Encanto review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Byron Howard, Jared Bush, Charise Castro-Smith
Cast : Stephanie Beatriz, John Leguizamo, María Cecilia Botero, Olga Merediz, Diana Guerrero, Jessica Darrow, Angie Cepeda, Wilmer Valderrama, Carolina Gaitán, Mauro Castillo, Adassa, Rhenzy Feliz, Ravi Cabot-Conyers
Genre: Animation/Musical/Comedy
Run Time : 109 min
Opens : 25 November
Rating : PG

We’re familiar with ‘chosen one’ stories of characters who step into a destiny they could have only dreamed of; discovering and cultivating powers to face insurmountable odds. Disney’s 60th animated feature is kind of an inverse of that, focusing on an ‘un-chosen one’.

The Madrigal family, led by matriarch Abuela Alma (María Cecilia Botero, Olga Merediz), live in the mountains of Colombia. Living in an enchanted house and blessed by a magical candle with an undying flame, every member of the family has superhuman powers. Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) is an unusual member of the Madrigal family because she has no powers to speak of, and always feels like she has nothing to contribute. When the magic begins to fade, the other Madrigals’ powers begin to waver and cracks form in the house’s façade, Alma inadvertently blames Mirabel. Mirabel must uncover a dark family secret to undo the damage and save her family before it’s too late.

Encanto is lively and beautifully animated, a sweet, engaging and entertaining tale brimming with richness and texture. Zootopia directors Byron Howard and Jared Bush co-directed the movie with Charise Castro-Smith, best known as a playwright. Howard and Bush displayed a knack for world-building with Zootopia which they carry over to Encanto. Like the best of Disney’s animated movies, Encanto is not only visually captivating, but also funny, poignant and exciting. The film is inspired by the writing of Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, known for his tales of magical realism. The yellow butterfly which figures into the plot is a reference to Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude. Underneath the colourful, dynamic exterior is a story about family and belonging, and of contending with generational trauma and the burden of preserving beliefs and traditions while preparing for the future.   

With any fantasy story, the question of “how much is too much?” is a factor when it comes to the world-building. While Howard and Bush do an excellent job of building out the milieu in which Encanto takes place, the rules of the magic seem arbitrary. Yes, there’s a ticking clock, but the exact nature of Mirabel’s mission seems unclear. There are many characters to keep track of, reflecting a large and close-knit family, but that means several characters are reduced to caricatures. The film’s ending is also less-than-satisfying and slightly underwhelming given the emotional highs of earlier points in the films.

Stephanie Beatriz gives a spirited vocal performance with an undercurrent of insecurity and frustration as Mirabel, and the movie gives us several memorable characters in the Madrigal clan beyond her.

Both Mirabel’s sisters, whom she is constantly compared to, are endearing in their own way: Isabela (Diane Guerrero) is always perfect and put-together, while Luisa (Jessica Darrow) has super strength. Each sister gets their own song in which they confess about what they struggle with beyond their seemingly ideal exteriors.

Because Mirabel is so easy to root for, it’s only natural that audiences might feel a certain contempt for Alma, who blames Mirabel for the Madrigal family’s problems. However, the movie does a wonderful job of giving Alma completely understandable reasons for her behaviour towards Mirabel. Raising triplets as a single parent after escaping an unspecified occupying enemy force, Alma has presided over the Madrigals for three generations now, and her fear that it will all fall apart is justified, even if it manifests harshly.

John Leguizamo is entertaining as he always is, playing arguably the movie’s most interesting character, Tio Bruno. Bruno’s ability to see visions of the future ultimately resulted in him being cast out of the family, as he was perceived as a bad omen. Leguizamo plays the tragicomic aspects of the character wonderfully.

Arguably, the biggest star associated with Encanto isn’t one of the voice cast, but composer Lin-Manuel Miranda. This is one of several Disney projects the musical theatre impresario has worked or is working on, including Moana and the upcoming live-action remake of The Little Mermaid. The songs in Encanto are a lot of fun and are paired with wild fantasy sequence visuals. In many ways, Encanto is reminiscent of Miranda’s In the Heights. It’s probably no coincidence that Olga Merediz, who provides Abuela Alma’s singing voice, originated the role of Abuela Claudia in In the Heights on Broadway. The incidental music is by Germaine Franco, who worked on Coco.

The 2D-animated short film Far from the Tree, which precedes Encanto, is worth noting. Written and directed by Natalie Nourigat, the story of a curious raccoon is an unexpectedly emotional examination of generational trauma (yes really) and the balance parents must strike in protecting their children while also nurturing their curiosity about the world. Far From the Tree had this reviewer in tears even before Encanto began proper.

Summary: A lively, endearing tale suffused with texture and personality, Encanto plays with the ‘chosen one’ trope to create another Disney animated film destined to become a classic. Featuring eye-catching animation and energetic, witty songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Encanto is an irresistible delight.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Ghostbusters: Afterlife review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Jason Reitman
Cast : McKenna Grace, Finn Wolfhard, Carrie Coon, Paul Rudd, Logan Kim, Celeste O’Connor
Genre: Action/Adventure/Comedy
Run Time : 124 min
Opens : 18 November
Rating : PG13

When it comes to long-dormant franchises, there’s usually one of two approaches to take: either a remake/reboot, or what’s come to be known as a ‘legacy sequel’. Both approaches have their risks, but fans generally seem more amenable to legacy sequels. These usually involve a new set of characters who have some connection to the characters of the original movie, with at least some of the older characters showing up in a supporting capacity. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is the latest example.

Single mother Callie (Carrie Coon) and her children Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (McKenna Grace) move to a rural town in Summerville, Oklahoma, after Callie’s father dies. He had come to be known as the ‘dirt farmer’ by locals and was apparently conducting strange experiments out of fear of a coming apocalypse. Phoebe has a keen interest in science and discovers artifacts in the basement of her grandfather’s house. Together with her classmate Podcast (Logan Kim) and summer school teacher Mr Grooberson (Paul Rudd), Phoebe uncovers the mystery of her grandfather’s experiments. Meanwhile, Trevor discovers an old Cadillac ambulance in the garage. Phoebe, Podcast, Mr Grooberson, Trevor and Trevor’s colleague/crush Lucky (Celeste O’Connor) eventually discover a conspiracy involving Ivo Shandor, the founder of Summerville, and come face to face with the apocalypse that Callie’s father was trying to prevent.

In an age of often-bloated franchise blockbusters, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is almost refreshingly low-key. Its relatively modest scale is a double-edged sword, as we’ll get to in a bit, but for the most part, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is surprisingly charming. With its rural setting, main characters who are kids, light comedy and supernatural/sci-fi adventure elements, this movie is very reminiscent of Amblin’s heyday. It’s no coincidence that Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard is in this, since Ghostbusters: Afterlife is mostly operating in that same mode. Much as director/co-writer Jason Reitman is paying tribute to his father Ivan, who directed and co-wrote the original film, this is also a Spielberg homage. Much of the humour in the original Ghostbusters came via Bill Murray’s smug, glib performance as Peter Venkman. The tone here seems a lot more earnest and sincere, more wide-eyed and less cynical.

One of the major pitfalls of legacy sequels is that they can devolve into a collapsing pile of Easter Eggs. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is mostly judicious with the fan-service, and most references to events of the first film make sense within the plot. However, there also is a lot of “look, there’s that thing that you like!” Ghostbusters: Afterlife can often feel too reverential, which is understandable given that it’s literally directed by the original filmmaker’s son. There’s meant to be a sense of awe around what this movie has in store for die-hard fans, most evident in how the identity of Callie’s father is apparently some huge secret, when everyone had already figured it out from the first trailer. It takes Ghostbusters: Afterlife almost an hour before the non-mystery is ‘solved’ and the grandfather’s name is confirmed aloud. As is common in legacy sequels, the characters come off more as links to the franchise’s past than as actual characters. This emphasis on ‘respect’ seems to primarily be a reaction to the 2016 reboot, to which there was an outsized, vitriolic ‘culture war’ backlash. That reverential fear sometimes holds Ghostbusters: Afterlife back, and it’s consequentially afraid to cut loose and be too funny, when the original film was primarily a comedy.

There’s also the matter of Ghostbusters: Afterlife’s status as an ‘event movie’. It wants to mostly be small and intimate, but also feels the pressure to provide big action set-pieces, and by the conclusion, turns into something akin to the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The younger Reitman infamously stated in 2007 that he did not want to make a Ghostbusters film, saying “Ghostbusters is iconic, but it’s my dad’s, and I don’t think I can touch that,” adding “It would be the most boring Ghostbusters movie of all time. There would be no ghost busting.” A lot can change in 14 years and Ghostbusters: Afterlife does have ghost busting in it, but there is slight conflict between the big-budget spectacle and the character drama.

One of the movie’s greatest strengths is its approach to the special/visual effects. The terror dogs are mostly executed with animatronic effects when they’re standing still, that then switches to CGI when they’re moving. The look of the proton streams is unmistakably 80s, evoking classic optical effects while not looking too dated. The Muncher ghost, this movie’s riff on Slimer, also looks sufficiently tactile, almost like he’s made of play-doh. The movie will often have something digital happen, then a practical explosion or spark as the pay-off, which works great. The effect that feels the most out of place is the ‘mini-pufts’, tiny Stay-Puft Marshmallow men who are completely digital and sometimes feel a bit synthetic compared to the other effects.

Summary: Often charming and amiable, Ghostbusters: Afterlife stands out amongst the landscape of big-budget franchise blockbusters by being a more intimate, lower-key affair. There is plenty here for long-time fans to latch on to, and while that means the movie is often in danger of becoming just an Easter Egg hunt, it also reflects the richness of the Ghostbusters mythology. Yes, there’s a lot of “here’s that thing that you like!” but it’s also offset by a genuine earnestness and sincerity. The mix of practical and digital effects to evoke the look of an 80s movie while not feeling too dated also largely works. Stay back for one mid-credits scene and one post-credits scene.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Eternals review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Chloé Zhao
Cast : Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, Harish Patel, Kit Harington, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie
Genre: Sci-fi/Action/Adventure
Run Time : 152 min
Opens : 4 November
Rating : M18

It depends on how you count them, but it’s estimated that Marvel Comics’ collection of characters numbers over 7000. There’s no fear that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) might run out of characters, but there’s no guarantee that audiences will respond equally to every character that’s introduced. Hoping for a repeat of the reaction to the Guardians of the Galaxy, the MCU introduces a new set of cosmic characters with Eternals.

7000 years ago, Arishem (David Kaye) of the Celestials sent a team of seemingly immortal warriors known as the Eternals on a mission to earth. The Eternals comprise Ajak (Salma Hayek), Sersi (Gemma Chan), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Gilgamesh (Don Lee), Thena (Angelina Jolie) and Druig (Barry Keoghan). Each member of the team possesses different powers, which they use to battle the Deviants, a monstrous, hostile alien species which has attacked earth. The Eternals thought they had defeated the last of the Deviants 500 years ago, but the monsters rear their heads yet again. Having lived apart for centuries, the Eternals must reunite to face the threat, but along the way, they will also learn of a far-reaching, possibly world-ending conspiracy that they are unwittingly a part of.

This writer gravitates towards stories with chronological scope. The idea of beings who live forever grappling with the blessing and curse of immortality is something inherently compelling, and Eternals explores this with a fair amount of nuance. It’s a story about gods learning to become men, and it delves into the messiness of humanity in a way one might not expect from an MCU movie. There is a sweeping scale to the film, which deliberately doesn’t feel like it was entirely shot against greenscreen on a soundstage. Director Chloé Zhao has a knack for capturing vast landscapes, and location filming on the Spanish Canary Islands of Fuerteventura and Lanzarote and various places in England lend the movie a tactility that these big, visual effects-driven spectacle movies sometimes lack. From the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to the fall of Tenochtitlan, there’s an impressive if sometimes overwhelming breadth to the proceedings.

While the sprawling 156-minute runtime might feel intimidating and while the movie does suffer from some pacing issues, it also means there’s a lot of space for the characters to just interact with each other. It doesn’t feel like a breathless race from set-piece to set-piece, which might be what some filmgoers want, but the movie feels comfortable being what it is. There is a warmth here which offsets the coldness often associated with sci-fi. Like other indie/prestige filmmakers who have entered the MCU fold before her, it feels like Zhao was rendered ample production/technical support by the Marvel Studios machine, but also got to put just enough of her own stamp on the movie.

As with any space opera, Eternals is unwieldy, perhaps past the amount which is unavoidable for the subgenre. There are lots of proper nouns, and reams of exposition to get through. For certain viewers, this might feel like the point where they want to tap out of the MCU. It’s not the most flattering comparison, but it sometimes feels like a more restrained, serious-minded Jupiter Ascending. It seems like comic book readers might be better equipped to go along for the ride, and indeed, comics writers and artists are generally responding better to this film than mainstream critics. There’s a lot going on, and not all of it makes sense, and the degree to which one is willing to surrender to the movie will vary.

While Eternals is sometimes visually impressive thanks to its practical locations, there are times when it looks a bit dour. The Eternals were created by legendary comic book artist and writer Jack Kirby, but the signature dynamic Kirby visual sensibility is largely lacking from the film (the MCU movie that most reflects this aesthetic is Thor: Ragnarok). The character designs feel somewhat uninspired, and the Deviants just do not look good, coming off as disposable CGI alien beasts. Director Zhao’s interest doesn’t seem to lie in the action set-pieces, so they sometimes feel perfunctory, even though they can also be exciting. As if there weren’t already enough plot and characters to deal with, the movie also adds Kit Harington as Dane Whitman, who Marvel readers will know as the Black Knight. There’s a certain amount of teasing coming attractions that we’re used to from these movies by now, but Eternals doesn’t seem to support that in addition to everything else.

The main cast consists of ten characters, which seems too many by half. Even then, this is an eclectic cast. While several may not get enough time to shine, the interplay between them is where the heart of the movie lies, and Zhao seems insistent on giving the characters humanity. Gemma Chan is first billed, but Sersi isn’t the most interesting character of the bunch, as often happens with the leads in ensembles. Still, she brings undeniable elegance to bear. Richard Madden looks the part of a Superman type, while Kumail Nanjiani has charisma to spare as the superhero-turned-Bollywood star (with Harish Patel stealing the show as Kingo’s loyal manager/valet Karun). Lia McHugh’s Sprite feels she is cursed to live forever in the physical form of a child, which is a fascinating and tragic notion.

Whenever Angelina Jolie shows up on screen, one is wont to go “now there’s a movie star”. It’s been said that these days, it’s franchises like the MCU that are the movie stars, so it’s always nice to see a bona fide movie star in an MCU entry. Much has been made of the movie’s representation, with it featuring a gay character in Phastos and the first deaf superhero played by a deaf actor in Makkari. Imbuing godlike characters with human traits to make them relatable is something that has been done since the beginning of storytelling, so while some might be bothered by this and react with hostility to it, this reviewer never found any of it feeling forced.

Summary: Eternals might not have the mass appeal of other MCU movies, but its millennia-spanning scope and cast of characters make it a worthwhile entry in the franchise. Some viewers may be feeling fatigued, while others will be excited at the bold, increasingly wilder directions that the MCU might be taking. Eternals is treading new territory for the franchise, prioritising character drama over action set-pieces in a way that might lose certain audiences. Still, there’s a lot in the movie that this reviewer finds appealing. For as much unwieldy sci-fi exposition as the movie has, it also possesses warmth and humanity. Stick around for one mid-credits scene and one post-credits scene and find a Marvel geek to explain them to you if you aren’t one yourself.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Halloween Kills review

For F*** Magazine

Director: David Gordon Green
Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, James Jude Courtney, Nick Castle, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, Will Patton, Anthony Michael Hall, Kyle Richards, Nancy Stephens, Charles Cyphers
Genre: Horror
Run Time: 105 min
Opens: 28 October
Rating: M18

True horror icons never die. You can stab them in the heart, shoot them in the head or even give one of their movies the subtitle “the final chapter,” but you know somehow, some way, they’ll be back. Michael Myers, the masked, knife-wielding villain of the Halloween franchise, is one such horror icon. Just when it looked like it was over, the terror of Haddonfield returns to his old stomping grounds.

At the end of the previous movie, it seemed like Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney, Nick Castle), had finally been defeated. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) trapped Michael in the basement, setting him on fire. He manages to escape, and has his sights set on other survivors of that fateful Halloween night in 1978. These include Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall), whose babysitter was one of Michael’s victims, Tommy’s friend Lindsey Wallace (Kyle Richards) and Marion Chambers (Nancy Stephens), the former assistant of Sam Loomis, Michael’s original psychiatrist. As the nigh-unstoppable killer continues his rampage through Haddonfield, generations of the town’s residents must rise in the face of evil.

The 2018 Halloween film received generally positive reviews. Director David Gordon Green returns, bringing much of the reverence of the original movie along to this one. There is a sequence set in 1978 in which Green attempts to meticulously replicate the style of original director John Carpenter, who is also involved in this film as co-composer with his son Cody and Daniel Davies. For fans of the franchise, there are many specific call-backs that will appeal to them. If the 2018 film focused on the long-lasting effects that the events of the first film had on Laurie Strode, then this is a film about collective trauma. Laurie survived the night of Halloween 1978, and so did Haddonfield itself. The movie’s depiction of a community uniting against a spectre that they’ve never been able to shake is sometimes hokey, but also sometimes genuinely moving.

This trilogy of Halloween movies is set to comprise three movies – 2018’s Halloween, this movie and next year’s Halloween Ends. This movie suffers from a lot of the problems that plague many middle instalments, and often feels like it’s spinning its wheels until we get to the big confrontation in the final film. While Jamie Lee Curtis is top-billed, and her return to the series was the 2018 movie’s great coup, Laurie Strode is barely in Halloween Kills, spending most of the movie’s runtime laid up in hospital. The filmmakers are intentionally withholding the big confrontation, but because of that, it can feel like the events of this film are almost entirely inconsequential. Yes, there are plenty of kills – this might in fact be the Halloween movie with the highest body count – but because Laurie is so removed from much of the action, it’s hard to feel the emotional impact of the kills, even when the movie really wants audiences to. Yes, her daughter and granddaughter are still a big part of the movie, but even then, in trying to be about the residents of Haddonfield at large, Halloween Kills is often unfocused. Michael’s unkillable nature is meant to make him otherworldly and intimidating, but this reviewer couldn’t help but think of Will Ferrell in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery going “I’m still alive, only I’m very badly burned”.

The Halloween franchise is a storied one, and like any horror series that’s been around long enough, has had its ups and downs. To put things in perspective, there exist two separate sequels to the original Halloween that ignore the intervening films: Halloween H20 ignores all but the first two, then Halloween (2018) ignores all but the very first movie. Halloween Kills is about legacy in that it centres on characters who were also there. Tommy Doyle and Marion Stephens have appeared in other Halloween films, but this is the first Halloween sequel that brings back Lindsey Wallace, with Kyle Richards (now better known as a Real Housewives star) reprising the role she played as a child. While Anthony Michael Hall gives a spirited performance as Tommy, the effect of things coming full circle is somewhat undercut by the role being recast – Brian Andrews played Tommy in the original film. While hardcore fans might appreciate the specific references to the original Halloween movie, and the way the film catches up with certain characters, there’s not a lot here for general audiences.

Summary: Halloween Kills is wholly unsatisfying in the way many middle instalments are. There is plenty of blood and gore, but it never really feels in service of anything. It is especially disappointing given how this movie’s immediate predecessor breathed new life into the franchise and brought Jamie Lee Curtis, the series’ heart and soul, back. However, there are intense, thrilling set-pieces, and several characters whom fans will recognise from the first movie return in interesting ways. The intent was to make a movie about collective trauma and about the town of Haddonfield reckoning with the long shadow cast by Michael Myers, but Halloween Kills is mostly killing time until we get to Halloween Ends.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Last Duel review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Ridley Scott
Cast : Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck, Harriet Walter, Alex Lawther, Nathaniel Parker, Sam Hazeldine, Željko Ivanek, Marton Csokas
Genre: Historical/Drama
Run Time : 153 min
Opens : 14 October
Rating : R21

Content warning: sexual assault

In 1977, Ridley Scott made his feature film debut with The Duellists, set during the Napoleonic Wars. 44 years and 24 films later, Scott visits another era of French history with The Last Duel, set during the Hundred Years War and telling the story of the last trial by combat permitted by the Parliament of Paris.

It is 1386. Knight Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) are former best friends. They have grown apart because Le Gris has earned the favour of the wealthy and powerful Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck), who has a personal distaste for Carrouges. Carrouges, whose wife and son died in a plague, marries Marguerite (Jodie Comer), the daughter of disgraced Lord Robert de Thibouville (Nathaniel Parker). Marguerite claims that while Carrouges was away in battle, Le Gris raped her. Sanctioned by King Charles VI (Alex Lawther) and the Parliament of Paris, Carrouges challenges Le Gris to a duel to the death. If he wins, Carrouges’ name and honour – and that of his wife – remain intact. If he loses, then Le Gris will be proven innocent in the eyes of God, and Marguerite will be burned at the stake.

Scott is a seasoned veteran behind the camera. Not all his films wind up being great, but almost all of them are technically competent, and The Last Duel is no exception. At once grand and grimy, The Last Duel sees Scott in historical epic mode, bringing the likes of Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven to mind. Alongside frequent collaborators like cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, production designer Arthur Max and costume designer Janty Yates, Scott assembles a serious, big-budget movie aimed squarely at grown-ups. Various historical locations in Ireland and France lend the movie its scale, even if experts are bound to find myriad inaccuracies in the costuming and other details.

The story is a fascinating and important one, and even if the movie falls short in certain areas, there is a serious attempt to do the historical subject matter justice. The movie takes its time and is divided into three chapters before getting to the duel, telling the story from Carrouges’, Le Gris’ and Marguerite’s points of view, ensuring that we get to know each of the players well before the climactic, grisly and intense titular sequence. Adapted from The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France by medieval literature expert Eric Jager, the script is credited to Nicole Holofcener, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Damon and Affleck wrote the perspectives of the men, while Holofcener wrote the perspective of the woman.

This is a movie about the repercussions in the wake of a woman’s sexual assault – more specifically, a woman who decides that in the wake of her sexual assault, she cannot stay silent. It must be noted that the film contains graphic depictions of sexual assault, and how necessary such depictions are in films specifically about the topic is something that’s often debated. The tagline declares this is “the true story of the woman who defied a nation and made history”. However, the actress playing said woman is third-billed. While the movie certainly devotes time and attention to Marguerite and to her interiority, she mostly takes a backseat to Carrouges and Le Gris, and by the time we get to the section of the movie telling her side of the story, it is more than halfway into the 153-minute runtime. There is also a perhaps unavoidable silliness in a movie of this nature, in which haircuts and accents are inevitably distracting. Scott prevents the proceedings from ever getting too jarring, but there are moments that come off as stilted and unnatural. The downside of Scott’s professionalism is his movies sometimes feel dispassionate, and while there is an intensity to The Last Duel that draws viewers in, it also feels like he isn’t as personally invested in the material as he could be.

Damon and Affleck are oft-collaborators and long-time friends. The last time they co-wrote a screenplay, it was for the Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting. As such, there was some anticipation over their first collaboration as writers in 24 years. Unfortunately, Damon comes off as miscast, often feeling like he doesn’t fit the period – especially in comparison to Adam Driver, who carries himself much better in the costumes and surroundings. Affleck’s character, essentially a rich, hard-partying frat boy, seems deliberately anachronistic and he is having fun with it. Their involvement in this film is simultaneously distracting and somewhat novel. While they cannot be directly blamed for it, it is worth remembering that Affleck and Damon owe much of Good Will Hunting’s success to producer Harvey Weinstein, so perhaps it is not a coincidence that they are making a film about a survivor of sexual assault, even if theirs are far from the most pertinent voices on the matter.

Jodie Comer is far and away the best part of the movie. With Free Guy and The Last Duel in the same year, Comer is poised for big screen superstardom. In the section scripted by Holofcener, Comer shines. Her Marguerite is an intelligent, hardworking person who challenges the conventions of the time. She deals with not just being raped, but also with the constant pressure of needing to bear her husband a son. In one particularly wrenching scene, Marguerite’s mother-in-law chastises her for speaking out about the rape, saying she herself was raped but stayed silent so as not to cause trouble. The Last Duel is the most effective when it highlights how much has changed, but depressingly, much has not.

Summary: While there probably are better candidates than Matt Damon and Ben Affleck to tell this historical story, The Last Duel benefits from Ridley Scott’s assured direction and a transcendent turn from Jodie Comer. It’s far from the best statement movie made about sexual assault and the challenges that women face in speaking out about their experiences, but it proves an engrossing epic all the same.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

No Time to Die review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Cary Fukunaga
Cast : Daniel Craig, Rami Malek, Léa Seydoux, Lashana Lynch, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Jeffrey Wright, Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes, Ana de Armas, Rory Kinnear, Dali Benssalah, David Dencik, Billy Magnussen
Genre: Action/Adventure
Run Time : 163 min
Opens : 30 September
Rating : PG13

“James Bond will return” – these are the reassuring words at the end of the credits, promising moviegoers that further adventures await the cinematic superspy. The previous Bond movie Spectre was released in 2015, with the release of this film being delayed multiple times thanks to the pandemic. Finally opening in 2021, the six-year gap is tied with the interval between 1989’s License to Kill and 1995’s Goldeneye for the series’ longest. The wait is over as the curtain comes down on Daniel Craig’s tenure as 007.

Over the course of the previous film Spectre, James Bond (Daniel Craig) fell in love with psychotherapist Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), the daughter of a deceased high-ranking member within the terrorist organisation Spectre. A now-retired Bond is pulled back into the fray by long-time ally, CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright). A secretive weapons program presided over by MI6 head M (Ralph Fiennes) has fallen into the wrong hands. Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), a villain linked to Swann’s past, has employed scientist Valdo Obruchev (David Dencik) to further develop said weapon, codenamed Heracles. Alongside allies like quartermaster Q (Ben Whishaw), newly minted 00 agent Nomi (Lashana Lynch) and rookie CIA operative Paloma (Ana de Armas), Bond must prevent a global catastrophe as secrets from both his and Swann’s past are revealed.

There is a lot riding on No Time to Die. Anyone who has paid attention to the film’s production history knows it was a rocky road, replete with not just the repeated delays but also director replacements, on-set injuries and even an explosion at the studio. There is nary a sign of that turbulent production on the screen. No Time to Die is spectacular, a sturdy, finely crafted epic that seeks to deliver both what long-time fans have come to expect of the franchise, while also shaking things up. The screenplay is credited to long-time Bond scribes Neal Purvis & Robert Wade, but also director Cary Fukanaga and Killing Eve writer/Fleabag herself Phoebe Waller-Bridge, indicating a mix of the classic and the new. This is an attempt to wrap a standard Bond adventure in a larger arc, an attempt that mostly succeeds.

The film will no doubt prove divisive, perhaps with critics liking it more than audiences will, but this reviewer is impressed. The references to the almost-70-year-long cinematic history of James Bond are nicely scattered throughout the film instead of laid on too thick. For example, the villain’s lair nods to Dr No and You Only Live Twice in its design, while elsewhere, there are numerous references to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. How the character, firmly a product of post-war Imperialist escapism, evolves with the times is always interesting to observe. Director Cary Fukunaga displays an understanding of the films’ appeal while also attempting to inject a level of gravitas and palpable emotion which the Daniel Craig-starring movies have already had more of compared to their forebears. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren shoots the various international locales from Jamaica to Norway handsomely, while Hans Zimmer’s score enhances the scope of the film (if sometimes sounding like recycled bits of his work on the Dark Knight trilogy).

Clocking in at 163 minutes but feeling significantly shorter than that, there’s a lot going on here. There are things about this movie that will be talked about for a while to come, but in trying to serve up certain Bond elements that moviegoers will expect, No Time to Die does a good job, if not a remarkable one. We get an okay Bond villain, okay Bond girls, an okay lead henchman and an okay Bond theme (albeit one this reviewer still enjoys a lot more than “Writing’s on the Wall”, from Spectre). Perhaps Safin is a notch above “okay,” owing to Rami Malek’s genuinely creepy performance. Part of why the series needs reinventing is there are only so many permutations of these stock elements, No Time to Die seeming to prove this point while doing some reinvention of its own. However, the sheer overall impact of the movie elevates everything that’s “okay” to “good” and beyond. The reliance on continuity strengthens characters’ arcs, but also means that casual moviegoers might sometimes feel lost.  

The Bond series is interesting because in the mainline Eon Productions films, all the actors from Sean Connery through to Pierce Brosnan seemed to roughly be playing the same James Bond character, with certain supporting cast members carried over across multiple Bond actors. Casino Royale, Craig’s debut, was the first Bond film to explicitly be a reboot. This means that one can watch all five of Craig’s movies back-to-back and get a complete arc of a character who goes from rookie, to in his prime, to retirement. None of Craig’s predecessors really got a grand send-off in their final movie, so the closure provided in No Time to Die is strangely novel.

A constant topic that crops up around the Bond films is the treatment of the women in them. Bond women are often disposable conquests, sometimes Bond’s equals, but none ever stick around. This is the first time an actress has played the same leading lady in two Bond films. Madeleine Swann is often a damsel in a degree of distress, but also has plenty of layers to her, and it is her baggage and the secrets of her past that propel the plot of No Time to Die. Meanwhile, the kickass quotient is provided by Lashana Lynch’s Nomi and Ana de Armas’ Paloma – Bond must come to terms with being succeeded by someone quite different from him, and the interplay between the former and current 00 agents is entertaining.

Summary: A thrilling, intense and emotional conclusion to Daniel Craig’s tenure as James Bond, No Time to Die delivers everything fans expect from the franchise but also leaves the status quo shaken (and stirred). James Bond is a character whose relevancy is always being examined, and for better or worse, each Bond reflects the time in which their movies were made. No Time to Die is often exhilarating but also equally sombre. As the card at the end of the credits promises us, “James Bond will return,” but he will never be quite the same after this.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings review

Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Cast : Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Tony Leung, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Michelle Yeoh, Benedict Wong, Ronny Chieng
Genre: Action/Adventure
Run Time : 132 min
Opens : 1 September
Rating : PG13

We are now into Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Post-Avengers: Endgame, it seemed like audiences would lose interest in the sprawling franchise, but while some have, there is still a lot to keep others invested. With TV series on Disney+ and many movies on the slate, the MCU is moving in various directions, one of those directions being the wuxia-inspired realm of Shang-Chi.

Shaun (Simu Liu) lives in San Francisco, working as a hotel valet alongside his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). Shaun hides a secret: he is actually Shang-Chi, the son of ruthless warlord Wenwu (Tony Leung). Armed with ancient artifacts called the Ten Rings, Wenwu has moved in the shadows for centuries. He had thought his endless need for conquest would come to an end after meeting Ying Li (Fala Chen) in the magical land of Ta Lo. Wenwu and Ying Li had two children, Shang-Chi and Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). However, tragedy brought Wenwu back to the violence of his past. Now, Shang-Chi must confront what he has spent half his life running away from, as he and Katy get drawn into an epic battle involving criminal empires, magical creatures and lots and lots of martial arts.

It is perfectly understandable that many audiences were apprehensive of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. After all, it’s very easy to cynically view this as solely a bid for Asian moviegoers’ money and nothing more. Also, there have been many films aimed at appealing to both Asian and American audiences that have faceplanted embarrassingly, including The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, Dragon Blade and The Great Wall.

Shang-Chi avoids practically all of those pitfalls.

This is an immersive, entertaining adventure that is largely bereft of the samey-samey feel which MCU movies can carry, and which plagued this year’s Black Widow to a certain extent. While there still is a reliance on the ‘chosen one’ origin story formula, Shang-Chi introduces myriad elements to the mix which we haven’t seen done quite like this before. Director Destin Daniel Cretton displays a healthy amount of reverence for classic wuxia movies. While purists will nitpick the action in this film, most of it is truly spectacular, choreographed beautifully and not shot with shaky-cam or hyper-edited to death. The late Brad Allan, who is the second unit director and supervising stunt coordinator on this film, was one of Australia’s top wushu athletes and a long-time member of Jackie Chan’s stunt team. There is every effort made to deliver beautiful action, and unlike in some MCU movies where it can feel like the action scenes are disjointed from the rest of the movie, everything flows well here. In addition to the martial arts-centric sequences, there’s an entertaining runaway bus setpiece that nods to 90s action films like Speed and The Rock.

While Simu Liu has a background as a stuntman and has trained in Taekwondo and Wing Chun, he sometimes feels like the least convincing fighter in the film. He has clearly worked very hard to learn and execute the choreography, but especially when compared to Arnold Sun, who plays Shang-Chi as a 14-year-old, it doesn’t fully feel like Shang-Chi has been training his entire life. Perhaps that can be explained away by how he has spent ten years in hiding.

A problem with many Marvel films and indeed many present-day action blockbusters is that the final action sequence is very heavily reliant upon CGI, and goes on for a bit too long, such that one is wont to tune out. Amusingly, the climactic battle revolves around closing a portal, something which the earlier Marvel movies have often been mocked for, but there is a bit of a twist put on it. Some may also roll their eyes at the “dead wife” motivation, but this reviewer feels it is a justified plot point here.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is shang-chi-awkwafina-ronny-chieng-simu-liu.jpg

Marvel Studios have typically been great at casting, and Shang-Chi is no exception. Simu Liu and Awkwafina are actors who might typically be relegated to playing sidekicks, and both step up to the leading roles very well. Liu has an earnestness to him and the early scenes of Shang-Chi and Katy hanging out make them seem like people whom we would want to be friends with.

Relative newcomer Meng’er Zhang displays excellent physicality and a convincing woundedness behind exterior strength as Xialing, who was always relegated to the sidelines while Wenwu focused on Shang-Chi. Zhang met her husband, action designer Yung Lee, on the set of the film. Florian Munteanu, who played Viktor Drago in Creed II, makes for an adequately intimidating henchman as Razorfist. Michelle Yeoh is elegant and has gravitas to spare, making a meal of some potentially unwieldy exposition. There’s also an appearance from an MCU character which is a great surprise if one doesn’t know they’re going to be in Shang-Chi.


Tony Leung is truly incredible. It was a valid concern that he would just be there for the sake of saying “we’ve got Tony Leung,” but the Wenwu part is a substantial one and is easily one of the greatest MCU villains yet, even though that is a low bar to clear. One of the big selling points of the film is that this is the venerable Hong Kong actor’s long-awaited Hollywood debut. Wenwu reminded this reviewer of Vincent D’onofrio’s Wilson Fisk in the Daredevil series: he does monstrous things, but we come to understand what made him this way. In his earliest comics appearances Shang-Chi was literally the son of Fu Manchu, and the movie addresses the outmoded orientalism inherent in the source material. The name “Wenwu” comes from the Chinese idiom 文武双全 (wén wǔ shuāng quán), roughly meaning “master of pen and sword,” reflecting how Wenwu is both an intellectual and physical force. Wenwu is a modified take on the Iron Man villain the Mandarin. The portrayal of the Mandarin in Iron Man 3 proved to be controversial, and that is acknowledged here in a clever way.

Representation is a tricky thing, because no one piece of media can speak for a multitude of communities. There are many East Asian communities and indeed many Chinese communities around the world, and Shang-Chi can’t be expected to tell everyone’s story. However, there is an effort made here to infuse a certain amount of authenticity into the story and especially the dialogue. When the characters speak in Mandarin Chinese, which they do roughly 40% of the time, it doesn’t feel like it’s been fed into Google Translate. It’s fun hearing someone say “I’ve eaten more salt than you have rice,” an expression commonly used by the older Chinese people to admonish the younger generation, in a Hollywood movie.

This is a story about identity and belonging. Shang-Chi has always been Asian-American: in the earliest comics, his mother was a blonde American woman. Shang-Chi’s hero’s journey centres on finding out who he really is and reckoning with his father, who put him through arduous training and moulded him into an assassin, but who ostensibly loves him. The relationships in the film are very well defined, and the audience quickly understands the underlying nature of each of the relationships: the friendship between Shang-Chi and Katy, the estranged sibling relationship between Shang-Chi and Xialing, the parental relationship between Wenwu and Shang-Chi and so on.

Summary: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a spectacular adventure. Never feeling like it’s too tied down to the now-labyrinthian MCU mythology, there is something refreshing to this even as it evokes the feeling of classic wuxia films. Simu Liu proves himself to be a worthy superhero, Awkwafina is more than just the funny sidekick, and Tony Leung is just magnificent as one of the best Marvel villains yet. Far more than just token representation for the sake of it, Shang-Chi is one of the most successful instances of a big-budget movie designed to appeal to international audiences without feeling like mere hollow pandering. Stay behind for one mid-credits scene and one post-credits scene, but you should know this by now.  

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Reminiscence review

Director: Lisa Joy
Cast : Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Ferguson, Thandiwe Newton, Cliff Curtis, Daniel Wu, Marina de Tavira, Brett Cullen, Mojean Aria, Angela Sarafyan, Natalie Martinez
Genre: Sci-fi/Thriller
Run Time : 116 min
Opens : 18 August
Rating : NC16

Writer-director Lisa Joy goes from Westworld to Waterworld with this sci-fi noir set in a partially submerged city. Joy, who co-created the HBO series with her husband Jonathan Nolan, makes her feature directorial debut here.

It is the near future and most of Miami is underwater. Military veteran Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) runs a business offering “reminiscences” – clients undergo a procedure that helps them relive memories of their choice. Nick operates the business with fellow veteran Watts (Thandiwe Newton) and is sometimes called upon by the District Attorney’s office to use the reminiscence device for depositions. The technology was originally developed as an interrogation implement, but now, people use it to find solace in the happiness of their past. A mysterious nightclub singer named Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) visits Nick and Watts, ostensibly wanting to find her missing keys. This upends Nick’s existence, sparking an obsession with Mae that finds him embroiled in a far-reaching conspiracy involving such unsavoury characters as crime lord Saint Joe (Daniel Wu), Joe’s hired muscle Cyrus Boothe (Cliff Curtis) and land baron Walter Sylvan (Brett Cullen).

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is reminiscence-rebecca-ferguson-headgear-hugh-jackman.jpg

Reminiscence marries its noir influences with a sci-fi aesthetic and central plot device to create a moody, atmospheric film. While it is hampered by certain elements, which we will get to in a bit, it’s often interesting to look at and is generally cast very well. The Greatest Showman co-stars Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Ferguson are called upon to play noir archetypes – he the trench coat-clad haunted private detective, she the sultry femme fatale chanteuse. Both actors fit these types perfectly, and convincingly inhabit the world that Joy has created. Joy brings many key crew members from Westworld along, including cinematographer Paul Cameron, production designer Howard Cummings and composer Ramin Djawadi. The world that Reminiscence takes place in feels expansive and well-realised. The result of climate disasters and rife with inequality and unrest, it is not as dramatic as other sci-fi dystopias, but feels quite plausible.  

Also from Westworld are actors Thandiwe Newton and Angela Sarafyan. Newton provides an excellent foil to Jackman, playing a survivor who is sardonic as a defence mechanism. Cliff Curtis turns in a supremely scuzzy performance, playing a crooked cop-turned mob enforcer.

A big problem with many neo-noir films is that they are too self-conscious about their influences, which is eminently evident here. You may have heard the phrase “this movie has watched a lot of movies” – Reminiscence is one of those. A lot of the dialogue is arch and unnatural, with the actors trying their best to make lines like “memories are like perfume. They work best in small doses.”

In trying to evoke the noir genre, Reminiscence can sometimes hold the audience at arm’s length. Joy is very conscientious about the world-building, but that means it’s not just the flooded Miami streets but also exposition that the characters must wade through. The first half of the film is sometimes slow, such that when there are two action sequences later, they almost feel as if they belong in a different film.  

The performance that sticks out as being particularly bad is Daniel Wu’s. His character is meant to be a dangerous, sexy crime boss, but his swagger feels affected and the character’s code-switching between English and Mandarin Chinese is sometimes stilted.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is reminiscence-hugh-jackman-in-tank.jpg

The central device of accessing one’s memories via technology isn’t a new thing in sci-fi, but the way it is realised in Reminiscence is visually compelling. Subjects are partially submerged before the process can begin, further reinforcing the film’s water motif – perhaps a metaphor for how remembering past events is like looking at something through water. The memories are then projected onto a circular platform, like theatre in the round, which creates 3D holographic images via crystalline strings of bulbs. The resulting image feels slightly intangible – it’s right in front of the characters, but they can’t quite touch it. It’s the most elegant visual in the film.

Summary: Drawing on the expertise she gained as the co-showrunner of Westworld, Lisa Joy makes her feature film directorial debut with a movie that is ambitious if rough around the edges. Reminiscence is sometimes murky and, like its futuristic setting, can feel waterlogged. However, Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Ferguson’s bona fide movie star performances make the film more convincing than it would be otherwise. The sci-fi trappings are visually captivating and the world that the movie takes place in is well constructed.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Free Guy review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Shawn Levy
Cast : Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, Taika Waititi, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Lil Rel Howery, Joe Keery, Camille Kostek
Genre: Action/Comedy/Sci-fi
Run Time : 115 min
Opens : 12 August (Sneaks 11 August)
Rating : PG13

As a hero’s journey begins, they have that moment when they realise they’re meant for more than their existence, whether it’s Luke Skywalker gazing at the twin sunset over Tatooine, or Belle singing “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere”. In this sci-fi action comedy, an NPC (non-player character) in a video game realises he’s meant for more than being shot at by gamers.

Guy (Ryan Reynolds) is a bank teller in Free City, an open-world multiplayer online video game that’s something of a cross between Grand Theft Auto and Fortnite. NPCs follow scripts and routines, but Guy is different – he’s capable of making decisions he shouldn’t be. Guy falls hard for Molotov Girl/Millie (Jodie Comer), a player in Free City with a specific agenda. Years ago, Millie and Keys (Joe Keery) developed an indie video game that was bought out by gaming giant Soonami, the publishers of Free City. Millie must prove that Antwan (Taika Waititi), the megalomaniacal Soonami boss, stole the build that she and Keys originally developed. Guy holds the key to this, as he grapples with the reality of his existence and it becomes a race against time to save him, his best friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) and the other denizens of Free City who are threatened by Antwan’s never-ending quest for profit.

Free Guy is entertaining and energetic, a studio blockbuster refreshingly devoid of many of the pitfalls associated with present-day studio blockbuster filmmaking. This is a good-hearted escapist adventure that is about an idealistic character making his way in a cynical world. There are many parallels to The LEGO Movie and The Truman Show, with the film also capturing the sense of ‘happy chaos’ that fuelled The LEGO Movie. Shawn Levy, who directed the Night at the Museum Trilogy, Real Steel and multiple episodes of Stranger Things, confidently handles the visual effects-heavy component of the movie while bringing humanity to the material. Best of all, it largely doesn’t feel like the product of studio execs wringing their hands, wondering “do the kids like this?”

The movie is an excellent showcase for Ryan Reynolds, who has crafted his movie star persona around being something of a wiseass. He knows he can be annoying, but here, Reynolds’ Guy is always endearing, an innocent who’s very easy to root for.

Jodie Comer, whom audiences might know from Killing Eve, acquits herself admirably in the dual roles of Millie and her avatar Molotov Girl. Comer is convincing as both a withdrawn video game developer and a badass, confident action heroine, and shares great chemistry with both Reynolds and Keery. This reviewer did not expect Free Guy to be a genuinely moving romance, but it is.

It’s inherent in the style of video game that Free Guy is referencing, but the movie is sometimes too frenetic and in-your-face. There are moments when it seems like it wants to have a bit of a harder edge, and while it’s all in the context of a video game, the violence can come off as quite excessive for what is ostens ibly a family film. The cameos from real life streamers Jacksepticeye, Ninja, Pokimane, DanTDM and LazarBeam did pull this reviewer out of it, and it’s elements like this and the specific Fortnite-like stylisation of the game that will almost immediately date Free Guy. It’s also just a matter of time before one of the afore-mentioned streamers gets “cancelled” (one might argue one or more already have been), and the filmmakers might regret their movie being associated with them. Perhaps feeling dated is just unavoidable with any movie related to video games, seeing how quickly games progress.

Taika Waititi’s performance is initially amusing, but quickly becomes grating. He’s doing way too much, turning it up to eleven and hamming it up as Antwan. Yes, tech moguls often have an inflated perception of themselves, but even considering this, Waititi’s portrayal feels too cartoonish for Antwan to be truly threatening.

Much as this reviewer enjoyed the romance, there are audiences who might feel that it is tacked on. One of the NPCs realises that she can be her own woman and doesn’t need to be in a relationship, so it might seem contradictory that the film itself ignores this.

Free Guy is cleverly constructed, and one big thing working for it is that the filmmakers understand the world of videogames. They understand that online gaming can be an incredibly toxic space where people feel free to be their worst selves. They also understand that game studios can be awful workplaces and that the people who run such studios can be abusive; especially timely considering the horrifying revelations coming out about Activision/Blizzard. However, the makers of Free Guy also clearly love video games and understand their appeal and have built a truly engrossing world. There is a heartfelt message about how online spaces do not have to reward our worst instincts, and that there are people who create and play video games who desire an oasis away from the typical behaviour associated with gamers. There’s an unexpected level of nuance which elevates Free Guy above just being a good sci-fi action-comedy, which it already is.

Summary: The best studio blockbuster this summer arrives better late than never. An inventive, dynamic and even moving sci-fi action comedy, Free Guy is a delight. Beyond making canny use of stars Ryan Reynolds and Jodie Comer, the movie displays an understanding of the world of videogames, from the perspective of both gamers and developers. It tackles the often-toxic elements of video game culture while staying a safe distance from sanctimony, and while the world of Free City is chaotic, it is also genuinely exciting to spend time in. Free Guy is satisfying entertainment in a way most blockbusters burdened with setting up the next entry in a franchise rarely are.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Suicide Squad review

For F*** Magazine

Director: James Gunn
Cast : Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, Joel Kinnaman, Sylvester Stallone, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Peter Capaldi, David Dastmalchian, Daniela Melchior, Sean Gunn
Genre: Action/Adventure
Run Time : 132 min
Opens : 5 August 2021
Rating : M18

In 2016, Warner Bros. released the third entry in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU): Suicide Squad. While that film was a commercial success, it did not fare too well with critics and many fans. Five years later, we get a standalone sequel that reuses certain actors/characters from the first film, but otherwise has nothing to do with it, with the hope that second time’s the charm. 

A military coup has occurred on the island nation of Corto Maltese, off the coast of South America. Corto Maltese is home to the Jotunheim research facility, which houses something known only as “Project Starfish”. Fearing that the military regime could unleash Project Starfish against Americans, intelligence agency director Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) assembles Task Force X to infiltrate Corto Maltese. Led by Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), the squad comprises Harleen Quinzel/Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Bloodsport/Robert Du Bois (Idris Elba), Christopher Smith/Peacemaker (John Cena), Nanaue/King Shark (Sylvester Stallone), Cleo Cazo/Ratcatcher II (Daniela Melchior) and Abner Krill/Polka Dot Man (David Dastmalchian). Their mission is to track down Gaius Grieves/The Thinker (Peter Capaldi), an evil geneticist who oversees Project Starfish. With their idiosyncratic personalities and unorthodox abilities, the team must work together and stay on mission, lest Waller detonate the bomb implanted in each of their necks.

At its best, The Suicide Squad captures the tone of its source material, bringing it to big screen life. Writer-director James Gunn understands the assignment perfectly, crafting something chaotic, violent, funny, entertaining, and even a little heart-warming. Drawing inspiration from 80s military action films like Predator and Commando, The Suicide Squad’s central mission is well defined, which is more than can be said of its predecessor’s plot. The film is cast well, and the characters are all used in interesting ways. While the Marvel Cinematic Universe is much more internally consistent and better managed than the DCEU, it is highly unlikely that a big-budget R-rated movie would be released as part of that franchise – at least until they figure out how to integrate Deadpool into the MCU.

All the chaos and anarchy on display can sometimes feel like eating too much candy. The movie also sometimes comes off as too mean-spirited, trading in shock humour that can fall ever so slightly on the wrong side of bad taste. There’s a sequence in which our heroes unwittingly murder a village of innocent people, and Gunn seems to have it out for birds, with more than one sequence involving violence on birds. While the film handles its large cast better than a lot of other ensemble comic book movies do, there still are times when it feels spread a bit too thin. 

The circumstances surrounding Gunn’s hiring are slightly complicated, but it all worked out for him in the end. Riding high on the two Guardians of the Galaxy films, Gunn was fired from the third after old distasteful jokes of his were unearthed. The competition then scooped him up, offering Gunn any project he wanted. It only makes sense, since the first Suicide Squad movie was obviously a reaction to the success of the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Then, Gunn was re-hired by Marvel, meaning he would make both The Suicide Squad and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Gunn comes from the Troma world, meaning his stock in trade is low-budget, gory horror-comedy. Like Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson before him, Gunn has gone from schlock to blockbusters, but has never really forgotten his roots – Troma boss Lloyd Kaufman makes a cameo in this movie, as he has in several of Gunn’s earlier films. Gunn displays an affection for and understanding of the source material, and works well with his talent, bringing wonderful performances out of the cast.

The premise of the Suicide Squad as re-imagined by comics writer John Ostrander (who makes a cameo in this movie) is that each line-up is comprised of expendable, C-list-or-lower villains. Gunn embraces this, claiming that Polka Dot Man’s inclusion in the film is the result of him Googling “who is the dumbest super villain of all time?”

Robbie continues to be an amazing Harley Quinn, with this movie showcasing her at her most violent. Elba cuts a heroic figure and is an undeniable presence onscreen. He was initially cast to replace Will Smith as Deadshot, but the character was rewritten into Bloodsport should Smith eventually choose to return. Viola Davis as Amanda Waller was arguably the best casting in the first movie, and she remains a force to be reckoned with here, even if most of her scenes are confined to a control room.

Cena portrays both excellent comic timing and brutish physicality as Peacemaker, a character who has decided that the path to peace is to kill everyone, because then there will be nobody to wage war. King Shark is imagined as loveable but intimidating, with Stallone’s voice fitting this design perfectly. Melchior is, unexpectedly, the heart of the film, with Ratcatcher II emerging as the most sympathetic and loveable character. David Dastmalchian, who has portrayed many a creepy character onscreen, is wonderfully unhinged as Polka Dot Man. It’s an A+ lineup of C-list-or-lower characters.

Summary: An ideal marriage of filmmaker and source material, The Suicide Squad is the messy, gory fun that fans have always wanted. This is a great example of what happens when a studio just lets a filmmaker do what they do best. James Gunn takes what he learned making the Guardians of the Galaxy films and ramps up the chaos, violence and anarchy. There are times when The Suicide Squad leaves a bit of a sour taste in one’s mouth, but for the most part, it makes fantastic use of its premise and characters. 

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong