The Suicide Squad review

For F*** Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Jungle Cruise review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast : Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Jack Whitehall, Édgar Ramírez, Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti, Veronica Falcón
Genre: Action/Adventure
Run Time : 127 min
Opens : 29 July 2021 (Sneaks 28 July)
Rating : PG13

“Weird Al” Yankovic has a song called “Skipper Dan,” a melancholic tale of a Juilliard grad who must settle for being a Disney theme park cast member, playing the skipper on the Jungle Cruise ride. It’s a song about how following one’s dreams can often end in soul-crushing tedium, something this critic certainly knows nothing about. Anyway, we’re getting an upgrade from Skipper Dan to Skipper Dwayne in this movie based on said theme park ride.

It is 1916. English botanist Dr Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) is in search of the fabled Tears of the Moon, a tree deep in the Amazon jungle which has petals said to cure any ailment. Lily’s brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall) would much rather live a luxurious existence but is dragged along on the expedition by his sister. Arriving in Brazil, they come across Skipper Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), who gives river tours on his beat-up steamboat La Quila and is armed with corny one-liners. Frank is not above a bit of grifting and deception to get by, and behind on his payments to harbourmaster Nilo (Paul Giamatti), jumps at the chance to ferry Lily and McGregor when he finds out they are rich. Also hunting for the Tears of the Moon is Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), an obsessive German aristocrat who takes a submarine into the Amazon. The Houghton siblings and Frank must battle all manner of obstacles, including undead Conquistadors led by the ruthless Aguirre (Édgar Ramírez).

Jungle Cruise is a throwback and one that a certain section of moviegoers will find welcome. The poster is deliberately evocative of Drew Struzan’s classic painted movie posters, though it isn’t actually created by him. This movie is a throwback in that it’s a period adventure movie, but also a throwback to a time before Disney owned intellectual property like Marvel and Star Wars and before they were regularly remaking their animated films. Disney’s most successful attempt at turning a theme park attraction into a potential film franchise was with Pirates of the Caribbean, which Jungle Cruise bears many similarities to. Director Jaume Collet-Serra, known for directing Liam Neeson-starring thrillers like Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night and The Commuter, aims to recapture the spirit of those rip-roaring adventures. Flavio Labiano’s cinematography is textured and warm, while James Newton Howard provides a rousing score. There is some haunting horror movie-adjacent imagery, especially the one undead Conquistador who is covered in honeycombs and bees, Candyman-style.

Emily Blunt puts in a wonderful starring turn, as a spirited woman who has been rejected from her chosen field based on being a woman. There are notes of studio-ordered “strong woman protagonist,” but Blunt transcends that with an energetic, committed turn. Jesse Plemons plays against type, channelling Christoph Waltz as a power-mad royal, making for an entertaining villain.

Adventure stories are often intrinsically tied to a fundamentally colonialist worldview: the hero is often a European or American man outrunning the spear-wielding savages. Sometimes, a village is in dire straits, and only the hero can save the primitive folk. One can’t help but cringe at such depictions, with movies like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom being straight-up racist. Jungle Cruise subverts this with its portrayal of indigenous Amazon tribespeople and seems to be very conscious of the uncomfortable colonial undertones that many movies in this genre possess, intentional or otherwise. We won’t give too much away, but there is a commendable attempt at addressing one of the more controversial elements of the ride.

Jungle Cruise can sometimes feel like a facsimile of a facsimile – it invokes Romancing the Stone and Indiana Jones, which in turn were inspired by movies like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Jungle Cruise can either be taken as refreshing, given how different it is from the standard summer blockbuster one might get in 2021, or somewhat stale, given its old-fashioned sensibilities which have been processed through the Disney studio machine. It’s impossible to ignore how much this movie wants to be The Mummy (1999): Frank is analogous to Rick, Lily to Evelyn, McGregor to Jonathan and Aguirre to Imhotep. Alas, it’s some ways off from that. The midsection sags, and at 127 minutes, this feels a shade too long. The movie is filled with computer-generated animals, and one would think that after 2016’s Jungle Book, Disney would have mastered this art, but sometimes the animals can’t help but feel a little artificial.

Unfortunately, Dwayne Johnson is a major problem with this movie. Sure, he’s charismatic as always and can play a roguish adventure movie hero in his sleep, but he just doesn’t fit with the WWI-era setting and shares little romantic chemistry with Blunt, such that the love story subplot becomes actively uncomfortable. Frank is inspired by Humphrey Bogart’s steamboat captain character from The African Queen – this is Bogey if he ate 14 egg whites for breakfast and if his boat had a gym hidden somewhere. Johnson’s larger-than-life presence, which has served him well in many other roles, is distracting and doesn’t complement the setting or story. Perhaps someone like Pedro Pascal, Rodrigo Santoro or Oscar Isaac might have fit the role better. However, there is an excellent scene in the second act in which Frank’s intriguing backstory is revealed.

Summary: While somewhat derivative, Jungle Cruise will scratch that adventure movie itch for audiences who are starved of movies like Indiana Jones, Romancing the Stone and The Mummy (1999). Emily Blunt showcases her strengths in a role that seems tailored for her, while Dwayne Johnson can’t help but feel out of place even as he brings his trademark charisma to bear. Jungle Cruise also reckons with uncomfortable, outmoded adventure movie tropes in a worthwhile way.

RATING: 3.5 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

Black Widow review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Cate Shortland
Cast : Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, O-T Fagbenle, William Hurt, Ray Winstone, Ever Anderson, Violet McGraw
Genre: Action/Adventure
Run Time : 134 min
Opens : 8 July 2021 (Sneaks from 7 July)
Rating : PG13

Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies have become an expected feature of the theatrical release calendar, and 2020 was the first year since 2009 in which none were released in cinemas. While the MCU is branching out on Disney+, it’s good to hear the Marvel Studios logo fanfare in a cinema again. After multiple delays, Black Widow finally arrives.

Set right after the events of Captain America: Civil War, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is a fugitive from the authorities. While attempting to keep a low profile, she crosses paths with Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), a sister figure who has undergone similar training. The duo eventually reunites with Alexei Shostakov/Red Guardian (David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) – years ago, the four Russians posed as a family, undercover in rural Ohio. Now, they must work to dismantle the Red Room program run by the ruthless Dreykov (Ray Winstone), and attempt to free the brainwashed women whom Dreykov is conditioning to be the next generation of deadly operatives, known as ‘Widows’. Dreykov’s secret weapon, the enigmatic Taskmaster, is a Terminator-like assassin who can mimic the moves of any combatant he studies. Natasha, who has spent her whole life running from her past, must confront it, finally gaining a degree of closure.

The Black Widow character is long overdue for a solo movie, something that’s been floated since even before the character’s MCU debut in 2010’s Iron Man 2, with a Black Widow movie announced as early as 2004. Scarlett Johansson has never been given a great deal to sink her teeth into with the character, and the preceding MCU films have offered little more than tantalising hints at the character’s dark backstory of being trained and brainwashed from childhood into the perfect killing machine. This is a movie that is interested in its characters, and director Cate Shortland excels at scenes in which people are talking to each other, hashing out unresolved tension. There is a stylishness to the proceedings and a touch of spy movie flair. Several action sequences are entertaining, and the violence seems more brutal, impactful and immediate than in many other MCU films, perhaps pushing the PG13 rating a bit.

By now, we’re used to hearing criticisms of the MCU movies being formulaic. Unfortunately, despite a few stylistic touches, Black Widow still often feels like it’s rolled off the Marvel Studios production line. The pacing of the movie is very much “dialogue scene, action scene, dialogue scene, action scene,” in a way that feels very dutiful. There is an attempt to balance the character stuff with the superhero stuff, and it’s not quite as effortless as it should be.

The big climactic action sequence is stuffed with CGI, and by then it can’t help but feel like the movie is on autopilot. The action sequences in Black Widow and indeed in most other MCU movies are technically proficient, but it seems there are only so many ways a vehicle can flip over. It’s a bit of an open secret that MCU action scenes are mostly handled by a separate team, and some directors are better at making everything fit together than others, so the movie sometimes feels a bit disjointed. The curse of the mediocre villain strikes again – while Taskmaster’s mimicry gimmick is initially interesting, there’s just not a lot to him, and the dynamic of Taskmaster being the heavy and Dreykov as the puppet master is efficient but overly familiar.

The best parts of Black Widow are when the makeshift family of Natasha, Yelena, Alexei and Melina are spending time together. There are bits of the movie that even feel like The Incredibles. The way Natasha views the arrangement as a sham, whereas Yelena still has an emotional attachment to it, is an excellent approach to this setup. The new additions to the cast are all excellent, with rising star Pugh positioning herself in just the right MCU role. Her interactions with Johansson really feel like two sisters bickering, and there’s a believable chemistry between them, conveying the sense of two people making up for lost time.

David Harbour steals the show with a warm, loveable performance as Russia’s very own super soldier. He brings a great deal of dad energy to the proceedings and looks to be having a great time. Weisz is a lower-key, dignified presence, even if Melina is not an especially interesting character as written.

Summary: While not a wholly satisfying swansong for Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, this solo outing introduces some enjoyable characters into the MCU and is interested in its characters’ internal lives, even as there is plenty of requisite action spectacle. The movie is at its most enjoyable when it’s about Natasha’s makeshift family unit, with Florence Pugh’s Yelena making for an endearing little sister figure. As is the custom, stick around for a post-credits scene.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Mortal Kombat (2021) review

For F*** Magazine


Director: Simon McQuoid
Cast : Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson, Tadanobu Asano, Mehcad Brooks, Ludi Lin, Max Huang, Chin Han, Joe Taslim, Hiroyuki Sanada, Sisi Stringer
Genre: Action/Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 110 min
Opens : 8 April 2021
Rating : M18

In 1992, the arcade game Mortal Kombat, created by Ed Boon and John Tobias, became a defining entry in the fighting game genre. The franchise has courted controversy and had a presence in every conceivable form of media, including two theatrically released movies in the 90s. Mortal Kombat returns to the big screen in this reboot.

MMA fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan) bears a mysterious dragon-shaped birthmark, indicating that he is descended from a line of legendary fighters. Cole is targeted by Shang Tsung (Chin Han), the demon sorcerer of Outworld, who has sent Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) in pursuit of Cole. Bi-Han/Sub-Zero, who can control ice, has a long-running rivalry with Hanzo Hasashi/Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada), whom he apparently killed centuries earlier. After he is discovered by Special Forces operatives Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) and Jax (Mehcad Brooks), Cole is transported to Lord Raiden’s (Tadanobu Asano) temple. Training alongside Shaolin warriors Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), Kung Lao (Max Huang) and the loose cannon mercenary Kano (Josh Lawson), Cole prepares to represent Earthrealm against combatants from Outworld in a mythical tournament – a tournament called Mortal Kombat.

The people who made this movie seem to have a handle on what the fans want. They might not exactly get there, but there is an eagerness to please that is evident in the film. The iconography associated with the games and the characters is treated with a degree of reverence, even as the movie never takes itself too seriously, despite initial concerns to the contrary. Even the most devoted Mortal Kombat fans are hard-pressed to deny that there is a lot of campiness and silliness in the source material, and the movie is often entertainingly silly. The Benjamin Wallfisch score includes variations of the iconic original “Techno Syndrome” theme by Oliver Adams; Wallfisch’s reworking of the theme was reportedly used by director Simon McQuoid to recruit his cast.

The stunt team, led by supervising stunt coordinator Kyle Gardiner, stunt coordinator Jade Amantea and fight coordinator Chan Griffin, assemble action sequences that are plentiful and generally well executed. Many of the actors involved have a martial arts background, which helps. Unlike the two 90s films, this Mortal Kombat movie has an R (M18 in Singapore) rating, meaning it can revel in the grisly violence that is the games’ trademark. The fatalities are graphic, but probably what long-time fans of the game would consider tame. Still, we go to a Mortal Kombat movie for the fighting scenes, and there are lots of those.

Making a coherent narrative feature film that makes good use of the expected Mortal Kombat roster was always going to be a challenge. Unfortunately, this movie is sometimes stuck in a no man’s land – neophytes might feel kept at arm’s length by the unwieldy exposition and certain preposterous elements that fans will accept, while hardcore fans might feel that something’s missing. This is tricky to calibrate for any movie based on an existing property. McQuoid tosses in Easter Eggs, and the movie seems to fall back on “look, there’s that thing you like!” a little too often.

Mortal Kombat wants to be epic, and it often falls short. While the fights do look good, the movie overall lacks the visual grandeur and spectacle associated with the settings of the games. We never really get a good sense of the stakes, and for a story in which the fate of the world hangs in the balance, things often feel too casual. There are times when the movie feels like a weird underdog sports story, with the team of screw-ups trying to take down the reigning champs. The B-movie feel of Mortal Kombat works against it almost as often as it works for it.

Most of the casting works well, with Joe Taslim and Hiroyuki Sanada being the highlights. Taslim, best known for The Raid and who crossed over into Hollywood with Fast and Furious 6 and Star Trek Beyond, lends Sub-Zero an icy resolve. Sanada always has gravitas to spare and imbues Scorpion with power and grief.

The Cole character is the source of many Mortal Kombat fans’ reservations going into this. Cole is clearly meant to be an entry point for those unfamiliar with the franchise and very much is a bland, standard issue ‘chosen one’ protagonist who can feel like a fan fiction self-insert character. While Lewis Tan is an adept martial artist and is very handsome, he doesn’t have a lot of screen presence.

Jessica McNamee makes for a good Sonya Blade, essaying the right amount of toughness without it crossing over into parody. Josh Lawson’s Kano is the designated comic relief, and Lawson seems to be having a lot of fun in the role, making multiple pop culture references (but only to Warner Bros-owned properties). The character does border on grating, though.

Ludi Lin’s turn as Liu Kang is almost too earnest at first, but he ably captures the archetypical martial arts movie hero nature of the character. Max Huang’s Kung Lao is a lot of fun, and there are some fun gags involving his metal hat. Tadanobu Asano’s Raiden is disappointing, as he lacks both the sense of authority and dash of mischief that is crucial to the character.

Aside from Sub-Zero, the Outworld characters are a bit underwhelming. Chin Han’s Shang Tsung skulks around and glowers a lot and gives supervillain speeches but is rarely ever genuinely menacing.

Summary: Video game movies have had a spotty track record, and while Mortal Kombat is far from the worst of the bunch, it’s also not the saviour of the genre some might have hoped it to be. There’s a lot to like, some of the casting is amazing and it’s filled with watchable fights, but the movie feels fragmented and struggles to build its sprawling world. Imagine Scorpion’s kunai, stopping a good distance short of its target.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Godzilla vs Kong review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Adam Wingard
Cast : Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown, Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, Shun Oguri, Eiza González, Kyle Chandler, Julian Dennison, Demián Bichir, Kaylee Hottle
Genre: Action/Adventure/Sci-fi
Run Time : 113 min
Opens : 24 March 2021
Rating : PG13

In 1962, two of cinema’s defining monsters faced off in King Kong vs Godzilla. 59 years later, it’s time for a rematch, in the form of the fourth film in the Monsterverse.

Kong is living on Skull Island, where he has formed a bond with young orphan Jia (Kaylee Hottle), who communicates with Kong via sign language. Jia’s adoptive mother is researcher Dr Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), who has been monitoring Kong for years. Geologist Dr Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) discovers a way to access the hollow earth, the speculated origin of Kong, Godzilla and the other Titans. As part of an expedition funded by Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir), the CEO of tech company Apex Cybernetics, Ilene, Nathan, Jia and Walter’s daughter Maia (Eiza González) accompany Kong to the access point of the hollow earth. Kong’s presence attracts Godzilla, who has suddenly turned aggressive towards humans despite having been thought of as a defender. In the meantime, Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), daughter of Monarch director Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler), alongside her friend Josh (Julian Dennison) and Apex technician Bernie (Bryan Tyree Henry), embarks on a mission to unearth a conspiracy at the corporation.  

Godzilla vs Kong is delightfully bonkers, leaning fully into the ridiculousness of its premise, and dropping all pretence of being grounded or realistic. It’s an entertaining ride made by people who clearly love the Kaiju genre, and want to deliver an exciting, spectacle-heavy, example of that genre. Director Adam Wingard and cinematographer Ben Seresin make this a colourful, visually exciting movie, especially after the immediate predecessor, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, was criticised for looking visually muddy. In some ways, this movie harks back to the Heisei Era of Godzilla movies, nicknamed the “Vs series”. It also harks back to goofy 50s-60s Hollywood sci-fi adventure movies, like Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1959). Characters fly around in nifty little crafts called Hollow Earth Aerial Vehicles, and one can imagine a great motion simulator theme park ride centred on those. There’s more than a little Pacific Rim influence here too, especially in the Hong Kong battle.

Leaning more heavily into sci-fi than the previous films in this continuity, Godzilla vs Kong contains a literal journey to the centre of the earth and is an ode to absurdly impractical infrastructure projects. It’s only fitting given the sheer size of its two stars. The character animation on both Kong and Godzilla is excellent; the physicality and expressiveness of both monsters conveyed well. Kong, having become more grizzled in the 50 years since the events of Kong: Skull Island, has plenty of personality, and is easy to relate to when he just stands around and sighs, or gets tired after a fight and must lie down. The fight scenes between them are grand and well-choreographed, and if it’s big-budget monster fights you’re after, this movie has you covered.

If Godzilla (2014) was too self-serious, then Godzilla vs Kong is sometimes too silly for its own good. Many moments strain credulity, and there is a level of “just go with it”-ness that Wingard sometimes struggles to sustain. There are several huge leaps of faith that are demanded of the audience, and one’s willingness to take those leaps will vary. While there are some surprises, the plot is predictable, and many fans have already called the outcome of the battle between Godzilla and Kong, which some might feel is at least a bit of a cop out. As satisfying as the spectacle is, the story can’t quite support it – and this is going by monster movie standards.

Every Kaiju movie fan’s favourite pastime is complaining about the human characters, who are meant to be our way into the story, but more often than not get in the way of the monsters punching each other. There are two main human plots here: all the stuff with Skarsgård’s geologist, Hall’s Kong behaviourist and Hottle’s endearing magical girl who can talk to Kong generally works. Jia is a deaf character portrayed by a deaf actress, which is something that needs to happen more often.

The other human plot, with Brown’s Emma returning from the previous movie and joined by Dennison as Emma’s friend and Henry as a hyperactive conspiracy theorist podcast host, generally doesn’t. The normally excellent Henry is grating here, directed to play an over-the-top comic relief character and given a succession of unfunny lines. Most of the film’s least convincing moments involve these characters, and each time the movie cut back to them, groans from the audience were audible.

Caught in between are Demián Bichir and Eiza González as a father-daughter team who possibly have ulterior motives. They put in unsubtle but enjoyable turns.

The Monsterverse has given us interpretations of major Kaiju from the Godzilla mythos, and by now, audiences expect that at least one other monster will show up in a Godzilla movie. Kong does that here, but does anyone else make an appearance? Some of the marketing has spoiled a surprise or two, and while this movie doesn’t lack for spectacle, this reviewer found himself missing the well-defined, iconic creatures whom Kong fought or teamed up with in King of the Monsters.

Summary: Godzilla vs Kong delivers wham-bam monster fights on a grand scale, and is often silly in an earnest, charming way. It is occasionally too silly and, as expected, several human characters are nigh-unbearable, but it’s an all-around good time. See it on the biggest screen possible.

RATING: 3.5 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

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil review

MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL

Director: Joachim Rønning
Cast : Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Harris Dickinson, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sam Riley, Robert Lindsay, Ed Skrein, Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Juno Temple
Genre : Fantasy/Adventure
Run Time : 1 h 58 mins
Opens : 17 October 2019
Rating : PG

In 2014, audiences learnt the back-story behind Maleficent, the villainess of Disney’s 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty. Beyond being a cackling sorceress/sometimes-dragon, Maleficent painted its title character as someone who rose from tragedy and betrayal to form a complex bond with the young Princess Aurora. Directed by Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge), this sequel continues that story, pitting Maleficent against a conniving, ruthless new foe.

Aurora (Elle Fanning), Queen of the Moors, is about to marry Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson) of Alstead. Aurora’s godmother Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is resistant to this union. Despite her heroic actions, she has been cast as a villain in stories spread by the humans. Philip’s father King John (Robert Lindsay) thinks the wedding could help to unite the two kingdoms, but his mother Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer) harbours hatred towards Maleficent and the magical creatures with whom she is aligned. Maleficent discovers a hidden society of faes, including the wise Connall (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the fiery warrior Borra (Ed Skrein). Queen Ingrith foments a war between the humans and the faes, with the young couple caught in between.

Angelina Jolie continues to be all sharp-cheekboned perfection as Maleficent. We were afraid that she might phone in it given that this is a sequel, but she still appears to relish the role. Not only does she get numerous fabulous costume changes, Maleficent goes on a journey of discovery, getting acquainted with her people and learning about their customs and beliefs. There is a conflict between her allegiance to her fae kin and to Aurora, which gives the powerful character something to struggle with.


Much of the film works because of Michelle Pfeiffer. Casting her opposite Jolie was an inspired move. The early promotional materials tried to hide it, but there’s no point beating about the bush now – Queen Ingrith is the “Mistress of Evil” of the title. Pfeiffer plays the villain with sneer and swagger hidden beneath a regal façade, with shades of her witch character from Stardust sometimes visible. Coming off like a PG-rated Cersei Lannister, it’s an absolute hoot.

There’s a lot going on in the plot of the movie, so it is to writers Linda Woolverton, Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue’s credit that the movie never loses sight of its emotional core: the relationship between Maleficent and Aurora. They might not be on the same page for much of the film, but it cannot be questioned that Maleficent deeply loves and cares for Aurora, something Ingrith winds up exploiting.

Just as in the first film, the show is stolen by Sam Riley as Diaval, Maleficent’s shape-shifting sidekick. Riley manages to be both cool and endearing. Queen Ingrith’s sadistic henchwoman Gerda (Jenn Murray) is also a fun, arch character.

While the visuals are often mesmerising and transporting, the film does lean very heavily on computer-generated imagery. This is expected of a fantasy adventure film, but some of the characters do seem unnatural. The Fairy Godmothers Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Thistlewit (Juno Temple) and Flittle (Lesley Manville) return from the first film, and their almost-human facial features sometimes cross over into the dreaded uncanny valley.

Prince Philip is boring, but then again, this is something inherent in the source material. Brenton Thwaites, who was busy filming Season 2 of Titans, is replaced by Harris Dickinson, who constantly seems a little bit confused and flat. However, this is also a sign that the film understands that Philip is not the main character, and that he does not have to be the hero to save the day.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is almost completely wasted in a relatively small supporting role.

The action sequences in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil are grand and expansive. Like most big-budget high fantasy projects these days, it seems more than a little derivative of Game of Thrones, but the big battle scenes are dynamic and lively. The movie gets surprisingly dark, with the villain’s plot involving genocide by way of biological warfare. However, the movie still has a bounce and a sense of humour to it and is never too self-serious the way something like Snow White and the Huntsman and its sequel The Huntsman: Winter’s War sometimes were. The big climactic battle takes place in broad daylight, which is a relative rarity in films of this type.

This film has a completely different design team than the first but maintains a sense of visual continuity while also giving us something new. The costumes by Ellen Mirojnick are stunning, especially Maleficent’s battle outfit, which is a sexy, elegant body paint-style number. Production designer Patrick Tatopolous creates some gorgeous fantasy environments, chief of which is the hidden fae sanctuary comprising mini-environments which have different climates.

Summary: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil sometimes transcends its fantasy adventure genre trappings thanks to strong performances by Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer, putting more of a spin on its source material than many of the live-action remakes Disney has given us lately.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Ad Astra review

For F*** Magazine

AD ASTRA

Director: James Gray
Cast : Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland, Jamie Kennedy, Kimberly Elise
Genre : Sci-fi/Adventure
Run Time : 123 mins
Opens : 19 September 2019
Rating : PG13

Director James Gray, known mainly for his contemplative dramas, launches into big-budget adventure movie territory with Ad Astra, while still retaining a more sombre, introspective tone than the typical movie of this type. ‘Ad Astra’ is Latin for “to the stars”. Brad Pitt was originally attached to star in Gray’s previous film, the historical adventure drama The Lost City of Z, and while he was eventually replaced with Charlie Hunnam, Pitt stayed on as a producer. Pitt and Gray collaborate again on Ad Astra, which puts the established movie star front and centre.

In the near future, space exploration has advanced considerably, with humanity travelling to the outer reaches of our solar system. Extensive colonies and bases have been established on the moon and on Mars. Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is the son of decorated astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who vanished years ago on a mission to Neptune. Space Command has received indications that against all odds, Clifford might still be alive. The experiments that were begun on the mission that Clifford led now have a ripple effect in the form of crippling power surges, endangering life on earth. Roy resolves to track his father down and solve a mystery that has haunted him for decades.

We don’t get many big-budget sci-fi films that are very serious, in part because spectacle sells. There is a scale of sci-fi “soft” to “hard”, with Guardians of the Galaxy on the “soft” end and something like The Martian towards the “harder” end. Director Gray takes a very serious approach, and one can tell that a lot of research has gone into envisioning what the future of space travel might look like.

Some of the themes from The Lost City of Z, especially those of singular obsession, delusion and a desperation for a greater purpose, carry over into this film. This is a good showcase for Pitt too, who plays a heroic character burdened by sorrow and on the brink of collapse, trundling towards his goal, however futile it might be. There is little room for supporting characters, but Pitt ably carries this.

Unfortunately, Ad Astra is caught between trying to be extremely self-serious and providing the action and spectacle audiences expect. As such, the action sequences feel disjointed from the rest of the movie and do not serve the plot. We get lots of contemplative voiceover from Pitt’s character, much of it bordering on pretentious. The film’s emotional core, the father-son story, is also hard to engage with and be moved by.

As is typical for these films, the protagonist’s wife does a lot of waiting around back home and not much else. Liv Tyler plays an astronaut’s significant other again, 21 years after Armageddon, and has even less to do here than she did in the Michael Bay extravaganza. Also, while Donald Sutherland and Tommy Lee Jones are both in this film, they do not meet, denying us a Space Cowboys semi-reunion (but this is more for this reviewer’s amusement than an actual point against the movie).

Ad Astra conveys the solitude and beautiful desolation of drifting through the cosmos, wondering about one’s place in the universe. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who lensed Interstellar and Dunkirk for Christopher Nolan and Spectre for Sam Mendes, makes this look grand and expansive. It can a bit navel gaze-y, but we saw this in IMAX and the breath-taking outer space vistas do make watching this on a huge screen somewhat worthwhile.

Two sequences seem to stick out from this otherwise sombre affair: a chase on moon buggies that pit(t)s our heroes against a band of space pirates, and an unexpected attack by bloodthirsty baboons that have gone feral after being left alone in a space station. While these two sequences provide superficial excitement, they occur relatively early in the film, such that the bulk of the latter half of the movie consists of Pitt staring into the middle distance as we occasionally cut to the exterior of the spaceship floating past Saturn’s rings.

Ad Astra may not necessarily find a big audience in theatres, but there are moviegoers who hunger for science fiction that’s more “search for our place in the universe” and less “lasers and giant spiders”.

Summary: Ad Astra is a rare movie in that it’s a star vehicle in an age when star vehicles are less common than big franchise movies, and in that it’s a serious science fiction movie with a big budget. However, Pitt’s central performance and the film’s visual splendour cannot compensate for its coldness as it trips over itself trying to be as deep and contemplative as possible.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong