Spies in Disguise review

For F*** Magazine

SPIES IN DISGUISE

Director: Nick Bruno, Troy Quane
Cast : Will Smith, Tom Holland, Rashida Jones, Ben Mendelsohn, Reba McEntire, Rachel Brosnahan, Karen Gillan, DJ Khaled, Masi Oka
Genre : Action/Comedy/Animation
Run Time : 1 h 42 mins
Opens : 25 December 2019
Rating : PG

Animation studio Blue Sky is best known for the Ice Age movies, but also made the two Rio movies about Spix’s Macaws. Blue Sky turns their attention to a far more common bird in this action-comedy, loosely based on Lucas Martell’s 2009 animated short film Pigeon: Impossible.

Lance Sterling (Will Smith) is a dashing, somewhat arrogant superspy who hits a snag in his latest mission to save the world. Lance reluctantly turns to Walter Beckett (Tom Holland), a young tech genius working in the spy agency’s gadget labs, for help. Walter is developing a highly experimental form of “biodynamic concealment”, which will allow operatives to disguise themselves as animals and go practically unnoticed. Lance accidentally drinks a serum formulated by Walter, which turns Lance into a pigeon. In this new form, Lance can no longer rely on his highly honed combat skills and must adapt to life as an Avian agent. Pigeon-Lance and Walter must work together to take down Killian (Ben Mendelsohn), a criminal mastermind with a cybernetic arm who is hellbent on acquiring cutting-edge assassin drone technology. Meanwhile, agent Marcy Kappel (Rashida Jones) is convinced that Lance has gone rogue and is unaware that he has taken on the form of a pigeon.

Spies in Disguise is often energetic and entertaining, moving along at a decent clip. The film makes great use of stars Smith and Holland – the character designs resemble the actors enough while also being sufficiently stylised. While major animated movies can sometimes feel like they’re cramming a big name in there just for the sake of it, the two stars of Spies in Disguise fit well within this world. Smith’s effortless charm and Holland’s endearing earnestness are played to the hilt. There is the sense that we are watching Smith and Holland themselves, but the movie also does many things that are better suited to animation than to live-action – chief of which being the “human turns into an animal via genetic modification” aspect, which could otherwise be very David Cronenberg-esque.

There is a palpable affection for the spy-fi genre here and the film gets plenty of laughs from juxtaposing James Bond-style coolness and elaborate action sequences with the silliness of one of its main characters having been transformed into a pigeon. Early in the film, we even get an homage to Kill Bill, with Lance facing off against hordes of Yakuza goons. As with any espionage thriller worth its salt, Spies in Disguise features multiple exotic locations, including a villain’s lair in Japan’s Iwate Prefecture and a luxury resort in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. The film’s most outstanding environment is Venice, Italy, featuring a night-time St Mark’s Square filled with pigeons.

With its marquee name stars, wacky premise, colourful animation and wink-and-nod innuendo-based jokes aimed at the parents in the audience, Spies in Disguise sometimes feels like a middling mid-2000s Dreamworks animation product. While the element of a superspy turning into a pigeon is novel and rife with comedic possibilities, much of Spies in Disguise feels formulaic. This is most evident with its villain, Ben Mendelsohn’s Killian. He is mostly just referred to as “robot hand”, because that’s his sole defining characteristic, and Dr Claw from Inspector Gadget beat Killian to the punch some 30-odd years ago. While it’s nice to hear Mendelsohn’s natural Australian accent, he seems woefully underused, especially since there are hints of how truly sinister the character could have been if there were more to him. Seeing as this is a kids’ movie, perhaps it is a good thing that he’s not trauma-inducing levels of scary, but there’s still the sense that there could’ve been more here.

As breezily enjoyable as most of the movie is, there is a slightness to it – there’s just not a lot to the story or to the characters, and the attempts at engendering an emotional investment in the characters are only occasionally successful. Walter’s back-story, drawing on the bond he shared with his mother Wendy (Rachel Brosnahan), is moving but is barely sketched out. Most of the other characters besides the two leads, including Kappel and her surveillance experts Eyes (Karen Gillan) and Ears (DJ Khaled), barely register.

The product placement for the Audi E-tron is perhaps a touch egregious, but then again that kind of thing is all over the James Bond movies anyway.

Spies in Disguise has some flashy action sequences, but some of the best parts of the movie are the interactions between pigeon-Lance and the actual pigeons who form his ‘flock’. The amorous Lovey, Walter’s pet pigeon who immediately develops a crush on pigeon-Lance, is an irresistibly adorable character.

Summary: Spies in Disguise doesn’t deliver anything cutting-edge, but adequately balances spy action with pure cartoon silliness. It plays to the strengths of stars Will Smith and Tom Holland, who complement each other well. It does often feel like a commercial product and the story and characters are feather-light, but it’s fun where it counts.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Gemini Man review

GEMINI MAN

Director: Ang Lee
Cast : Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen, Benedict Wong, Linda Emond, Douglas Hodge
Genre : Action/Science Fiction
Run Time : 117 mins
Opens : 10 October 2019
Rating : PG13

Will Smith is one of the biggest movie stars around, so perhaps there’s no greater flex than for your film to star not one, but two Will Smiths. Is a double dose of Big Willie Style enough to save an action thriller filled with familiar plot beats and built on a borderline ridiculous premise?

Henry Brogan (Will Smith) is the world’s greatest assassin. A lifetime of killing has begun to eat away at Henry’s soul, and he is settling in for retirement. However, when Henry learns the truth behind a recent hit, he makes himself a target. Henry allies with Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a Defence Intelligence Agency operative assigned to surveil him. Together with pilot and Henry’s old friend Baron (Benedict Wong), they go on the run. Clay Verris (Clive Owen), owner of the shadowy Gemini private military company, has sent a special asset after Henry. Said asset, known as Junior (also Will Smith), is a 23-year-old clone of Henry, created without Henry’s knowledge. Henry must escape a younger, more efficient, better-trained version of himself, while also trying to save Junior out from under Clay’s thumb.

This reviewer enjoys seeing arthouse directors tackle action movies. Ang Lee has done this earlier in his career with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hulk. Lee attempts to imbue the proceedings with philosophical heft, and while he’s far from successful, the effort is admirable.

The movie’s big gimmick is its double act. Star Smith is duplicated using cutting-edge visual effects technology, such that this is a big step beyond the face replacement and de-aging we’ve seen in movies like the MCU films and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Junior’s face is completely synthetic. This is as close to perfect as the technology can get now, and after a while, it’s easy to forget that Junior isn’t played by an actor who just has a naturally uncanny resemblance to Smith. The visual effects are supervised by Bill Westenhofer, part of the team that won the Oscar for Lee’s Life of Pi.

There are some well-executed action sequences, including a fun bike chase through the streets and across the rooftops of Cartagena. The film also serves up eye-catching locations, including Budapest, Hungary, with scenes taking place in the historic Széchenyi Thermal Bath.

The film attempts to avoid a romantic subplot and tires to establish the Danny character as a capable operative who can hold her own, without making her a stereotypical tank top-clad gun-toting badass. Not putting a pointless romantic subplot in an action movie shouldn’t be something that’s so rare it’s worth praising, but alas, it still is.

Lee takes this very seriously – perhaps too seriously. Gemini Man doesn’t wink and nod at its preposterous premise at all, nor is its action so completely bombastic and over-the-top as to give audiences the sense that it’s being self-aware. Benedict Wong provides limited amounts of comic relief as a character who feels tacked on. This is a hitman movie that is packed with clichés that are all played painfully straight. Even the hook that the film’s antagonist is a clone of the protagonist is already somewhat overplayed. It’s also a bit confusing that Will Smith, a famously well-preserved man, is who the filmmakers chose to contrast with a younger version of himself. Sure, 51-year-old Will Smith and 23-year-old Will Smith look different, but not that dramatically.

Matters are not helped by the awkward, clunky dialogue, which alternates between exposition and “all this killing hurts my conscience”-type monologuing. There is a scene in which an informant character tells Henry “Clayton Verris is playing God with DNA. He must be stopped.” Many elements of the movie feel canned, which is at odds with how invested Lee seems to be in realising the project.

A lot becomes clear about Gemini Man once you learn that the movie has been in development hell since around 1997. At the age of 27, screenwriter Darren Lemke sold his pitch for this film, with Tony Scott attached to direct. Visual effects technology had not yet caught up with the concept. Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Nicolas Cage, Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery were all attached to the role at some point or another.

Despite being a showcase for filmmaking technology that does push the envelope, Gemini Man can’t help but feel like something leftover from the 90s or at best the early 2000s, a cross between Face/Off and The 6th Day. The plot is also reminiscent of the Metal Gear video game franchise, in which twin brothers Solid and Liquid Snake are clones of Big Boss.

Gemini Man was shot at 120-frames-per-second in 4K resolution, like Lee’s previous film Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Movies typically have a framerate of 24 fps. We saw the film in high frame rate 3D. Maybe we need time for it to grow on us, but it just makes everything looks unnatural. The action scenes seem to suffer the most, because it looks like the stunt team’s rehearsals rather than the finished film. Lee has come to favour the HFR format because it eliminates dimness, strobing and motion blurring, but it can’t help but feel less cinematic. In a way, this format draws more attention to the flatness of the story and the characters, putting everything in uncomfortable hyper-focus.

If you really love Will Smith and will watch anything he’s in, you could do far worse than this, but Gemini Man falls short of its promise of a dynamic action thriller enlivened by ground-breaking visual effects.

Gemini Man is a fun idea in search of a story, and the story that we have arrived at after the involvement of at least eight screenwriters (including Game of Thrones’ David Benioff) is an uninspired one. There’s nothing wrong with unoriginality so long as the existing parts are assembled into something entertaining, and despite an established movie star in dual lead roles and some good action choreography, Gemini Man struggles to be entertaining.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Aladdin (2019) movie review

ALADDIN (2019)

Director: Guy Ritchie
Cast : Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Billy Magnussen, Frank Welker, Alan Tudyk
Genre : Fantasy/Adventure/Musical
Run Time : 2 h 8 mins
Opens : 23 May 2019
Rating : PG

            The Disney live-action remake train keeps chugging along with Aladdin, based on the beloved 1992 film of the same name. Next stop: Agrabah.

Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is a street urchin eking out a hardscrabble existence as a thief on the streets of Agrabah. He meets Jasmine (Naomi Scott), the Princess of Agrabah, in the market, and immediately falls for her. Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), the Grand Vizier, tasks Aladdin with entering the mythical Cave of Wonders to retrieve a lamp for him – only a “diamond in the rough” will be allowed passage into the cave.

The lamp contains the Genie (Will Smith), a magical being who will grant whoever is in possession of the lamp three wishes. Aladdin transforms into Prince Ali in a bid to win Jasmine’s affection, as the law demands that she only marry a prince. Aladdin and the Genie are caught in Jafar’s scheme to usurp the throne from the Sultan (Navid Negahban), with the future of Agrabah in the hands of a humble ‘street rat’.

There seems to be a general backlash against Disney’s recent spate of live-action remakes of their animated movies, not because the movies are all that bad, but that they’re unnecessary. A change in context or setting can sometimes justify a remake – this reviewer feels the 2016 Pete’s Dragon movie is an underrated gem. A shift in genre sometimes makes the remake worthwhile – the 2016 Jungle Book movie played up the action and adventure elements and played down the ‘50s variety show’ feel of the 1967 film.

However, 2017’s Beauty and the Beast was a remake that was driven purely by nostalgia – while generally competent in and of itself, it didn’t add anything significant to the animated film on which is was based, and was a movie that spent most of its time glancing at the floor, trying to hit its marks.

Aladdin has many of the problems that the Beauty and the Beast remake had, with some new ones too. First off, Guy Ritchie seems like a curious choice to helm a fantasy musical, since he is best known for his street-level crime comedies. It’s hard to know how much of the blame to assign to Ritchie, because Aladdin is a movie that feels made by committee. Like Beauty and the Beast before it, it is obligated to hit its marks and deliver the imagery that audiences remember from the animated film.

As a result, Aladdin often feels weirdly stilted. There is beauty to the design elements in the film, with the Palace of Agrabah looking like a cross between the Hagia Sophia in Turkey and the Alcázar of Seville in Spain. Unfortunately, Agrabah never registers as a living breathing place. Instead of a movie that’s vibrant, energetic and spilling off the screen, Aladdin feels flat. Agrabah is reminiscent of Disney’s Epcot theme park – this is most obvious during the “Prince Ali” number, which despite containing a thousand extras, is markedly underwhelming. While Aladdin serves up several grand tableaus, nothing is truly awe-inspiring. “A Whole New World” lacks the “soaring, tumbling, freewheeling” that the lyrics promise.

There is still a fair amount to appreciate: the photo-realistic CGI incarnations of Abu, Rajah, and Iago (voiced by Disney good luck charm Alan Tudyk) all work well, and Alan Menken’s songs continue to be magical. Plenty of the jokes land, and the film benefits from its humour being less self-referential and pop culture-centric than that of the animated film.

Integral to Aladdin’s appeal is the Genie, Robin Williams’ portrayal of the character being inextricably linked with the animated film. Williams’ genie was mercurial, manifesting in multiple forms and being a showcase for Williams’ skills as an impressionist.

The problem with getting a big name like Will Smith in a live-action movie is that Will Smith has to be recognisable as himself. In blue CGI form, the Genie looks like Will Smith, but just a little off such that it seems not quite right. The Genie’s penchant for changing forms is heavily downplayed, and while Smith is typically charming and charismatic as the Genie, the movie practically forces audiences to compare him to the animated incarnation. In the stage musical adaptation, the Genie is reimagined as a gadabout lounge singer-type, which fits the medium of a stage musical. There isn’t enough done conceptually to optimise Will Smith’s Genie for the medium of a live-action film, but the movie’s emphasis on the Genie’s desire not just to be free but to become mortal has the beginnings of an interesting idea.

Mena Massoud does fine work as Aladdin – he has a winsome smile and projects the innate decency that is key to the character. Aladdin is a good person who has been forced into difficult circumstances, and Massoud gives the character a good mix of sweetness and street smarts. Aladdin also does lots and lots of parkour; it’s clear that these scenes are much more in Ritchie’s wheelhouse than the musical numbers are.

Naomi Scott’s Jasmine is defiant but far from petulant, and the film places more emphasis on Jasmine’s desire to become Sultan herself and reshape Agrabah for its citizens. The changes to the Jasmine character to make her more of a leader are interesting, but not fully explored. Jasmine gets the film’s one new song “Speechless” – while Scott’s singing voice is impressive, the song doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the music and isn’t as good as “These Palace Walls” from the musical, which fulfils a similar purpose.

Marwan Kenzari’s Jafar is markedly disappointing. The film plays up Jafar’s hawkish interventionist tendencies; he is pushing the Sultan to declare war on neighbouring kingdoms. Jafar is a one-dimensional villain in the animated film, but Kenzari seems a little too restrained, never visibly taking pleasure in playing a sneering, moustache-twirling villain. Jafar as a politicking manipulator is an idea that’s touched on but never actually developed – he still becomes a cackling sorcerer at the end of the film, but Kenzari never revels in the evil.

Navid Negahban’s Sultan is much more dignified than the bumbling, easily misled old man of the cartoon. Nasim Pedrad handily steals the show as Dalia, a new character created for this version. One of the film’s funniest moments is when Pedrad exclaims “spoons!” Her interactions with the Genie seem more compelling than the love story between Aladdin and Jasmine.

Billy Magnussen also plays a new character, Prince Anders from Skånland. He’s merely there as an example of what Aladdin is up against in vying for Jasmine’s hand in marriage and is a largely superfluous character, but his presence does establish Agrabah as being part of a much larger world.

Aladdin is stuck being a live-action remake that serves mostly to remind viewers of its animated forebear. Especially when the source material is as popular as the 1992 Aladdin film, a remake actively invites comparisons. The film doesn’t adapt the source material well-enough to fit the different medium. While some might involuntarily gravitate towards the film’s packaged nostalgia, Aladdin cannot rise above being a shadow of the animated film.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Collateral Beauty

For F*** Magazine

COLLATERAL BEAUTY 

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

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

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

collateral-beauty-edward-norton-and-will-smith-1

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

collateral-beauty-will-smith-and-helen-mirren

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

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

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

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

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

collateral-beauty-will-smith-and-keira-knightley

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

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

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Suicide Squad

For F*** Magazine

SUICIDE SQUAD

Director : David Ayer
Cast : Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Karen Fukuhara, Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje, Cara Delevingne, Jay Hernandez, Adam Beach, Ben Affleck
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 2 hrs 3 mins
Opens : 4 August 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

Suicide Squad posterThe heroes of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) have been pretty sullen thus far, so here we get to know if bad guys really have more fun (spoiler: they do). Government official Amanda Waller (Davis) assembles ‘Task Force X’, a covert team of supervillains coerced into doing her dirty work. On the roster are hitman Deadshot/Floyd Lawton (Smith), the unhinged ex-psychiatrist Harley Quinn/Harleen Quinzel (Robbie), cannibalistic beast Killer Croc/Waylon Jones (Akinnouye-Agbaje), Aussie bank robber Captain Boomerang/Digger Harkness (Courtney), pyrokinetic gangster El Diablo/Chato Santana (Hernandez), assassin Slipknot/Christopher Weiss (Beach) and the possessed archaeologist Enchantress/June Moone (Delevingne). Wrangling the team are elite operative Rick Flag (Kinnaman) and swordswoman Katana/Tatsu Yamashiro (Fukuhara). When a powerful mystical entity throws Midway City into chaos, Task Force X are sent in to mitigate the situation. Between the in-fighting, Waller’s machinations and the intervention of the Joker (Leto), the object of Harley’s affections, it will be anything but smooth sailing.

Suicide Squad group shot 1

This year’s Batman v Superman took quite the beating from critics and while many conceded that the extended Ultimate Edition was a massive improvement, the damage was done. The DCEU has a great deal of catching up to do, seeing as how Marvel continues to rule the roost at the cinemas. A Suicide Squad movie is a step in the right direction: it’s smaller than your typical superhero blockbuster so it won’t feel bloated, DC has a rich menagerie of villains to play with, and it won’t take itself too seriously. Writer-director David Ayer is an excellent get: he has a proven track record of grimy, street-level flicks carried by characters who wouldn’t normally be considered likeable. This is messy fun, akin to splashing about in mud. It’s not always pleasant, nor is it meant to be, but it’s enjoyable in its own way.

Suicide Squad Margot Robbie and Jared Leto

There’s plenty of dark comedy to be mined from the inherent dysfunction of the titular team, and while some of the jokes feel crowbarred in, the tone is generally appropriate for the material. The dialogue occasionally sounds like it’s trying too hard to sound tough, but the interplay within the team is engaging. At 123 minutes, it’s a smidgen too long, with multiple flashbacks required to fill the audience in on the backstories of our many characters. However, it scuttles along at a satisfactory pace and the action flies thick and fast. It’s far from the most aesthetically pleasing comic book film and it’s easy to see why several design choices (most having to do with Joker and Harley) have been decried by fans. However, there are moments that are visually exciting, and the lack of polish belies a healthy amount of visceral thrills.

Suicide Squad Will Smith and Joel Kinnaman

Ayer does a decent job of juggling quite a number of characters, by delineating which ones are worthy of exploration, and which ones just serve to fill a slot on the attendance sheet. The film retains the key component of Deadshot’s attachment to his daughter, and casting Will Smith means no matter how many times the character proclaims he’s a “bad guy”, we’ll have at a least a little sympathy for him. The emotional moments don’t work as well as they should, but Deadshot is appropriately quippy and cocky, with Smith’s charisma serving as a rallying point for the rest of the film. Does his star power pull one out of it? It turns out, not as much as you’d expect.

Suicide Squad Margot Robbie

Harley Quinn is a fan-favourite for many reasons, and when the character was reinvented during DC’s New 52 comics reboot, writer Adam Glass even received death threats. As such, Robbie’s performance won’t fit the ideal Harley in everyone’s heads, but this reviewer feels she displays a good understanding of the character, sprightly physicality and is immense fun to watch. Harley’s twisted joie de vivre is faithful to the source material, even if the outfit she sports for the bulk of the movie isn’t.

Suicide Squad Jared Leto

The Joker is wisely not overused. Leto’s on-set antics, including mailing a severed pig’s head to co-star Davis, raised a lot of eyebrows. He makes for a fine Joker who feels like he fits right into this particular cinematic universe, and it might sound silly, but this reviewer was thrilled to hear Harley call the Joker “Puddin’” and “Mistah J” on the big screen. It’s not as virtuosic a performance as the late Heath Ledger’s, but it fits the requirements of the story. Similarly, the way Batman is used in the narrative is just right – it’s not a sizeable part, but he does make an impact and provides connective tissue to the rest of the DCEU.

Suicide Squad Viola Davis

A key factor in making the audience buy the outlandish premise is by putting someone scary enough in charge, and Davis’ authoritative presence anchors Suicide Squad. Her Amanda Waller is nigh perfect, no-nonsense and manipulative without being one-note, and Davis’ gravitas is a force to be reckoned with. Kinnaman is probably a better fit for the straight arrow soldier than the originally-cast Tom Hardy would’ve been.

Suicide Squad Jai Courtney and Karen Fukuhara

Courtney is a hoot here – he may have had little success as a cookie cutter action hero, but as the crass Aussie thug, he’s right on the money. Hernandez provides a surprising amount of heart as the repentant former gangster, while Akinnuoye-Agbaje competently fills the role of burly big guy (Croc’s head just seems too big for his body). Alas, Delevingne isn’t convincing as an archaeologist or as an ancient witch. The central antagonist, whose identity we shan’t spoil, serves as a formidable physical and psychological threat to the Squad while not requiring too much characterisation, so we can focus on the team members themselves. It’s also convenient that the villain’s minions are faceless monsters, so they can get shot at and hacked apart in graphic fashion without breaking the PG-13 limit.

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Suicide Squad has its flaws, but the film scores a victory in not trying to ape the Marvel Studios formula. Like its central characters, it’s unpolished and rough around the edges. It’s spirited and entertaining without sacrificing too much of the graveness that has become DC’s calling card at the movies. The story is relatively easy to follow even for a neophyte, but fans will be rewarded with a couple of cool cameos and plenty of Easter Eggs, including a respectful nod to writer John Ostrander, who co-created the Suicide Squad team in the comics. Stick around for a mid-credits scene after the main-on-end titles.

Summary: It won’t please everyone, but Suicide Squad is an ideal marriage of director and comic book property. Jump on in and get messy.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Concussion

For F*** Magazine

CONCUSSION

Director : Peter Landesman
Cast : Will Smith, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Albert Brooks, Alec Baldwin, David Morse, Paul Reiser, Mike O’Malley, Hill Harper, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 123 mins
Opens : 14 January 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language)

            In this medical drama based on true events, something is driving America’s football players to madness, resulting in dangerous mental instability and suicides. Dr. Bennet Omalu (Smith) is a forensic neuro-pathologist from Nigeria, working under pathology consultant Cyril Wecht (Brooks) at the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh Steelers centre “Iron” Mike Webster (Morse) dies at age 50, homeless and deranged after suffering from dementia. Upon conducting the autopsy, Omalu finds it peculiar that Webster’s brain appears normal. The Steelers’ former team doctor Julian Bailes (Baldwin), having witnessed Webster’s decline first-hand, volunteers to help Omalu. Several other players display similar symptoms and die in quick succession. Omalu’s exhaustive research leads him to the conclusion that Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease brought about by repeated brain trauma, is to blame. Omalu and his wife Prema Mutiso (Mbatha-Raw) must brave the uphill battle as the National Football League (NFL) aggressively attempts to discredit Omalu and bury his research.

            Concussion is based on the GQ article Brain Game: Football Players and Concussionsby Jeanne Marie Laskas. While a film about brain trauma research does not sound particularly exciting, the controversial hot-button issue of the NFL’s denial that collisions as part of playing football can lead to potentially fatal brain damage is fuel for a searing prestige picture. Writer-director Peter Landesman pitches Concussion as a rousing David vs. Goliath tale of the heroic little guy taking down the evil wealthy corporation, but the film always feels too slick and glossy and, as a result, inauthentic. While the death of noted football players from CTE is a tragedy that is worth discussing, the film tries to sell it as the worst thing to ever befall humanity in all of its history. There are multiple artificial attempts to pump the story up, all of it accompanied by an overblown score that sees composer James Newton Howard at his highest “sombre drama” setting.


            Because of the immense power and prominence of the NFL, the “standing up to the man” quotient that Concussionpossesses is worthy of admiration, but it’s insufficient basis on which to recommend the film. The romance between Omalu and Prema is treacly and feels entirely tacked on, while the film bends over backwards to simplify the medical jargon, boiling Omalu’s research down to its most easily understandable: football players get hit in the head; this is bad. There are things that Landesman gets right: Justin Strzelczyk’s (Matthew Willig) violent outburst against his wife and children is a frightening, haunting moment. When an angry football fan calls Omalu’s home to harass him, accusing him of “pussifying this country”, it’s a great example of how sports fans can sometimes be thuggish and bullying in their zealousness. 



            Smith is clearly gunning for Oscar glory with his performance in the film, and it is blatant stunt casting. While Smith has proven himself capable of strong, absorbing performances, he stops a good distance short of being convincing as Dr. Bennet Omalu. In a truly great performance, particularly a portrayal of a real-life person, the actor should completely vanish into the role. It’s evident that Smith has put effort into the performance, but when all is said and done, he’s still A-list movie star Will Smith. Even putting aside the fact that Smith bears almost no resemblance to the actual Omalu, his presence is distracting. Mbatha-Raw gets little to do as the designated love interest, and a scene in which Prema teaches Omalu how to dance at a club is almost cringe-worthy. Brooks and Baldwin contribute solid performances and Morse’s brief appearance as Webster, Pittsburgh’s favourite son-turned mad vagrant, is effectively disturbing and tragic.



            The nobility that drives Concussion often crosses over into smothering self-importance. Omalu has many speeches about the American dream, and he is depicted as an American hero who just happens to come from Nigeria. The shattering of Omalu’s idealism is handled via awkward chunks of dialogue. This is a film with something to say and it says so loudly and with conviction, but the feeling that Omalu’s story has been squeezed into the standard “inspirational underdog” tale mould is very hard to shake. Concussion is more Oscar bait than it is incisive exposé, and as much as it takes the NFL to task, it’s still relatively early days for CTE research and the full impact has yet to play out.

Summary: Concussion’s righteous indignation can only carry it so far, with a clumsy screenplay and a lead actor who’s not the best fit for the part letting it down.

RATING: 2.5out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Focus

For F*** Magazine

FOCUS

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jedd Jong