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

The Batman review

For F*** Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Uncharted review

For F*** Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Nightmare Alley (2021) review

For F*** Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Eternals review

For F*** Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

No Time to Die review

For F*** Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings review

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

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

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

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

Shang-Chi avoids practically all of those pitfalls.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Space Jam: A New Legacy review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Malcolm D. Lee
Cast : LeBron James, Don Cheadle, Khris Davis, Sonequa Martin-Green, Cedric Joe, Ceyair J. Wright, Harper Lee Anderson
And the voices of: Jeff Bergman, Eric Bauza, Zendaya, Bob Bergen, Jim Cummings, Gabriel Iglesias, Candi Milo
Genre: Animation/Comedy/Adventure
Run Time : 116 min
Opens : 15 July 2021
Rating : PG

In the 1990s, there was a spate of basketball players trying their hand at becoming movie stars. There was Dennis Rodman in Double Team and Simon Sez, John Salley and Rick Fox in Eddie, Ray Allen in He Got Game and Shaquille O’Neal in Kazaam and Steel. By far the most memorable of these was Michael Jordan in Space Jam. 25 years later, LeBron James steps into those Nikes to lead Tune Squad.

LeBron James (LeBron James) is having a bit of a rift with his younger son Dom (Cedric Joe). Dom is passionate about computer programming and videogame development, building his own game at just 12 years old, but LeBron is pushing his son to perform on the basketball court. LeBron brings Dom along to a meeting at Warner Bros, where father and son are absorbed into the “Serververse”. This is where Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle), a sentient program, holds court. He pits father and son against each other in a basketball game inspired by the game Dom is building. LeBron traverses the various realms of Warner Bros-owned intellectual properties, meeting the Looney Tunes. Bugs Bunny (Jeff Bergman) reunites his friends, including Daffy Duck (Eric Bauza) and Lola Bunny (Zendaya), to form the Tune Squad. LeBron doesn’t have much hope in his team but must get them into shape to face off against the Goon Squad, comprised of augmented digital avatars based on basketball players including Klay Thompson, Anthony Davis, Diana Taurasi and Nneka Ogwumike.

There are parts of the movie that are surprisingly emotional, and the father-son story is a fine backbone for a family film. The animated sequences are excellent, especially the 2D-animated stretch of the movie. There is a sophistication to the visual effects work which is commendable, and some of the design work is fun too. LeBron James is much more natural voicing the animated version of himself than he is on camera, even though he’s far from the worst athlete-turned-actor. It must be slightly strange for LeBron to act opposite actors playing fictionalised versions of his wife and children, but they mostly sell it.

Don Cheadle is a lot of fun in the villain role. Al G. Rhythm is a computer program, but Cheadle plays it completely relaxed and very human.

This reviewer loved the 2D-animated sequences set in the DC Animated Universe. It’s a thrill seeing those designs on the big screen. There’s also a section of the movie involving Wonder Woman that made this reviewer tear up.

This is “Corporate Synergy: The Movie”. Space Jam: A New Legacy is a pop culture nostalgia ouroboros. This is what happens when studios bank too heavily on recognisable IP, it starts to become a snake swallowing its own tail. The Looney Tunes characters have always been self-aware, and media involving them has always been heavy on pop culture references, but this lacks the wit of Looney Tunes: Back in Action, which was a wry showbiz satire. Here, the combination of various Warner Bros-owned properties can often feel clumsy. The LEGO Movie, Wreck-It Ralph 2 and even Ready Player One all executed this much more elegantly. There are six credited writers, four of whom also have a “story by” credit, which is usually an indication of far too many studio-mandated rewrites.

The climactic basketball match, which should be the highlight of the film, just goes on for way too long. It is interrupted by an unbearable sequence in which Porky Pig (Eric Bauza) performs a rap. It’s the moment during which the movie feels the most out of touch.

The audience at this match is comprised of characters from all sorts of Warner Bros. properties, including decidedly non-family-friend titles like Game of Thrones, It, A Clockwork Orange, and most bizarrely, Ken Russell’s The Devils. To be clear: the Droogs are a gang of rapists who are showing up in a family movie. The characters are all played by extras in costume, such that they feel more like cosplayers at a comic convention than the characters they’re meant to be. Compare this to when Disney got every living Disney Princess voice actor back for a sequence in Wreck-It Ralph 2.

Space Jam: A New Legacy is the culmination of 25 years of development hell. The original Space Jam was a massive hit, but Michael Jordan declined to return for a sequel. Options that were explored included the unfortunately titled ‘Race Jam’ with Nascar driver Jeff Gordon and ‘Skate Jam’ with Tony Hawk. Jackie Chan was courted to star in ‘Spy Jam,’ which eventually became Looney Tunes: Back in Action. That film was commercially unsuccessful, but in many ways, it is much better than Space Jam: A New Legacy.

Summary: Space Jam: A New Legacy packs in plenty of spectacle and boasts some impressive animated sequences but there’s just way too much going on. This belated sequel is bogged down by what feels like a corporate mandate to include as many Warner Bros-owned properties as possible, including several that absolutely should not be referenced in a family film. The day is almost saved by a charismatic turn from Don Cheadle.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

SADDLE SONGS: Concrete Cowboy composer Kevin Matley talks the Idris Elba-starring Western

By Jedd Jong

Photo credit: Jeff Marsh

When one thinks of Westerns, open, dusty plains and the late 19th Century American frontier usually come to mind. Concrete Cowboy is a Western of a different stripe: as its title suggests, its setting is a contemporary urban environment.

Idris Elba stars as Harp, a cowboy who is part of the Fletcher Street Riding Club in a Northern Philadelphia town. Caleb McLaughlin, best known as Lucas on Stranger Things, plays Harp’s estranged son Cole. After he gets kicked out of school for fighting, Cole is sent to live with Harp, and the troubled young man is gradually inducted into the unique urban cowboy way of life.

CONCRETE COWBOY – (L-R) Idris Elba as Harp and Caleb McLaughlin as Cole. Cr. Aaron Ricketts / NETFLIX © 2021

Concrete Cowboy is based on the novel Ghetto Cowboy by Greg Neri and is directed by Philadelphia-based filmmaker Ricky Staub. Staub was inspired to research the Fletcher Street Riding Club, a nonprofit city horsemanship organisation, when he looked out his office window and saw a horse and buggy rolling down the street. The movie shines a light on the little-known subculture of modern-day Black cowboys scattered across America, and real-life members of the Fletcher Street Riding Club appear in the movie. The film also stars Jharrel Jerome, Lorraine Toussaint and Clifford “Method Man” Smith.

Elba is also a co-producer on the film, alongside Lee Daniels, creator of the TV series Empire and director of films including Precious, The Butler, and The United States vs Billie Holliday.

Photo credit: Amber Zbitnoff

The film’s soundtrack, which The Hollywood Reporter calls “a soulful score with subtle Western accents,” is composed by Kevin Matley, whose credits include the documentaries Kifaru and Mudbloods and the short films Still Here and The Cage. Matley’s work can be heard in commercials for brands including Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Coca Cola, Ferrari and Adidas.

Speaking exclusively to F***, Matley shared about capturing the sound of the Fletcher Street Riding Club, creating a Western score while avoiding the cliches associated with the genre, his childhood interest in film music, what it was like collaborating with director Staub, and what he’s working on next. 

F*** MAGAZINE: Hi, Kevin, thank you so much for speaking to us, please tell us about how you came to be involved in this film. 
 
KEVIN MATLEY: I came to work on the film because the director and I go way back, we’ve worked on a handful of projects together, [including] a short film that did fairly decent in the festival circuit. And he sent me the script and I loved the concept; I fell in love with the story. Ricky Staub is the director and he co-wrote it with Dan Walser, one of the producers of the film. 
 
How would you describe your working relationship with Ricky Staub and how different was it going from a short to a feature; as I understand, this is his first feature?
 
Yeah, it’s funny, it was actually just kind of like an extended version. I mean we really connected right off the bat, when we started working together. He has a very keen sense of what he likes and doesn’t like, and I have gotten to know over the years of working with him pretty quickly what he doesn’t like, which is really, really helpful. And so, my process is I would write these little vignettes and pieces and send it to him, and then we slowly kind of work back and forth until it was something that we both really liked. That was pretty much the whole trajectory of the score, [it] was just a lot of back and forth, a lot of conversation.

You’ve worked on several documentaries. What are the differences in composing for narrative features versus a documentary?
 
I’m not sure if I have too much of a difference in my approach. Obviously, each film has a different musical genre, a different sort of world or creating different tones and temperatures, but I think that my goal is always to enhance and express the sort of unspoken emotion of the characters and let their dialogue tell the viewer what they’re thinking, and I tell them what they’re feeling. And so, real or fake, fiction, nonfiction, comedy, action, drama I think my approach is always the same: how do I tell the story of the film through music?

Photo credit: Oguz Uygur

Growing up, what made you interested in becoming a film composer?
 
It’s funny, I got into it really before you could just Google and find out names of composers. I was pretty young, so I started arranging some music with my brother’s guitars when I was pretty young, and sort of fell in love with the idea of creating music that way. And then, I started to notice music in film around the same age. I would actually pay less attention to the narrative, and more attention to how the music was affecting the characters and how it was affecting me. And I just really love the idea of how music and narrative together could create something so powerful.
 
So you were already interacting with movies as a composer might.
 
Yeah, long before I knew how to write music [laughs].
 
One of the things that Concrete Cowboy is about is how it’s important as a young person to have a community around you; oftentimes a community made up of people who have similar hobbies and interests to you. Was that something that you had with other composers or musicians growing up?
 
That’s a really good question. Really nothing, I mean, composers are kind of a mixed bag of people. I have my little hobbies and interests and composers that I know are interested in many different things. I think for me personally, as a music writer and just kind of an obsessive personality, I have to have things that sort of distract me from that so I can step away. I really love playing golf, I love photography, I love American football. And so, I think all of us composers are kind of similar in that, where we have to have things that can take our mind off of making music, so I think that’s probably a good similarity between all of us. 

CONCRETE COWBOY – (L-R) Ivannah-Mercedes as Esha, Lorraine Toussaint as Nessi, Idris Elba as Harp, Caleb McLaughlin as Cole, Jamil “Mil” Prattis as Paris and Cliff “Method Man” Smith as Leroy. Cr: Jessica Kourkounis / Netflix © 2021

Concrete Cowboy is set in a very interesting subculture that not a lot of people know about. How did you sonically capture the world of the Fletcher Street Riding Club?  
 
Great question. I really wanted to have a score that not only spoke to the emotion of the characters and what they were feeling, but also one that created the same world that Ricky was creating aesthetically. Ricky’s style is very visceral and very surreal and also very gritty, and so I wanted music that matched that. I wanted kind of a lush ambient sound with organic human[ity], just raw emotion on top of it. And to me, I think that that is that world, there’s so much passion with those people and what they’re doing with helping kids to get off the streets. And it’s just an amazing, amazing culture. 

Photo credit: Jeff Marsh

When we think of a Western a particular sound and style of music comes to mind and Concrete Cowboy is not a conventional Western. How did you play with that expectation in the music that you composed for this film? 
 
Yeah, also a great question. We kind of went through a few different styles before we landed on what was actually working. What we didn’t want to have was a traditional Spaghetti Western sound – I kind of toyed with that a little bit and it ‘cheesifies’ things.  
 
You didn’t want it to get too pastiche.  
 
Yeah, we didn’t want it to be cliche or kind of kitschy so we ended up trying to focus more on these people as human beings, and just aesthetic and visuals, and create that world and not think about “What are we trying to force here with this being a cowboy world?”
 
I listened to the score and I love the melancholic dignity in the horns.

Oh, thank you!

You’re welcome. I feel like that reflects how the Fletcher Street Riders are like the last of their kind, there’s kind of a twilight, because their way of life is being threatened by gentrification. Could you tell us about how you arrived at that?

I love that you said that; that’s really, really cool. 
 
Thank you!
 
It’s funny, a lot of the [score is] kind of focused on solo instruments. I feel like there’s a vulnerability to that that I was really after. There’s just something about trumpet in particular that to me is just so soulful, it’s almost like a voice, and I really wanted something like that, that I could use throughout the film. 

CONCRETE COWBOY – (L-R) Idris Elba as Harp and Caleb McLaughlin as Cole Cr. Aaron Ricketts / NETFLIX © 2021

Concrete Cowboy is a film about a father-son relationship, and it’s also about the bonds that humans form with animals. How did you express these themes in the music?
 
I think I was focused mostly on the father-son relationship. I really wanted the melodies to have, like what you said, sort of a melancholy feel to them. Cole comes from essentially a broken family and I think that there’s a lot of vulnerability to him, he’s sort of drawn into these two worlds: a life of crime, and then this other life that is giving him hope. To me, I just wanted melodies and instrumentation that reflected that.
 
The movie had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2020. Was the music recorded under lockdown conditions and if so how did you navigate that logistically?
 
It was actually all recorded before lockdown. It’s funny, we, we recorded the score in January of 2020, in Seattle, Washington, and I did a handful of more sessions and at that point, we had been hearing what was going on in China, then when we went down to Burbank to finish the post, the news was starting to break out and I think a handful of cases broke out in Washington around that time. When I flew home, the film was completely wrapped and that’s when everything sort of broke out. 

Photo credit: Oguz Uygur

Have you been working on other film projects during lockdown?
 
I haven’t been working on film projects, but I’ve just been focusing on a lot of family time, and then writing some personal records. 
 
What kinds of films do you hope to work on in the future, are there any specific genres or styles that you’d like to work in?
 
Well I will tell you one that I am going to work on it’s, it’s a documentary [called Between the Rains] about these two Kenyan tribes that have been at war for the last couple of decades, and it follows a young boy from one of the tribes, basically being raised as a warrior, and he’s just not a warrior, and it deals with global warming and the water runs out and they’re fighting over that. And it’s just a really powerful documentary and it’s with a buddy of mine, [producer] Andrew [Harrison Brown] who’s just shot it, and he and I worked together on a previous documentary called Kifaru. And so I love telling these stories. I love Kenyans; I got to meet some of the guys from the last film and I got to work with some Kenyan singers on the score and it’s a blast. I love documentaries, it’s a wonderful genre. 
 
It strikes me as something where there is perhaps more of an emphasis on authenticity or audiences might be more aware if something rings false to them, and then there’s extra work to do in research, in trying to make sure that you are being authentic in the sound you’re creating. 
 
Mm hmm, yeah, absolutely. 

CONCRETE COWBOY – (L-R) Caleb McLaughlin as Cole and Jharrel Jerome as Smush. Cr. Aaron Ricketts / NETFLIX © 2021

Finally, what do you hope audiences take away after watching Concrete Cowboy? 
 
If anything, people can see that these people are real people. It’s not just in Philadelphia, it’s around the country, and they’re doing good, and because of gentrification and a lot of different reasons, some of these tables are getting shut down, and it’s really sad. So if anybody is moved to take action and support or raise awareness, then I think that would be awesome. 

Concrete Cowboy begins streaming on Netflix April 2.