Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness review

Director: Sam Raimi
Cast : Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Benedict Wong, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Xochitl Gomez
Genre: Action/Adventure/Horror
Run Time : 126 min
Opens : 4 May 2022
Rating : PG13

The following review is spoiler-free

Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) continues apace with an exploration of the Multiverse. Following the build-up from the Loki and What If…? series on Disney+ and Spider-Man: No Way Home, this entry leaps into the heady unknown as Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and company traverse alternate planes of existence.

The combined events of WandaVision and Spider-Man: No Way Home set the stage for this adventure. Doctor Stephen Strange and Wong (Benedict Wong), who took over as the Sorcerer Supreme from Strange, meet America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez). This is no ordinary teenager: she has the power to punch portals in reality to travel between Multiverses, and she arrives to warn Strange of an oncoming incursion. Strange goes to Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) for help, but she has other plans. Strange and Chavez travel to other universes, meeting alternate versions of Strange. Strange must also reckon with his decision to leave the love of his life, Dr Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), having never fully gotten over her. As our heroes face great unknowns and tangle with forces beyond their comprehension, the fate of the Multiverse hangs in the balance.  

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is into its 14th year of existence, garnering both supporters and detractors. While there is a worthwhile discussion to be had about the impact of the franchise’s outsized success on the film industry, it’s hard to deny that these movies are broadly well made – something we get reminded of each time less successful attempts at comic book movies emerge. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness continues that tradition while bending and twisting what these movies can be. It’s like one of those toys that springs back into shape after you’ve played with it. Screenwriter Michael Waldron, who was the head writer of Loki, crafts engaging and out-there scenarios while keeping the movie focused. The formula that underpins the movie prevents it from spinning too wildly out of control, while there is also room for plenty of weirdness and for director Sam Raimi to put his stamp on things. Audiences have come to expect big tentpole movies to be overlong affairs, so at 126 minutes, Multiverse of Madness doesn’t overstay its welcome.

As with so many other MCU movies, there is a lot of computer-generated imagery. Much of it is good, but not all of it works. As wondrous as these movies can be to look at, the artifice can sometimes take viewers out of it. In this movie, CGI is used to create trippy dreamscapes, but also big monsters that are not quite as charming as they would have been had they been done practically.

While actress Xochitl Gomez cannot be faulted, the America Chavez character feels almost entirely like she only exists as a plot device, even with some time taken to establish her backstory. She is very much the living MacGuffin of the piece, which is a bit of a shame considering the character’s potential, but there are places to go yet.

The speed at which the movie moves is often in its favour, but sometimes it gets in the way of some of the emotional beats and it can feel like we are being whisked from set-piece to set-piece. It’s a good thing that the set-pieces are all enjoyable.

Beyond the cameos and the references to the comics, the big highlight here is the return of Sam Raimi, who hasn’t directed a feature film since 2013’s Oz: The Great and Powerful. Raimi boarded Multiverse of Madness after the departure of Scott Derrickson, who directed the first Doctor Strange film. We’ve seen what happens when studio meddling gets in Raimi’s way, as evidenced by Spider-Man 3. As such, it’s a good thing that Multiverse of Madness often feels as much like a Raimi movie as it does an MCU movie. There is quite a bit of goofiness and one fight scene that’s instrumental to the story is pure, classic Raimi. The wildly kinetic camera, representing the point of view of the Evil Dead in the titular film, makes a return in a way. This is the closest to horror an MCU movie has come, to entertaining results.

Raimi is often mentioned in the same breath as Peter Jackson, in that both came from low-budget horror and wound up helming the biggest and most influential blockbusters of the time. It could be said that James Gunn is in the same mould. Multiverse of Madness makes a good case for the MCU as a sandbox, and it’s to Marvel Studios’ credit that this thoroughly feels like a Raimi picture.

Summary: An enjoyable excursion into realms unknown, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness marks a welcome return for director Sam Raimi. While containing all the MCU hallmarks, it is also unmistakably Raimi’s work, with several moments approaching horror movie territory. This is a rewarding watch for long-time fans of the MCU and those who have followed the WandaVision and What If…? series on Disney+, but the underlying story is straightforward enough that other audiences won’t feel completely stranded. Both reliably entertaining and just surprising enough, Multiverse of Madness gets a lot right.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Tom Gormican
Cast : Nicolas Cage, Pedro Pascal, Sharon Horgan, Lily Sheen, Tiffany Haddish, Ike Barinholtz, Neil Patrick Harris, Alessandra Mastronardi, Paco León, Jacob Scipio
Genre: Action/Comedy
Run Time : 107 min
Opens : 21 April 2022
Rating : NC16

In this metafictional action-comedy, Hollywood legend Nicolas Cage takes on the role he was born to play – Hollywood legend Nick Cage.

Nick Cage (Nicolas Cage) has been working steadily, but his days as a Hollywood A-lister are behind him. Cage is facing personal struggles too: he is newly divorced from his ex-wife Olivia (Sharon Horgan) and has a strained relationship with their teenage daughter Addy (Lily Sheen). After failing to convince director David Gordon Green to cast him in a new project, Cage’s agent Richard Fink (Neil Patrick Harris) convinces him to accept an invitation to appear at a billionaire superfan’s birthday party. Cage travels to Mallorca, Spain, where he is the guest of Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal), owner of an extensive collection of Nicolas Cage memorabilia. CIA operative Vivian (Tiffany Haddish), acting on intel that suggests Javi might be the head of an international arms smuggling ring, ropes Cage in to spy on Javi. Cage begins to live out what might as well be the plot of one of his movies.

Heavy on self-referential humour, the Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent feels pre-laden with post-modern irony and cynicism. However, it is a surprisingly sincere, affectionate and heartfelt ode to Nicolas Cage. The screenplay by Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten is tonally assured and frequently funny. Cage gives it his all, as is his wont, and is surrounded by a capable supporting cast. Pedro Pascal might be known for playing characters who are suave or quietly tough and is a revelation as a comedic force. His instinct and timing make him more than a match for Cage, and the duo is brilliant in scenes together. The Croatian filming locations, standing in for Spain, are also beautiful to behold. This is a movie that is just endlessly entertaining and joyous and could only have been made by people who truly love and appreciate the star and subject, much as he is often regarded as a joke.

The film suffers when it comes to the subplot about Cage’s personal life. The characters of Olivia and Addy are wholly fictional and not based on any of Cage’s real spouses or children. It is perfectly understandable that the movie would depart from real life in this area (it remains completely realistic otherwise). Unfortunately, it also means that the Nick Cage character is a lot less interesting because his eccentricities seem more surface-level, when part of the appeal of Cage as a real-life figure is that his eccentricity has permeated every part of his life.

The action sequences are serviceable, but nothing to shout about and they are not film’s focus.

On Reddit, the subreddit dedicated to Cage is called “one true god”. The actor’s persona makes him an ideal candidate for a film like this, a film that could only work with Cage at its centre. Over the course of his career, Cage has won a Best Actor Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas, been at the forefront of bombastic 90s action movies like Face/Off, The Rock and Con Air, has lately starred in a string of direct-to-video action movies and has become a favourite target of light-hearted online mockery. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent looks back at this unique career arc. One would argue that as much as people have made fun of Cage, a certain respect and admiration underpins that, and that is something The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent captures well. For as much as he is treated as a curiosity and is the subject of debate about what truly constitutes “good acting,” the consensus among film-lovers seems to be that Cage is a legitimately talented actor. A movie like this could only happen if he had enough of a sense of humour, and while Cage took some convincing, it is a wonderful thing that this movie exists.

Summary: A celebration of a unique personality who has had a wide-ranging, fascinating career, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is more than just a meme. Beyond its amusing, internet culture-friendly premise of Nicolas Cage playing a fictionalised version of himself, this action comedy is surprisingly earnest and affectionate. Bereft of the mean streak and smug cynicism that underpins some metafictional humour, the movie wraps both hands around its star and subject. Cage is great and the supporting cast, especially Pedro Pascal, provides excellent support to his central performance. It’s also so funny you’ll laugh your face…off!

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Morbius review

Director: Daniel Espinosa
Cast : Jared Leto, Matt Smith, Adria Arjona, Jared Harris, Al Madrigal, Tyrese Gibson
Genre: Action/Adventure
Run Time : 105 min
Opens : 31 March 2022
Rating : PG13

The Low-Down: 1998 saw the release of Blade, a movie some credit with beginning the modern era of comic book movies. In a deleted scene from that film, the villain Michael Morbius made a cameo appearance, hinting at the possibility of a significant role in the sequel. This never materialised. 24 years later, Morbius makes his actual big screen debut.

Dr Michael Morbius (Jared Leto) is a brilliant haematologist who suffers from a rare genetic blood disorder. He has spent his entire life in search of a cure and has invented artificial blood along the way. Milo (Matt Smith), Morbius’ surrogate brother, also suffers from the same affliction. They were raised by Nicholas (Jared Harris), who runs a facility for patients suffering from rare diseases. Morbius’ latest attempt at a cure involves splicing bat DNA into his own genes, resulting in a form of vampirism. Alongside his colleague Dr Martine Bancroft (Adria Arjona), Morbius must find a solution before he ends up killing even more people than he already has.

Morbius is a straightforward origin story that is easy to follow and isn’t as bloated as many other comic book movies. There are a few glimmers of style, and some sequences are moderately exciting. Jared Leto is also not nearly annoying as he could have been and has been in other roles. At least one actor seems to be having fun, and others provide dependable support. That’s about it, as far as positives go.

The movie might not be an unwatchable train wreck, but it is dull. For all the talk in the promotional materials about how Morbius is “one of the most compelling and conflicted characters in Sony Pictures Universe of Marvel Characters,” there’s just not very much to him and the other characters in the film. It’s a bog-standard Jekyll and Hyde-style scenario, with very few links to the wider Marvel universe. The most significant piece connecting this to the other movies was already spoiled in the trailer. Screenwriters Matt Sazama and Buck Sharpless have written ho-hum fantasy action movies Dracula Untold and The Last Witch Hunter, as well as the disastrous Gods of Egypt, so it’s not exactly a surprise that Morbius doesn’t have the strongest screenplay.

Furthermore, there’s not a lot about this that is visually distinct, and the action sequences involving slow-motion and streaks of vapour representing Morbius’ echolocation powers often look laughably artificial. None of the set pieces are especially memorable. Not unlike Venom and to a greater extent its sequel Let There Be Carnage, Morbius is also hamstrung by a PG13 rating, meaning this is a vampire movie that can only show very limited amounts of blood. The film’s ultimate villain is also patently underwhelming.

Morbius is ostensibly the third film in Sony’s Spider-Man Universe. This is a universe that is not directly linked to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but after the Multiverse-fracturing events of Spider-Man: No Way Home, characters could cross over. Apparently, there is a Spider-Man swinging about somewhere out there in this universe, though it remains to be seen if it is a Spider-Man we’ve already met in a previous movie. Venom was an unlikely box office success despite being a movie about a Spider-Man villain that completely omitted Spider-Man himself. It is unlikely that Morbius will achieve similar success, and it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in Kraven the Hunter and the two other films in this universe set to be released in 2023.

Summary: Morbius is a mediocre comic book movie that is formulaic and dull. Jared Leto gives a perfectly serviceable performance, but the titular character is intended to be mysterious and conflicted when what we get instead feels like a sanitised Jekyll and Hyde story. Most of the supporting characters are created for the film instead of being drawn from the Marvel comics source material, making it feel like there isn’t a substantial link between this and the other movies in the franchise. Especially after the triumph of Spider-Man: No Way Home, Morbius feels like Sony’s Spider-Man Universe has one hand tied behind its back. Stay for two mid-credits scenes that very awkwardly attempt to tie this movie in with the larger franchise.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Batman review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Matt Reeves
Cast : Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Peter Sarsgaard, Colin Farrell
Genre: Action/Adventure
Run Time : 176 min
Opens : 3 March 2022
Rating : PG13

In 1979, a young man named Michael E. Uslan purchased the film rights to the DC Comics character Batman. It seemed like nobody wanted to make a Batman movie, and it took him ten years for that film to come to fruition. Today, it feels like we get a new Batman movie with some regularity. With every new iteration comes a new take, defenders and detractors; a new actor in the cowl audiences must warm to or despise. That time has come again.

It is Bruce Wayne’s (Robert Pattinson) second year on the streets of Gotham City as the masked vigilante called the Batman. A serial killer known as the Riddler (Paul Dano) starts leaving cryptic notes addressed to Batman at the scene of his crimes. While most of the Gotham City Police Department is suspicious of Batman, Lt. James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) views him as a trusted ally. The Riddler’s clues lead to the Iceberg Lounge, a nightspot operated by Oz Cobblepot/The Penguin (Colin Farrell), the right-hand man of powerful mobster Carmine Falcone (John Turturro). Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), who works at the Iceberg Lounge as a waitress, wants to get to the bottom of her roommate and friend Annika’s (Hana Hrzic) disappearance, believing the Penguin and Falcone to be involved. Following the Riddler’s trail of bodies and clues, Batman unravels a far-reaching conspiracy that implicates those closest to him.

Director Matt Reeves has a proven track record, having most recently helmed Dawn of and War for the Planet of the Apes. Reeves demonstrates a mastery of tone, presiding over a take on Batman that is dark, rich and layered, like a decadent, particularly vengeful chocolate cake. Building on a storied legacy in the comics and on screen, The Batman is a smart adaptation, keeping what works and whittling away what doesn’t. With cinematography by Greig Fraser and production design by James Chinlund, Reeves’ Gotham City is one that neither feels too much like a theme park or like it exists on a soundstage, nor is it just Pittsburgh. Michael Giacchino’s Batman theme might sound simple, but its relentless drive effectively puts audiences in the headspace of this version of the character. The Batman hits the sweet spot, getting so many things right when it is dangerously easy to get a lot wrong. More than just a sensory feast, The Batman boasts an intricate, compelling story with a tantalising mystery at its core.

As is often the case in Batman movies, Batman himself is far from the most interesting part, although there is a strong effort made to get into the character’s head. The film might also alienate audiences looking for typical blockbuster thrills, because it is not action or spectacle-driven, even though there are well-crafted action sequences in it. If one already has Bat-fatigue, The Batman might not be the cure, despite this version of Bruce Wayne often looking like the lead singer of The Cure. There are also some who will mourn the version that could have been, a solo Batman film starring Ben Affleck and featuring Deathstroke as the main villain. This is great, but that could have been worthwhile too.

Robert Pattinson’s casting was met with considerable scepticism, in addition to scorn from those unable to disassociate him with Twilight (exposing their own fragility in the process). Pattinson acquits himself well as a brooding, tormented Batman, in the early days of working through his considerable pain. Haunted and intense, this is a Batman who only ever has dark (k)nights of the soul. He is also a detective, a side of the character the movies have largely overlooked. Pattinson’s reclusive, sullen Bruce Wayne is far from the billionaire playboy façade the character traditionally dons, but he could come out of his shell yet.

Zoë Kravitz is a spectacular Catwoman, coming the closest to how this reviewer pictures the character. She effortlessly essays Selina Kyle’s intelligence and knack for survival, and completely owns the screen whenever she appears. It’s only natural that the cat burglar should steal the entire movie.

For those whose only impression of the Riddler is Jim Carrey (or maybe Frank Gorshin too), Paul Dano’s terrifying portrayal will be something alien. However, this is another way in which the film is smart about the way it adapts the material. While basing the Riddler on the Zodiac Killer could come off as unnecessarily edgy, it works within the context of the story. The riddles themselves are also a great deal of fun, the movie getting a lot of mileage out of puzzles with multiple solutions.

Jeffrey Wright is a steadfast, dependable Jim Gordon. One of the most satisfying elements of the film is the partnership between Batman and Gordon and the way they work as a team.

Colin Farrell may seem like completely oddball casting as the Penguin, but Farrell once again proves that he is a character actor trapped in a leading man’s body. The prosthetic makeup frees him from those constraints. The Penguin is not the focal point of the movie, but this gives the effect that many comic books do, of a villain who could pop up as the main threat in another story and who plays a strictly supporting role here.

This film does not dedicate a great deal of time to the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Alfred (Andy Serkis), but there are moments when we glimpse just how important Alfred is to Bruce and vice versa.

One of the risks Reeves takes is telling a Year Two story: this is not strictly an origin story, but neither does it feature an established Batman surrounded by a fully-formed milieu and supporting cast. The main points of reference appear to be Batman: Year One, Batman: Earth One and Batman: The Long Halloween. The iconography hasn’t yet arrived at the place audiences are familiar with – Reeves is promising that eventually, the Batsuit, the Batmobile and various other elements will reach a place where they are more strongly recognisable, but as it stands, the rough-hewn nature of the iconography does work for the story.

Summary: It’s a little funny how this tale about a Batman in his second year is such a fully formed film. Carefully designed and constructed, intelligently written and beautifully acted, The Batman will likely win over scores of doubters. Director Matt Reeves demonstrates an innate understanding of what works about the character, crafting a story that has a satisfying conclusion but also hints at exciting things to come. Robert Pattinson is a haunted, intense Batman while Zoë Kravitz probably captures the essence of the Catwoman character better than any actress before her. Many might have been asking: do we really need another Batman movie? This movie is almost three hours long, and I only wanted more.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Uncharted review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Ruben Fleischer
Cast : Tom Holland, Mark Wahlberg, Sophia Taylor Ali, Tati Gabrielle, Antonio Banderas
Genre: Action/Adventure
Run Time : 116 min
Opens : 17 February 2022
Rating : PG

Since the release of Naughty Dog’s videogame Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune in 2007, there has been talk of a movie adaptation. A movie was officially announced in 2008, and 14 years and three further games (plus one spin-off game) later, adventurer Nathan Drake finally makes his big screen debut.

Nathan Drake (Tom Holland) is a bartender living in New York. Victor “Sully” Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg), a treasure hunter, recruits Nathan for an ambitious job. Sully had worked with Nathan’s long-lost brother Sam, and Nathan agrees to join Sully in hopes of tracking Sam down. They are after the treasure hidden by the crew of the Magellan expedition 500 years ago, said to be worth $5 billion. Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas), descended from the wealthy family who bankrolled the Magellan expedition, believes the treasure is rightfully his. With the help of fellow treasure hunter Chloe Frazer (Sophia Taylor Ali), Nathan and Sully must beat Moncada and his dangerous henchwoman Jo Braddock (Tati Gabrielle) to the prize.

This reviewer loves a good adventure movie, and while Uncharted might not offer anything genre aficionados haven’t seen before, it’s still an entertaining time. Holland might not be who fans pictured as playing Nathan Drake, but is always likeable, earnest and displays ever-impressive physicality. Director Ruben Fleischer, whose credits include Zombieland and Venom, keeps things moving at a good clip. There are enough twists and turns along the way as our heroes solve puzzles and avoid getting double-crossed. It’s very much “get the thing that leads to the thing, take a detour, then find another thing that will lead you to the final thing”. There are action set-pieces that are mostly serviceable, up until the delightfully ludicrous final sequence featuring ships doing…what ships don’t normally do. An adventure movie would be nothing without some globe-trotting, which Uncharted features a reasonable amount of. The movie was shot mostly in Germany and in various locations in Spain, including Barcelona and Costa Brava, the latter doubling for a resort in the Philippines.

As alluded to above, Uncharted mostly echoes other iconic adventure movies. The Uncharted games were reminiscent of the Tomb Raider games, that were reminiscent of the Indiana Jones films, that were in turn reminiscent of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and King’s Solomon’s Mines. With the caveat that “originally” is often a meaningless metric, Uncharted can sometimes feel like a facsimile of a facsimile. The digital visual effects work is sometimes unconvincing, especially during the more outlandish set-pieces.

Mark Wahlberg can often have an annoying screen presence, as is the case here. He feels very little like the Sully character did in the games, coming off as more twitchy than gruff but warm. Antonio Banderas’ Moncada is set up to be a formidable villain, but the movie wastes the character’s potential. The movie also sometimes feels a little disjointed, like small chunks have been edited out. Several scenes featured in the trailers don’t appear in the finished film, but this is par for the course for many blockbusters.

There were many iterations of an Uncharted movie before arriving at this point, with filmmakers including David O. Russell, Neil Burger, Shawn Levy and Dan Trachtenberg all attached at different points. The movie is an origin story for Nathan Drake, and takes elements from several of the games, notably the backstory involving the long-lost brother, introduced in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. The central set-piece in which Nathan hangs out the back of a cargo plane is taken from Uncharted 3.

While Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg might not look much like Nathan and Sully as fans of the games know them, they are passable physical matches for the younger versions of the characters shown in flashbacks in Uncharted 3. The intention is for this to kick-start a franchise, and for Holland and Wahlberg to eventually catch up to the ages of the characters as shown in most of the games. Interestingly, Sophia Taylor Ali as Chloe is probably the closest match to the character from the source material.

Summary: After over a decade in development, Uncharted is somewhat underwhelming given the build-up, but also far from the disaster that many video game movies before it have been. While long-time fans of the game might be disappointed at the movie’s deviations from the source material, this works as an entry point for wider audiences unfamiliar with the games. Mark Wahlberg is annoying, but Tom Holland is a likeable Nathan, and he could conceivably grow into the more roguish version of the character we see in the games. It’s not a game-changer, but it’s fast-paced and fun. It’s just a bit of a shame that a video game series known for being cinematic is finally adapted into a film that doesn’t make much of an impact.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Death on the Nile (2022) review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Kenneth Branagh
Cast : Kenneth Branagh, Tom Bateman, Annette Bening, Russell Brand, Ali Faizal, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Emma Mackey, Sophie Okonedo, Letitia Wright, Rose Leslie
Genre: Mystery/Thriller
Run Time : 127 min
Opens : 10 February 2022
Rating : PG13

For a while there, it seemed the great detective Hercule Poirot had met a conundrum even he couldn’t solve: delays brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. After at least five changes in release date, Kenneth Branagh’s follow-up to 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express finally sails into cinemas.

