Violent Night review

Director: Tommy Wirkola
Cast : David Harbour, John Leguizamo, Alex Hassell, Alexis Louder, Leah Brady, Cam Gigandet, Edie Patterson, Beverly D’Angelo
Genre: Action/Comedy
Run Time : 112 min
Opens : 1 December 2022
Rating : M18

He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, and if you’ve been especially bad, he might bash your knees in with a sledgehammer, or maybe stab you in the eye with the star atop the Christmas tree (before plugging the Christmas lights into the mains). This is the take-no-prisoners version of Santa Claus featured in this action comedy.

It is Christmas Eve, and Santa Claus (David Harbour) is busy delivering presents to children around the world. He happens to be visiting the Lightstone estate as terrorists led by Scrooge (John Leguizamo) break into the compound and hold the family hostage. The hostages include Lightstone matriarch Gertrude (Beverly D’Angelo), Gertrude’s adult son Skyler (Alex Hassell), Skyler’s estranged wife Margie (Alexis Louder), Skyler and Margie’s young daughter Trudy (Leah Brady), Skyler’s sister Alva (Edie Patterson), Alva’s boyfriend Morgan (Cam Gigandet) and Alva’s son Bert (Alexander Elliot). Gertrude has stashed away $300 million in a vault on the property, and Scrooge and his team are after the loot. The one thing they didn’t count on was Santa Claus saving the day in, as the title suggests, particularly brutal fashion.

Violent Night has an absolutely delightful premise: given all the arguments over several decades about whether or not Die Hard classifies as a Christmas movie, why not make a Die Hard-esque movie that is definitely a Christmas movie – by placing Santa himself at its centre? Pat Casey and Josh Miller’s screenplay is frequently funny and director Tommy Wirkola is perfectly at home with the dark humour and bloody action, having helmed the Nazi zombie horror comedy Dead Snow and its sequel Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead. Violent Night is produced by 87North, the studio behind Nobody, Kate and Bullet Train. Second unit director and stunt coordinator Jonathan Eusebio’s credits include the John Wick movies, The Fate of the Furious and Black Panther. True to its promise, Violent Night delivers lots of satisfyingly bone-crunching action.

It’s a given that Violent Night would be cynical, but sometimes, perhaps it’s a little too cynical and glib for its own good. It can be difficult to take the stakes seriously because everyone is very quippy, and the movie’s emotional moments struggle to land because they’re at odds with the bleakly tongue-in-cheek tone of the rest of the movie. There is some good action in the beginning and there’s an explosive finale, but the midsection sags a bit, not unlike Santa’s belly that shakes when he laughs (like a bowlful of jelly).

The big draw is David Harbour as Santa Claus, a role which he, if you’ll forgive us, sleighs. Harbour makes great use of his persona as a larger-than-life figure, honed via roles like Sheriff Hopper in Stranger Things, Red Guardian in Black Widow and the title character in the much-maligned Hellboy reboot. Harbour executes all the action beats convincingly, but also conveys the weariness of a man who has been alive for millennia, and whose spark is all but extinguished. The movie also sprinkles in just enough hints of a backstory for Santa. And unlike the wholly unlikeable dark Santa played by Mel Gibson in Fatman, Harbour’s version still has a loveable side.

Summary: Violent Night delivers what it says on the tin: Die Hard starring Santa Claus. It’s a darkly funny movie that features action devised by the stunt team that worked on the John Wick movies. David Harbour’s central performance as Santa is funny and even unexpectedly emotional. There’s plenty of blood and gore and the filmmakers have a lot of fun with the incongruity of bloody violence set against a holiday backdrop, even if this is far from the first movie to attempt it. With a strong premise anchored by a committed star, Violent Night is destined to be added to the Christmas action movie rotation alongside Die Hard, Lethal Weapon and Batman Returns.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Strange World review

Director: Don Hall, Qui Nguyen
Cast : Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid, Jaboukie Young-White, Gabrielle Union, Lucy Liu
Genre: Action/Adventure/Family
Run Time : 101 min
Opens : 24 November 2022
Rating : NC16

The family that explores together, stays together – but as with every family, this one doesn’t quite get along all the time. Disney’s 61st animated feature film takes audiences to the centre of the earth alongside the Clades, in an homage to the pulp adventure comics of yore.

Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a farmer in the land of Avalonia. Nobody has been able to cross the mountains that border Avalonia, and years ago, Searcher’s famed explorer father Jaeger (Dennis Quaid) vanished while attempting to do just that. As a boy, Searcher discovered a power-generating plant called Pando, which he now cultivates. When Pando plants across Avalonia start dying, threatening the land’s power source, Avalonia’s president and former member of Jaeger’s expedition team Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu) calls upon Searcher to help solve the problem. Searcher’s son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), who seems more apt to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps than in his father’s, stows away on the ship, and Searcher’s pilot wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) joins the expedition too. The crew journeys deep below the surface of Avalonia, discovering a bizarre realm populated with unearthly creatures as they attempt to solve the Pando crisis.

Strange World is an earnest, sweet movie made by people who clearly have a great affection for classic adventure stories, with Journey to the Centre of the Earth and King Kong as two of the main reference points. There is an inventiveness to the Jules Verne-esque world-building and the characters are generally loveable. There are times when the movie is reminiscent of Atlantis: The Lost Empire, also a Disney animated movie inspired by pulp adventure tales. There’s also a big three-legged dog named Legend and putting a big dog in anything is wont to skew this reviewer’s opinion towards it.

Strange World wears its good-heartedness on its sleeve, and in addition to being an adventure story, it is very interested in a topic which Disney has covered in a few of their recent animated films: generational trauma. There is a worthwhile if not especially novel message about the expectations we place on our children and the importance of letting them find their own path. Much has been made of the character Ethan’s sexuality, but that is something that feels organic in the movie and doesn’t feel shoehorned in, and whenever it’s mentioned, it is done so very sweetly. The movie also touches on the relationship between man and nature, and the value of living harmoniously with nature. It might be too late for us here on earth, but it isn’t for the residents of Avalonia.

Unfortunately, there’s a palpable struggle between the adventure and family drama elements of Strange World. It seems to almost get there, but it never becomes wholly satisfying and thrilling in the way the stories it’s trying to evoke do. There are action scenes and moments of peril, but weirdly enough, the stakes never feel especially high, even though a big reveal towards the end does establish them as being astronomical. While Strange World is more adventure-driven than most Disney animated films, it still feels overly familiar. For example, the gelatinous comic relief character Splat is essentially a blue Flubber, with shades of Morph from Treasure Planet. When the characters bicker and argue, it is reminiscent of a real family, but it also feels like a distraction from the fantastical action. The movie is by no means boring, but it does feel longer than its 101 minutes.

Strange World has a solid voice cast. Jake Gyllenhaal is the sensitive, somewhat anxious Searcher, lending the character sincerity and a degree of insecurity. Dennis Quaid does a big, boisterous cartoon voice as the stereotypically masculine Jaeger, while Jaboukie Young-White is laid-back and endearing as Ethan. Gabrielle Union and Lucy Liu round out a voice cast that is not the starriest one in recent memory, but each of the actors makes sense in their roles.

Summary: Strange World is a loving ode to classic adventure stories, while also tackling a subject that Disney has become quite fond of lately: generational trauma. There are times when Strange World struggles to balance its pulp adventure side and its family drama side, but the overall good-naturedness of the production smooths that over. While sci-fi adventure is territory that Disney animation doesn’t often venture into, Strange World does have a comforting familiarity to it. It might not be an immediate hit, but perhaps like Atlantis: The Lost Empire, it is destined for cult status.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever review

Director: Ryan Coogler
Cast : Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Angela Bassett, Tenoch Huerta, Winston Duke, Dominique Thorne, Florence Kasumba, Michaela Coel, Martin Freeman
Genre: Action/Adventure
Run Time : 161 min
Opens : 10 November 2022
Rating : PG13

2018’s Black Panther is one of the highlights of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). It garnered commercial and critical success, including winning three Oscars, the first MCU movie to do so. All eyes were on director Ryan Coogler to see where Black Panther 2 would take the hero. After a tragic turn of events in real life, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever takes unexpected turns of its own, further exploring the world of Wakanda and beyond.

King T’challa has died of an illness, leaving his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) distraught. Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) continues to guide her daughter as she leads the people of Wakanda. Having opened itself up to the world, the nation is vulnerable to those who wish to exploit its precious natural resource, the metal Vibranium. An expedition in search of Vibranium in the Atlantic Ocean provokes K’uk’ulkan/Namor (Tenoch Huerta), the ruler of the underwater kingdom of Talokan. Former Wakandan spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) must return to work alongside General Okoye (Danai Gurira) as Namor threatens to attack Wakanda. Caught in the middle of it all is a brilliant young scientist named Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), whose role in developing a Vibranium detection device has made her a target of Namor. Still shaken by her brother’s death, Shuri is faced with taking on the mantle of the Black Panther in a time of great instability.

Some have decried various MCU movies for being a little too silly, and for having humorous moments undermine dramatic stakes. That is not a problem here. Wakanda Forever is a sombre, sincere and respectful affair; the real-life passing of Chadwick Boseman infusing the film with a dignified sadness. This is a movie about grief, and responsibility in the face of said grief. It’s a movie about the decisions we make when we are affected by tragedy, and the consequences of making decisions in that state. Coogler continues to be a force to be reckoned with behind the camera, and there is the sense that this is the story he wanted to tell, and not something producers meddled extensively with. Wakanda Forever’s greatest strength is the movie’s balance of character interiority and expansive world-building, without sacrificing one for the other.

Wakanda Forever’s heaviness means it is not exactly the most exuberant, entertaining comic book movie, but it isn’t trying to be that either. Perhaps it could do with a few more cheer-worthy moments, something the first movie did not lack for, but it generally wears its seriousness well. The movie is long, and suffers the most when we are focusing on CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), who shares many scenes with a character introduced in one of the Disney+ TV series. While perhaps necessary to emphasise the wider impact of the goings-on in Wakanda, this feels like distracting set-up for future, non-Black Panther related MCU projects.

The absence of Chadwick Boseman is something the movie leans into instead of avoiding. Letitia Wright is truly magnificent in a role that asks a lot of her. Shuri is pushed to the forefront as she struggles with a disdain for ancient traditions and a lack of faith in spiritual beliefs, spurred by her brother’s untimely passing. We are used to seeing Shuri being playful and intelligent, but here she is broken and understandably prone to rage. Wright plays all this without losing sight of what made the character so endearing to begin with. Bassett is also undeniable here, and her scenes with Wright are some of the movie’s most emotional.

The movie introduces Namor into the MCU. Much like his DC Comics counterpart Aquaman, there are aspects of the character that are unavoidably silly: he has pointy ears, winged ankles, and wears green trunks. The movie reimagines Namor and the civilisation he hails from, taking inspiration from Mesoamerican mythology. Some design aspects remain a little goofy, but the movie’s world-building is impressive, and Tenoch Huerta is a commanding screen presence as a complicated character, someone who is antagonistic towards our heroes but is always sympathetic. Namor’s entry into the MCU is something that fans have long been waiting for, and while this incarnation might not fit what everyone was imagining, the movie makes a good case for the changes to the source material and integrates Namor into the wider Black Panther story well.

Summary: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a movie with true gravity, more so than many recent MCU films. The movies in the franchise are sometimes in danger of feeling inconsequential, but Wakanda Forever feels like a movie that matters. The real-life death of Chadwick Boseman is handled in a respectful and dignified way, leading to a movie that has a certain heaviness and seriousness to it. The fantastical elements and world-building are balanced with an emotional honesty. Shuri gets a fantastic character arc and Letitia Wright plays her with strength and nuance. This is not the exuberant fun some audiences might be expecting from the MCU, but Wakanda Forever wears its seriousness well and is still an expansive and spectacular adventure. There is one mid-credits scene.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Black Adam review

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast : Dwayne Johnson, Aldis Hodge, Noah Centineo, Sarah Shahi, Marwan Kenzari, Quintessa Swindell, Bodhi Sabongui, Pierce Brosnan, Mohammed Amer, Viola Davis
Genre: Action/Adventure
Run Time : 125 min
Opens : 20 October 2022
Rating : PG13

Dwayne Johnson became officially linked to the role of Black Adam in 2007. 15 years later, he finally dons the black suit emblazoned with the yellow lightning bolt. But is the Rock the saviour that DC Films are desperately looking for?

Teth-Adam (Dwayne Johnson) was a warrior slave from the fictional kingdom of Kahndaq, a civillisation that arose alongside ancient Egypt. Adam was granted the powers of the gods but misused these powers for vengeance. As punishment, Adam was imprisoned. Almost 5000 years later, Teth-Adam, now Black Adam, is released when university professor and resistance fighter Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi) finds his tomb. Adrianna sees Black Adam as a figure who could rally the citizens of Kahndaq to fight against Intergang, the militaristic corporation currently occupying Kahndaq. Black Adam continues what he feels is his justified crusade, leaving destruction in his wake. Rising to oppose Adam is the Justice Society, a team of superheroes comprising Carter Hall/Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), Al Rothstein/Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), Maxine Hunkel/Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) and Kent Nelson/Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan). Adam must form an uneasy alliance with the Justice Society to defeat an even bigger, more diabolical threat.

Black Adam isn’t afraid to feel like a comic book, and it also has a good amount of Saturday morning cartoon energy – albeit with quite a bit more brutality to it. Dwayne Johnson does a fine job balancing both his own finely-honed celebrity persona with the Black Adam character from the pages of Fawcett, then DC, comics. The movie is rated PG13, but Black Adam’s violent streak is largely preserved.

Long-time DC Comics fans will enjoy seeing mildly-to-relatively obscure comic book characters on the big screen, though iterations of said characters have appeared on TV in Smallville and in the Arrowverse. For the most part, the film is tonally assured, neither too crushingly serious nor too flippant. Sometimes comic book movies seem preoccupied with trying not to come off as too silly, something which has plagued earlier entries in the DC Extended Universe. In Black Adam, superheroes pile into a high-tech jet and set off to save the day, as they do in the comics, and nobody really bats an eyelid.  

Black Adam is being promoted as a tentpole event movie when it doesn’t really feel like one. It’s not a small movie by any stretch, but it does feel restricted. For all the movie’s world-building, it aspires to a scope and scale that it ultimately doesn’t possess. Its plot beats are straightforward to a fault, while it also struggles with feeling slightly bloated because of all its characters, none of whom the general moviegoer would already be familiar with. There is a reliance on exposition, and it feels like certain things were glued together in reshoots. There is unfortunately a dullness to the visuals, because everything takes place in dusty environs. While there is an effort made to make Kahndaq look like a real place, there are instances when it feels like we are on a studio backlot. The action sequences start blending into each other after a while. The movie’s villain is also far from compelling, and it ends as all these movies must end, with our heroes fighting a thing made of CGI.

This is as much a Justice Society movie as it is a Black Adam film. Aldis Hodge is a charismatic and appropriately stubborn presence as Carter Hall/Hawkman, the leader of the team. Both Noah Centineo and Quintessa Swindell are endearing as the younger members. Pierce Brosnan is the movie’s MVP as Doctor Fate, and this reviewer would love to see him headline a Doctor Fate spinoff film. He has gravitas to spare and is taking it all quite seriously. Besides, he looks very dashing in full silver fox mode. Unfortunately, it is difficult to connect to the characters given the very limited time we get to know them. The movie completely sidesteps Hawkman’s complicated backstory, which involves him being an archaeologist who is the reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian prince.

It seems like Warner Bros executives are hoping that Dwayne Johnson’s star power will help rescue DC Films. Things have never been particularly smooth going for this franchise, and anyone who follows movie news will be aware of baffling developments like the decision to never release an almost-completed film. You will find many helpful infographics online explaining how each DC Extended Universe movie connects to the other. Black Adam is not an A-lister and it’s clear that Johnson does have affection for the character, elevating the character with his own celebrity status. However, the Black Adam movie feels like it should occupy a corner of the DC universe and not be at the centre of it, and it feels like it is being pushed into that spot because other plans have fallen through.

Summary: Black Adam won’t blow anyone away, but it is a largely enjoyable comic book adventure movie. It’s not ashamed of its somewhat sillier elements, but also the brutality and angst befitting its protagonist. For something that has been in development for a long time, it feels half-baked – maybe three-quarters-baked, if you’re being charitable. Dwayne Johnson is a suitably imposing, brutal Black Adam, but the movie’s secret weapon is a dashing and quietly haunted Pierce Brosnan as Doctor Fate. Black Adam sometimes feels a little overstuffed and too formulaic, but it never loses sight of that crucial comic book sensibility, thus remaining entertaining all the way through. Stick around for a mid-credits screen that would have a very nice surprise if it weren’t spoiled to the point of being a part of the marketing.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Halloween Ends review

Director: David Gordon Green
Cast : Jamie Lee Curtis, James Jude Courtney, Nick Castle, Andi Matichak, Rohan Campbell, Will Patton, Kyle Richards, Michele Dawson, Michael O’Leary, Keraun Harris
Genre: Horror
Run Time : 111 min
Opens : 13 October 2022
Rating : M18

After this, it’s over – so say the producers of Halloween Ends. Cross their heart and hope to die. There are bound to be more Halloween movies in some shape or fashion, but this movie is meant to be a definitive end to the decades-spanning story of Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney, Nick Castle). For real, this time.

It is four years after the events of Halloween Kills. Michael Myers went on a rampage through the town of Haddonfield, Illinois, and then vanished. In the time since the last Michael Myers incident, a collective paranoia has continued to build. Laurie is writing her memoirs, ready to put everything behind her and finally find closure. She is living with her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak), who works at Haddonfield Memorial Hospital as a nurse. Corey Cunningham (Rohan Campbell) is a young man who works for his father at an automobile scrapyard. He was linked to a tragic incident, but after having his name cleared, he continues to be picked on and met with suspicion by various Haddonfield residents. After Laurie introduces Corey to Allyson, the two begin a relationship, but darkness lurks around the corner as Michael resurfaces, leading up to the fabled final confrontation between Laurie and her tormentor.

After spending most of Halloween Kills lying in a hospital bed, Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode is back with a vengeance in Halloween Ends, and Curtis has an abiding affection for the character and still cares a great deal about Laurie, a role she first played in 1978 and which marked the beginning of her film career (she had TV roles before Halloween). The interactions between Laurie and her granddaughter are mostly affectionate but also tinged with tension, and Andi Matichak gets many chances to shine. There are several tense moments brutal kills, including one cartoonishly gruesome murder that gore-hounds will dig. However, Halloween Ends does very much want to be a character piece – albeit not quite in the way one might expect. It is also nice to see Kyle Richards and Will Patton return, even if their characters are not especially instrumental to the plot.

There doesn’t seem to be quite as much excitement surrounding Halloween Ends as one would expect, especially compared to the hype leading up to the 2018 Halloween film. It is likely that the lacklustre Halloween Kills dulled that interest, such that what should be a hotly anticipated clash of titans is instead met with a shrug. Perhaps a key factor is that Michael Myers’ ludicrous nigh-imperviousness, especially without a supernatural explanation as in earlier instalments of the franchise, borders on the laughable. If a man can survive what would have killed a regular person 50 times over, the stakes feel oddly diminished. Michael Myers is Superman – it’s always been that way, but the 2018 film was pitched as being a grounded back-to-basics approach, but especially after surviving the ending of that film and all of Halloween Kills, the prospect of Michael Myers actually, finally dying just doesn’t have the kick that it should.

The promotional materials lean heavily on the inevitable final confrontation between Laurie and Michael, but when it does come, it can’t help but feel anticlimactic. Weirdly enough, the movie doesn’t seem primarily interested in Laurie and Michael Myers – we won’t say the exact figure, but it takes a surprising amount of time before Michael Myers shows up proper, excluding archival footage from previous films. Perhaps this is a bit refreshing considering how repetitive slasher movies can be in general, but it can also feel like long-time fans have been sold a somewhat misleading bill of goods.

The character who gets the most attention is a new one: Corey Cunningham, played by Rohan Campbell, who is probably best known for playing Frank Hardy in the 2020 Hardy Boys TV series. The Corey character is compelling, equal parts sympathetic and suspicious, and Campbell does a fine job with the character. However, the relationship between Corey and Allyson feels rushed, and the crucial role he plays in a movie that should ostensibly focus squarely on Laurie is a bit puzzling. There is an attempt to link Corey’s plot to what has been set up in the previous two movies, but it is only fitfully successful.

Summary: Halloween Ends is being sold on the long-awaited final confrontation between Laurie Strode and Michael Myers. It is good to see Jamie Lee Curtis back in fighting form, after the Laurie character spent most of the previous movie down for the count, but Halloween Ends doesn’t seem particularly interested in either Laurie or Michael Myers. Instead, new character Corey Cunningham, played by Rohan Campbell, gets a disproportionate amount of focus. There are engaging character beats and several gruesome kills, but as the finale to a trilogy that began with much promise as a whole-hearted throwback to the original 1978 movie, Halloween Ends is far from wholly satisfying.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Don’t Worry Darling review

Director: Olivia Wilde
Cast : Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, Olivia Wilde, Gemma Chan, KiKi Layne, Nick Kroll, Chris Pine, Timothy Simons, Dita Von Teese
Genre: Thriller/Drama
Run Time : 122 min
Opens : 22 September 2022
Rating : M18

It’s the buzziest film of the year. You’ve read the breathless headlines. You’ve seen the memes. You might have even seen the edited video in which Harry Styles appears to toss a goat into Chris Pine’s lap. But what’s left when you strip away all the hullabaloo?

It is the 1950s. Alice (Florence Pugh) and Jack (Harry Styles) are a married couple living in the company town of Victory, California. Jack works for the Victory Corporation, headed by the charismatic and enigmatic Frank (Chris Pine), who is married to Shelley (Gemma Chan). He is forbidden from discussing his top-secret job with his wife. Each morning, the men get in their cars and drive across the desert to the company’s headquarters, where they go about their top-secret work. The women, including Alice and her best friend Bunny (Olivia Wilde), live a leisurely existence, shopping, lounging around the pool and taking dance classes. However, Alice begins noticing that something is amiss after fellow resident Margaret (KiKi Layne) begins acting erratically. She is convinced that there is more to Victory than meets the eye, as she becomes increasingly disturbed.

This is director Olivia Wilde’s second feature film after Booksmart and it is a different beast from that coming-of-age comedy-drama. Don’t Worry Darling is ambitious and sees Wilde play with some intriguing components, even if they might not all go together well. The design elements of the film are eye-catching, and the sunny locations are unique, in a time when a lot of movies look a little muddy. Director of Photography Matthew Libatique, an oft-collaborator of Darren Aronofsky, does excellent work here. There are times when the film does feel Aronofsky-esque.

Don’t Worry Darling features yet another compulsively watchable Florence Pugh performance. It makes sense that she was cast off the strength of her performance in Midsommar, in which she also played a protagonist caught in outwardly idyllic but ultimately sinister surroundings. She fully deserves to be one of the most sought-after young actresses of the moment, and in Pugh’s hands, Alice is very easy to root for. It’s not necessarily the most layered or interesting role, even though the film sets her up as being a complex character, but Pugh does quite a bit with it.

Chris Pine is clearly enjoying himself as a cult leader-esque figure, charming yet undeniably sinister.

It takes quite a while to get there, but the movie’s final act is propulsive and entertaining, even if it isn’t a fully satisfying pay-off for the set-up.

Don’t Worry Darling is often awkward and inelegant, altogether too obvious when its dread should be creeping up on the audience, rather than bonking them over the head. It seems caught between arthouse aspirations and a pulpier, more visceral, throwback B-movie side. The movie also feels considerably longer than its 122 minutes, and it seems to spend a lot of time attempting to establish that Alice senses something is wrong, without really offering much in the way of subtle clues or carefully timed moments to throw the audience off. Once the big reveal happens, it’s hard not to question the mechanics of everything, and audiences might be a bit too busy parsing the logic (or lack thereof) to engage with the movie.

Harry Styles is miscast. His performance brings to mind one of Stephen King’s criticisms of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining: the Jack Torrance character is supposed to start off as an ordinary family man and gradually unravel, but Jack Nicholson already seems deranged at the start of the film. It’s not quite the same thing, but Harry Styles has trouble playing unassuming, and seems to be simultaneously attempting to suppress his modern-day Britpop eccentricity, while also remembering that it is part of his brand.

I alluded to it up top, and it would be impossible to discuss Don’t Worry Darling without mentioning the inordinate amount of drama and controversy surrounding its production. From Wilde firing Shia LaBeouf, to being served divorce papers while presenting the film at CinemaCon, to the on-set relationship between Wilde and Styles, to the alleged rift between Wilde and Pugh, to LaBeouf saying he quit instead of being fired, to Styles allegedly spitting on Pine at the Venice International Film Festival, it’s been a lot. It is difficult to separate all this from the movie itself, and it may have influenced some critics who have been exceedingly harsh on Don’t Worry Darling.

Even if none of that had happened, it would already be intriguing that Wilde had decided to attach herself to a screenplay written by Shane and Carey Van Dyke, whose credits separately and together include the ‘mockbusters’ Transmorphers: Fall of Man, The Day the Earth Stopped, Titanic II and Paranormal Entity. Booksmart co-writer Katie Silberman rewrote the Van Dyke brothers’ script.

Summary: It’s difficult to separate Don’t Worry Darling from the flurry of behind-the-scenes controversy, but the movie itself is not quite the disaster that the general critical consensus is making it out to be. It could stand to be defter and more elegant, and perhaps it could have arrived at its exciting final act quite a bit faster, but Don’t Worry Darling has a pulpy quality to it and is sometimes entertaining. Florence Pugh does a remarkable amount of heavy lifting, almost enough to compensate for Harry Styles being miscast. It will be remembered more for the surrounding controversy than on its own merits, but there are things to recommend.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

DC League of Super-Pets review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Jared Stern
Cast : Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Kate McKinnon, John Krasinski, Vanessa Bayer, Natasha Lyonne, Diego Luna, Keanu Reeves, Marc Maron, Olivia Wilde, Ben Schwartz, Thomas Middleditch, Jameela Jamil, Jemaine Clement, John Early, Daveed Diggs, Dascha Polanco, Keith David, Alfred Molina, Lena Headey
Genre: Animation/Comedy
Run Time : 106 min
Opens : 1 September 2022
Rating : PG13

It is apt that the acronym of “Warner Animation Group” is WAG, the thing dogs do with their tails, given that DC League of Super-Pets is fronted by two dogs. These and the other animals of the DC Universe take the spotlight in this animated comedy.

Krypto the Super-dog (Dwayne Johnson) is the lifelong companion of Kal-el/Clark Kent/Superman (John Krasinski), having accompanied the superhero from the planet Krypton to earth when they were both young. Krypto and Clark are inseparable, but Krypto begins to grow jealous of Clark’s girlfriend Lois Lane (Olivia Wilde), to whom he is planning to propose. Meanwhile, the denizens of an animal shelter, including Boxer dog Ace (Kevin Hart), hairless guinea pig Lulu (Kate McKinnon), potbellied pig PB (Vanessa Bayer), red-eared terrapin Merton (Natasha Lyonne) and red squirrel Chip (Diego Luna) are exposed to an otherworldly material, gaining superpowers. Lulu was formerly a test subject of the supervillain Lex Luthor (Marc Maron), and has her sights set on world domination. Ace, PB, Merton and Chip meet Krypto, eventually forming an alliance when Lulu’s machinations endanger the Justice League.

DC League of Super-Pets is clearly made by people with an affection for the comic book source material. It’s frequently funny, surprisingly warm and emotional, and filled with easter eggs and references that are a lot of fun to identify. Feature animation must strike a balance between appealing kids but not making adults feel like they’re being subjecting to torture, and this movie mostly finds that balance. The “jokes for the adults” are a little more sophisticated than one might expect, including a reference to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast and a line about how billionaires tend to be fixated on rockets. Director and co-writer Jared Stern and co-writer John Whittington previously worked on The LEGO Batman Movie, and there are some similarities in the tone and sense of humour here. The movie is fun to look at, with the design of Metropolis drawing inspiration from the art deco illustrations of J.C. Leyendecker. The character designs also nod to the storied history of DC animation, from the Superfriends cartoon to the DC Animated Universe of the 90s and 2000s.

Unfortunately, the movie is sometimes prone to the smugness associated with the height of the Dreamworks Animation era, even if it never gets quite annoying as the worst moments in those movies. There are the requisite bodily function jokes, though not quite as many as the trailers indicate. There is also a bit of a struggle between the comedy and action modes, such that the superhero set pieces are not especially memorable. The movie’s ensemble cast of both animal and human characters means the focus is sometimes spread a little too thin. The movie is also often somewhat derivative of the two Secret Life of Pets movies, in which Kevin Hart had a voice role, and it is likely that DC League of Super-Pets wouldn’t have been greenlit without the success of those movies.

This is a movie that is co-produced by and starring Dwayne Johnson, so there is the valid fear that it might be a vanity project. However, Johnson’s voice suits the heroic Krypto well, and Kevin Hart is a good foil as Ace, coming off as less annoying than he does in many of his live-action roles.

A number of talented comedians fill out the voice cast, with Vanessa Bayer’s fangirl PB and Natasha Lyonne’s doddering Merton being especially likeable. Keith David, a familiar voice to animation fans, makes a vocal cameo as Dog-El, Krypton’s father. Apart from PB and Lulu, all the main animal characters are based on existing DC Comics characters.

The casting of the Justice League members is mostly inspired, with Keanu Reeves’ Batman being especially amusing. It doesn’t sound like anyone is slumming it, as can sometimes happen with big-name actors cast in animated movies.  

Summary: For those understandably worried about the future of DC movies, DC League of Super-Pets is an endearing and well-made distraction from those thoughts. Sure, there are plenty of cute animal antics, but also lots of jokes aimed at accompanying adults and DC fans. Dwayne Johnson leads a lively, smartly selected voice cast. Stick around for one mid-credits scene and one post-credits scene.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Three Thousand Years of Longing review

For F*** Magazine

Director: George Miller
Cast : Tilda Swinton, Idris Elba, Aamito Lagum, Burcu Gölgedar, Matteo Bocelli, Kaan Guldur, Jack Braddy, Erdi Yasaroglu
Genre: Fantasy/Romance
Run Time : 108 min
Opens : 1 September 2022
Rating : M18

George Miller has one of the most eclectic filmographies of any director currently working: between the four Mad Max movies, Babe 2: Pig in the City and the two Happy Feet movies, there’s a level of unpredictability to his choices. With Three Thousand Years of Longing, Miller’s first film since 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, he adds to that filmography a tale of an unlikely meeting between an academic and a mythical being.

Dr Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) is a narratologist. She has dedicated her life to studying stories and the history of storytelling and travels the world attending academic conferences. The latest such conference brings her to Istanbul, Turkiye, where she is hosted by Prof. Günhan (Erdil Yasaroglu). While at the Grand Bazaar with Günhan, Alithea chances upon a peculiar blue and white bottle. Back in the hotel room, Alithea cleans the bottle and unleashes a Djinn (Idris Elba), trapped inside. He offers her three wishes, but Alithea is much more interested in learning about him. The Djinn regales Alithea with stories of his past and the circumstances that led to his incarceration. These include run-ins with such figures as the Queen of Sheba (Aamito Lagum) and Ottoman rulers Murad IV (Kaan Guldur) and Ibrahim (Jack Braddy). Alithea must make her three wishes to grant the Djinn his freedom, but as she becomes increasingly fascinated with him and his stories, what she might wish for is thrown into question.

Three Thousand Years of Longing is adapted from the short story The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye by A.S. Byatt. This is an imaginative, vibrant and earnest movie, at once strikingly original and comfortingly familiar. The movie is a family affair for director Miller, who co-wrote the screenplay with his daughter Augusta Gore, and whose wife Margaret Sixel is the editor. Cinematographer John Seale came out of retirement for Mad Max: Fury Road, and he un-retires once more for this movie. The segments set in the past are exquisitely composed and bursting with colour and texture. There is a warmth and beauty to the story and Miller both delights in the details and has a light enough touch. It’s a story about stories, and how stories are a big part of what make us human.

The movie is reliant on vignettes, meaning the characters and stories are necessarily straightforward and archetypical. Unfortunately, this can make it difficult to connect to any of the supporting characters. The movie’s last act becomes disappointingly simplistic, with the story centred firmly on romantic attraction when the set-up hinted at a wide range of human emotions and relationships. After the bulk of the storytelling is over, everything from then on until the end of the movie feels like a let-down.

The movie rests on the interplay between Swinton and Elba, who make for an unexpected but fascinating pairing. The movie is at its most interesting in the earlier stages, when neither fully trusts the other and Alithea is wary of the Djinn because of her familiarity with stories about trickster figures who come bearing wishes.

Elba’s Djinn is at once powerful and vulnerable, susceptible to feelings of attachment and often undone by them despite his otherworldly abilities. Just the contrast between Elba’s and Swinton’s physiques and the way the actors hold themselves makes the frames that they share immediately interesting to look at.

Summary: Three Thousand Years of Longing is a whimsical, imaginative, lavish and heartfelt fairy-tale for grown-ups. It might not go quite far enough with its themes of the role human desires play in interpersonal relationships and in history, and its ending might be a bit too mundane and pat for some, but it is quite unlike most things in the cinema now. Director George Miller infuses the story with warmth and displays fine attention to detail. While the movie’s reach seems to exceed its grasp, especially as it moves into its final act, it is still wondrous to behold.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Nope review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Jordan Peele
Cast : Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun, Brandon Perea, Michael Wincott, Wrenn Schmidt, Keith David, Terry Notary
Genre: Horror
Run Time : 130 min
Opens : 18 August 2022
Rating : M18

Jordan Peele has quickly established himself as a modern-day master of horror filmmaking, having won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Get Out, and following it up with Us. All eyes were on Peele to see where he would go next, and with Nope, Peele has our eyes pointed skywards.

Otis Jr. “OJ” Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald “Em” Haywood (Keke Palmer) are the children of Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David). The family business is Haywood’s Hollywood Horses, based in Agua Dulce, California and supplying horses for film and TV productions. The family is descended from the jockey featured in one of the very first motion pictures, depicting a galloping horse. The business has fallen on hard times, and after Otis Sr. dies in a freak accident, OJ sells several of the horses to Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), the proprietor of the Western-themed Jupiter’s Claim theme park.

As mysterious activity takes place in the skies, OJ and Em decide they want to document the unidentified phenomena, producing irrefutable evidence of extra-terrestrial beings that will then make them rich and famous. Angel (Brandon Perea), a salesman at Fry’s Electronics, and Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), a legendary cinematographer, get roped in to OJ and Em’s scheme. Meanwhile, Jupe plans an ambitious new show for his carnival called the Star Lasso Experience, one with the potential to go horribly awry. As the true nature of what is hiding behind the clouds is revealed, our heroes get more than they bargained for.

Given the increasingly corporate nature of big-budget filmmaking, it is rare to see directors get to make original movies on a grand scale. Peele’s prior successes have granted him “blank check” status, and it’s clear that he’s always motivated by a desire to explore certain ideas, instead of just making movies because that’s what’s expected of him. Peele’s knowledge of film history and love for the medium informs his work, leading to a textured, affectionately made result. This is Peele declaring how much he loves movies, while also laying out some of his frustrations with the current state of the industry. The actors are all charming, especially Keke Palmer, whose Em is neither damsel in distress nor gun-toting Ripley-esque heroine, feeling remarkably like a real person in a genre where characters are often very archetypical.

There are genuinely unsettling moments in Nope and some set-pieces that overflow with tension and dread, but for this reviewer, the best parts of the movie have nothing to do with the main UFO plot – or least, seem to have nothing to do with it at first. Much of the conversation about the movie surrounds a horrific flashback sequence detailing a supporting character’s tragic backstory. The movie works best if one knows as little about this as possible and has grim but insightful things to say about the monetisation of trauma.

Part of what made both Get Out and Us spine-tinglingly effective were the elaborate conspiracies Peele had constructed that provided the backdrop for both movies. By contrast, when we are given the explanation as to what is really going on with the strange object hiding in the cloud, it doesn’t feel quite as satisfying. It makes sense within the framework of the movie and given the prior set-up, but there isn’t that feeling of everything clicking into place, of horrifying realisation, that some viewers might be hoping for from Nope. There is a lot of set-up, and several scenes of OJ and Em hanging out with Angel might seem a little pointless. Peele’s movies are at the centre of the ongoing debate about “elevated horror” and if attempts at making highbrow genre movies are worthy or pretentious. For audiences who have already dismissed Peele as high-falutin’, Nope is unlikely to change their minds.

Nope is Peele’s commentary on spectacle, on the role of spectacle in movies and audiences’ relationship to it. Inspired in part by Spielberg movies like Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Nope attempts to interrogate our love affair with big, glossy crowd-pleasers, while trying to be one of those movies itself. The movie’s cinematographer is Hoyte Van Hoytema, who has collaborated with Christopher Nolan on Interstellar, Dunkirk, Tenet and the upcoming Oppenheimer. Nope lays claim to being the first horror movie filmed in IMAX. There are some truly impressive shots in the movie, and it is unlike the production line spectacle moviegoers have become accustomed to. Given the news of overworked visual effects artists driven to their breaking point making the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, the nature of cinematic spectacle is something worth thinking over. Nope also has things to say about the ethics of the use of animals in entertainment, the cycle of exploitation in the name of profit, and how that relates to mankind’s presumed supremacy over nature and other forces.

Summary: Jordan Peele’s latest movie is positioned as an enigma, like with Get Out and Us. While it might not be as viscerally satisfying as those two movies, and especially Get Out, there’s a lot in Nope to unpack and explore. Peele’s love for movies and his knowledge of the history of filmmaking inform a movie that is about our relationship to spectacle. The movie’s most terrifying sequences seem mostly disconnected from the main plot, Nope is frequently frustrating, but also genuinely unsettling and beautifully shot.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Bullet Train review

For F*** Magazine

Director: David Leitch
Cast : Brad Pitt, Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry, Andrew Koji, Hiroyuki Sanada, Benito A. Martínez Ocasio, Sandra Bullock, Michael Shannon, Logan Lerman, Zazie Beetz, Karen Fukuhara, Masi Oka
Genre: Action/Comedy
Run Time : 127 min
Opens : 4 August 2022
Rating : M18

Brad Pitt recently sparked rumours of his retirement, telling GQ, “I consider myself on my last leg.” Pitt subsequently allayed these fears, walking back his statement at the premiere of Bullet Train and saying he needs to “work on [his] phrasing”. If this movie is anything go by, Pitt still possesses plenty of movie star charm and action chops, even if the rest of it can be all a bit too much.

Ladybug (Brad Pitt) is an assassin called in as a last-minute substitute when a cohort goes on sick leave. Ladybug’s handler Maria Beetle (Sandra Bullock) assigns him what seems like a simple snatch-and-grab job: get on a bullet train bound for Kyoto, retrieve a silver briefcase, and get off at the next stop. Ladybug’s task is complicated by the presence of competing assassins, including the Prince (Joey King), the duo of Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Yuichi (Andrew Koji), the Wolf (Benito A. Martínez Ocasio) and the Hornet (Zazie Beetz). The mission becomes a free-for-all and the carnage mounts.

Bullet Train is adapted from Kōtarō Isaka’s novel Maria Beetle and is directed by David Leitch, who knows his way around an action sequence. The director was a former stunt coordinator and stunt double, having been Brad Pitt’s double in movies like Fight Club, Ocean’s Eleven, The Mexican and Mr. & Mrs. Smith. He later co-directed John Wick and directed Deadpool 2 and Hobbs & Shaw. Bullet Train is stuffed with bloody action sequences and sometimes, is entertaining and light on its feet. Some of the jokes land and there is an undeniable kinetic quality to the proceedings. There is an effort to build the world out and breathe life into the heightened milieu. There is also an assuredness to the tone and the movie never takes itself too seriously, even if it might go overboard with the winking and nodding.

Given that Bullet Train is set on, well, the titular mode of transportation, one would expect a tight, self-contained movie. Unfortunately, Bullet Train gets more and more bloated as it continues. There are multiple protracted flashbacks to provide the backstories of all our players, and sometimes it feels like the movie is fighting against its setting, eager to break out of the train cabin. All the diversions stem from a desire to create a textured world and to flesh the characters out, but they ultimately largely remain cartoon characters. There are running gags, including one character’s preoccupation with Thomas the Tank Engine, that eventually get grating. The director also seems to have imported a sense of smugness from Deadpool 2, which can make it difficult to connect to the story.

Other critics have called the movie reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino or Guy Ritchie, but what it most feels like is a serviceable but occasionally awkward live-action adaptation of an anime. The movie ends with a spectacular sequence – “spectacular” in the sense of prioritising spectacle. The movie already has a sense of deliberate artifice to it, but this set-piece sends things completely into the realm of the synthetic.

Pitt is a lot of fun in a role that ultimately isn’t very interesting. Ladybug’s main character trait is that he is in therapy and trying to leave his life of violence behind, so he spouts platitudes about positivity and optimism. Pitt sells all the action sequences and is likeable, but partially because he is wrestling for screen time with so many other actors, it never really feels like a vehicle for him in the way that his fans might expect it to be.

Joey King’s outwardly innocent character who is secretly a deadly killer is already an overplayed archetype, even though she gives a confident performance.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry are an amusing double act. Their dynamic mostly consists of them bickering with each other, and it gets old after a while, but they do play off each other nicely.

Hiroyuki Sanada pops up to lend the movie some gravitas. He is playing essentially the same character he usually plays in a Hollywood movie, but his earnestness is a welcome counterpoint to the film’s overall flippant attitude.

Several actors seem to be completely wasted, including Karen Fukuhara, who basically makes a cameo as a train crew member. Fukuhara has played Kimiko Miyashiro/The Female in The Boys and Katana in Suicide Squad, so it is frustrating that she could have easily portrayed one of the assassins instead.

Summary: Bullet Train packs in plenty of action and has its entertaining moments courtesy of a stacked cast, led by a breezily watchable Brad Pitt. Unfortunately, it wears the viewer down and strains under the burden of all its characters and subplots. Where it would work better as a lean, self-contained action caper, Bullet Train is instead overstuffed. It gets by on the cast’s charm, and many competently staged action sequences, even if the large roster means several actors get short shrift.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong