Soul review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Pete Docter
Cast : Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Questlove, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, Angela Bassett, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Richard Ayoade, Alice Braga, Wes Studi
Genre: Animation/Comedy/Fantasy
Run Time : 106 min
Opens : 25 December 2020
Rating : PG

Of the mainstream animated studios out there, Pixar has a reputation for generally making more sophisticated fare than its competitors. With Soul, Pixar tackles a question no loftier than “what makes you who you are?”

Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a middle school band teacher and an aspiring jazz pianist. Just when he’s about to get his big break performing with the Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) quartet, he falls down a manhole and goes into a coma. Joe’s soul, bound for The Great Beyond, escapes to the You Seminar, formerly known as “The Great Before”. This is where souls live and gain defining characteristics before they enter corporeal bodies on earth. Joe meets 22 (Tina Fey), a soul who has spent thousands of years evading becoming human. As Joe fights to return to his body on earth, 22 gains an unexpected understanding of, and perhaps an appreciation for, the life she has been trying so hard to avoid.

Soul is hugely ambitious, a metaphysical, existential odyssey that is challenging and sometimes satisfying to embark upon. It is a lively, funny creation; obviously the effort of artists and technicians who have poured their hearts and, well, souls into their work. Director Pete Docter, who co-wrote the film with Mike Jones and Kemp Powers, gives Soul a poignancy that is difficult to describe.

Soul also faces the immense challenge of creating a view of the afterlife (and the ‘afore-life’) that is compatible with multiple belief systems. Great care was taken in shaping the world of the film, with the filmmakers consulting with various religious and cultural experts. The result is something vaguely new-agey and spiritual, but never explicitly religious.

Soul’s design is also often eye-catching, with some clever ideas at play. To convey the ephemeral, intangible nature of a soul, the designers were inspired by the low-density material aerogel. There’s a lot going on here, and a lot of it immensely clever. Soul is, naturally, an intensely emotional film that left this reviewer in tears. It is especially resonant for anyone who’s tried to make a living doing anything creative.

Soul does not seem like a movie made primarily for children and might be Pixar’s least accessible film yet. It is perhaps more difficult to get into than Inside Out, Docter’s previous Pixar film. This does not mean that it doesn’t have elements in it that children will enjoy, but it is going to be difficult for parents to explain what the movie is about. Soul also feels like a movie that is often in search of itself, which befits its themes, but also means it sometimes goes off in many directions. This is a film that demands to be engaged with, but its take on heady philosophical matters can seem a little simplistic or reductive at times.

There are few things as universally moving as music, so it is a canny move to centre the movie on a musician. Soul’s soundscape is a richly textured one, with jazz at its core. Co-writer Powers is, like the protagonist Joe, a Black man from New York in his mid-40s and was a journalist and music critic. Jon Batiste wrote and performed the original jazz tracks in the score, in addition to providing the animators reference for Joe’s piano playing. There is great attention paid to the cultural significance of jazz, with jazz legend Herbie Hancock and anthropologist Dr Johnnetta Cole being two of the consultants on board. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, known for scoring David Fincher films like The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl, seem like unlikely candidates to score a Pixar film, but they deliver moving, uncharacteristically gentle work that is still the right amount of haunting.

Pixar’s films are generally cast well, and Soul is no exception. Jamie Foxx effortlessly essays passion and earnestness, while Tina Fey is endearing as the cynical 22, world-weary despite having never lived. Fey contributed to her character’s dialogue; 22 makes a great throwaway dig at the New York Knicks. Phylicia Rashad breathes life into the relatively small role of Joe’s stern yet loving mother and Angela Bassett is as commanding a presence as ever, voicing a legendary saxophonist. Talk show host Graham Norton brings a friendly quirkiness to hippie sign-twirler Moonwind and Rachel House is funny as the tightly-wound bureaucrat Terry, a soul-counter.

Summary: Made with an abundance of sensitivity and intelligence, Soul artfully tackles some gigantic questions in a resonant manner. Its thematic maturity means that parents will have their work cut out for them in explaining the movie to younger children, but this is a wholly rewarding experience.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Monster Hunter review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Cast : Milla Jovovich, Tony Jaa, Ron Perlman, Cliff “T.I.” Harris Jr, Meagan Good, Diego Boneta, Josh Helman, Jin Au-Yeung, Hirona Yamazaki
Genre: Action/Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 104 min
Opens : 24 December 2020
Rating : PG13

Paul W.S. Anderson, best known for the Resident Evil films, tackles another videogame adaptation, bringing Capcom’s Monster Hunter to the big screen.

Captain Natalie Artemis (Milla Jovovich), whose squadron includes Link (T.I.), Dash (Meagan Good), Marshall (Diego Boneta), Steeler (Josh Helman) and Axe (Jin Au-Yeung), is a U.S. Army Ranger. A freak electrical storm suddenly whisks Artemis and her team into a mysterious realm dominated by other-worldly monsters. Artemis meets the Hunter (Tony Jaa), who has spent his life fighting the monsters, including the Black Diablos and the Nerscylla. Despite initially being antagonistic to each other, Artemis and Hunter must overcome their differences to help each other survive, and so that Artemis can find a way home.

Monster Hunter is not as bad as many of the Resident Evil films and is often entertaining. One would be hard-pressed to call it “good”, but there are a few enjoyable sequences, and some of the monsters are rendered well.

Milla Jovovich may have limited range as an actor, but she is very good at playing tough characters, and the Artemis character caters to all her strengths. The best parts of the film are not the monster fight sequences, though there are plenty of those – the best parts of the movie are the scenes that Jovovich and Jaa share.

Jaa is immensely charismatic, a winsome movie star through and through. There is not much in the way of characterisation for Hunter, let alone any of the other characters who aren’t him or Artemis, but Jaa makes the most of what he’s given. The movie also isn’t as bloated as it could’ve been, given the amount of lore in the game series.

This is a movie that evaporates almost as soon as it’s over. There’s just not a lot here, and it is frustrating because there are interesting textural elements, and there are things about the movie one wishes Anderson had focused on more. Perhaps this is due in part to the appearance of his oft-collaborator Ron Perlman, but this reviewer spent most of Monster Hunter imagining what a filmmaker like Guillermo del Toro could have done with this material. The games are action role-playing games and are not primarily story-driven, which means there was room to create a story here, and it’s just threadbare.

The entire aspect of a human military unit entering the world of Monster Hunter is not taken from the games. Anderson was inspired by a one-off crossover event in the 2010 game Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, in which a military squad briefly fought monsters from the Monster Hunter series. This means that, just like in the Resident Evil films, Milla Jovovich is playing a character who was created from whole cloth for the movies and is not present in the games on which they are based. As such, Artemis feels like an avatar, it feels like there’s basically nothing to her, and that Hunter is a much more interesting character by comparison. Anderson also probably thinks it’s quite clever that the character is named after the Ancient Greek goddess of the hunt. Elements from Mad Max: Fury Road, the live-action Transformers movies and Stargate feel grafted onto the movie.

The supporting characters are mostly non-entities. This renders the controversy surrounding one line that was meant to be throwaway banter, that resulted in the movie being pulled from Chinese cinemas, and which has now been deleted from the film, all the more pointless.

A problem that has plagued many of Anderson’s films is also evident here: hyperactive editing. Hand-to-hand combat scenes are rendered essentially incomprehensible, which is even more of a shame considering that a martial artist of Tony Jaa’s calibre is the second lead.

The selling point of the movie is the monsters, which were designed with the input of game director Kaname Fujioka and producer Ryozo Tsujimoto. Some of the monsters are better-executed than others – the fire-breathing Rathalos is a good movie dragon and the climactic battle is one of the film’s more exciting moments. Unfortunately, the spider-like Nerscylla often feel artificial when they should be scary and unsettling. Overall, the monsters can’t help but feel generic and lacking in character, even if some are integrated well into the live-action footage.

Summary: Monster Hunter is a passable diversion, but it’s hard to connect to much in the movie at all. Sporadically entertaining but ultimately flimsy, this video game adaptation doesn’t seem interested in exploring the world of the source material. It is a lot more watchable than many of the same director’s Resident Evil films though, and Tony Jaa is a significant bright spot.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Wonder Woman 1984 review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Patty Jenkins
Cast : Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, Lily Aspell, Amr Waked
Genre: Action/Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 151 min
Opens : 17 December 2020
Rating : PG

In 2017, the first Wonder Woman movie finally brought the iconic superheroine to the big screen. The film broke ground and was a critical and financial success, meaning everyone would watch director Patty Jenkins and star Gal Gadot closely to see where the sequel would go.

66 years after the events of the first film, Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) lives in Washington, DC and works as an archaeologist and anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institute. Her new colleague Dr Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), a gemologist, is meek, nerdy, and often ignored, and wishes to be like Diana. A mysterious artifact with unfathomable power that Diana has recovered begins to change the life of Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), a grifter who projects an image of wealth but whose multi-level marketing oil business is floundering. Things start to change for Diana too, as Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who sacrificed his life in the First World War, magically returns. As things begin spinning out of control, Diana must discover the source of these seemingly mystical transformations and set things right.

Wonder Woman 1984 is a corny movie, but corny in a good way. This is an earnest, sincere and ultimately hopeful film that is completely unconcerned with looking or seeming cool. As such, it will probably have its detractors, but there’s something about it that is very appealing. It almost has an Amblin movie’s soul, befitting the 80s setting. There is something Spielbergian to its earnestness, and one gets the sense that Jenkins and the other filmmakers wholeheartedly believe in what the movie is saying.

Gal Gadot continues to own the Wonder Woman role with poise, sensitivity and strength, the proportions of each component finely calibrated. She essays the quiet sadness of someone who has never gotten over losing the love of her life, while having many more facets to her than just that. There are moments when one can see the years in her eyes, and this wiser, more mature but still compassionate and good-hearted Diana is a fully fleshed-out character.

The movie also finds clever ways to reference iconic attributes of the character from the comics, some of which would be considered too cheesy to translate to live-action.

The movie feels shorter than its 151 minutes but is still too long. It certainly doesn’t feel as fresh as the first go-round, but that is par for the course with sequels. The message at the heart of the movie is straightforward to the point of being simplistic. The “be careful what you wish for” strain allows Wonder Woman 1984 to explore certain themes but can sometimes come off as shallow. The movie wants to say that everyone should be content with what they have and not fixate on wanting too much more, which is not a bad message, but that might hit differently in a year in which so much has been taken away from so many. The action set-pieces are largely unmemorable, with the best sequence being the prologue, which depicts the Themysciran Contest. A major climactic duel takes place in darkness, is shot mostly in close-ups and is choppily edited, such that it is challenging to follow.

Wonder Woman 1984 revels in its 80s setting, with production designer Aline Bonetto and costume designer Lindy Hemming creating a thoroughly convincing milieu. Diana rocks some very stylish 80s fashion (just look at those lapels!) and Barbara’s makeover from dowdy to glam is fun to watch. The movie also references geopolitical tensions at the time and comments on rampant consumerism. The 80s in America were very much about being defined by what one bought and owned – Wonder Woman is a character who is so innately good, she seems naturally at odds with greed and superficiality.

Gadot and Pine continue to share crackling chemistry, even if the reason behind Steve’s resurrection might be contrived for some. The fish-out-of-water stuff with Steve discovering life in the 80s is endearing. Diana and Steve share a beautiful moment that seems deliberately evocative of the “Can You Read My Mind” flight in the 1978 Superman movie.

Pedro Pascal is wonderfully cast as Maxwell Lord. Imagine if the fake wealth gurus who show up in unskippable YouTube ads suddenly had all the power in the world. It’s a frightening thought, and one that the film fully exploits. Pascal has said his performance was inspired by Nicolas Cage, which is evident at certain points.

Kristen Wiig is not an obvious choice to play a supervillain, which is precisely why she works in the role. Barbara’s arc is one we’ve seen in many comic book movies, with characters like the Riddler in Batman Forever and Electro in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 bearing similar traits. However, Wiig brings a humanity and tenderness to the character, keeping her sympathetic even as she becomes increasingly vicious.

It may not have everything everyone is looking for in a comic book movie but Wonder Woman 1984 is confident about what it is.

Summary: Earnest and heartfelt, Wonder Woman 1984’s innate sweetness and optimism is hard to resist, even if its action sequences are disappointing. Stay for a crowd-pleasing stinger scene during the end credits.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Tiong Bahru Social Club review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Tan Bee Thiam
Cast : Thomas Pang, Goh Guat Kian, Jalyn Han, Noorlinah Mohamed, Jo Tan, Munah Bagharib
Genre: Comedy/Drama/Sci-fi
Run Time : 88 min
Opens : 10 December 2020
Rating : NC16

How does one measure happiness? We know when we feel happy or unhappy, but are there empirical values that can be attached to that? In this Singaporean satirical comedy-drama, the idea of what it would take to make the happiest community in the world is explored.

Ah Bee (Thomas Pang) lives with his mother Mui (Goh Guat Kian) in the Pearl Bank apartment complex. Now 30, Ah Bee must step out on his own. He joins the Tiong Bahru Social Club, an experimental community, as a Happiness Agent. Overseen by manager Haslinna (Noorlinah Mohammed), all the residents of the community wear a ring that monitors their happiness levels and are constantly surveilled. Ah Bee is assigned to care for his senior client, Ms Wee (Jalyn Han), an eccentric cat lady who doesn’t buy into the whole “happiest society on earth” rhetoric. Ah Bee meets other Happiness Agents, including Geok (Jo Tan) and Orked (Munah Bagharib), but he soon finds that this almost-cult of enforced happiness might not be the best place for him, and must figure out if he belongs in Tiong Bahru Social Club.

This reviewer will admit to often not being very interested in local movies. Tiong Bahru Social Club is one of the most fascinating Singaporean movies in recent memory. It is meticulously designed and shot, has something to say, and is genuinely funny. Director Tan Bee Thiam displays confidence as a filmmaker, while cinematographer and editor Looi Wan Ping constructs an aesthetically pleasing film that’s beautiful to look at even as things feel increasingly off.

The semi-sci-fi elements, including an artificial intelligence assistant named BRAVO60, and the “quirky” dream sequences are all there in just the right amounts, such that one element of the movie doesn’t overwhelm another. Despite how deliberately mannered Tiong Bahru Social Club looks and feels, it is unmistakably authentic. This hits the sweet spot of being something that will resonate with many Singaporean viewers while also being accessible to international viewers. Beyond that, this movie will give international viewers unique, focused insight into Singaporean society unlike anything else.

Tiong Bahru Social Club has great characters, but is not necessarily plot-driven, though this is by design. Director Tan is keenly aware of the tone of the film at all times – the movie’s “happiness cult” is wont to remind audiences of movies like Sorry to Bother You, but it never gets genuinely dark. Upsetting perhaps, but never horrifying, when some viewers might be willing the movie to fully embrace that darkness as it reaches its conclusion, so it helps to bear in mind that this is not Black Mirror. While it is enjoyable, the movie does feel longer than its 88-minute runtime and can sometimes come across as a little too self-conscious, the way many deliberately designed movies do.

Thomas Pang makes for a great agreeable ‘blank slate’ lead character, while actors like Jo Tan and Munah Bagharib create characters who are odd but likeable, and whom audiences understand are struggling with something under the surface. Noorlinah Mohammed’s Stepfordian turn as Haslinna is the right amount of annoyingly corporate and insincere. Both Goh Guat Kian and Jalyn Han give the sometimes-outlandish movie a good degree of grounding. Veteran theatre practitioner Han is especially entertaining as a cantankerous cat-loving lady who sees through all the bulls**t and who enjoys ordering Ah Bee about.

One of the many fascinating things about Tiong Bahru Social Club is that it is cowritten by Tan and Antti Toivonen, who moved from Finland to Singapore 11 years ago. According to the 2020 World Happiness Report, Helsinki, Finland was ranked the happiest city in the world, with Singapore coming in at 49th. Toivonen himself has acknowledged that many Finns would disagree with the findings of the report, but then again, the grass is always greener etc. Singapore’s never-ending march of progress means that humanity can get lost in the shuffle – the recent demolition of the Pearl Bank Apartment complex, where Ah Bee and his mother live at the beginning of the film, is emblematic of this.

This film captures that Singaporean obsession with measuring and quantifying everything – everything can be used to judge someone’s value, and everyone’s always sizing everyone else up. As such, it can feel extremely repressive and stifling. The film’s wry observation of this strongly resonated with this reviewer.

Tiong Bahru Social Club will appeal to cinephiles and film students who are preoccupied with things like shot composition, lighting and transitions. More importantly, it also uniquely captures the Singaporean fixation with turning everything, however intangible and ephemeral, into a Key Performance Indicator. This is that rare arthouse film that is thoroughly accessible and enjoyable.

Summary: Tiong Bahru Social Club is a charming, witty and visually pleasing satirical comedy that succinctly captures the Singaporean obsession with measuring and assigning empirical value to abstract things. This is the most striking, memorable and enjoyable local film in a long time. There’s also a cat named Mochi, who gets credited on the poster and in the end titles.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Freaky review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Christopher Landon
Cast : Vince Vaughn, Kathryn Newton, Katie Finneran, Celeste O’Connor, Misha Osherovich, Uriah Shelton, Alan Ruck, Melissa Collazo
Genre: Horror/Comedy
Run Time : 1 h 43 min
Opens : 12 November 2020
Rating : NC16/M18

“Body swap slasher movie” – that’s a killer elevator pitch right there. This movie’s initial title was Freaky Friday the 13th, which was likely changed due to rights issues, but tells you all you need to know. Happy Death Day director Christopher Landon continues his collaboration with Blumhouse, Hollywood’s reigning horror studio, with this horror comedy.

The Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn) is a serial killer who has become the stuff of urban legend. Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton) is a shy Bayfield Valley High School student. After an altercation involving a cursed Aztec dagger, they swap bodies. Millie, now in the guise of the Butcher, must convince her best friends Nyla (Celeste O’Connor) and Josh (Misha Osherovich) of her far-fetched predicament. Meanwhile, the Butcher, inhabiting Millie’s body, sets about murdering the other high school students. Millie-as-the-Butcher must retrieve the dagger to reverse the transformation within 24 hours, or it will become permanent.

Landon began his career as a screenwriter and wrote four Paranormal Activity films, directing one. He directed the juvenile, largely off-putting Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, before establishing himself as “the comedy slasher guy” with Happy Death Day and its sequel. Freaky sees Landon upping his game, refining a lot of the techniques he used in the Happy Death Day films. There’s an economy to the way Freaky sets things up and pays them off, and the structure works. This also looks slightly more expensive than many other Blumhouse movies do, with the opening sequence in a mansion filled with antiquities being an atmospheric way to begin the movie.

It’s been almost 25 years since Scream, the meta horror-comedy that defined a generation of slasher movies. Freaky follows in those bloody footprints with a healthy amount of wink-wink genre awareness, but never becomes self-indulgent. This is considerably gorier than Happy Death Day, which was a PG13 movie, while Freaky very much isn’t. Tonally, this works: it’s scary when it needs to be, it’s funny when it needs to be, and it’s a little emotional when it needs to be. There’s even a bit of social commentary, with the-Butcher-as-Millie taking on high school boys who behave in a sexually aggressive manner. The plot device of the dagger is efficient – there’s no need for circuitous explanations about the mechanics of the body swapping. There’s also an inspired visual effects flourish during one crucial moment that sells the body swap well.

While Landon generally has a handle on the tone, Freaky’s cheekiness can sometimes get the better of it. Bear McCreary’s heightened, arch score pretty much announces “hi, I’m a horror movie score, get ready for some jump scares”. Depending on your mood, this can either heighten everything else going on, or pull one out of it a bit. Some moments of comedy are a bit too broad, with the scene in which Nyla and Josh consult the Spanish teacher about the engraving on the dagger sticking out as quite silly. Plenty of the jokes land, but some of them don’t – several attempts at approximating Gen Z dialogue miss the mark, but it’s not as bad as it could have been.

A key ingredient to any body swap story is the differences between the two people doing the swapping. While Vince Vaughn and Kathryn Newton are physically distinct, there are times when it feels like the movie might have been a bit miscast. Vaughn’s casting is likely a nod to the misbegotten 1998 remake of Psycho that he starred in. He is very good at affecting the teenage girl-ness – not quite to the level of Jack Black in the Jumanji movies, but almost there. While Vaughn is physically imposing, he’s just not very scary in this, and for it to work completely, the Butcher must be convincingly frightening before the swap takes place. The excellent supporting cast does make up for it, with Celeste O’Connor and Misha Osherovich being very likeable as the stock best friends. Alan Ruck is also good as a particularly odious shop teacher.

Freaky largely plays by genre rules but has plenty of fun with them and makes the most out of its fantastic premise.

Summary: A teen horror comedy with a bit more kick than most examples of the genre, Freaky knows what it is and has fun while it’s at it.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Blood Vessel review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Justin Dix
Cast : Nathan Phillips, Alyssa Sutherland, Alex Cooke, Christopher Kirby, Mark Diaco, John Lloyd Fillingham, Troy Larkin, Vivienne Perry, Ruby Isobel Hall
Genre: Horror
Run Time : 1 h 35 min
Opens : 29 October 2020
Rating : NC16

Sony’s Spider-Man spinoff Morbius may have moved from October 2020 to 2021, but filmgoers can still get their vampire fix in a more offbeat way with the brilliantly named Blood Vessel. It’s called Blood Vessel, that’s just the best. Does this horror adventure live up to the cleverness of its title?

It is 1945, in the waning days of the Second World War. The survivors of a sunken hospital ship are floating in a life raft when they come across a German minesweeper. The survivors, including Australian Nathan Sinclair (Nathan Phillips), British medic Jane Prescott (Alyssa Sutherland), Russian sniper Alexander Teplov (Alex Cooke), British intelligence analyst Gerard Faraday (John Lloyd Fillingham) and American cooks Lydell Jackson (Christopher Kirby) and Jimmy Bigelow (Mark Diaco) board the seemingly-abandoned ship. They soon discover the horrifying ancient evil that is the ship’s cargo and must fight for their survival as tensions among the group rise.

Blood Vessel sounds potentially ridiculous, but it takes its premise seriously enough. This is a film with a limited budget, but said budget is put to good use. Director Justin Dix crafts a credible atmosphere of dread and parcels out information about the characters and the threat they face in an organic, digestible way. Cinematographer Sky Davies creates a dramatic-looking movie bathed in ominous red light and there’s the sense that there’s something interesting – and terrifying – around each corner on the ship. There is a palpable love for the genre here that does not get overwhelmed by goofy wink-wink tendencies, as can sometimes happen with horror films that function partially as homages. The Alexander Teplov character, played by Alex Cooke, is mysterious and fascinating and easy to root for, despite the other characters’ initial suspicion of him. As the lone woman in the main cast, Alyssa Sutherland’s level-headed and compassionate Jane also feels more layered than some of the other characters.

Unfortunately, Blood Vessel is not quite as fun as we had hoped – or at least, it takes a while to get there. Perhaps owing to the film’s limited budget, there aren’t a lot of elaborate set-pieces, and the movie does feel longer than its 95 minutes. Compared to something like Overlord, which was similarly themed around Nazi experimentation with the occult, Blood Vessel isn’t quite as entertaining. There seems to be a struggle between delivering “the goods” and making something with more substance to it than one might expect from a Nazi vampire horror flick.

The acting is also a mixed bag – certain performers, like those named above, are relatively naturalistic, but both Mark Diaco’s brash “I’m walking here!” New Yorker and John Lloyd Fillingham’s exceedingly weaselly English dweeb character are altogether too broad. There is an attention to detail in crafting the sets and props, as we’ll get to in a bit, but the film was primarily shot on the HMAS Castlemain, a restored WWII-era Royal Australian Navy Bathurst-Class Corvette. This looks nothing like any of the ships in the Nazi Kriegsmarine, but then again, some allowances can be made, given that this movie also contains vampires.

Blood Vessel is produced by Wicked of Oz Studios, the special effects studio established by writer-director Justin Dix. Dix worked on films including the Star Wars instalments Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, which were primarily filmed in Australia. The props and special effects makeup work in Blood Vessel bear all the hallmarks of being made by people who are skilled at what they do and deeply love it. A key prop is a spooky grimoire-like tome, with a sculpted cover depicting the skull of a gorgon and a spine that has a column of bones on it – the book’s spine is an actual spine. The sarcophagus containing the main vampire is a work of art, and it’s a pity that it isn’t onscreen for longer.

There are obvious limitations faced by the filmmakers and this movie is often a bit bleaker and dourer than seems appropriate for the material, but it’s evident that this is a lovingly-made little beast.

Summary: Blood Vessel is hampered by various practical shortcomings, but the dedication of its filmmakers means this movie punches above its weight class and could be regarded as a hidden action-horror gem in time to come.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Tenet review

 

Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast : John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Dimple Kapadia, Himesh Patel, Aaron Taylor Johnson, Michael Caine
Genre: Action/Sci-fi/Thriller
Run Time : 2 h 31 min
Opens : 27 August 2020 (Sneaks 26 August)
Rating : PG13

Tenet-poster           One of writer-director Christopher Nolan’s well-known trademarks is the way he plays with time and the perception of time. Memento, Inception and Interstellar all have the perception of time as central themes – even his comparatively straightforward World War II movie Dunkirk was presented in three separate time frames that later converge. Nolan takes his preoccupation with time and how it can be presented onscreen to a new level with Tenet.

John David Washington plays the otherwise-unnamed Protagonist, an elite secret agent. He is roped in to achieve no less than saving the world from destruction. At first, all he has to go on is one word, “Tenet”, and a hand gesture of interlocking fingers. Together with his handler Neil (Robert Pattinson), the Protagonist must unravel an intricate plot that involves a concept called “inversion” – time affects everything in one forward direction, but an unknown person or organization has figured out a way to reverse this effect, imbuing people and objects with the ability to function counter to the normal flow of time. Key to this mystery is the powerful and ruthless Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), whom the Protagonist tries to get to through Sator’s wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), who longs to be free of Sator’s controlling grip. The Protagonist and his allies must cross the world and bend the very fabric of time and space to prevent an unfathomable cataclysm.

Tenet-John-David-Washington-Robert-Pattinson-in-car

Tenet’s reputation as a confusing movie precedes it. Early in the film, one character tells the Protagonist “don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” However, the movie seems to actively want the audience to engage with its ideas and unravel the heady concepts that fuel it. It’s up to each viewer how much effort they want to expend in understanding the movie. Kip Thorne, the theoretical physicist whose work inspired Interstellar, serves as a consultant on this movie too.

Tenet-John-David-Washington-helicopter

It helps to think of Tenet as a Bond movie with all the sci-fi elements layered on top and below that formula. Nolan has made no secret of being a massive 007 fan, with the snow fortress sequence in Inception an obvious homage to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Indeed, Tenet has a somewhat Bond-like protagonist, a Bond villain, something of a Bond girl, globe-trotting action and even a cold open not unlike a classic pre-title sequence in a Bond movie. Tenet almost stubbornly refuses to feel like a generic big studio action movie, even though the promotion for the film included its trailer premiering within the video game Fortnite, and a song by rapper Travis Scott that plays over the end credits, both things one might imagine Nolan baulking at.

Tenet-plane-crash

The action set-pieces are astounding, and all feel satisfying tactile. There is a sequence in which a cargo plane veers off the runway and crashes into a section of an airport which was achieved by crashing an actual plane into a hangar at the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville. The other filming locations include Mumbai, India; Olso, Norway; Tallinn, Estonia and the Amalfi Coast, Italy. A car chase filmed on the Laagna Highway in Tallinn, which involves multiple heavy-duty vehicles including a firetruck, is a lavish, kinetic spectacle. The hydrofoil catamaran race combines glamour and thrills the way the best Bond movies do. This is Nolan’s loudest movie to date, with enough major action-driven moments to make the 151-minute runtime pass by at a decent clip.

Tenet-John-David-Washington-Robert-Pattinson-opposite-sides-of-glass

The film’s visual signature is that of people and objects moving backwards in time, contrary to everything else in a given scene. This isn’t something that is especially new, but just like with the rotating hallway fight sequence in Inception, Nolan has taken something that we might have seen before and amped it up aggressively. There are a few satisfying moments in which the film’s concepts play out visually in grand fashion.

Tenet-John-David-Washington-Robert-Pattinson

Like many of Nolan’s movies, Tenet had the potential to come off as cold, but Washington brings a spirited warmth and a liveliness to the proceedings. He is exceedingly charismatic and acquits himself well during the many complex action sequences. He also has excellent chemistry with Pattinson, who is extremely watchable as the Protagonist’s right-hand man. The Protagonist is deliberately left unnamed and in the hands of another actor, could have been a hollow cipher, but Washington has enough charm and gravitas to transcend that.

Tenet-Elizabeth-Debicki-Kenneth-Branagh

Nolan is not known for writing women especially well. Debicki’s Kat is a better-developed, more interesting character than many others. She still is a damsel in a degree of distress, but gains agency in an interesting way and has a strong hand in moving the plot forward. Branagh, who also featured in Dunkirk, sometimes plays the evil oligarch role a bit too broadly but is often legitimately scary.

Tenet-exploding-opera-house

There’s a scene in Looper in which the Older Joe tells his younger self that he would rather not explain the mechanics of time travel, otherwise they would end up sitting in the diner all day making diagrams out of straws. Tenet sometimes feels like Christopher Nolan making diagrams with straws, but it also benefits from the director’s “blank check” status – after his various successes, he gets a blank check to make whatever kind of movie he wants. Tenet is perhaps just a touch more opaque and headache-inducing than it needs to be, but it is also an invigorating cinematic experience. Just brace yourself for the hundreds of “Tenet explained” videos that will be popping up on YouTube in the coming months.

Summary: The singular vision of an accomplished filmmaker, Tenet is as perplexing as it is visually stunning, something that will leave audiences discussing it even as their heads spin.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Greenland review

For F*** Magazine

GREENLAND

Director: Ric Roman Waugh
Cast : Gerard Butler, Morena Baccarin, Roger Dale Floyd, Scott Glenn, David Denman, Hope Davis, Andrew Bachelor, Holt McCallany
Genre: Action/Disaster
Run Time : 2 h
Opens : 13 August 2020 (Sneaks 7-12 August)
Rating : PG13

Gerard Butler’s last brush with the disaster movie genre was the delightfully bombastic, ludicrous Geostorm. This time, Butler stars in a disaster movie of a different stripe, one that strives to be serious, harrowing, and relatable.

A comet designated ‘Clarke’ is headed for earth. While initial estimates were that the fragments would burn up on re-entry, they instead begin decimating cities around the world. Structural engineer John Garrity (Gerard Butler), his wife Allison (Morena Baccarin) and their son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd) are selected to be relocated to a shelter at a classified location, later revealed to be Greenland. Mass unrest ensues as people learn of the existence of these bunkers and fight for a chance to be taken there. John and his family must get to safety within 48 hours, when the largest fragment is estimated to strike, causing an extinction-level-event akin to what killed the dinosaurs.

Greenland takes a different approach from the typical Hollywood disaster movie formula. The focus is kept on the Garrity family, such that there aren’t a thousand subplots fighting for viewers’ attention. This isn’t about NASA sending astronauts to destroy the comet in its tracks, and we don’t get any scenes set in Mission Control. The intimate scope is juxtaposed against a global disaster and there are multiple tense sequences that keep viewers invested in the protagonists’ desperate journey. Brief appearances by Scott Glenn and Holt McCallany add texture to the proceedings without distracting from the Garritys. This reviewer was worried that Vine star Andrew Bachelor, better known as King Bach, would be distracting, but his cameo was not an obnoxious one.

Greenland taps into the paranoia of needing to count on strangers in a time of crisis and not knowing if they can be counted on. Some of the side characters that our heroes come across are kind and selfless, while others are opportunistic and selfish, and this seems to reflect the spectrum of responses one sees in any disaster scenario. Butler, Baccarin, and Floyd are reasonably convincing as a family unit, and unlike many American movies Butler has starred in, this film acknowledges his Scottish roots and uses that as a plot point. He is not an invincible action hero here and the movie is all the better for it.

The movie strives for grounded realism, but a degree of implausibility is unavoidable given the premise. Director Ric Roman Waugh, who previously collaborated with Butler on Angel Has Fallen and whose other movies include Snitch and Shot Caller, is a competent journeyman director with a background as a stunt performer. He is most comfortable staging sequences involving vehicular collisions, an action movie staple, but that is not as compelling as everything else that is happening in Greenland.

Greenland wants to be emotional but not gooey and sentimental, but it sometimes tips towards the latter, especially with the gauzy flashbacks of the family in happier times, and some clumsy heart-to-heart dialogue. The film’s limited budget is also noticeable in scenes involving mass hysteria, where there are a great many extras, just not enough. The full-on CGI destruction sequences are just a touch synthetic-looking, but they are not the movie’s focus and they get the job done.

Current events have put many audiences in an apocalyptic mindset – one would think that audiences would actively avoid watching movies that remind them of real-world fears, but movies like Outbreak and Contagion received renewed popularity during lockdown. Movies allow us to face our fears in a physically safe way, and disaster movies usually contain an element of “this could happen to you” that is scary but also exciting. The problem is that disaster movies often trade on spectacle, and it is hard to accept said spectacle as entertainment if it hits too close to home. Greenland’s approach is much closer to the Norwegian disaster movie The Wave and its sequel The Quake, and maybe this is an overall better direction to head in than the “destruction porn” style of disaster movie popularised by directors like Roland Emmerich.

Greenland is not especially sophisticated and succumbs to some disaster movie clichés, but it is generally more believable than most movies of its ilk and is effective at generating sympathy for its central characters.

Summary: Greenland is sufficiently harrowing and engaging, reimagining a familiar disaster movie scenario with intimacy and immediacy.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Guns Akimbo review

For F*** Magazine

GUNS AKIMBO

Director: Jason Lei Howden
Cast : Daniel Radcliffe, Samara Weaving, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Ned Dennehy, Grant Bowler, Edwin Wright, Rhys Darby
Genre: Action/comedy
Run Time : 1 h 37 mins
Opens : 19 March 2020
Rating : M18

Daniel Radcliffe’s post-Harry Potter career has featured several eclectic roles. From playing a man who grows horns out of his forehead in Horns to playing a corpse in Swiss Army Man, Radcliffe isn’t afraid to get a bit weird. In this movie, a very normal fate befalls his character: getting pistols bolted onto his hands.

Radcliffe plays Miles, a mild-mannered programmer working on a successful mobile game. He takes delight in “trolling the trolls”, engaging in online spats with those who get their kicks from posting deliberate offensive comments. An underground fight club called Skizm is fast gaining popularity, with alarming numbers of people watching the live deathmatches online. After Miles trolls the Skizm chat, he is targeted by Riktor, the mad mastermind behind the game. Riktor and his goons break into Miles’ house and surgically bolt guns to Miles’ hands. He is then forced to fight the reigning Skizm champion Nix (Samara Weaving), who wants to quit the game after this final match. Miles attempts to explain his predicament to his ex-girlfriend Nova (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) and unwittingly involves her in the dangerous proceedings. As the masses watch online, Miles must survive the ordeal and defeat Nix to escape with his life.

Guns Akimbo seems to follow in the tradition of Crank and other Neveldine/Taylor movies: they’re not for everyone, but the people that they are for embrace the craziness. There is something clever and just the right amount of twisted in the premise, with Radcliffe being the ideal sympathetic protagonist. The movie gets a lot of mileage of the logistic challenges of going through life with two loaded guns surgically attached to one’s hands, let alone doing so when someone else is trying to kill you. This is an ambitious action film that wears its neon-soaked, hopped-up style on its sleeve and accomplishes a lot on a limited budget.

The film’s best scene is an exchange between Miles and the vagrant Glenjamin (Rhys Darby), because its one of the few times the movie slows down enough to catch its own breath.

Unfortunately, Guns Akimbo ramps everything to eleven to the point of being altogether numbing. The action is so frenetic that after a while, it stops making an impact. The film’s hyperactivity makes it difficult to engage with, such that it crosses the threshold of being exhilarating to being exhausting. This is something that would have been great as a 15-minute-long short film.

The film’s messaging is confusing: apparently, Miles deserves to have guns bolted to his hands and to be forced into a live deathmatch because he claps back against online trolls. In writer-director Jason Lei Howden’s estimation, it is those who oppose cyberbullies who are worse than the cyberbullies themselves. While Miles’ motivations are far from pure, the movie deems his behaviour worthier of ridicule and scorn than that of online harassers.

Guns Akimbo is so enamoured of its own perceived edginess that it fails to make any insightful or incisive statements on toxic online culture. The movie wants us to root for Miles, but also take sadistic delight in his comeuppance, as if he’s gotten exactly what he deserves. There are times when this film feels like Neveldine/Taylor’s Gamer, which was often gross, nihilistic and pointless. It is disheartening but unsurprising that Howden himself perpetuated an online harassment campaign, targeting film journalists and falsely accusing them of driving another film writer to suicide.

In addition to Radcliffe, the film has a strong cast. Samara Weaving is fast becoming a genre darling, especially after starring in last year’s Ready or Not and with Snake Eyes and Bill and Ted Face the Music on the way this year. As the stereotypical leather-clad badass punk girl, Weaving is plenty of fun to watch and the film manages to surprise when it reveals Nix’s back-story.

Ned Dennehy is also great fun as the villainous Riktor, a sadistic close talker who sports a face full of tattoos. Everyone in the film knows what they signed up for, and even though Natasha Liu Bordizzo’s role is pretty much the stock girlfriend, she’s still watchable in the role.

Summary: Guns Akimbo is a would-be cult movie that is too enamoured with its status as a would-be cult movie. It expends more effort loudly announcing how out-there and edgy it is while not being as entertaining as it hypes itself up to be. There are moments when it’s genuinely amusing and Radcliffe is superb in the lead role, but the movie’s manic obnoxiousness winds up working against it. There is a fair bit in Guns Akimbo that works, including its cast and the inventiveness of its premise, but this is a movie that gets in its own way too much to truly be enjoyable.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Bloodshot review

For F*** Magazine

BLOODSHOT

Director: Dave S. F. Wilson
Cast : Vin Diesel, Eiza González, Sam Heughan, Toby Kebbell, Guy Pearce, Lamorne Morris, Talulah Riley, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson
Genre: Action/sci-fi/comics
Run Time : 1 h 50 mins
Opens : 12 March 2020
Rating : PG13

Marvel and DC might be the big boys in the comics game, but avid readers know that there are many other publishers out there whose characters have great cinematic potential. There has been talk of movies based on Valiant Comics characters for a while now, with Bloodshot being the first Valiant character to arrive on the big screen.

Ray Garrison (Vin Diesel) is an elite Marine who, following a successful mission, is brutally murdered. He is brought back to life using cutting-edge regenerative nanotechnology devised by Rising Spirits Technologies (RST), headed up by Dr Emil Harting (Guy Pearce). In this powerful resurrected form, Ray – codenamed “Bloodshot” – vows revenge against the man who killed him and his wife. However, Ray is not being told the whole story and there is an insidious conspiracy afoot. Ray realises that Dr Harting and his associates KT (Eiza González), Jimmy (Sam Heughan) and Tibbs (Alex Hernandez), who all sport cybernetic enhancements, may not be entirely trustworthy. Ray might be reborn, but he is not free – using his newfound abilities, he must uncover the scheme that he is entangled in and wrest control from those who seek to use him for their own ends.

Bloodshot may feature high-tech sci-fi gadgetry, but it is a throwback, in ways both good and bad. It is a straightforward superhero origin story with an emphasis on technology rather than the fantastical, but it’s often still over-the-top and bombastic. There may not be any grand surprises here, but Bloodshot is entertaining and paced well enough.

There are a few outstanding action sequences, such as the first time Bloodshot’s full powers are revealed in combat. That scene is set in a barricaded tunnel where a truck transporting flour has crashed, making it atmospheric in an inventive way. There’s a big set-piece that takes place in the external elevator shaft of a skyscraper which is dynamic and eye-catching.

The practical effects work including the high-tech prosthetics and exo-suit, created by WETA Workshop, is done well. Director Dave S. F. Wilson’s background is in video game cinematics – he worked on games including Bioshock Infinite, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Mass Effect 2 and Halo Wars for Blur Studios. This is Wilson’s directorial debut and while his inexperience does show, it’s entirely possible that he could improve.

The hook here is that a non-Marvel/DC comic is receiving a big-budget adaptation, but Bloodshot is too generic and mired in clichés to be its own thing, unlike the Guillermo del Toro-directed Hellboy movies were in the 2000s. Bloodshot makes a stab at being self-aware – one character mentions “movie clichés” – but it doesn’t wear that self-awareness well. This is the kind of movie that has not one but two comic relief tech guys.

The dialogue is often exceedingly stupid, but despite several moments of unintentional comedy, the movie is slightly too competent to qualify as something that’s so bad it’s good. All the characters are flat, despite the efforts of some of the actors. Eiza González is doing the best she can with the material and almost contributes some level of emotional resonance to the proceedings. Diesel has the action hero cred but is altogether too bland – this is not helped by the blank slate nature of the character. One gets the sense that Wilson just isn’t a good director of actors, at least he isn’t yet. It seems beside the point to call this “predictable” because it was never going to be anything but predictable. There’s a lot of potential in the concept of a hero who is being manipulated using technology, but the film doesn’t want to delve too deeply into any of those implications.

Bloodshot is intended to launch a Valiant cinematic universe, but it’s to its credit that unlike, say, 2017’s The Mummy, it’s not overly concerned with frantically gesturing to Easter Eggs and hinting at what’s to come (even if an Easter egg or two for Valiant fans would have been nice). There isn’t even a post-credits scene. Bloodshot is closely linked to the Harbinger series, but the Harbinger movie adaptation has moved from Sony to Paramount, meaning that previous plans for an interconnected universe have likely been affected. The only time that an official other media adaptation of Valiant properties has been made before this is the 2018 web series Ninjak vs the Valiant Universe, co-produced by Bat in the Sun. In that series, Power Rangers star Jason David Frank portrayed Bloodshot.

 

Summary: Bloodshot is not a great movie – it’s not even an especially good movie – but it has a lot of things that this reviewer loves about the sci-fi action genre and even if it doesn’t reach the full potential of the source material, one can tell that some or even most of the people involved were giving this their best shot. If you’re looking for something to rival the best Marvel and DC movies out there, this isn’t it. But if you’re looking for diverting, entertaining sci-fi action that sometimes feels like it’s out of the early-mid 2000s, Bloodshot has you covered.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong