Nightmare Alley (2021) review

For F*** Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

West Side Story (2021) review

For F*** Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Marksman review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Robert Lorenz
Cast : Liam Neeson, Joe Perez, Katheryn Winnick, Juan Pablo Raba, Teresa Ruiz, Dylan Kenin, Luce Rains
Genre: Action/Thriller/Drama
Run Time : 108 min
Opens : 25 February 2021
Rating : PG13

Some might say comic book movies are the most prevalent genre now, but perhaps “Liam Neeson with a gun” is a close second. Here’s another one to add to the pile, and in case you weren’t sure if Neeson’s character wields a gun, it’s right there in the title.

Jim Hanson (Liam Neeson), not to be confused with the creator of the Muppets whose name is one letter away, is a rancher and retired U.S. Marine. His wife has died of cancer and his farm is about to be foreclosed upon. His property is along the Mexico/US border in Arizona, and he happens upon a woman named Rosa (Teresa Ruiz) and her son Miguel (Joe Perez) trying to cross the border, pursued by cartel members. Joe reluctantly embarks on a mission to get Miguel to family members in Chicago, all the while pursued by the cartel members, who are led by the deadly lieutenant Maurico (Juan Pablo Raba).

This movie makes very good use of Liam Neeson’s talents. He’s outwardly gruff but innately decent, a badass with a heart of gold. Neeson is a perfect fit for the neo-Western genre, and Jim is very easy to root for. The movie is sturdy and straightforward, and young actor Perez is not bad opposite Neeson. The Marksman is predictable but is solidly made and handsomely shot by Director of Photography Mark Patten, who has mostly worked in British TV.

For a movie in which the protagonist is relentlessly pursued, there is a crucial lack of urgency to the proceedings. The Marksman feels considerably longer than its 108 minutes. Director Robert Lorenz seems to be aiming for the stillness of a classic western, but instead it feels like the characters are just waiting around. When the action does happen, it is largely unremarkable.

The Marksman also strains to be apolitical to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, but the issue of people crossing the US/Mexico border illegally is an inherently political one. It wants to be grounded, but also doesn’t want to engage with reality too directly, which is sometimes to the movie’s detriment.

There are moments when Jim and Miguel display glimmers of personality, but the movie is mostly taciturn and doesn’t really let us get to know either character. It also trades in cliches, with Jim having a bog-standard backstory (retired military man whose wife has died). Katheryn Winnick plays Jim’s stepdaughter Sarah, who is ostensibly the female lead but is almost completely a non-entity.

Lorenz, the movie’s director, producer and co-writer, is a long-time producing partner of Clint Eastwood. This feels like something that Eastwood would star in, and perhaps Neeson works better because he is a warmer presence than Eastwood is, especially now. There’s a scene in this movie in which Jim and Miguel watch the Eastwood starrer Hang ‘Em High in a motel room, which Lorenz included as a nod to his mentor.

If you love Liam Neeson’s late-career action work, this is more of the same. It’s not the most exciting or the most compelling, but it does play to all his strengths, and does have an old-fashioned reliability to it.

Summary: A competent if only sporadically engaging neo-western, The Marksman sees Liam Neeson on fine late-career form.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Richard Jewell review

For F*** Magazine

RICHARD JEWELL

Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast : Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm, Nina Ariadna, Ian Gomez
Genre : Drama/Biographical
Run Time : 2 h 11 mins
Opens : 9 January 2020
Rating : NC16

From director Clint Eastwood and writer Billy Ray comes a biopic about Richard Jewell, the man who called in a bomb threat and was vilified as a suspect. The film is based on the 1997 Vanity Fair article American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell by Marie Brenner, and the 2019 book The Suspect: An Olympic Bombing, the FBI, the Media, and Richard Jewell, the Man Caught in the Middle by Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen.

It is July 1996 and the 26th Summer Olympics are taking place in Atlanta, Georgia. Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser), a security guard working at Centennial Park, notices a suspicious knapsack that is found to contain three pipe bombs. He is initially hailed as a hero but is soon regarded as a suspect in the bombing by the FBI, with agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) strongly believing Richard to be the culprit. Tipped off by Shaw, Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) breaks the story about Richard’s status as a suspect. The overwhelming media attention overwhelms Richard and his mother Bobbi (Kathy Bates). Richard turns to Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), a lawyer who worked at a public law firm where Richard was a supply clerk ten years ago, for help. Watson must help Richard clear his name and turn the tide of public opinion.

Eastwood has been directing movies for over 30 years and is a skilled technical director. Richard Jewell captures the 1996 Atlanta setting with enough authenticity – the film was shot on location at the actual Centennial Park. The scene in which Richard discovers the bomb is tense and gripping. Later, a scene in which Watson times a walk between the site where the bomb was placed and the public payphones where the bomber called 911 is stylishly cut with footage of sprinter David Johnson at the Olympics. Eastwood tells the story efficiently and it is abundantly easy to sympathise with Richard, even as the viewer grows frustrated at him for being easily manipulated and a bit too naïve.

Eastwood is not just a good technical director, but a good actors’ director as well. He draws excellent performances from his cast here. Paul Walter Hauser is a loveable, hapless figure as Richard Jewell – he is not especially bright, but the film attempts to give him some dimensions.

Kathy Bates is a warm presence as Richard’s mother Bobbi, who simply wants the best for her son and cannot bear to see him falsely accused and placed under such immense pressure. Rockwell is a go-to actor for slimy roles, so it is always nice to see him in largely noble parts. Watson is an honest salt-of-the-earth type but is also fiery and impassioned. Some of the film’s best scenes are between Hauser and Rockwell.

Any film based on a true story will have inaccuracies, and one or two of the real people portrayed in said film – or those who knew them – are bound to come out and speak against the way they were characterised in the movie. With Richard Jewell, the inaccuracies seem more calculated. It’s harder to view them as honest mistakes and easier to believe that Eastwood had an agenda going on. It is common for biopics to make a larger point and provide commentary beyond the specific subject matter, but it feels like Richard Jewell leans too far in that direction, reducing the story to a vehicle for Eastwood’s political views.

The film does a huge disservice to journalist Kathy Scruggs, who passed away in 2001 from a prescription drug overdose after dealing with depression and is not around to defend herself. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran an open letter by its editor-in-chief responding to how Scruggs and by extension the paper was portrayed in Richard Jewell. In the film, Scruggs is shown sleeping with a source for a scoop. The source, Jon Hamm’s FBI Agent Shaw, is a fictionalised composite character, but Scruggs was very much a real person. This propagates the insidious trope that women journalists trade sexual favours for tips. Authors Alexander and Salwen, whose non-fiction book was the basis of the movie, have firmly maintained that Scruggs did not sleep with an FBI agent to obtain information for her story.

In real life, Richard Jewell certainly was treated unjustly by both law enforcement and the media. However, the film goes out of its way to portray the media and the FBI as unscrupulous and out to destroy Richard’s life. Eastwood is remarkably unsubtle about this, and in order to simplify the story, creates two main ‘villains’ in Shaw and Scruggs. Wilde’s Scruggs is nigh-cartoonishly evil. In trying to clear the name of its title character, Richard Jewell trades in false accusations, something that is regrettable given the quality of the performances in the film.

Summary: Richard Jewell is the work of a skilled filmmaker but is also the work of a filmmaker with an agenda. It is worth seeing for the performances, especially Paul Walter Hauser’s, but this recommendation comes with the caveat that one should research the true story and not take the film’s version of events at face value. In going further than necessary to make the media and the FBI the villains of the piece, Eastwood comes off as dishonest and irresponsible, even though the film is well directed and strongly acted.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

1917 review

For F*** Magazine

1917

Director: Sam Mendes
Cast : George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Mays, Jamie Parker
Genre : War/Drama
Run Time : 1 h 59 mins
Opens : 9 January 2020
Rating : PG13

1917-posterHollywood has made many World War II epics, but not quite as many World War I movies, likely because of America’s increased participation in World War II compared to World War I. Still, there are several movies set during the Great War which are considered masterpieces, including All Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory. Sam Mendes directs and, with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, co-writes this relentless war film that takes place over two days in April 1917.

In Northern France, British soldiers Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are tasked with a vital and seemingly insurmountable mission: they must deliver an order from Army Command to tell a battalion of 1600 soldiers to stand down from an assault, as a trap set by the Germans lies in wait for them. Schofield and Blake must cross No Man’s Land into treacherous enemy-controlled territory to deliver the message in time. For Blake, the stakes are personal too, as his older brother is among the soldiers who will die if this information is not conveyed. Braving enemy gunfire and the elements, Schofield and Blake bravely undertake the mission of their lives.

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Filmmakers strive to achieve immersion, to make the audience feel so engrossed in watching the movie that they forget they’re doing so. 1917 achieves this. This is an awards season film, but unlike many prestige movies that vie for the Oscars and other awards, 1917 is far from a stuffy, airless affair. Mendes breathes life into the historical event, closing the 100-plus-year gap between World War I and the present day with an intense and involving epic. He was inspired by the stories of his grandfather Alfred H. Mendes, a Trinidadian World War I veteran and novelist, which increases the personal investment Mendes has in the subject matter. The result is almost akin to a cutting-edge exhibit at a museum, not entirely unlike The Scale of Our War at Te Papa Museum in Wellington, New Zealand, an exhibit that tells the story of the Gallipoli campaign using oversized hyper-realistic sculptures.

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There is an immediacy to 1917, but while the movie seems constantly gripping, it is also a masterclass in pacing – there are peaks and valleys, quiet moments and frenetic, intense ones, all carefully yet organically situated within the story. This is a movie that effectively essays anxiety, with the throb of Thomas Newman’s percussion-heavy score signalling dangers around every corner. Several set-pieces are among the most visceral and thrilling of any war film in recent memory, yet Mendes executes them with just enough restraint.

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George MacKay anchors the film, with Dean-Charles Chapman right alongside him. The film doesn’t need much to make these characters feel compelling, and just a few interactions between the two establish who they are as soldiers and as people. MacKay is remarkable in the role, especially when the film calls for him to look exhausted and tired. Our two heroes are put through the wringer and face obstacles which are incredible but never implausible.

1917-Dean-Charles-Chapman-George-McKay-German-plane

There’s not a lot that doesn’t work here. Some reviews have cited the lack of character development as a flaw, but this movie is focused on the experience of the characters and on putting the audience in their shoes, and doesn’t need a lot of back-story or a heartfelt monologue about their childhood to accomplish that.

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One element of the film that is possibly distracting is its big-name supporting cast. The structure of the movie means that actors like Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Richard Madden and Andrew Scott show up for roughly one scene each. They play people whom our two heroes meet along the way, meaning there is even less to them as characters than to Schofield and Blake. As such, it is possible that their appearances, which almost seem like cameos, might break the immersion, but this did not happen for us.

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Spectre, the second Bond film directed by Sam Mendes, opened with a pre-credits sequence shot and edited to look like one continuous take. Mendes ups the ante here, presenting the entirety of 1917 as if it was filmed in one continuous take. This might sound like a gimmick, but the film deploys it as an excellent storytelling tool. The film’s first moment of violence is a small one – Schofield cuts his hand on barbed wire. This reviewer winced more than he normally would, realising this is because the single take approach increases the subjectivity. Cutting away means retreating, however momentarily, to safety. 1917 offers no such safety.

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Acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins can add yet another notch to his belt, and credit must also go to Steadicam operators like Pete Cavaciuti. Deakins also deployed remote-controlled cameras on wires, flying across the battlefield. Editor Lee Smith deserves plaudits too, as after a while, the game of looking for the hidden cuts becomes just too hard to play. The device of making the film look like it was magically filmed in a single take calls attention to itself because it is hard not to marvel at the technical mastery required to pull it off, and yet, it is also invisible, creating immersion rather than detracting from it.

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Summary: 1917 drops audiences onto the Western Front and is exciting, emotional and harrowing, its visceral impact the result of finely calibrated filmmaking. Inspired by his grandfather’s war stories, Sam Mendes crafts a masterpiece. 1917 captures the weariness, the adrenaline, the desperation, the horror and the sadness of war like few movies before it have.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Good Liar review

For F*** Magazine

THE GOOD LIAR

Director: Bill Condon
Cast : Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren, Russell Tovey, Jim Carter, Mark Lewis Jones, Céline Buckens, Laurie Davidson
Genre : Drama/Thriller
Run Time : 1 h 49 mins
Opens : 21 November 2019
Rating : NC16

Weirdly enough, respected English thespians Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Helen Mirren have never made a movie together, even though they have shared the Broadway stage in 2003. This thriller, based on a novel by Nicholas Searle, rectifies this decades-long oversight, giving both stars roles they easily make a meal of.

Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren) is a wealthy woman in her 70s who is hoping to make a romantic connection with someone again and gives online dating a try. She meets and quickly falls for Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen), a man in his 80s. Roy, a lifelong con artist, has seemingly found the perfect mark and plots to rob Betty of her millions as Betty’s grandson Steven (Russell Tovey) smells a rat and tries to save his grandmother from Roy’s devious clutches. Both Betty and Roy are forced to confront long-hidden secrets as their relationship grows increasingly complex.

With decades of experience on the stage and screen, Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren are both aware of the kind of movie they’re making and finely calibrate their performances to fit the material. The Good Liar starts out seeming quite silly and predictable, and perhaps it does remain a bit silly, but director Bill Condon knows that his stars will do everything to invest the story with emotion and drama. It is so satisfying to watch McKellen and Mirren play off each other that we get drawn further and further into the plot, no matter how outlandish it becomes.

It seems that smaller-scale thrillers, especially ones with older audiences in mind, are an increasing rarity at the cinema. This is a movie that doesn’t have explosions and shootouts, but one that is still thrilling and exciting. Condon pulls no punches and the movie can be surprisingly brutal at times. The score by Carter Burwell with its undulating strings heightens how delightfully melodramatic this all is. It’s as if someone turned the frantic whisper of “there’s a conspiracy afoot” into music. While a healthy degree of suspension of disbelief is required of audiences, the screenplay by veteran playwright and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher is brought to largely convincing life by the film’s leads.

The movie begins feeling like a version of those Lifetime Channel movies – the ones about Craiglist serial killers and psychotic stepdaughters – for the retiree set. As such, even with two distinguished actors front and centre, it can be hard to take things seriously. As the story gets progressively darker and the shocking revelations pile up, it becomes slightly harder to enjoy the movie as a deliberately arch, mannered confection. It is nowhere near as sophisticated as it would like to be, but is directed and acted well enough to make up for this. Despite the film’s best efforts, not everything about the plot lines up in retrospect, but it is enjoyable despite this.

The movie is set in 2009, which seems like an insignificant detail at first. Roy and Betty go on a movie date to watch a certain Quentin Tarantino-directed movie, and while it would have been fine if that were the only reason to set the story in 2009, it isn’t. The film is the most interesting when it explores both Roy and Betty’s personal histories, but in those sequences, it also means we are spending time away from McKellen and Mirren, which is a trade-off director Condon had to make.

This is a modest thriller fronted by two ever-watchable, extremely skilful actors that differs enough from many entries in this genre partially because it is about two older characters, their age being a key element to the story and not an extraneous detail.

Summary: Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren play a game of cat and mouse that is sometimes far-fetched, sometimes devastating and always enjoyable.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Joker review

For F*** Magazine

JOKER

Director: Todd Phillips
Cast : Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Dante Pereira-Olson
Genre : Crime/Drama
Run Time : 122 mins
Opens : 3 October 2019
Rating : NC16

This standalone movie takes inspiration from the pages of DC Comics, focusing on arguably the company’s best-known supervillain, the Joker. Director Todd Phillips, best known for the Hangover films, has modelled this film on Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, creating a portrait of a twisted man lost in a cruel and uncaring world, eventually turning violent. This film is unconnected to the films set in the DC Extended Universe, or to the upcoming Batman film that will be released in 2021.

It is 1981, and Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is one of the faceless masses trying to eke out a living in the increasingly inhospitable Gotham City. Arthur cares for his ill mother Penny (Frances Conroy) and dreams of being a stand-up comedian. He is beaten down on all sides, unable to seek help for his deteriorating mental health after state funding for health programs is cut, and is fired from his job as a clown. Only his neighbour Sophie (Zazie Beetz) seems to understand him. Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), a talk show host whom Arthur idolises, airs footage of Arthur’s disastrous stand-up act and mocks him. Resentment among the hoi polloi mounts against Gotham’s wealthy elite, embodied by Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), a billionaire planning a run for mayor. Arthur unleashes violence and chaos, reinventing himself as the costumed criminal called ‘Joker’.

There are many ways to make a movie based on a comic book. Lately, we’ve seen the Marvel Cinematic Universe method produce considerable success, but there are many types of stories told in the medium of comics and therefore many possible big screen interpretations. Joker is a valid take on the character – traditionally, he isn’t a character who needs a definitive back-story, and has said “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!” This is a ‘man unravels’ character study – certainly not the first in the history of cinema but marrying that archetype to a well-known pop culture property is novel to a degree.

This is a movie that wears its Scorsese inspirations on its sleeve and emulates them with style, Lawrence Sher’s cinematography displaying Gotham in all its grimy, rat-ridden glory. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score is creepy without overdoing it. Robert De Niro shines in a textbook star supporting role, while Frances Conroy is thoroughly convincing as a frail, delusional and pitiful woman. Then of course, there’s the central performance, which we will get to in a bit.

Joker was always going to be controversial, and the studio and the filmmakers know this. This is a great character study about someone who winds up doing horrible things – there’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach, but it is worth remembering that films do not exist in a vacuum.

Disaffected, disenfranchised people have committed horrific crimes, something that has arguably intensified given the current political climate. There is a discussion to be had about how responsible movies are for that – one would say never directly, but it is possible that certain media could push those already predisposed to abhorrent behaviour to committing said behaviour. Given how John Hinckley Jr. strongly identified with Travis Bickle, protagonist of the afore-mentioned Taxi Driver, and attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan to impress Jodie Foster, this is not idle handwringing. Both Phillips and Phoenix have handled reasonable questions about the possible real-life implications of the movie very poorly.

Of course, it is reductive to say that this movie should not exist because of the chance that someone could emulate its protagonist, but considering how many people valourised the Joker when he was portrayed as a villain in The Dark Knight, it’s not a stretch to think many more will valourise him since he’s portrayed here as a hero. There is a difference between idealising a fictional character and actively emulating their actions, something which can get lost in this conversation.

While the film is generally restrained when it comes to Easter Eggs and references to the source material, a few nods to the comics are rather clumsy, with one that happens towards the end of the film coming off as forced.

Joaquin Phoenix is a big get and probably the film’s greatest asset. Marvel Studios sought Phoenix to play Doctor Strange, but he turned the part down, not wanting to sign on for multiple films. Joker’s status as a one-off (at least, that’s how it was intended) gives Phoenix the chance to play this iteration of the character with no extensive commitment. It’s the kind of role any thespian would love to sink their teeth into: a tragic, compelling figure who is not okay in the slightest. It’s the type of performance that the Academy loves too – Phoenix underwent a drastic physical transformation, which usually helps with the Oscar buzz. There still are critics who find it hard to accept movies based on comic books as legitimate cinema, but the performance Phoenix gives here is hard to ignore or diminish.

As alluded to earlier, a problem that arises when making a movie about a supervillain with no superhero to counteract him is that said supervillain winds up looking heroic, even if that wasn’t the intention. We see Gotham from Arthur’s point of view. As such, the typically noble Thomas Wayne is instead depicted as a callous, condescending son of privilege, crushing the masses beneath his heel. There’s been a lot of back-and-forth about whether the film appears to condone the Joker’s action or state clearly that they are wrong – “condone” is a strong word, but Arthur certainly is drawn in a sympathetic manner. In a way, the film serves as a cautionary tale, because Arthur would have never become the Joker if the right support systems were in place to grant him the help he desperately needed, and if it were harder for him to gain access to the tools that he uses to wreak his havoc.

It is entirely plausible that the worst people will relate to the character and hold this version of the character up as an ideal, so hopefully the people who see this movie will be able to compartmentalise, and walk away from this going “that was an interesting portrayal of a supervillain and a sobering warning” rather than “Joker has it all figured out!”

Summary: There is a boldness to the way Joker interprets its comic book source material that makes it stand out from the usual crop of comic book movies, and Phoenix’s titular performance is impressive, but the controversy surrounding the film shouldn’t merely be swept under a rug. It’s intense, gripping and disturbing. We don’t necessarily want to see more comic book movies exactly like this, but if nothing else, Joker shows that comic book movies can take many strange, compelling forms.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Serenity review

SERENITY

Director: Steven Knight
Cast: Mathew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jason Clarke, Djimon Hounsou, Diane Lane, Jeremy Strong, Rafael Sayegh
Genre: Drama/Thriller/Mystery
Run Time: 1 h 46 mins
Opens: 21 February 2019
Rating: M18

           Interstellar stars Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway reunite under extremely bizarre circumstances in this neo-noir thriller, which is already being called the worst film of 2019.

McConaughey plays Baker Dill, a fisherman on the idyllic Plymouth Island who takes tourists out to sea on his fishing boat, the Serenity. Baker’s ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) arrives on the island, asking Baker to kill her current husband, the abusive Frank (Jason Clarke). The plan is to get Frank drunk during a fishing trip and throw him overboard. Baker is initially resistant to the plan, but eventually feels he owes it to his and Karen’s son Patrick (Rafael Sayegh) to free Karen from Frank’s grip. A tale of murder, madness and vengeance unfolds in paradise as Baker soon finds himself in way over his head.

Within days of opening in the U.S., Serenity’s badness has become legendary: the movie was a box office bomb that marked the lowest openings in McConaughey and Hathaway’s careers. Distributor Aviron gave up on marketing the movie altogether, cancelling planned publicity events and talk show appearances for its stars.

Is Serenity as bad as everyone is saying? Short answer: it is. Writer-director Steven Knight set out to make a “sexy noir” thriller, and for the first hour or so of the movie, it comes across as awkward and slightly melodramatic but never offensively bad. Then, as things ramp up and the plot reaches a crescendo, the film builds to a baffling, staggering twist ending. It’s a twist that truly must be seen to be believed, the kind of reveal that nobody could have ever thought was a good idea.

The movie feels like a hybrid of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and 90s erotic thrillers like Basic Instinct and The Colour of the Night. The film was shot in Mauritius and setting it on a remote island away from the madding crowd gives the movie an initial air of mystery, but everything is so over-the-top and ham-fisted that Serenity has no dramatic impact at all.

Matthew McConaughey may be an Oscar winner, having found redemption after years of floundering about in sub-par romantic comedies, but he still makes missteps in choosing his projects. As the tortured hero with a tragic past, McConaughey does a lot of yelling at the sky. There’s an extended skinny-dipping scene, which is perhaps the most worthwhile thing in the movie. The character is intended to be sympathetic but doesn’t come close to making audiences root for him.

Michael O’Sullivan of The Washington Post described Anne Hathaway’s performance as “kind of a live-action Jessica Rabbit from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and we can’t come up with a better description than that. Everything is heightened and hard to believe, but Hathaway’s turn as a blonde femme fatale is the most heightened and hardest to believe part of Serenity.

Jason Clarke’s abusive husband character is just that, a one-dimensional villain. It looks like Clarke had fun playing him, but he has played despicable characters with more nuance to them and it’s just more interesting that way.

Diane Lane shows up as a woman whom Baker sleeps with for money. That’s about it as far as her character goes. Oh, Djimon Hounsou is in this movie too.

There’s a version of this movie which is a tongue-in-cheek stealth parody of erotic thriller conventions that might have worked, but this is just a failure on every level. There’s a novelty factor to two Oscar-winning movie stars headlining what promises to be a steamy thriller, but Serenity fizzles out in spectacular fashion. By the time the mind-boggling conclusion rolls around, the movie has done a slow-motion faceplant on the ground. It’s also a shame that Serenity tarnishes the good name of 2005’s Serenity, the movie continuation of Joss Whedon’s space western TV series Firefly.

RATING: 1.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Mule review

THE MULE

Director : Clint Eastwood
Cast : Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Michael Peña, Laurence Fishburne, Allison Eastwood, Taissa Farmiga, Dianne Wiest, Andy García, Clifton Collins Jr., Eugene Cordero, Noel Gugliemi
Genre : Crime/Drama/Mystery
Run Time : 1 h 56 mins
Opens : 10 January 2019
Rating : M18

Clint Eastwood is 88-years-old and has been working steadily since the 50s, so it makes sense that some of his recent films deal with aging. In this drama, his character’s old age is an asset, because it makes him less suspicious – as a drug mule.

Eastwood plays Earl Stone, a nonagenarian horticulturist and Vietnam War veteran who has fallen on hard times after his house and farm is foreclosed upon. Earl is estranged from his family, including his ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest), his daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood) and his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga). Earl comes across what he thinks will be a one-off opportunity as a drug runner for a Mexican cartel. Because the work is easy and pays extremely well, Earl finds himself coming back, unexpectedly becoming one of the cartel’s top mules.

DEA Agents Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) and Trevino (Michael Peña) learn through an informant about a mule the cartel refers to as “Tata”, Spanish for “grandfather”. The deliveries are being brought into Chicago, with the agents closing in on the elusive mule. Back in Mexico, cartel kingpin Laton (Andy García) is pleased with Earl’s performance, but his lieutenants are spooked by the increasing DEA activity, taking issue with Earl’s penchant for unscheduled stops. Earl knows his successful run working for the cartel cannot last forever and faces the inevitable: he will either be killed by cartel enforcers or captured by the DEA.

The Mule is based on an article in The New York Times by Sam Dolnick, entitled The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year-Old Drug Mule. Eastwood and screenwriter Nick Schenk, who got his big break penning Eastwood’s Gran Torino, have taken loose inspiration from the life of Leo Sharp, a World War II veteran who became a drug runner for the cartel run by El Chapo. Eastwood’s presence as director, producer and star means that it’s obvious that he has projected himself onto the Earl Stone character, who is drawn as a well-meaning, good-hearted man who just isn’t properly appreciated by his family and winds up doing bad things even though he is not a bad person.

Eastwood is too in love with the character, who functions as an avatar of himself, for the movie to accomplish very much. Having directed 34 movies, Eastwood more than knows what he’s doing on the technical front and draws out good performances from his talented cast. However, he is squarely the centre of attention. Earl berates younger people for constantly being on their smartphones and functions as a stubborn guardian of a bygone age, an old-fashioned stalwart who doesn’t get the respect he deserves. He also has at least two threesomes with prostitutes, scenes which one imagines Eastwood doing multiple takes of just to be sure.

Cooper and Peña are given underwritten roles, but Cooper does get one good scene set in a Waffle House in which he gets to do a bit more than chase after Clint Eastwood. Dianne Wiest is the standout in the cast as Earl’s ex-wife, who harbours less ill-will towards Earl than his daughter Iris (played by Eastwood’s real daughter Alison) but who still wishes things could’ve been different. The skill with which Wiest conveys quiet sadness ensures the relationship is not overly treacly.

The scenes in which Earl is friendly towards the cartel members lower on the ladder who warm to him are quite endearing. Both Andy García and Laurence Fishburne are on hand to lend additional gravitas in relatively small roles as a cartel boss and a senior DEA agent respectively.

The Mule is not an instant classic the way some of Eastwood’s films are, and it is more obviously a vanity project than several other late-period Eastwood movies. There are moments when it’s charming and the Earl Stone character is not the worst person to spend a couple of hours with, but the movie fundamentally lacks any urgency or drive. The moments of tension, when it feels like Earl’s Faustian bargain is catching up to him, are too few and far between. It is ultimately saved by the compelling nature of the true story and Eastwood’s unquestionable competence as a director but is not one of the more essential entries in his oeuvre.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Widows review

WIDOWS

Director : Steve McQueen
Cast : Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Garrett Dillahunt, Carrie Coon, Lukas Haas, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Coburn Goss
Genre : Drama/Thriller
Run Time : 129 mins
Opens : 6 December 2018
Rating : M18

This summer movie season brought us the glittery fun of Ocean’s Eight, but now it’s time for a much more serious take on the female-led heist movie concept in the form of Widows.

Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) is a thief who has never put a foot wrong, until one fateful night when he and his crew comprising Florek (Jon Bernthal), Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and Jimmy (Coburn Goss) are killed during a botched job. Harry and his team were stealing $2 million from crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who is running for alderman of the 18th precinct of Chicago. Jamal’s opponent is Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), who hails from a political dynasty including his father, former alderman Tom (Robert Duvall), with whom he has a contentious relationship.

Harry’s widow Veronica (Viola Davis) is threatened by Jamal and his enforcer brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), who want Harry’s debt to them repaid. Veronica decides to undertake Harry’s next job, for which he kept detailed plans in his notebook. Veronica ropes in Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), leaving the fourth widow Amanda (Carrie Coon) out of the plan because she has a new-born child. Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a hairstylist and part-time babysitter hired by Linda, steps in. Together, the four women must pull off a high-stakes heist that finds them embroiled in a dicey conspiracy involving the city’s powerful politicians and mobsters.

Widows is based on the 1983 ITV miniseries of the same name, and marks Steve McQueen’s first film as director since 2013’s 12 Years a Slave. McQueen co-wrote the screenplay with Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame. Widows has plenty of pedigree in front of and behind the camera and is a bit of an odd beast because at first glance, it sounds like the kind of plot one might find in a direct-to-DVD action movie. One could imagine a much cheaper, more sloppily-made version of Widows being something to watch on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

For better and worse, Widows is not that movie. The story is layered with political commentary and does have the sometimes-odd feel of a crime thriller imbued with prestige movie filmmaking. There is a meticulousness to the world-building and how each character’s specific circumstances are established, but this is also a movie that seems to want to tell a story beyond the confines of the genre. That’s not to say that an action thriller can’t be deep or tackle topical issues, but Widows’ approach sometimes calls attention to itself, pulling the viewer out of what could’ve been an intensely engaging story. It’s not the most obvious comparison, but this reviewer was reminded of Ben Affleck’s The Town, also a crime thriller in which the protagonists are thieves, and also a movie about the desperation brought on by socioeconomic inequality in American cities.

The performances are strong across the board, with Viola Davis showcasing the strength and no-nonsense demeanour seen in many of her characters. We see Veronica in her vulnerable moments, but we also witness the full effect of her steely resolve. She is not out to befriend her co-conspirators and is business-like and harsh in her interactions with the other widows, who all need comfort and a listening ear to varying degrees.

Debicki is the standout among the rest of the cast, portraying a character who comes off as just a dumb blonde at first, but who is to be underestimated at one’s peril. A subplot involves Alice’s reluctant ‘sugar daddy’ arrangement with real estate developer David (Lukas Haas). There’s a lot more going on with the character than one realises at first, which gives Debicki quite a bit to play with.

Erivo is an entertaining badass and Rodriguez gets to play a few more notes than the typical ‘tough chick’ she gets typecast as. Colin Farrell and Brian Tyree Henry play warring politicians, both crooked in their own ways. When the film wades into political thriller territory, it loses a bit of the intimacy and urgency that it has when we’re with the widows themselves.

Kaluuya is a brilliant actor, but cast against type as a heavy, he can’t quite muster up what it takes to be truly intimidating. The always-dependable Neeson is used judiciously, making the most of his limited screen time.

Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell make for an entertaining double act as father-and-son politicians at each other’s throats, but their subplots mostly feel like a distraction from the main plot.

There’s also the most adorable dog, a West Highland Terrier named Olivia whom moviegoers might recognise from Game Night. Olivia is up against Academy Award winners and nominees, but handily steals the show.

The violence depicted in the film has impact, and there are many moments that jolt the viewer out of sitting too comfortably in their cinema seat. There are smatterings of comedy which give the audience a reprieve from the overall seriousness of the film, but some of these moments are a little awkward. There is a strategy to how information and back-story details are parcelled out to the audience, and there is merit in McQueen’s approach of a crime movie that offers more than just mindless action. However, the film’s centre often threatens to buckle, and Widows adds up to slightly less than the sum of its parts.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong