Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Flight

For F*** Magazine

FLIGHT

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Run Time: 138 mins
Opens: 21 February 2013
Rating: M18 - Nudity And Drug Use

There was a time when flying was considered glamourous and exciting, the kind of thing Frank Sinatra songs were made of. “A brand new way to travel”, as it were. Today, getting on a plane is very much a part of regular life for many; sometimes inconvenient, sometimes frightening. Much of the awe of air travel has gradually eroded away, and these days, it seems like more of a necessity than a luxury. Still, it’s sobering to realise that every time we get on a plane, we put our lives in the hands of its pilots.

Denzel Washington plays one such pilot, named William “Whip” Whitaker. Unfortunately, “sober” is not quite in his dictionary, and after a night of alcohol, cocaine and sex, he takes the controls of a SouthJet airliner bound from Orlando to Atlanta. All of a sudden, the plane goes into a steep dive, and Whip is able to perform a risky manoeuver: rolling the plane upside down so it levels off, and turning it right side up again for a crash landing in a field, saving most of the souls on board.



In the hospital, Whip is greeted by his old friend Charlie (Greenwood), a pilot’s union representative. He also meets Nicole (Reilly), a desperate drug and alcohol addict who had just passed out from an overdose. Whip tries to avoid the media attention he has gained since landing the plane, and is informed by Charlie and attorney Hugh Lang (Cheadle) that he could face prison time based on a toxicology report that reveals he was intoxicated during the flight. Whip begins to spiral back into his old ways as those around him try to get him to pull himself back together in time for a National Transit Safety Board hearing.

Flight’s premise is intriguing in that a film would typically wrap up with its hero saving the day, but here, that’s just the jumping-off point and we get to examine what happens to said “hero” after the day is saved. The film also marks director Robert Zemeckis’ return to the land of the living, after a good ten years spent making dead-eyed CGI motion capture animation films. Zemeckis is well-remembered for such popular classics as the Back to the Future films, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Forrest Gump, so it’s good to see him back working in live action where he belongs.



Flight begins with a plane crash scene that is even more harrowing than the one Zemeckis put onscreen in Cast Away. This is the movie’s major set piece, and it’s brilliantly shot, imbued with an unsettling sense of familiarity in addition to danger and urgency. As the plane violently flips over and passengers tumble about in the cabin, you might just want to hang on to your armrests. You probably won’t see this as an in-flight movie soon, is all we’re saying.

However, Flight is not a disaster movie. It’s not an action movie, it’s not even a mystery thriller. It’s a good old-fashioned character study, a small, intimate film in a bigger movie’s clothes (or pilot uniform) – though those clothes happen to fit it quite well. Everything hinges on Denzel Washington as Whip Whitaker, a character whose name is probably inspired by Sully Sullenberger, a pilot who successfully landed an airliner on the Hudson River. It’s safe to assume that that is the extent of the inspiration, as Whip is a hard-drinking, somewhat arrogant rogue, though Washington’s magnetism ensures we never look away and are always rooting for him. This turns out to be a compelling portrait of someone dealing with addiction, and the impact substance abuse can have on someone and those around him. The film is never too heavy-handed in its approach and doesn’t come off as a public service announcement. Washington too never overplays the part, and the result is well deserving of the Best Actor Oscar nomination he’s gained.



Washington is assisted by a fine supporting cast. Nicole appears to be in a much worse place in her life than Whip is, on the verge of being evicted from her apartment and implied to be prostituting herself to sustain her drug habit. Kelly Reilly subtly conveys the fragility of the character without turning her into a “damsel in distress”, and we become invested in her relationship with Whip. Bruce Greenwood is always dependable as the kind authority figure, and Don Cheadle is also good as the hardworking attorney, so we end up pulling for the two to get Whip straightened out. John Goodman very nearly steals the show as Whip’s easy-going drug dealer, a role that this reviewer is almost certain was written for Jeff Bridges.

The movie’s ending does stretch credibility and several pilots have decried the film, saying someone in Whip’s condition would be in no state to fly a plane, but that doesn’t seriously hurt the end product. The outcome is an intelligent, involving drama lifted by a well-written screenplay (earning writer John Gatins an Oscar nomination) and a brilliant turn by Denzel Washington.

SUMMARY: A mesmerising performance by Denzel Washington and a solid return to live-action movies for Robert Zemeckis make for a first-class flight.

RATING: 4 out of 5 STARS

Jedd Jong

Safe Haven



For F*** Magazine, Singapore

SAFE HAVEN

Director:Lasse Halström
Cast:Julianne Hough, Josh Duhamel, Cobie Smulders, David Lyons
Genre:Romance, Drama
Run Time:115 mins
Opens:21 February 2013
Rating:PG13 (Scene of Intimacy)

Much like Stephen King has Maine, Nicholas Sparks has North Carolina. Safe Havenis the latest adaptation of a Sparks novel, and its title refers to the coastal town of Southport in – you guessed it – North Carolina.
Julianne Hough stars as Katie, a mysterious young woman on the lam and pursued by police detective Kevin (Lyons). She hops on a bus and escapes to the sleepy town of Southport – a safe haven of sorts. There, she meets Alex (Duhamel), a handsome single father of two who runs a general store. She also befriends Jo (Smulders), her neighbour who moved there to escape hectic city life. She hits it off immediately with Alex’s young daughter Lexie (Mimi Kirkland), but not so much with his sullen son Josh (Noah Lomax). However, as she begins to fall in love with Alex, she can’t shake the paranoia that her past will catch up to her – and it does.
Say the name “Nicholas Sparks” and you’ll be greeted with eye-rolls and exasperated groans. This an author who has built his career around mushy romance novels, the film adaptations of which have generally not been regarded very kindly and tend to blend together in one’s mind – even all the posters look exactly the same. As such, Safe Haven is expectedly vanilla, but is not so much unwatchable as it is kind of bland.
The plot is par for the course for a romantic drama, although some thriller elements are introduced, mostly forgotten, then picked up on again. The film begins with the female dashing barefoot out of a house, disoriented and troubled, and then she races through a bus station with a police detective hot on her trail. It actually seems quite interesting. Then the guitar ballad kicks in, and there’s no mistaking that this is a Nicholas Sparks movie and not The Fugitive recast as a romantic drama.
For the bulk of the film, the question of what Katie has done and why she’s on the run is cast aside in favour of the escapism of the idyllic seaside town and the dreamy single dad still getting over the death of his wife. The film is beautifully-shot, and Halström does make the town look like an appealing place to get away from it all, but it doesn’t really have an identity of its own. The central romance progresses predictably and feels so “Hollywood” that it doesn’t ring true at all.
Julianne Hough, who recently hit the big-time with leading roles in the Footloose remake and Rock of Ages, is probably a better singer and dancer than she is an actress. Like the movie that surrounds her, she doesn’t seem to have a lot of personality, but she’s never “high school drama class” bad. And of course there’s the token scene where she’s in a bikini at the beach, which will unfortunately be insufficient consolation for husbands and boyfriends dragged along to see this. Josh Duhamel seems like the kind of actor who’d be the perfect fit for this sort of film, and as far as sex symbol leading men who bounce between action and romantic roles go, he’s okay. David Lyons is best known as a television actor, and it shows. It doesn’t help that his character is given just one defining trait, and late in the movie at that. Cobie Smulders is kind of underused; there were points in the film where this reviewer wondered what it would’ve been like if she was the lead instead.
The film definitely picks up in its last act with a plot twist and a confrontation, and then another twist just before it ends. However, both of these revelations make the same amount of sense in hindsight – which is to say, very little. When the audience is told what exactly Katie is running away from, it just doesn’t seem all that compelling, and it also plunges the film headlong into “Lifetime movie of the week” territory, as if it didn’t already have enough of that flavour.
There will always be a market for Nicholas Sparks movies, but after eight of them (counting this one), it seems fair to say that they’ll always be the same. Romantic films don’t have to be boring – director Lasse Halström’s earlier film Salmon Fishing in the Yemen was proof of that. But where that movie was creative, buoyant, lively and thought-provoking, Safe Haven is not. Well, at least it isn't a romantic comedy.
SUMMARY: Yet another Nicholas Sparks adaptation, and one that expectedly plays it too safe. And just in time for Valentine’s Day, too!
RATING: 2 out of 5 STARS
Jedd Jong

Friday, February 15, 2013

A Good Day to Die Hard



For F*** Magazine

A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD

Director:John Moore
Cast:Jai Courtney, Bruce Willis
Genre:Action, Thriller
Run Time:98 mins
Opens:7 February 2013
Rating:PG13 (Violence & Some Coarse Language)


Some of you out there may remember the 1951 film An American in Paris, or even the George Gershwin composition that inspired it. Well, here we have An American in Moscow; the American in question being none other than John McClane, possibly the most iconic character Bruce Willis has played.
In this, the fifth instalment in the Die Hard franchise, McClane hears of his son John “Jack” McClane Jr. (Courtney) getting into trouble in Moscow and being thrown into jail, so he flies over to look into the situation and bring his son home. What he doesn’t know is that Jack is an undercover CIA agent caught in the middle of a potential crisis, and the older McClane’s presence throws a spanner in the works, much to the chagrin of his estranged son. They are soon drawn into a terrorist plot involving Russian defence minister Chagarin (Sergei Kolesnikov) and his former partner Komarov (Koch), whom he has taken as a political prisoner. Then there’s the small matter of a stockpile of weapons-grade uranium hidden away at Chernobyl.


The original Die Hard, from way back in 1988, has become something of a landmark among action films and is generally revered by genre aficionados. It became the basis of a successful franchise that has brought us to this place – this, unfortunately enough, very disappointing place. Some felt the fourth film didn’t live up to the legacy, but this reviewer found it quite entertaining.
Alas, that’s not the case with A Good Day to Die Hard. It seems that all of the creativity and innovation of the series has been sucked dry, and what we’re left with is a generic action flick with Bruce Willis dropped into the middle of it. At the hands of director John Moore of Max Payne infamy, the film becomes a messy collision of shaky-cam shots, quick, choppy editing and action scenes that are difficult to follow. There isn’t any of that old-school action movie feel that a Die Hard film should possess, that’s been replaced with a stale, production-line flavour.
This reviewer was actually really looking forward to this film and hoping to enjoy it. There’s potential here: setting the film in Moscow means that New York City cop John McClane gets to be a fish out of water, and having his son be a CIA agent better-equipped than he is, making him the one out of his depth, could have turned out intriguingly as well. However, the film doesn’t quite take advantage of its Russian setting, and having the climax take place at the abandoned Chernobyl power plant is rather on the nose, and even then the locale doesn’t feel sufficiently distinct. 
Giving an ageing action hero a son as his sidekick is not a new idea – Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull did it to not much success. However, Jack McClane turns out to be a typical contemporary action hero, Australian actor Jai Courtney giving off Sam Worthington vibes. There’s just nothing that defines him as John McClane’s son, and while there are some fun father-son moments and there’s a decent dynamic between the two, their relationship is paper-thin and far from central to the story, which should be the case. At least Courtney doesn’t come off as annoying.




Well, since it’s an action movie first and foremost, how are the action scenes? As mentioned earlier, the constantly shuddering camera makes the action sequences border on the incomprehensible, and a lot of them are rather messily staged. It’s not all bad though: there’s an elaborate car chase early in the film which features lots of high-impact collisions and various automobiles being bashed off the street and some fun stuff with a heavy-duty Mil Mi-26 helicopter, but in the end it doesn’t add up to enough visually. And also remember the complaints that the fourth movie made McClane seem like a superhero? Well, the father-and-so duo take insane amounts of punishment here, it’s nothing short of a miracle that they didn’t emerge utterly pulverised.


The villains aren’t memorable at all, and falling back on the “Russians-with-nukes” story device without putting a new spin on it or wrapping it in anything more interesting, the way Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol did, is tired and lazy. Screenwriter Skip Woods manages to make what should be a straightforward action flick confusing to sit through. Bruce Willis could sleepwalk through one of these movies, and at times it seems like he almost does. But it’s still nice to hear John McClane crack wise and see him throw a good punch or two – too bad he doesn’t have a beat-down with any of the main villains.
And to top it all off, it seems that here in Singapore, the F-bombs are muted out in order for the film to get a PG-13 rating, which is abrupt and distracting. It also means the hero’s memorable catchphrase is completely mangled, and that's even worse than it getting cut off by a gunshot as in the theatrical cut of the fourth movie.
SUMMARY: John McClane and his son have a very disappointing day out.
RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Upside Down



For F*** Magazine

UPSIDE DOWN

Director:Juan Diego Solanas
Cast:Jim Sturgess, Kirsten Dunst, Timothy Spall
Genre:Drama, Romance
Run Time:100 mins
Opens:14 February 2013
Rating:PG


“Did you think that your feet had been bound/ by what gravity brings to the ground?” So go the lyrics to Peter Gabriel’s “Down to Earth”, from WALL-E. Just as that film was a high-concept science fiction romance, so is Upside Down.
Well, sort of.
This French-Canadian film stars Jim Sturgess as Adam, who lives on a planet much like Earth, except that it has “dual gravity” – two worlds are separated from each other, the prosperous realm of “Up Above” casting its shadow, quite literally, on the lower-class citizens of “Down Below”. Adam is from Down, and a forbidden love between him and Eden (Dunst) from Up blossoms, as they meet for secret rendezvouses between the mountains of both worlds. Following an accident, Adam believes Eden to be dead, but catches a glimpse of her on TV, and so he gets himself employed by Trans World, the mega corporation that provides the only link between the two worlds, so he can chase the girl of his dreams.
Stories about star-crossed lovers are nothing new. From the Chinese myth of the Weaver and the Cowherd to Romeo and Juliet, from Jack and Rose to Anakin and Padme, we’ve long been fascinated by the idea of two people who must cross incredible boundaries to be together. Upside Down’s premise seems ingenious and very creative at first – how about have the force of gravity separate our male and female leads? However, it turns out that there is nothing more to it than that.
There is very little character development, and we learn next to nothing about Adam and Eden throughout the film. If their love transcends the force of gravity, then why is it so thoroughly uninteresting? The symbolism is heavy-handed (the leads are called “Adam” and “Eden”), and this is yet another poor-boy-falls-love-with-rich-girl tale, a formula which the filmmakers add precious little to. Though cosmic forces are keeping the two apart, it doesn’t seem like there’s much at stake. The film struggles to stay in line with its internal logic regarding the way the “dual gravity” works, and inconsistencies mar what seems like a clever idea, eventually exposing its inherent flaws that writer-director Solanas was probably unaware of as he was crafting the story.
Jim Sturgess and Kirsten Dunst and both talented actors, but saddled with an exposition-heavy opening narration that outlines the rules that govern this strange planet, Sturgess’s voice strains with mock wonderment. Kirsten Dunst seems rather detached from her role, though she does get to reprise some of the upside-down kissing she made famous in Spider-Man. Both have somewhat stilted line delivery that is certainly not helped by the clumsy dialogue. The only other character of note is Timothy Spall’s Bob, Adam’s colleague at Trans World who helps him find Eden – but it’s a comic role Spall can do in his sleep.
It would be a sin to completely write off Upside Down though, because credit is due to Solanas and his team for at least daring to try something different, and something so technically difficult to film. This is a very visual-effects heavy movie, what with the two opposing worlds and their respective gravities, and despite the Hollywood leads, it’s essentially a foreign film and not a big studio production, and it looks all the more impressive with that taken into consideration. It’s a stylish picture for sure, and many shots look straight out of a Chris Van Allsburg-esque picture book.
Unfortunately, this is one of those movies that is fascinating visually, but only on that level. There’s probably a compelling love story to be found somewhere in Upside Down, but it is left completely unmined, and audiences will have to make do with a simplistic and aimless plot, and a romance that never captivates. One can suspend disbelief – but what goes up must come down, and this movie does so with a clatter.
SUMMARY: Beautiful visual effects and art direction can’t stop this half-baked sci-fi fantasy romance from falling apart (and up, and down).
RATING: 2 out 5 STARS
Jedd Jong