Death on the Nile is based on the Agatha Christie novel of the same name. Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) happens to meet his friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) at the Great Pyramids of Giza in Egypt. Bouc invites Poirot along for the elaborate wedding party of heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) and Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer). Linnet has booked the luxury steam paddler Karnak for a pleasure cruise down the Nile. She is wary of all the guests to some extent – these include her maid Louise (Rose Leslie), her cousin and attorney Andrew Katchadourian (Ali Faizal), her godmother Marie Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders) and Van Schuyler’s nurse Mrs Bowers (Dawn French), doctor and Linnet’s former beau Linus Windlesham (Russell Brand), jazz singer Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okondeo) and Salome’s niece/manager Rosalie (Letitia Wright), and Bouc’s mother Euphemia (Annette Bening). Matters are complicated by the sudden arrival of Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey), Simon’s former fiancé who is angry at Linnet for stealing him away from her. When one of the passengers is murdered, Poirot must solve the mystery before more members of the party get picked off.

The movie largely retains the style and feel of Murder on the Orient Express, that of a glamorous, old-fashioned mystery. Where that film suffered somewhat from seemed to be Branagh’s infatuation with his own performance, he is less showy here. That’s not to say Poirot isn’t still the centre of attention, but Death on the Nile humanises the character and shows us cracks in the façade by giving him more personal involvement in the mystery. Screenwriter Michael Green performs a largely clever adaptation, with several of the changes serving to add more continuity with the preceding film. The movie is gorgeous to behold, with cinematographer Harris Zambarloukos, production designer Jim Clay and costume designer Paco Delgado among other crew making things look postcard perfect. The painterly visuals of Murder on the Orient Express are pushed even further here.

Unfortunately, the movie’s look could also create a sense of artifice. It looks like there was more green screen used here than on Disney’s Jungle Cruise, and there are weirdly also almost as many computer-generated animals. It doesn’t feel like the cast ever stepped foot in Egypt, and indeed most of the production took place in Longcross Studios in Surrey and in Morocco. The digital oil painting look creates some distance between the audience and the story. The way everything is deliberately staged and choreographed lends the movie a certain aesthetic, but also reminds audiences of the artifice. Some critics have also taken issue with how long the movie takes to get to the titular murder. In addition to the necessary set-up establishing all our characters, there is a prologue set during the First World War, depicting Poirot’s time in the Belgian army.

At first glance, this movie’s cast isn’t quite as starry as that of Murder on the Orient Express, but it’s still nothing to sniff at. Branagh has settled into playing Poirot – it’s still a faintly ridiculous performance, but also a comfortably enjoyable one.

Gal Gadot is suitably glamorous as Linnet Ridgeway, while Armie Hammer plays exactly the kind of role one would cast him in while he was still able to get cast in things.

One of the major changes from the book is that Salome Otterbourne is a jazz musician instead of a romance novelist. This allows the movie to cut loose in several musical sequences, and making Salome and Rosie Black amidst mostly white characters further adds to the tension. The movie is never too heavy-handed about this, and both Sophie Okonedo and Letitia Wright are lively presences.

Sex Education star Emma Mackey is an appropriately dramatic spurned lover. One thing that is distracting is that Mackey, Gadot and Wright are playing characters who are meant to be around the same age, when Gadot is ten years older than Mackey and eight years older than Wright.

It’s a great deal of fun seeing comedy duo French and Saunders show up, even if their presence runs the risk of making the movie feel a bit like a comedy sketch. Annette Bening is having a great time playing the snarky, overbearing mother.

As in most whodunits, there are many characters to keep track of, but like previous adaptations of Death on the Nile, this movie has already cut the roster down by a bit and amalgamated certain characters.

Summary: While Death on the Nile is a little too self-conscious and mannered, it is still an entertaining, lavishly produced murder mystery. Director/star Kenneth Branagh’s second go-round as Hercule Poirot is a little less silly than before, and he has an eclectic, watchable cast in tow. While perhaps a little too synthetic, the scenery is still lovely to look at. It’s not quite worth all the fuss brought about by the repeated shuffling of its release dates but is far from a wash.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Nightmare Alley (2021) review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast : Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Rooney Mara, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, Holt McCallany, David Strathairn
Genre: Mystery/Thriller
Run Time : 150 min
Opens : 13 January 2022 (Exclusive to Cathay Cineplexes)
Rating : M18

All of Guillermo del Toro’s feature films have included elements of horror or fantasy. One could be forgiven for thinking Nightmare Alley is the same, but it is not. This adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel of the same name, which was earlier adapted into a 1947 film starring Tyrone Power, is a neo-noir psychological thriller.

Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) joins a travelling circus as a carny, doing odd jobs and studying how the various performers’ tricks work. Stan learns mentalism from Zeena Kurmbein (Toni Collette) and her husband Pete (David Strathairn), who perform a psychic act. In the meantime, he falls in love with Molly (Rooney Mara), whose act involves her pretending to be electrocuted. Stan is horrified at the way the carnival boss Clem (Willem Dafoe) treats the “geeks,” alcoholic, drug-addicted bums who bite the heads off chickens for paying spectators. Stan and Molly eventually leave the circus, establishing their own act. Psychologist Dr Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) attempts to expose Stan’s act, and he gradually falls under her spell, a nguishing Molly. As Lilith draws on Stan’s skillset to stage an elaborate and deadly con, one question arises: is Stan innocent, or a willing co-conspirator?

Del Toro is known for being an atmospheric filmmaker, and Nightmare Alley is brimming with atmosphere. Gorgeously shot and designed, it evokes the feeling of noir movies in an affectionate, layered way. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen plays deftly with light and shadow, as the movie takes viewers from the grimy carny world to the gleam of Chicago high society. While Nightmare Alley is a marked departure from the kind of movies del Toro is known for, many of his trademarks are still present, and is reminiscent of Crimson Peak in many respects. The allure of the movie is that while it takes place in the real world, it feels as if the tendrils of the supernatural are creeping along the edges. Nightmare Alley is moody and deliberately depressing in a way that is somewhat surprising given the warmth present in many of del Toros’ other movies, but also fits the source material.

For all its atmosphere, Nightmare Alley is often challenging to engage with emotionally. It’s two movies: the first one at the circus with the carnies, the second in Chicago high society with the femme fatale psychologist. The movie is 150 minutes long, and while the set-up at the circus is necessary, perhaps it doesn’t require over an hour. Indeed, Cate Blanchett, who is second billed, makes her first appearance over a third of the way into the movie. Stan is maybe the first protagonist of this type in del Toro’s filmography: someone who is charming, but whom we are meant to suspect. It’s a far cry from the loveable but misunderstood monsters who often appear in the director’s movies. Suffice it to say, this is no The Shape of Water. Granted, it’s not a bad thing that del Toro isn’t repeating himself, but Nightmare Alley is sometimes straight-up nasty by design, which can be off-putting. Del Toro is sometimes criticised for relying too heavily on references to existing films and other media, and in Nightmare Alley, he is operating in full-on noir mode. Audiences who recognise the style and are registering all the little flourishes might find themselves held at arm’s length from the story.

Del Toro is a filmmaker whom actors often enthusiastically say they want to work with, so it is no surprise that the cast is stacked. Bradley Cooper is alternately sympathetic and slimy, playing a con artist who will make audiences wonder how much of what he’s up to is strictly for survival. This is a role that Leonardo DiCaprio was initially attached to, which makes sense. It starts out restrained, before becoming flashier.

Rooney Mara turns in a quietly sad, endearing performance as an innocent drawn into Stan’s web, while Cate Blanchett plays a textbook femme fatale with a knowing wink. Everywhere else one looks, there are character actors of a high calibre, including many who have collaborated with del Toro before. Willem Dafoe as an unscrupulous carny boss and Richard Jenkins as the wealthy mark of a con are the highlights.

Summary: An atmospheric, dark tale, Nightmare Alley is largely bereft of the warmth which lurks beneath the surface of many Guillermo del Toro movies. Stepping outside his comfort zone of supernatural horror and sci-fi, Nightmare Alley is a stylistic exercise in the noir genre. Unfortunately, the overlong movie often feels inert up until the very end, despite the best efforts of a talented cast. This is an intriguing but frustrating effort from the auteur, indicating interesting things to come, but straying from what has worked in his earlier films.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

West Side Story (2021) review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast : Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, Mike Faist, David Alvarez, Rita Moreno, Brian d’Arcy James, Corey Stoll
Genre: Musical/Drama
Run Time : 131 min
Opens : 6 January 2022
Rating : PG13

One of the most influential American musicals of the 50s, that was adapted into one of the most influential American movies of the 60s, now gets a new adaptation from one of the most influential Hollywood directors of the last 50 years. West Side Story, originally developed by Jerome Robbins with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and libretto by Arthur Laurents, is back on the big screen under the helm of Steven Spielberg.

It is 1957 in Manhattan’s West Side. A turf war is raging between the white gang the Jets and the Puerto Rican gang the Sharks, both vying for control of San Juan Hill. Riff (Mike Faist), the leader of the Jets, and Bernardo (David Alvarez), the leader of the Sharks, are planning a big face-off between the two gangs. Riff promises that Tony (Ansel Elgort), the co-founder of the Jets who was recently released from prison, will be there. At a dance, Tony and María (Rachel Zegler) catch each other’s eye. María is Bernardo’s sister, and lives with Bernardo and his girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose). A potential romance between Tony and Maria will send the already-high tensions soaring. The stage is set for a tale of crime, community and forbidden love.

When it was announced that Spielberg would be directing a new adaptation of West Side Story, the common response was “why?” The answer is “because he’s Steven Spielberg and can do whatever he wants.” Beyond that, this adaptation justifies its existence, building upon the stage show and the earlier movie with an obvious affection for the source material, but also a sincere desire to dig deeper. Playwright Tony Kushner, who collaborated with Spielberg on Munich and Lincoln, set out to contextualise the setting of the story.

The themes of gentrification, the prejudice faced by immigrant communities and the underlying factors that lead to violent crime were all inherent in the source material, but one could argue they weren’t handled with much nuance. This West Side Story is a triumph of style and substance, a handsomely filmed and designed movie showcasing some of regular Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s finest work. It looks and sounds incredible, with the story rendered urgent and compelling. West Side Story is a cultural touchstone, often referenced and parodied, so the danger of approaching it afresh is that there’s going to be baggage. Spielberg and Kushner deftly navigate this, presenting something that feels at once fresh and classic.

West Side Story has often been criticised by Puerto Rican people for its stereotypical portrayal of Puerto Rican characters. The original creative team was, after all, entirely comprised of people who did not have the first-hand experience that would have made the story more authentic. There are pains taken here to paint in strokes that aren’t quite so broad, with Puerto Rican writer, director and choreographer (and protégé of Jerome Robbins) Julio Monge on board as a consultant. However, there still are Puerto Rican people who feel West Side Story is beyond salvaging, and this reviewer has no place to argue with their interpretation. For all its strengths, the movie also highlights the need for people from varied backgrounds to tell their own stories on platforms they have historically had limited access to.

There isn’t really any stunt casting going on here, which is one of the pitfalls of movie musicals. The star is Spielberg. Most of the key roles are filled by actors with considerable musical theatre experience. Former Newsie Mike Faist and former Billy Elliot David Alvarez, both strong dancers, are wonderful foils for each other. Ariana DeBose is a powerhouse and commands the screen.

Rachel Zegler is a revelation, radiant, endearing and possessing incredible vocal control. This is a rare, miraculous instant movie star-type performance. She already has roles in Shazam: Fury of the Gods and Disney’s Snow White remake lined up.

Unfortunately, the one big misstep here is the casting of Ansel Elgort. He is not a bad singer, having obviously put effort into trying to keep up with his much more musically experienced co-stars, but once he’s in a duet with Zegler, it’s all over. She runs rings around him, and this is on top of how Tony was always kinda boring to begin with.

Rita Moreno is one of the highlights of the film. The actress portrayed Anita in the 1961 film, and here, plays Valentina, a modified version of the Doc character who looks out for Tony. She sings “Somewhere” in one of the film’s most powerful moments.

One would think that getting the music right would be a priority for any movie musical, and yet, movies like 2012’s Les Misérables and 2019’s Cats have shown how things can go horribly awry. West Side Story is serious about its music – after all, the songs by Bernstein and Sondheim, including standards like “Tonight” and “Maria,” are evergreen and beloved. The musical arrangement by David Newman is both majestic and nimble, with composer/arranger Jeanine Tesori working with the actors on their vocals. The score is recorded by the New York Philharmonic with additional material by the L.A. Philharmonic, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. The sound editing and mixing shows the music off in all its glory, with the performers delivering some of the best-sounding singing in a movie musical in recent memory.

Summary: A purely cinematic experience, this new adaptation of West Side Story is as classic as it is dynamic. Featuring performances from musical theatre performers including Mike Faist, David Alvarez and Ariana DeBose and featuring a revelatory performance from young star Rachel Zegler, these are actors who are at home with the material and who more than do it justice. Rita Moreno provides an important link to the past, delivering a genuinely emotional supporting performance. West Side Story looks and sounds amazing, boasting enough thematic richness to justify its existence.   

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The King’s Man review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Matthew Vaughn
Cast : Ralph Fiennes, Harris Dickinson, Gemma Arterton, Djimon Hounsou, Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode, Tom Hollander, Daniel Brühl, Charles Dance, Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Genre: Action/Adventure/Historical
Run Time : 131 min
Opens : 30 December 2021
Rating : NC16

The King’s Man is one of those movies that, thanks to the pandemic, feels like it’s been coming out forever – on top of release date shifts even before the pandemic. Now, we can finally learn the origins of the covert organisation at the heart of the Kingsman film series, loosely based on the graphic novel The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons.

It is just before the First World War, as chaos is brewing across the globe. Orlando (Ralph Fiennes), the Duke of Oxford, is a former soldier who has renounced a life of violence. His teenage son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) yearns for adventure and wants to enlist in the army, against his father’s wishes. Nanny Polly (Gemma Arterton) and valet Shola (Djimon Hounsou), employees of the Oxford household, are secretly assisting the Duke in an intelligence collection operation. In the shadows, a mastermind known only as the Shepherd is manipulating world events. His agents have proximity to power, including priest Grigori Rasputin (Rhys Ifans), con artist and self-proclaimed clairvoyant Erik Jan Hanussen (Daniel Brühl), industrialist Alfred DuPont (Todd Boyce) and spy/exotic dancer Mata Hari (Valerie Pachner). The Duke must race against the clock to prevent the Shepherd from plunging the world into irreparable chaos, as the seeds of the Kingsman spy agency are planted.

Big-budget period action-adventure movies with an alternate history bent are rare offerings, and The King’s Man plays in a sandbox that not many other tentpole franchise films play in. The closest analogue might be the first Wonder Woman movie, which was also set during WWI. Matthew Vaughn is nothing if not stylish. It’s hard not to be awed by flashy, show-off camera moves, like a shot that travels through the ocean, through the torpedo tube of a German submarine, and into the submarine’s control room.

For all the faults of the earlier Kingsman movies, and especially the second, Vaughn brought plenty of panache to the proceedings, which carries over here. While there’s nothing here that is as striking as the fight in the church in the first Kingsman movie, there are several wonderfully choreographed action scenes, including a swordfight with Rasputin in which the mad monk busts out some impressive acrobatic moves. The production design by Darren Gilford and costume design by Michele Clapton contribute to the specific mood of the movie – Vaughn isn’t aiming for total historical accuracy, but there’s also an attempt to sell the period and the settings.

The King’s Man wants to be a rip-snorting, swashbuckling adventure, but it also wants to be genuinely emotional and dramatic. This is a movie with obviously, intentionally goofy elements, including Tom Hollander in triple roles as cousins King George V, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II (credited as Tom Hollander3). This is also a movie in which characters deal with crushing grief, one that tries to make a larger statement about the futility of war and the fallacious narrative of it being glorious to die in service of one’s country.

The movie is sometimes unable to support this pendulum swing between tones. For all of The King’s Man’s undeniable weirdness – there’s a scene in which one character licks another’s leg, in the middle of an attempted poisoning via Bakewell tart – there still is a predictability to the proceedings. The reveal of the big bad, for example, is far from surprising, and even if it was intended to be that obvious, is ultimately underwhelming. The movie also feels a little longer than its 131-minute runtime, given that there’s a lot to set up and a lot of real-life history to condense and fictionalise.

The first Kingsman movie’s greatest asset was arguably Colin Firth in an action-oriented role while also banking on his screen persona as a charming gentleman. Ralph Fiennes performs a similar function in this movie and does so with aplomb. He is an arresting screen presence and acquits himself impressively in the physical department, stunt doubles and digital trickery notwithstanding. Harris Dickinson is somewhat bland as Conrad, but the focus remains squarely on Fiennes’ Duke of Oxford. Both Arterton and Hounsou are delightful presences, but their characters are thinly drawn.

Rhys Ifans has a grand time playing Rasputin – after all, there’s no ceiling for “over the top” with a historical figure as outlandish and despicable as Rasputin was. It’s just a shame that Rasputin is not the ultimate villain, despite the trailers making it seem as such, and he is not in the movie for as long as this reviewer would have liked.

Summary: This prequel to the Kingsman movies is better than the bloated and unfocused second instalment, taking the franchise to an interesting place with its emphasis on historical fiction. Ralph Fiennes is also the ideal leading man for this story. However, for all of director Matthew Vaughn’s style, he struggles with maintaining tonal consistency, such that the movie is sometimes enjoyably goofy, and other times wants to be very serious. Ultimately, the movie’s weirdness makes it stand out amongst the comic book movie landscape and does show the potential of action-adventure movies rooted in historical fiction. Stick around for a mid-credits scene.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Matrix Resurrections review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Lana Wachowski
Cast : Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jessica Henwick, Jonathan Groff, Neil Patrick Harris, Jada Pinkett Smith, Christina Ricci
Genre: Sci-fi/Action/Adventure
Run Time : 148 min
Opens : 22 December 2021
Rating : PG13

In 1999, already a watershed year for Hollywood cinema, The Matrix changed the game. The film’s directors, the Wachowskis, vastly expanded the world of the Matrix with two theatrically released sequels in 2003, alongside an anthology of anime short films, a video game and various other media. While the two sequels received a far less enthusiastic reception than the first film, it was clear that the appetite for more Matrix was there. 18 years after Neo and Trinity were last seen on the big screen, we’re plugging back in.

Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a video game designer living in San Francisco. Coping with mental health issues, he sees a therapist known as the Analyst (Neil Patrick Harris), who prescribes him pills. At a coffee shop called Simulatte, Thomas sees a woman named Tiffany (Carrie-Anne Moss), whom he finds oddly familiar. It turns out that the world Thomas and Tiffany live in is a simulation called the Matrix, and that Thomas’ true identity is that of Neo. Bugs (Jessica Henwick), who bears a tattoo of a white rabbit, attempts to break Thomas out of the Matrix. At the end of The Matrix Revolutions, both Neo and Trinity – the true form of Tiffany – apparently died, but it seems like they are still alive. Now travelling with a new crew captained by Bugs, Neo must make sense of his reality as he seeks to rescue Trinity, as powerful forces stand in the way.

For anyone who feared The Matrix Resurrections would be a by-the-numbers retread or just a lazy nostalgia-fest (we’ve gotten several of those to varying degrees of laziness this past year), fear not: it’s weird. It’s the kind of weird which another film without the brand name association wouldn’t be able to pull off. While Lilly Wachowski opted not to co-direct this film because of personal issues and general exhaustion, Lana takes audiences back into the labyrinthian mythology of the series. It’s a joy to see Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss return, and to parse why some things remain the same and why others are different. There are several entertaining action sequences, even if nothing quite matches the inventiveness of the first film, and there was obviously a lot of thought put into how the franchise would continue, even if it doesn’t come together cohesively. It is ultimately rewarding especially for audiences who re-evaluated the Matrix sequels and came around on them.

When we say it doesn’t come together cohesively, we mean it. It’s fun to rewatch the original Matrix and realise how quaint, straightforward and easy to follow the narrative is compared to in the sequels. The Matrix Resurrections is confusing in such a way that some audiences will be intrigued and invested, and others will opt to tap out. At 148 minutes long, the movie is relatively light on action. There still is action, but there’s just much more exposition and world-building than there are set-pieces. The action is also shot and edited poorly and is often difficult to follow. Most of the movie unfolds in close-ups, so there aren’t quite enough opportunities to take a step back and take everything in. The new characters, apart from the possible exception of Bugs, receive little characterisation and mostly function to ferry Neo from place to place. Both the Smith and Morpheus characters return in some fashion, but are portrayed by different actors, thus sacrificing some of what made those characters so iconic. There’s probably a version of this that makes perfect sense, but it is not the version that made it to the screen.

One thing that’s fun is that this is a movie about the nature of franchise continuations. Thomas Anderson is forced to develop a new game in a series, after he thought that he had finished telling the story he had wanted to tell. Perhaps this reflects how Lilly referred to a potential Matrix sequel as “a particularly repelling idea in these times” during a 2015 interview. The Wachowskis’ work has always been marked by a certain earnestness and dorkiness, which Resurrections still has plenty of. However, there is at least a twinge of cynicism here. One line about the game studio’s parent company elicited especially raucous laughter. There is a post-credits scene, but a completely inconsequential one that almost feels like commentary on the trend of post-credits scenes. Resurrections is the most fun when it gets meta, but audiences will differ on whether this feels like astute commentary or if it takes one out of it.

Summary: The cultural footprint of the Matrix means that there’s a lot to play with, and there are far worse ways to revisit the franchise than The Matrix Resurrections. The movie’s relationship with its predecessors is fascinating, coming from both a place of deep affection for the series and a profound frustration with the state of Hollywood franchise filmmaking. This is far from wholly satisfying, but it’s weird and wild enough to justify its existence.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong