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

Wrath of Man review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Guy Ritchie
Cast : Jason Statham, Holt McCallany, Jeffrey Donovan, Josh Hartnett, Laz Alonso, Raúl Castillo, Scott Eastwood, Niamh Algar, Rob Delaney, Eddie Marsan, Andy Garcia
Genre: Action/Thriller
Run Time : 119 min
Opens : 29 April 2021
Rating : M18

There’s something exciting about an armoured truck full of cash that filmmakers can’t resist. 2009’s Armoured was a caper centred around an armoured truck crew, and an unrelated film of the same name is set to be produced by Michael Bay. Films like The Heat and The Town have memorable armoured truck-centric set-pieces. Now, Guy Ritchie and Jason Statham take the wheel.

Patrick “H” Hill (Jason Statham) is a mysterious new employee at Fortico Security, an armoured truck company operating in Los Angeles. Every week, Fortico transports millions of dollars around the city. Bullet (Holt McCallany) teaches H the ropes. During an attempted robbery, H showcases formidable skills, indicating he is overqualified for the job. He crosses paths with a gang of ex-military personnel-turned-robbers. H is on a path of vengeance, and soon, the reason for this becomes clear.

Based on the French Film Le convoyeur (Cash Truck), Wrath of Man is a solid, muscular action thriller that makes good use of both director Ritchie and star Statham’s strengths. There are some brutal action sequences, and the production design of the armoured car depot is quite striking. Wrath of Man often feels beefy and substantial, when many mid-budget action movies can feel somewhat lacklustre and pack too little of a punch. The movie manages to build intrigue in its first half; it’s too bad that the trailers give away the reveal of why exactly H is working for Fortico. The ever-dependable Holt McCallany is especially charismatic, threatening to steal the show from Statham at times. Wrath of Man escapes the feeling of being confined to direct-to-streaming and fits well on the big screen.

The movie is oozing with a bit too much machismo for its own good. The screenplay by Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies is crammed with dialogue that strains too hard to sound tough and badass, sometimes bordering on self-parody. There doesn’t seem to be much to any of the characters except H. A cameo by Post Malone threatens to pull one out of the movie. Scott Eastwood’s villainous character is also a non-entity, with Eastwood having little screen presence compared to Statham and McCallany. The film is also ultimately generic and attempts to conceal this with some fairly clever structural shuffling. The movie is also divided into chapters, which, together with the title, can’t help but come off as a bit pretentious for what is mostly a meat-and-potatoes action thriller.

Wrath of Man reunites star Statham and director Ritchie, who burst onto the scene in the 90s with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch but haven’t collaborated since 2005’s widely-panned Revolver. This is not one of Ritchie’s more self-indulgent films; his signature combination of “toff guy” (the name of his production company) schtick and self-aware humour is toned down a little here. It seems like Ritchie is channelling Michael Mann, sometimes successfully. Statham isn’t an actor with a lot of range, but he is watchable doing what he does best. The pair will next collaborate on the spy thriller Five Eyes, currently in production.

Summary: Wrath of Man sees Guy Ritchie and Jason Statham doing what they do best. It’s not quite as cool as it thinks it is and sometimes has a whiff of self-importance about it. Overall though, this is a solid, intense action thriller that doesn’t quite feel as disposable as the typical action movies of the week we’ve been getting on streaming.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Greenland review

For F*** Magazine

GREENLAND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

For F*** Magazine

JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK

Director : Edward Zwick
Cast : Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Danika Yarosh, Austin Hebert, Patrick Heusinger, Aldis Hodge, Robert Knepper, Holt McCallany
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 58min
Opens : 20 October 2016
Rating : NC-16 (Violence)

jack-reacher-never-go-back-posterEnigmatic loner Jack Reacher (Cruise) is drifting back into theatres in this sequel to the 2012 action thriller. Reacher has been in contact with Major Susan Turner (Smulders), the commanding officer of his former Military Police unit. Turner has been assisting Reacher with cases across the country, and they’re finally about to meet face-to-face. When Reacher arrives in Washington, D.C., he discovers that Turner has been framed for espionage, after two of her men die in Afghanistan under mysterious circumstances. In the meantime, Reacher learns that a 15-year-old girl named Samantha (Yarosh) may or may not be his long-lost daughter. Reacher, Turner and Samantha go on the run, pursued by Captain Espin (Hodge) of the Military Police and a deadly mercenary known only as ‘the Hunter’(Heusinger). The Hunter reports to former general James Harkness (Knepper), who runs the private military firm Para Source, and who will stop at nothing to prevent the firm’s illegal activities from being exposed.

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Never Go Back is based on the 18th book in Lee Childs’ Jack Reacher series. Fans of the novels cried foul over Cruise’s casting: was there no one more suited to playing the gruff, blonde, 240 lb, 6’5” bruiser? Anyone who was dead set against Cruise as Reacher the first time will likely be unconvinced this time around. Replacing Christopher McQuarrie, the first film’s director, is Edward Zwick, who previously directed Cruise in The Last Samurai. This is solid, meat-and-potatoes action thriller stuff, layered with military procedure that’s mildly compelling at best. We do get some satisfyingly crunchy hand-to-hand fights and a tense foot chase set against a Halloween parade in New Orleans, but nobody’s intent on reinventing the wheel here. Things keep moving at a nice clip, but when the villains’ scheme is finally revealed, it’s rather underwhelming.

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While the action thriller beats are mostly generic, the character dynamics in Never Go Back shake things up a little. Reacher, Turner and Samantha are thrown together as an ad-hoc family unit: the strong silent type, the woman in charge and the moody teenager. Zwick finds just the right pitch such that the film has its intense, violent moments, but there’s also room for humour. The result is a movie that isn’t as downbeat and self-serious as it could’ve been, this lighter approach helping to offset the humdrum predictability of the main plot. There’s also a bit of a light shone on the plight of veterans who end up homeless or drug addicts after returning from combat abroad. Not an in-depth exploration of that serious topic by any means, but a glimpse of sobering reality in a largely inconsequential genre piece.

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There’s not too much to say about Cruise’s portrayal of Reacher because he never really becomes the character, he’s just Tom Cruise: action star. That’s not entirely a bad thing, because Tom Cruise the action star brings with him the charisma, confidence and physicality we’ve come to expect. At 54, he seems to be sprinting as fast as ever. It’s just that as portrayed in this and the previous Jack Reacher film, our hero is altogether too close to Ethan Hunt, Cruise’s character from the Mission: Impossible film series, when Reacher as described in the books should arguably be a little older and more wizened.

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If there’s one revelation out of this film, it’s that Smulders should totally be headlining more action flicks. In Never Go Back, she gets to kick significantly more ass than she has as Maria Hill in the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far. Turner uses a meat mallet and a garden hose as combat implements; Smulders acquitting herself well in the action scenes. She’s a performer with an innate likeability, and because Smulders isn’t as unyielding and severe as the stereotypical image of military woman is, it helps make Turner more of a well-rounded character. There’s a bit of a screwball back-and-forth between Turner and Reacher, and at no point does Turner come off as the designated love interest. This is something that we should be seeing more often in action thrillers.

Yarosh’s Samantha is the annoying tagalong kid through and through, but the character’s rough upbringing does earn her a bit of slack. It’s a role that would’ve been played by Kristen Stewart ten or so years ago. Hodge’s Espin, the guy whose job it is to pursue our protagonists but is just following orders, could’ve been plenty boring, but Hodge does bring the right amount of liveliness to the part.

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Never Go Back does suffer in the villain department: private military contractor bad guys are, by now, pretty old hat. Heusinger’s Terminator-esque assassin, sporting scary black gloves, is occasionally frightening but lacks truly formidable presence. Harkness, the general-turned-PMC boss, is a typical Robert Knepper character, which is to say, slimy and shady. Alas, he’s far from a match for Werner Herzog, who made quite the impact as The Zec in the first film in spite of his limited screen time.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is unambitious but never unwatchable. While Cruise’s talents were certainly put to better use in last year’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, it’s great seeing Smulders in action heroine mode, more than holding her own opposite a star of Cruise’s wattage.

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Summary: You’ve seen the military procedural stuff done better on TV, but a good number of action sequences and the somewhat unconventional action hero pairing of Tom Cruise and Cobie Smulders make this worthwhile.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Sully

For F*** Magazine

SULLY

Cast : Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Anna Gunn, Autumn Reeser, Holt McCallany, Jerry Ferrara, Sam Huntington
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 1h 36min
Opens : 8 September 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language)

sully-posterClint Eastwood takes us behind the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ in this biopic. On the morning of January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 is making a routine trip from New York City to Charlotte, North Carolina. When bird strikes cripple both engines, the plane comes in for an emergency water landing on the Hudson River, with all 155 souls on board miraculously surviving. At the controls are pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Hanks) and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles (Eckhart). Sully is vaunted in the press as a hero and becomes an overnight sensation, but the attention and scrutiny prove overwhelming for him and his wife Lorraine (Linney). The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concludes that according to simulations, Sully could have safely landed the plane back at LaGuardia Airport, calling his judgement into question and putting his career and reputation on the line.

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It’s easy to see why the public gravitated to the story of the Miracle on the Hudson: it was harrowing but ended well, it was a glimmer of good news amidst the usual barrage of negativity, and an endearing everyday hero was at its centre. But is there enough to the story to sustain a feature film? As it turns out, barely. At 96 minutes, Sully is shorter than your average ‘based-on-a-true-story’ drama, but even then, it feels padded out. The film quickly becomes repetitive, and the portrayal of Sully’s self-doubt lacks nuance. Todd Komarnicki’s screenplay trades in caricatures, and while we see what he’s going for with a scene in which a bartender excitedly pours Sully a cocktail he’s concocted in the pilot’s honour, it makes the true story come off as cartoony. A few passengers are highlighted in a folksy ‘aw shucks’ manner; these moments feel like they belong in a TV movie than an awards season film.

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The main selling point of the film apart from its director and star is the re-enactment of the dramatic water landing. The sequence, shot with the new Alexa IMAX cameras, has an appropriate graveness and tension to it, even if the moment of impact itself looks a little like it’s a cut-scene in a video game. Eastwood does an effective job of putting the audience in the cockpit as the situation unspools, but perhaps there’s something questionable about taking an almost-tragedy and turning it into big-screen spectacle. There’s merit to the argument that because it all ended well for everyone on board, nobody will take offense with this depiction, but it can also be argued that Sully is trading on disaster in a similar way to Titanic. Beyond that, there are distasteful, oblique visual references to 9/11 that seem manipulative in trying to elicit emotion through association with the terrorist attack.

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It’s hard to go too wrong when Tom Hanks is the de-facto heart of your movie. The actor brings his trademark affability to bear as an unassuming pilot whose world is shaken by a close call on the job, followed by equal amounts of hero worship and second-guessing. The world fell in love with the earnestness, graciousness, work ethic and humility displayed by Sully in the aftermath of the Hudson landing, and moviegoers in general have already fallen in love with Hanks. He suits the role despite bearing only the slightest passing resemblance to the real-life Sully, even with the white hair and moustache. It’s something of an obvious casting choice and while it might have been more interesting to see an actor who isn’t as established a ‘likeable everyman’ as Hanks take on the role, Hanks does an expectedly fine job with it.

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The conventionally-handsome Eckhart is a different brand of all-American than Hanks is, and they end up complementing each other nicely. Skiles received what some might say is a disproportionately small amount of the credit, but the working relationship and friendship between the two does brim with positivity. Because Eckhart looks more like the hero who would be landing the plane in a Hollywood action movie, it further accentuates the ‘unlikely hero’ quotient Hanks’ Sully has going for him.

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Linney’s abilities as an actress aren’t stretched very far, with Lorraine portrayed as little more than the stock worried wife back home. By design, the NTSB panellists are faceless suits, bureaucracy incarnate, their impersonality serving as a contrast to Sully’s humanness.

Sully is respectable in its own right, but the emotional heft present in the best biopics is lacking here. As the story was extensively covered by the media, we’re familiar with the broad strokes. While there’s some insight to be gleaned from the film and the procedural aspect is easy to follow, it’s nothing that’s remarkably revelatory. Sully is more like a single-engine Cessna than a commercial jetliner: airworthy but slight.

Summary: Tom Hanks’ dignified and likeable performance lifts Sully above the waters of mediocrity.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars    

Jedd Jong