Nope review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Jordan Peele
Cast : Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun, Brandon Perea, Michael Wincott, Wrenn Schmidt, Keith David, Terry Notary
Genre: Horror
Run Time : 130 min
Opens : 18 August 2022
Rating : M18

Jordan Peele has quickly established himself as a modern-day master of horror filmmaking, having won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Get Out, and following it up with Us. All eyes were on Peele to see where he would go next, and with Nope, Peele has our eyes pointed skywards.

Otis Jr. “OJ” Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald “Em” Haywood (Keke Palmer) are the children of Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David). The family business is Haywood’s Hollywood Horses, based in Agua Dulce, California and supplying horses for film and TV productions. The family is descended from the jockey featured in one of the very first motion pictures, depicting a galloping horse. The business has fallen on hard times, and after Otis Sr. dies in a freak accident, OJ sells several of the horses to Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), the proprietor of the Western-themed Jupiter’s Claim theme park.

As mysterious activity takes place in the skies, OJ and Em decide they want to document the unidentified phenomena, producing irrefutable evidence of extra-terrestrial beings that will then make them rich and famous. Angel (Brandon Perea), a salesman at Fry’s Electronics, and Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), a legendary cinematographer, get roped in to OJ and Em’s scheme. Meanwhile, Jupe plans an ambitious new show for his carnival called the Star Lasso Experience, one with the potential to go horribly awry. As the true nature of what is hiding behind the clouds is revealed, our heroes get more than they bargained for.

Given the increasingly corporate nature of big-budget filmmaking, it is rare to see directors get to make original movies on a grand scale. Peele’s prior successes have granted him “blank check” status, and it’s clear that he’s always motivated by a desire to explore certain ideas, instead of just making movies because that’s what’s expected of him. Peele’s knowledge of film history and love for the medium informs his work, leading to a textured, affectionately made result. This is Peele declaring how much he loves movies, while also laying out some of his frustrations with the current state of the industry. The actors are all charming, especially Keke Palmer, whose Em is neither damsel in distress nor gun-toting Ripley-esque heroine, feeling remarkably like a real person in a genre where characters are often very archetypical.

There are genuinely unsettling moments in Nope and some set-pieces that overflow with tension and dread, but for this reviewer, the best parts of the movie have nothing to do with the main UFO plot – or least, seem to have nothing to do with it at first. Much of the conversation about the movie surrounds a horrific flashback sequence detailing a supporting character’s tragic backstory. The movie works best if one knows as little about this as possible and has grim but insightful things to say about the monetisation of trauma.

Part of what made both Get Out and Us spine-tinglingly effective were the elaborate conspiracies Peele had constructed that provided the backdrop for both movies. By contrast, when we are given the explanation as to what is really going on with the strange object hiding in the cloud, it doesn’t feel quite as satisfying. It makes sense within the framework of the movie and given the prior set-up, but there isn’t that feeling of everything clicking into place, of horrifying realisation, that some viewers might be hoping for from Nope. There is a lot of set-up, and several scenes of OJ and Em hanging out with Angel might seem a little pointless. Peele’s movies are at the centre of the ongoing debate about “elevated horror” and if attempts at making highbrow genre movies are worthy or pretentious. For audiences who have already dismissed Peele as high-falutin’, Nope is unlikely to change their minds.

Nope is Peele’s commentary on spectacle, on the role of spectacle in movies and audiences’ relationship to it. Inspired in part by Spielberg movies like Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Nope attempts to interrogate our love affair with big, glossy crowd-pleasers, while trying to be one of those movies itself. The movie’s cinematographer is Hoyte Van Hoytema, who has collaborated with Christopher Nolan on Interstellar, Dunkirk, Tenet and the upcoming Oppenheimer. Nope lays claim to being the first horror movie filmed in IMAX. There are some truly impressive shots in the movie, and it is unlike the production line spectacle moviegoers have become accustomed to. Given the news of overworked visual effects artists driven to their breaking point making the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, the nature of cinematic spectacle is something worth thinking over. Nope also has things to say about the ethics of the use of animals in entertainment, the cycle of exploitation in the name of profit, and how that relates to mankind’s presumed supremacy over nature and other forces.

Summary: Jordan Peele’s latest movie is positioned as an enigma, like with Get Out and Us. While it might not be as viscerally satisfying as those two movies, and especially Get Out, there’s a lot in Nope to unpack and explore. Peele’s love for movies and his knowledge of the history of filmmaking inform a movie that is about our relationship to spectacle. The movie’s most terrifying sequences seem mostly disconnected from the main plot, Nope is frequently frustrating, but also genuinely unsettling and beautifully shot.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Matrix Resurrections review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Lana Wachowski
Cast : Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jessica Henwick, Jonathan Groff, Neil Patrick Harris, Jada Pinkett Smith, Christina Ricci
Genre: Sci-fi/Action/Adventure
Run Time : 148 min
Opens : 22 December 2021
Rating : PG13

In 1999, already a watershed year for Hollywood cinema, The Matrix changed the game. The film’s directors, the Wachowskis, vastly expanded the world of the Matrix with two theatrically released sequels in 2003, alongside an anthology of anime short films, a video game and various other media. While the two sequels received a far less enthusiastic reception than the first film, it was clear that the appetite for more Matrix was there. 18 years after Neo and Trinity were last seen on the big screen, we’re plugging back in.

Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a video game designer living in San Francisco. Coping with mental health issues, he sees a therapist known as the Analyst (Neil Patrick Harris), who prescribes him pills. At a coffee shop called Simulatte, Thomas sees a woman named Tiffany (Carrie-Anne Moss), whom he finds oddly familiar. It turns out that the world Thomas and Tiffany live in is a simulation called the Matrix, and that Thomas’ true identity is that of Neo. Bugs (Jessica Henwick), who bears a tattoo of a white rabbit, attempts to break Thomas out of the Matrix. At the end of The Matrix Revolutions, both Neo and Trinity – the true form of Tiffany – apparently died, but it seems like they are still alive. Now travelling with a new crew captained by Bugs, Neo must make sense of his reality as he seeks to rescue Trinity, as powerful forces stand in the way.

For anyone who feared The Matrix Resurrections would be a by-the-numbers retread or just a lazy nostalgia-fest (we’ve gotten several of those to varying degrees of laziness this past year), fear not: it’s weird. It’s the kind of weird which another film without the brand name association wouldn’t be able to pull off. While Lilly Wachowski opted not to co-direct this film because of personal issues and general exhaustion, Lana takes audiences back into the labyrinthian mythology of the series. It’s a joy to see Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss return, and to parse why some things remain the same and why others are different. There are several entertaining action sequences, even if nothing quite matches the inventiveness of the first film, and there was obviously a lot of thought put into how the franchise would continue, even if it doesn’t come together cohesively. It is ultimately rewarding especially for audiences who re-evaluated the Matrix sequels and came around on them.

When we say it doesn’t come together cohesively, we mean it. It’s fun to rewatch the original Matrix and realise how quaint, straightforward and easy to follow the narrative is compared to in the sequels. The Matrix Resurrections is confusing in such a way that some audiences will be intrigued and invested, and others will opt to tap out. At 148 minutes long, the movie is relatively light on action. There still is action, but there’s just much more exposition and world-building than there are set-pieces. The action is also shot and edited poorly and is often difficult to follow. Most of the movie unfolds in close-ups, so there aren’t quite enough opportunities to take a step back and take everything in. The new characters, apart from the possible exception of Bugs, receive little characterisation and mostly function to ferry Neo from place to place. Both the Smith and Morpheus characters return in some fashion, but are portrayed by different actors, thus sacrificing some of what made those characters so iconic. There’s probably a version of this that makes perfect sense, but it is not the version that made it to the screen.

One thing that’s fun is that this is a movie about the nature of franchise continuations. Thomas Anderson is forced to develop a new game in a series, after he thought that he had finished telling the story he had wanted to tell. Perhaps this reflects how Lilly referred to a potential Matrix sequel as “a particularly repelling idea in these times” during a 2015 interview. The Wachowskis’ work has always been marked by a certain earnestness and dorkiness, which Resurrections still has plenty of. However, there is at least a twinge of cynicism here. One line about the game studio’s parent company elicited especially raucous laughter. There is a post-credits scene, but a completely inconsequential one that almost feels like commentary on the trend of post-credits scenes. Resurrections is the most fun when it gets meta, but audiences will differ on whether this feels like astute commentary or if it takes one out of it.

Summary: The cultural footprint of the Matrix means that there’s a lot to play with, and there are far worse ways to revisit the franchise than The Matrix Resurrections. The movie’s relationship with its predecessors is fascinating, coming from both a place of deep affection for the series and a profound frustration with the state of Hollywood franchise filmmaking. This is far from wholly satisfying, but it’s weird and wild enough to justify its existence.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Ghostbusters: Afterlife review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Jason Reitman
Cast : McKenna Grace, Finn Wolfhard, Carrie Coon, Paul Rudd, Logan Kim, Celeste O’Connor
Genre: Action/Adventure/Comedy
Run Time : 124 min
Opens : 18 November
Rating : PG13

When it comes to long-dormant franchises, there’s usually one of two approaches to take: either a remake/reboot, or what’s come to be known as a ‘legacy sequel’. Both approaches have their risks, but fans generally seem more amenable to legacy sequels. These usually involve a new set of characters who have some connection to the characters of the original movie, with at least some of the older characters showing up in a supporting capacity. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is the latest example.

Single mother Callie (Carrie Coon) and her children Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (McKenna Grace) move to a rural town in Summerville, Oklahoma, after Callie’s father dies. He had come to be known as the ‘dirt farmer’ by locals and was apparently conducting strange experiments out of fear of a coming apocalypse. Phoebe has a keen interest in science and discovers artifacts in the basement of her grandfather’s house. Together with her classmate Podcast (Logan Kim) and summer school teacher Mr Grooberson (Paul Rudd), Phoebe uncovers the mystery of her grandfather’s experiments. Meanwhile, Trevor discovers an old Cadillac ambulance in the garage. Phoebe, Podcast, Mr Grooberson, Trevor and Trevor’s colleague/crush Lucky (Celeste O’Connor) eventually discover a conspiracy involving Ivo Shandor, the founder of Summerville, and come face to face with the apocalypse that Callie’s father was trying to prevent.

In an age of often-bloated franchise blockbusters, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is almost refreshingly low-key. Its relatively modest scale is a double-edged sword, as we’ll get to in a bit, but for the most part, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is surprisingly charming. With its rural setting, main characters who are kids, light comedy and supernatural/sci-fi adventure elements, this movie is very reminiscent of Amblin’s heyday. It’s no coincidence that Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard is in this, since Ghostbusters: Afterlife is mostly operating in that same mode. Much as director/co-writer Jason Reitman is paying tribute to his father Ivan, who directed and co-wrote the original film, this is also a Spielberg homage. Much of the humour in the original Ghostbusters came via Bill Murray’s smug, glib performance as Peter Venkman. The tone here seems a lot more earnest and sincere, more wide-eyed and less cynical.

One of the major pitfalls of legacy sequels is that they can devolve into a collapsing pile of Easter Eggs. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is mostly judicious with the fan-service, and most references to events of the first film make sense within the plot. However, there also is a lot of “look, there’s that thing that you like!” Ghostbusters: Afterlife can often feel too reverential, which is understandable given that it’s literally directed by the original filmmaker’s son. There’s meant to be a sense of awe around what this movie has in store for die-hard fans, most evident in how the identity of Callie’s father is apparently some huge secret, when everyone had already figured it out from the first trailer. It takes Ghostbusters: Afterlife almost an hour before the non-mystery is ‘solved’ and the grandfather’s name is confirmed aloud. As is common in legacy sequels, the characters come off more as links to the franchise’s past than as actual characters. This emphasis on ‘respect’ seems to primarily be a reaction to the 2016 reboot, to which there was an outsized, vitriolic ‘culture war’ backlash. That reverential fear sometimes holds Ghostbusters: Afterlife back, and it’s consequentially afraid to cut loose and be too funny, when the original film was primarily a comedy.

There’s also the matter of Ghostbusters: Afterlife’s status as an ‘event movie’. It wants to mostly be small and intimate, but also feels the pressure to provide big action set-pieces, and by the conclusion, turns into something akin to the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The younger Reitman infamously stated in 2007 that he did not want to make a Ghostbusters film, saying “Ghostbusters is iconic, but it’s my dad’s, and I don’t think I can touch that,” adding “It would be the most boring Ghostbusters movie of all time. There would be no ghost busting.” A lot can change in 14 years and Ghostbusters: Afterlife does have ghost busting in it, but there is slight conflict between the big-budget spectacle and the character drama.

One of the movie’s greatest strengths is its approach to the special/visual effects. The terror dogs are mostly executed with animatronic effects when they’re standing still, that then switches to CGI when they’re moving. The look of the proton streams is unmistakably 80s, evoking classic optical effects while not looking too dated. The Muncher ghost, this movie’s riff on Slimer, also looks sufficiently tactile, almost like he’s made of play-doh. The movie will often have something digital happen, then a practical explosion or spark as the pay-off, which works great. The effect that feels the most out of place is the ‘mini-pufts’, tiny Stay-Puft Marshmallow men who are completely digital and sometimes feel a bit synthetic compared to the other effects.

Summary: Often charming and amiable, Ghostbusters: Afterlife stands out amongst the landscape of big-budget franchise blockbusters by being a more intimate, lower-key affair. There is plenty here for long-time fans to latch on to, and while that means the movie is often in danger of becoming just an Easter Egg hunt, it also reflects the richness of the Ghostbusters mythology. Yes, there’s a lot of “here’s that thing that you like!” but it’s also offset by a genuine earnestness and sincerity. The mix of practical and digital effects to evoke the look of an 80s movie while not feeling too dated also largely works. Stay back for one mid-credits scene and one post-credits scene.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Eternals review

For F*** Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Reminiscence review

Director: Lisa Joy
Cast : Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Ferguson, Thandiwe Newton, Cliff Curtis, Daniel Wu, Marina de Tavira, Brett Cullen, Mojean Aria, Angela Sarafyan, Natalie Martinez
Genre: Sci-fi/Thriller
Run Time : 116 min
Opens : 18 August
Rating : NC16

Writer-director Lisa Joy goes from Westworld to Waterworld with this sci-fi noir set in a partially submerged city. Joy, who co-created the HBO series with her husband Jonathan Nolan, makes her feature directorial debut here.

It is the near future and most of Miami is underwater. Military veteran Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) runs a business offering “reminiscences” – clients undergo a procedure that helps them relive memories of their choice. Nick operates the business with fellow veteran Watts (Thandiwe Newton) and is sometimes called upon by the District Attorney’s office to use the reminiscence device for depositions. The technology was originally developed as an interrogation implement, but now, people use it to find solace in the happiness of their past. A mysterious nightclub singer named Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) visits Nick and Watts, ostensibly wanting to find her missing keys. This upends Nick’s existence, sparking an obsession with Mae that finds him embroiled in a far-reaching conspiracy involving such unsavoury characters as crime lord Saint Joe (Daniel Wu), Joe’s hired muscle Cyrus Boothe (Cliff Curtis) and land baron Walter Sylvan (Brett Cullen).

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Reminiscence marries its noir influences with a sci-fi aesthetic and central plot device to create a moody, atmospheric film. While it is hampered by certain elements, which we will get to in a bit, it’s often interesting to look at and is generally cast very well. The Greatest Showman co-stars Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Ferguson are called upon to play noir archetypes – he the trench coat-clad haunted private detective, she the sultry femme fatale chanteuse. Both actors fit these types perfectly, and convincingly inhabit the world that Joy has created. Joy brings many key crew members from Westworld along, including cinematographer Paul Cameron, production designer Howard Cummings and composer Ramin Djawadi. The world that Reminiscence takes place in feels expansive and well-realised. The result of climate disasters and rife with inequality and unrest, it is not as dramatic as other sci-fi dystopias, but feels quite plausible.  

Also from Westworld are actors Thandiwe Newton and Angela Sarafyan. Newton provides an excellent foil to Jackman, playing a survivor who is sardonic as a defence mechanism. Cliff Curtis turns in a supremely scuzzy performance, playing a crooked cop-turned mob enforcer.

A big problem with many neo-noir films is that they are too self-conscious about their influences, which is eminently evident here. You may have heard the phrase “this movie has watched a lot of movies” – Reminiscence is one of those. A lot of the dialogue is arch and unnatural, with the actors trying their best to make lines like “memories are like perfume. They work best in small doses.”

In trying to evoke the noir genre, Reminiscence can sometimes hold the audience at arm’s length. Joy is very conscientious about the world-building, but that means it’s not just the flooded Miami streets but also exposition that the characters must wade through. The first half of the film is sometimes slow, such that when there are two action sequences later, they almost feel as if they belong in a different film.  

The performance that sticks out as being particularly bad is Daniel Wu’s. His character is meant to be a dangerous, sexy crime boss, but his swagger feels affected and the character’s code-switching between English and Mandarin Chinese is sometimes stilted.

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The central device of accessing one’s memories via technology isn’t a new thing in sci-fi, but the way it is realised in Reminiscence is visually compelling. Subjects are partially submerged before the process can begin, further reinforcing the film’s water motif – perhaps a metaphor for how remembering past events is like looking at something through water. The memories are then projected onto a circular platform, like theatre in the round, which creates 3D holographic images via crystalline strings of bulbs. The resulting image feels slightly intangible – it’s right in front of the characters, but they can’t quite touch it. It’s the most elegant visual in the film.

Summary: Drawing on the expertise she gained as the co-showrunner of Westworld, Lisa Joy makes her feature film directorial debut with a movie that is ambitious if rough around the edges. Reminiscence is sometimes murky and, like its futuristic setting, can feel waterlogged. However, Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Ferguson’s bona fide movie star performances make the film more convincing than it would be otherwise. The sci-fi trappings are visually captivating and the world that the movie takes place in is well constructed.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Free Guy review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Shawn Levy
Cast : Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, Taika Waititi, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Lil Rel Howery, Joe Keery, Camille Kostek
Genre: Action/Comedy/Sci-fi
Run Time : 115 min
Opens : 12 August (Sneaks 11 August)
Rating : PG13

As a hero’s journey begins, they have that moment when they realise they’re meant for more than their existence, whether it’s Luke Skywalker gazing at the twin sunset over Tatooine, or Belle singing “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere”. In this sci-fi action comedy, an NPC (non-player character) in a video game realises he’s meant for more than being shot at by gamers.

Guy (Ryan Reynolds) is a bank teller in Free City, an open-world multiplayer online video game that’s something of a cross between Grand Theft Auto and Fortnite. NPCs follow scripts and routines, but Guy is different – he’s capable of making decisions he shouldn’t be. Guy falls hard for Molotov Girl/Millie (Jodie Comer), a player in Free City with a specific agenda. Years ago, Millie and Keys (Joe Keery) developed an indie video game that was bought out by gaming giant Soonami, the publishers of Free City. Millie must prove that Antwan (Taika Waititi), the megalomaniacal Soonami boss, stole the build that she and Keys originally developed. Guy holds the key to this, as he grapples with the reality of his existence and it becomes a race against time to save him, his best friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) and the other denizens of Free City who are threatened by Antwan’s never-ending quest for profit.

Free Guy is entertaining and energetic, a studio blockbuster refreshingly devoid of many of the pitfalls associated with present-day studio blockbuster filmmaking. This is a good-hearted escapist adventure that is about an idealistic character making his way in a cynical world. There are many parallels to The LEGO Movie and The Truman Show, with the film also capturing the sense of ‘happy chaos’ that fuelled The LEGO Movie. Shawn Levy, who directed the Night at the Museum Trilogy, Real Steel and multiple episodes of Stranger Things, confidently handles the visual effects-heavy component of the movie while bringing humanity to the material. Best of all, it largely doesn’t feel like the product of studio execs wringing their hands, wondering “do the kids like this?”

The movie is an excellent showcase for Ryan Reynolds, who has crafted his movie star persona around being something of a wiseass. He knows he can be annoying, but here, Reynolds’ Guy is always endearing, an innocent who’s very easy to root for.

Jodie Comer, whom audiences might know from Killing Eve, acquits herself admirably in the dual roles of Millie and her avatar Molotov Girl. Comer is convincing as both a withdrawn video game developer and a badass, confident action heroine, and shares great chemistry with both Reynolds and Keery. This reviewer did not expect Free Guy to be a genuinely moving romance, but it is.

It’s inherent in the style of video game that Free Guy is referencing, but the movie is sometimes too frenetic and in-your-face. There are moments when it seems like it wants to have a bit of a harder edge, and while it’s all in the context of a video game, the violence can come off as quite excessive for what is ostens ibly a family film. The cameos from real life streamers Jacksepticeye, Ninja, Pokimane, DanTDM and LazarBeam did pull this reviewer out of it, and it’s elements like this and the specific Fortnite-like stylisation of the game that will almost immediately date Free Guy. It’s also just a matter of time before one of the afore-mentioned streamers gets “cancelled” (one might argue one or more already have been), and the filmmakers might regret their movie being associated with them. Perhaps feeling dated is just unavoidable with any movie related to video games, seeing how quickly games progress.

Taika Waititi’s performance is initially amusing, but quickly becomes grating. He’s doing way too much, turning it up to eleven and hamming it up as Antwan. Yes, tech moguls often have an inflated perception of themselves, but even considering this, Waititi’s portrayal feels too cartoonish for Antwan to be truly threatening.

Much as this reviewer enjoyed the romance, there are audiences who might feel that it is tacked on. One of the NPCs realises that she can be her own woman and doesn’t need to be in a relationship, so it might seem contradictory that the film itself ignores this.

Free Guy is cleverly constructed, and one big thing working for it is that the filmmakers understand the world of videogames. They understand that online gaming can be an incredibly toxic space where people feel free to be their worst selves. They also understand that game studios can be awful workplaces and that the people who run such studios can be abusive; especially timely considering the horrifying revelations coming out about Activision/Blizzard. However, the makers of Free Guy also clearly love video games and understand their appeal and have built a truly engrossing world. There is a heartfelt message about how online spaces do not have to reward our worst instincts, and that there are people who create and play video games who desire an oasis away from the typical behaviour associated with gamers. There’s an unexpected level of nuance which elevates Free Guy above just being a good sci-fi action-comedy, which it already is.

Summary: The best studio blockbuster this summer arrives better late than never. An inventive, dynamic and even moving sci-fi action comedy, Free Guy is a delight. Beyond making canny use of stars Ryan Reynolds and Jodie Comer, the movie displays an understanding of the world of videogames, from the perspective of both gamers and developers. It tackles the often-toxic elements of video game culture while staying a safe distance from sanctimony, and while the world of Free City is chaotic, it is also genuinely exciting to spend time in. Free Guy is satisfying entertainment in a way most blockbusters burdened with setting up the next entry in a franchise rarely are.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

A Quiet Place Part II review

For F*** Magazine

Director: John Krasinski
Cast : Emily Blunt, Cillian Murphy, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, Djimon Hounsou, John Krasinski
Genre: Horror/Thriller/Sci-fi
Run Time : 97 min
Opens : 17 June 2021 (Sneaks from 5 June)
Rating : PG13

In 2018, A Quiet Place became a sleeper hit with audiences and critics alike. While John Krasinski had directed two feature films before, it was A Quiet Place that made everyone sit up and take notice of his skill behind the camera. The film’s box office success all but guaranteed that a sequel would be made, but especially after the pandemic has forced this sequel to be delayed for an additional year, can it live up to the brilliance of the first film?

After discovering that a high-frequency noise can drive away the monsters that have killed most of the earth’s population, the Abbott family must venture into the outside world. Evelyn (Emily Blunt) and her children Regan (Millicent Simmonds), Marcus (Noah Jupe), and a newborn baby leave the farm where they have been hiding for years. They come across fellow survivor Emmett (Cillian Murphy), whom they knew from before the monsters took over the earth. While the Abbotts are armed with a way of repelling the monsters, that doesn’t mean they’re safe, as they discover that the monsters are far from the only threats that lie in wait for them.

Krasinski continues to display strong directorial skill, staging several tense, thrilling set-pieces. The film’s opening sequence, which is a flashback that takes place on the very first day of the attack, is a killer way to start the film, allowing the audience to witness the initial moments of chaos that will change the Abbotts’ lives, and the lives of everyone else on earth, forever. This movie is not quite as scary as the first film, but there are a healthy amount of edge-of-your-seat moments.

The performances are as solid as they were in the first film, with Millicent Simmonds’ Regan getting more to do in this one. Cillian Murphy has a haunted quality to him that works well for the role of a ragged survivor. This film switches the character dynamics up by having Emmet try to protect Regan when she strikes out on her own, determined to find other survivors. This makes A Quiet Place Part II seem even more like the video game The Last of Us than the first movie did, with Emmet analogous to Joel and Regan analogous to Ellie.

Unfortunately, in trying to open the world and do something different, A Quiet Place Part II is not as good as the first movie. The sense of intimacy and the feeling of it being a very personal project for Krasinski and Blunt are somewhat diminished here, even though Krasinski arguably had more say over this one since he’s the sole credited writer. Krasinski was initially reluctant to return for the sequel, planning to pitch story ideas but hand the film off to another director, before he was convinced to return.

While Murphy puts in a good performance, Emmet can’t help but feel like a replacement for Krasinski’s Lee. The movie introduces some interesting ideas about the world beyond and certain groups of survivors, then quickly abandons them. Blunt has less to do here than one might expect. Also, since we already know what the monsters look like, they’re much more clearly visible in this film and sometimes feel a bit less scary because of it.

Just as in the first film, the sound design is an integral component in A Quiet Place Part II. The film very smartly uses the subjectivity of sound, with the sound dropping out entirely when we’re seeing – or rather, hearing – things from Regan’s point of view since the character is hearing-impaired. Sound designers Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl and sound mixer Brandon Proctor do a marvellous job creating a soundscape for a world where making too much noise can be deadly. It’s especially interesting to start the film out with a flashback, seeing and hearing the world as normal, before jumping forward to show the contrast.

Summary: A Quiet Place Part II feels less personal than the first film, but considering the high bar that’s been set, it’s still a thoroughly thrilling, immersive experience and a remarkably well-made monster movie that is a further evolution of John Krasinski as a director. The film also serves as a showcase for Millicent Simmonds, arguably the breakout star of the first film. It’s well worth the additional year’s wait necessitated by the pandemic.

RATING: 4 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

Chaos Walking review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Doug Liman
Cast : Daisy Ridley, Tom Holland, Mads Mikkelsen, Demián Bichir, Cynthia Erivo, Nick Jonas, David Oyelowo, Kurt Sutter
Genre: Action/Adventure/Sci-fi
Run Time : 109 min
Opens : 11 March 2021
Rating : PG13

In this Young Adult (YA) sci-fi adventure, the men are thinking out loud, and not in an Ed Sheeran way.

Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland) is a boy living in Prentisstown, a settlement on the planet New World. The planet creates a phenomenon whereby every thought a man has is rendered audible and visible as “Noise” – this does not affect women. There are no women left in Prentisstown, so when Todd meets Viola (Daisy Ridley), she is the first woman he’s ever seen. Viola has crash-landed on New World, having lived her whole life on a colony ship. Todd and Viola go on the run and are pursued by Prentisstown mayor David Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen) and the mad preacher Aaron (David Oyelowo).

Chaos Walking is based on Patrick Ness’ novel The Knife of Never Letting Go. There are plenty of interesting ideas at play here, and there is the potential for an exploration into the societal roles of gender, and the organisation of societies, that is touched upon if not fully explored. The premise of one’s thoughts being aired out for all to hear is an inherently compelling one, and there is some tension to be mined from that, with characters struggling to mask their thoughts, to suppress their Noise.

The film is solidly cast. Both Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley are likeable here, with Holland playing a believably earnest young man, and Ridley as a frightened but resourceful survivor. Their respective characters in this film are not a million miles away from the big franchise characters they’re both best known for portraying.

The supporting cast is strong too, with Mads Mikkelsen cutting an imposing figure, even if his humongous fur coat makes him look like he’s cosplaying as the bear from The Revenant. Demián Bichir is affecting with very little screen time as one of Todd’s two dads, while Cynthia Erivo is a commanding presence as the mayor of a distant settlement. Nick Jonas is suitably petulant as Prentiss’ son, who is jealous of Todd, whom Prentiss seems to favour over him.

While the Noise might work conceptually on the page, the way it’s rendered in the movie is very awkward. Chaos Walking is at once dull and a sensory overload, as if by design. Most of the movie consists of reverb-heavy ADR lines, and it gets annoying after a while. This is the hook of the story, so there’s no getting away from it.

Ironically for a movie about characters’ inner lives, the characters in Chaos Walking all feel kind of flat and standard issue. The most interesting element to Todd is that he struggles with expectations of how masculinity must be performed, and of putting on a tough exterior. Meanwhile, Viola is little more than “the girl”. Both actors do what they can, it isn’t quite enough.

Most of the dialogue is exposition, and there’s a lot of table-setting. Even though this is a movie in which the protagonists are relentlessly pursued, it rarely feels dangerous enough. The stakes are ostensibly high, but the movie doesn’t seem terribly interested in them. While there is some humour to be derived from Todd’s awkwardness around the first woman he’s ever met, the movie is largely self-serious which means several moments – including a scene in which a naked Todd wrestles a snakelike beast in a lake – are unintentionally funny.

Visually, Chaos Walking is patently uninteresting. Mostly filmed in forests in Québec, the movie is going for a frontier-style aesthetic with the horses, log cabins and fur coats. It’s not that this idiom can’t work in a sci-fi setting, but the movie just doesn’t feel sufficiently dynamic or engaging, and it’s easy to forget that New World isn’t just earth.

Anyone who’s followed the news of the movie’s development knows that it’s been a tumultuous process. The movie was announced in 2011, just before the height of the dystopian YA adaptation craze (the first Hunger Games movie opened in 2012), and after multiple writers took a crack at the script, director Doug Liman began principal photography on the movie in 2017. By this time, audiences have largely lost interest in Hunger Games-adjacent properties: the final film in the Divergent series didn’t even get made.

An early cut of Chaos Walking was deemed “unreleasable” by Lionsgate executives, an adjective that is and will continue to be an albatross around this movie’s neck. Ness was brought on board to write the reshoots, but scheduling proved difficult because both Holland and Ridley were busy with other films.

Summary: Chaos Walking benefits from a good cast and is playing with some thought-provoking ideas, but its execution is altogether too dull. It’s far from the outright disaster that the troubled production might indicate but is too generic to revive the flagging dystopian YA adaptation genre.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong