the matter is that while she does show promise, Jolie’s inexperience behind the camera also bleeds through. It doesn’t take a hard-core cynic to spot all the formulaic touches and despite being based on a true story, Unbroken often rings false. The film does downplay Louis Zamperini’s personal faith – he became a Christian inspirational speaker and credits evangelist Billy Graham’s revival service with turning his life around and helping him make a journey towards forgiveness. The text at the end of the film does mention how Zamperini made good on his promise to serve God and we see him making said promise while aboard the life raft, but throughout the film itself, his faith is rarely mentioned. While it would’ve been a challenge for the screenwriters and Jolie to present this in a way that doesn’t seem preachy and sanctimonious, an attempt to do so would have certainly added some layers to the story and would’ve done the real-life Zamperini more justice, especially since this belief in God was so important to the man.


            Young English actor Jack O’Connell, who caught the attention of filmgoers and critics alike with the prison drama Starred Up, does give an excellent performance as Zamperini. The contrast between his athleticism in the scenes depicting Zamperini’s track and field career and his gaunt, weak state after being stranded at sea and then tortured by his captors is suitably harrowing and the shortcomings in Unbroken’s presentation are no fault of O’Connell’s at all. There is strong on-screen camaraderie between O’Connell and Domnhall Gleeson and the two actors do their utmost to make the viewer root for them to survive.

            The crippling weak link in the acting chain is Japanese rock star Takamasa Ishihara, better known by his stage name Miyavi. This is his first acting gig, and it shows. Cpl. Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe is meant to be the personification of all the various trials Zamperini had to endure. Instead of frighteningly sadistic, Miyavi comes off as slightly cocky. Jolie’s justification in casting Miyavi is that she didn’t want an actor who was “a stereotype of a Japanese prison guard” and that she thought a rock star would have the appropriate presence to play the psychotic part. This appears to have backfired.

            It’s a cliché line to use in a review of a prestige biopic, but the most powerful part of the film is the clip of the real-life subject at the end of the film. It shows Zamperini participating in the Olympic Torch relay for the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, fit as a fiddle at age 80, smiling and waving to the crowds lining the streets. Zamperini passed away in July 2014 at age 97. Biographer Hillenbrand approves of the adaptation, saying “The man you see on the screen is like watching the real man” and it is great that more will know of Zamperini’s story through Unbroken, but it ultimately is a shame that the movie does not have the impact it could’ve.
Summary: Unbroken tells an extraordinary true story and there’s pedigree behind the scenes, but director Angelina Jolie seems to have bitten off more than she can chew, delivering a rote prestige biopic in a transparent bid for awards consideration.
RATING: 2.5out 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