Don’t Worry Darling review

Director: Olivia Wilde
Cast : Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, Olivia Wilde, Gemma Chan, KiKi Layne, Nick Kroll, Chris Pine, Timothy Simons, Dita Von Teese
Genre: Thriller/Drama
Run Time : 122 min
Opens : 22 September 2022
Rating : M18

It’s the buzziest film of the year. You’ve read the breathless headlines. You’ve seen the memes. You might have even seen the edited video in which Harry Styles appears to toss a goat into Chris Pine’s lap. But what’s left when you strip away all the hullabaloo?

It is the 1950s. Alice (Florence Pugh) and Jack (Harry Styles) are a married couple living in the company town of Victory, California. Jack works for the Victory Corporation, headed by the charismatic and enigmatic Frank (Chris Pine), who is married to Shelley (Gemma Chan). He is forbidden from discussing his top-secret job with his wife. Each morning, the men get in their cars and drive across the desert to the company’s headquarters, where they go about their top-secret work. The women, including Alice and her best friend Bunny (Olivia Wilde), live a leisurely existence, shopping, lounging around the pool and taking dance classes. However, Alice begins noticing that something is amiss after fellow resident Margaret (KiKi Layne) begins acting erratically. She is convinced that there is more to Victory than meets the eye, as she becomes increasingly disturbed.

This is director Olivia Wilde’s second feature film after Booksmart and it is a different beast from that coming-of-age comedy-drama. Don’t Worry Darling is ambitious and sees Wilde play with some intriguing components, even if they might not all go together well. The design elements of the film are eye-catching, and the sunny locations are unique, in a time when a lot of movies look a little muddy. Director of Photography Matthew Libatique, an oft-collaborator of Darren Aronofsky, does excellent work here. There are times when the film does feel Aronofsky-esque.

Don’t Worry Darling features yet another compulsively watchable Florence Pugh performance. It makes sense that she was cast off the strength of her performance in Midsommar, in which she also played a protagonist caught in outwardly idyllic but ultimately sinister surroundings. She fully deserves to be one of the most sought-after young actresses of the moment, and in Pugh’s hands, Alice is very easy to root for. It’s not necessarily the most layered or interesting role, even though the film sets her up as being a complex character, but Pugh does quite a bit with it.

Chris Pine is clearly enjoying himself as a cult leader-esque figure, charming yet undeniably sinister.

It takes quite a while to get there, but the movie’s final act is propulsive and entertaining, even if it isn’t a fully satisfying pay-off for the set-up.

Don’t Worry Darling is often awkward and inelegant, altogether too obvious when its dread should be creeping up on the audience, rather than bonking them over the head. It seems caught between arthouse aspirations and a pulpier, more visceral, throwback B-movie side. The movie also feels considerably longer than its 122 minutes, and it seems to spend a lot of time attempting to establish that Alice senses something is wrong, without really offering much in the way of subtle clues or carefully timed moments to throw the audience off. Once the big reveal happens, it’s hard not to question the mechanics of everything, and audiences might be a bit too busy parsing the logic (or lack thereof) to engage with the movie.

Harry Styles is miscast. His performance brings to mind one of Stephen King’s criticisms of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining: the Jack Torrance character is supposed to start off as an ordinary family man and gradually unravel, but Jack Nicholson already seems deranged at the start of the film. It’s not quite the same thing, but Harry Styles has trouble playing unassuming, and seems to be simultaneously attempting to suppress his modern-day Britpop eccentricity, while also remembering that it is part of his brand.

I alluded to it up top, and it would be impossible to discuss Don’t Worry Darling without mentioning the inordinate amount of drama and controversy surrounding its production. From Wilde firing Shia LaBeouf, to being served divorce papers while presenting the film at CinemaCon, to the on-set relationship between Wilde and Styles, to the alleged rift between Wilde and Pugh, to LaBeouf saying he quit instead of being fired, to Styles allegedly spitting on Pine at the Venice International Film Festival, it’s been a lot. It is difficult to separate all this from the movie itself, and it may have influenced some critics who have been exceedingly harsh on Don’t Worry Darling.

Even if none of that had happened, it would already be intriguing that Wilde had decided to attach herself to a screenplay written by Shane and Carey Van Dyke, whose credits separately and together include the ‘mockbusters’ Transmorphers: Fall of Man, The Day the Earth Stopped, Titanic II and Paranormal Entity. Booksmart co-writer Katie Silberman rewrote the Van Dyke brothers’ script.

Summary: It’s difficult to separate Don’t Worry Darling from the flurry of behind-the-scenes controversy, but the movie itself is not quite the disaster that the general critical consensus is making it out to be. It could stand to be defter and more elegant, and perhaps it could have arrived at its exciting final act quite a bit faster, but Don’t Worry Darling has a pulpy quality to it and is sometimes entertaining. Florence Pugh does a remarkable amount of heavy lifting, almost enough to compensate for Harry Styles being miscast. It will be remembered more for the surrounding controversy than on its own merits, but there are things to recommend.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Death on the Nile (2022) review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Kenneth Branagh
Cast : Kenneth Branagh, Tom Bateman, Annette Bening, Russell Brand, Ali Faizal, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Emma Mackey, Sophie Okonedo, Letitia Wright, Rose Leslie
Genre: Mystery/Thriller
Run Time : 127 min
Opens : 10 February 2022
Rating : PG13

For a while there, it seemed the great detective Hercule Poirot had met a conundrum even he couldn’t solve: delays brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. After at least five changes in release date, Kenneth Branagh’s follow-up to 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express finally sails into cinemas.

Death on the Nile is based on the Agatha Christie novel of the same name. Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) happens to meet his friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) at the Great Pyramids of Giza in Egypt. Bouc invites Poirot along for the elaborate wedding party of heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) and Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer). Linnet has booked the luxury steam paddler Karnak for a pleasure cruise down the Nile. She is wary of all the guests to some extent – these include her maid Louise (Rose Leslie), her cousin and attorney Andrew Katchadourian (Ali Faizal), her godmother Marie Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders) and Van Schuyler’s nurse Mrs Bowers (Dawn French), doctor and Linnet’s former beau Linus Windlesham (Russell Brand), jazz singer Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okondeo) and Salome’s niece/manager Rosalie (Letitia Wright), and Bouc’s mother Euphemia (Annette Bening). Matters are complicated by the sudden arrival of Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey), Simon’s former fiancé who is angry at Linnet for stealing him away from her. When one of the passengers is murdered, Poirot must solve the mystery before more members of the party get picked off.

The movie largely retains the style and feel of Murder on the Orient Express, that of a glamorous, old-fashioned mystery. Where that film suffered somewhat from seemed to be Branagh’s infatuation with his own performance, he is less showy here. That’s not to say Poirot isn’t still the centre of attention, but Death on the Nile humanises the character and shows us cracks in the façade by giving him more personal involvement in the mystery. Screenwriter Michael Green performs a largely clever adaptation, with several of the changes serving to add more continuity with the preceding film. The movie is gorgeous to behold, with cinematographer Harris Zambarloukos, production designer Jim Clay and costume designer Paco Delgado among other crew making things look postcard perfect. The painterly visuals of Murder on the Orient Express are pushed even further here.

Unfortunately, the movie’s look could also create a sense of artifice. It looks like there was more green screen used here than on Disney’s Jungle Cruise, and there are weirdly also almost as many computer-generated animals. It doesn’t feel like the cast ever stepped foot in Egypt, and indeed most of the production took place in Longcross Studios in Surrey and in Morocco. The digital oil painting look creates some distance between the audience and the story. The way everything is deliberately staged and choreographed lends the movie a certain aesthetic, but also reminds audiences of the artifice. Some critics have also taken issue with how long the movie takes to get to the titular murder. In addition to the necessary set-up establishing all our characters, there is a prologue set during the First World War, depicting Poirot’s time in the Belgian army.

At first glance, this movie’s cast isn’t quite as starry as that of Murder on the Orient Express, but it’s still nothing to sniff at. Branagh has settled into playing Poirot – it’s still a faintly ridiculous performance, but also a comfortably enjoyable one.

Gal Gadot is suitably glamorous as Linnet Ridgeway, while Armie Hammer plays exactly the kind of role one would cast him in while he was still able to get cast in things.

One of the major changes from the book is that Salome Otterbourne is a jazz musician instead of a romance novelist. This allows the movie to cut loose in several musical sequences, and making Salome and Rosie Black amidst mostly white characters further adds to the tension. The movie is never too heavy-handed about this, and both Sophie Okonedo and Letitia Wright are lively presences.

Sex Education star Emma Mackey is an appropriately dramatic spurned lover. One thing that is distracting is that Mackey, Gadot and Wright are playing characters who are meant to be around the same age, when Gadot is ten years older than Mackey and eight years older than Wright.

It’s a great deal of fun seeing comedy duo French and Saunders show up, even if their presence runs the risk of making the movie feel a bit like a comedy sketch. Annette Bening is having a great time playing the snarky, overbearing mother.

As in most whodunits, there are many characters to keep track of, but like previous adaptations of Death on the Nile, this movie has already cut the roster down by a bit and amalgamated certain characters.

Summary: While Death on the Nile is a little too self-conscious and mannered, it is still an entertaining, lavishly produced murder mystery. Director/star Kenneth Branagh’s second go-round as Hercule Poirot is a little less silly than before, and he has an eclectic, watchable cast in tow. While perhaps a little too synthetic, the scenery is still lovely to look at. It’s not quite worth all the fuss brought about by the repeated shuffling of its release dates but is far from a wash.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Nightmare Alley (2021) review

For F*** Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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

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

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

47 Meters Down: Uncaged review

For inSing

47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED

Director: Johannes Roberts
Cast : Sophie Nélisse, Corinne Foxx, Brianne Tju, Sistine Stallone, John Corbett, Nia Long
Genre : Adventure/Thriller
Run Time : 1 h 30 mins
Opens : 29 August 2019
Rating : PG13

            In 2017, 47 Meters Down chronicled the misadventures of two sisters who got into a shark cage while on vacation in Mexico. As the title suggests, this sequel dispenses with the cage, following four friends into caves where sharks are waiting.

Mia (Sophie Nélisse) is having a hard time at school where she is constantly bullied, and has trouble getting along with her stepsister Sasha (Corinne Foxx). Their dad Grant (John Corbett) is a commercial diver who is mapping a sunken Mayan city, preparing for visiting archaeologists.

Sasha’s friend Alexa (Brianne Tju), who has followed Grant’s employee Ben (Davi Santos) into the caves, convinces Mia, Sasha and Nicole (Sistine Stallone) to go exploring in the caves. The plan is to swim into the first chamber and then return, but naturally, things go wrong. Sharks which have adapted to the low-light conditions of the underwater caverns terrorise the girls, who are trapped with a fast-depleting oxygen supply. The four girls must help each other survive and escape.

Director Johannes Roberts returns for the sequel, which has no characters in common with its predecessor. In a way, 47 Meters Down: Uncaged seems like a typical direct-to-DVD sequel, with a different cast but a similar premise to the first. However, Uncaged has a noticeably bigger budget than the first movie. Roberts is more ambitious with this film, staging several exciting sequences that are more elaborate than what we saw in 47 Meters Down, which was by its nature quite spare.

Shooting any movie underwater is no small logistical undertaking, especially given the film’s limited budget. The film’s set design and explosive finale sequence contribute to a slightly bigger feel than its predecessor.

With its all-female main cast, 47 Meters Down: Uncaged is kind of like a less-gnarly version of The Descent. Roberts cowrote the screenplay with Ernest Riera; it appears neither knows how teenage girls talk to each other. The movie struggles to parcel out enough information about our protagonists before the action begins such that we care about them when they’re in peril. As such, the characters are all thinly drawn.

Sophie Nélisse, who put in an excellent performance in The Book Thief, is the awkward, level-headed protagonist. Succumbing to peer pressure, she is coaxed into doing something silly and dangerous by her stepsister and her friends. Giving off slight Saoirse Ronan vibes, Nélisse is the best actress of the four, in part because there is just that little bit more to her character than to the others

Corrine Foxx, daughter of Jamie, plays a character who’s a bit stuck up. Naturally, the two stepsisters will bond over the course of their harrowing ordeal. Sistine Stallone, daughter of Sylvester, is there to be the party animal friend who in horror movie terms is almost begging to be the first to die.

Brianne Tju’s Alexa is confident without being annoying, and next to Mia, is the one who knows what’s she doing.

John Corbett puts in some dependable character actor work, playing what amounts to a textbook supporting role.

The visual effects work, mainly created by Outpost VFX, is mostly good. The sharks have evolved to survive in the submerged caves, making them register more as movie monsters than regular sharks. The film ends with a disclaimer message stating that around 10 people die in shark attacks each year, vs 100 million sharks that get killed by humans. There is a valid fear that movies like 47 Meters Down: Uncaged perpetuate a disproportionate fear of sharks, so that might be why Roberts has played up the movie monster attributes of the animals in this film.

47 Meters Down: Uncaged is often trapped between being all-out campy fun and being a legitimately scary thriller. Despite weak writing and a somewhat dull middle stretch, the film is mostly entertaining, so much so that one could almost forgive it ripping off Deep Blue Sea’s most memorable scene.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Crawl review

CRAWL

Director: Alexandre Aja
Cast :  Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Anson Boon, Jose Palma
Genre : Horror/Thriller
Run Time : 1 h 27 mins
Opens : 11 July 2019
Rating : NC16

        Mother Nature’s fury manifests in twofold terrors in Crawl, with our heroine battling a vicious storm and a congregation of alligators.

A Category 5 hurricane bears down on the small Florida town of Coral Lake, with the residents ordered to evacuate. Haley Keller (Kaya Scodelario) goes against the order to rescue her father Dave (Barry Pepper), who is trapped inside their rapidly-flooding house. With the fierce weather conditions making a rescue impossible, it’s up to Haley to get her father to safety. The storm has brought with it toothy, hungry alligators, who have converged on Coral Lake. Haley and Dave must draw on every bit of their survival instincts to make it out alive.

After the explosive success of 1975’s Jaws, which all but invented the modern summer blockbuster, there was an influx of natural horror films which tried to capitalise on said success. These included Grizzly, Orca and yes, Alligator. Crawl feels like a throwback to that era of natural horror movies, and there’s a certain amount of knowing what you’re getting when one watches a movie like Crawl.

The film is directed by Alexandre Aja, who became famous for the French horror film Haute Tension and went on to make The Hills Have Eyes, Piranha 3D and Horns in Hollywood. Aja has a knack for suspense, and he brings plenty of that to Crawl. While there are many violent, gory moments, Crawl is superficially scary but never really affecting because of the silliness inherent in the premise. Alligators can be terrifying, but as rendered in Crawl, they’ve become slasher villains, feeling more like movie monsters than actual animals. Part of what made Jaws scary was the intelligence attributed to the shark, but too much of that can conversely make audiences aware that they’re watching monsters that were written to hunt down the heroes, rather than animals who behave like animals.

Crawl is a well-constructed theme park ride which, not entirely unlike the recent Annabelle Comes Home, is a good movie to go to with friends, scream at while grabbing each other’s arms, and then go home and forget about. The computer-generated animation on the alligators is mostly very good, but the backdrops, especially the storm cloud-filled skies, are patently unconvincing. The film is set in Florida but was shot in Belgrade, Serbia to benefit from tax rebates. It is a modestly budgeted horror movie which still mostly looks good and never feels too cheap.

Much of what makes Crawl work is the performances from Scodelario and Pepper. This reviewer’s friend has often said that Scodelario would be the ideal actress to play Ripley in a reboot of the Alien franchise, and Crawl is a good demo reel for that. She is trapped in damp, claustrophobic spaces, wielding a dynamo torch and fending off scaly critters. Scodelario convincingly essays someone who is skilled and resourceful, but is also justifiably scared out of her wits.

Pepper is the dude in distress for much of the movie, with Scodelario’s Haley doing much of the work, but we do get invested in his plight and want father and daughter to make it out alright. Both Scodelario and Pepper take things very seriously, such that tempting as it might be to laugh at the premise, it never becomes self-parody. It does get a bit wink-and-nod by imperilling a dog, paddling for its life as the alligators bear down on it.

Crawl is far from the most ground-breaking horror movie, but if anything, its throwback nature lends it a degree of charm. This is not a movie that’s trying to be the edgiest, most philosophical or most disturbing movie, it’s trying to be a thrill ride and with a master of suspense at the helm, it accomplishes its goal. Like many natural horror movies, it plays up the monstrousness of real animals and portrays them as especially vicious, but it is in service of an entertaining time.

RATING: 3.5 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

Glass review

GLASS

Director : M. Night Shyamalan
Cast : James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Paulson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard
Genre : Thriller/ horror
Run Time : 2 h 9 mins
Opens : 17 January 2019
Rating : PG13

Every studio wants a cinematic universe. M. Night Shyamalan sprung a surprise on viewers, as is his wont, with the reveal at the end of 2017’s Split that the film took place in the same shared universe as 2000’s Unbreakable. The ‘Eastrail #177 trilogy’ culminates with Glass.

Kevin Crumb/The Horde (James McAvoy), a man with Dissociative Identity Disorder who harbours 24 distinct personalities including the animalistic Beast, is still at large after the events of Split. When the vigilante David Dunn/The Overseer (Bruce Willis) attempts to capture Kevin, both are inadvertently caught and placed in Raven Hill Memorial Hospital. At the hospital, Dr Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), believing Kevin and David to have delusions of grandeur, attempts to rehabilitate them. She has a third patient: Elijah Price/Mr Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), a self-styled supervillain and former comic book gallery owner with brittle bone disease.

Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), a girl who was captured by Kevin but let go; David’s son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) and Elijah’s mother Mrs Price (Charlayne Woodard) band together to discover the truth behind what afflicts the three characters. Dr Staple is convinced that there are rational, non-fantastical explanations for the ‘powers’ manifested by Kevin, David and Elijah, despite appearances to the contrary. Elijah, who has been feigning catatonia the whole time, hatches a plan of escape, a plan that involves both Kevin and David. The stage for a showdown between two supervillains and a superhero is set.

At the time of Unbreakable’s release, the comic book movie boom was still around a decade away. General audiences were not yet as well-versed in the tropes of comic book storytelling as they are today, so now seems like a good time to release a follow-up to Unbreakable. Unfortunately, Glass squanders this opportunity, winding up as a colossal disappointment that seems to get in its own way at every conceivable turn.

It’s a shame because Glass isn’t a mess from the outset: we see the glimmers of potential, then watch as they are dulled, until the film seems like a big smear. The movie sets up a dynamic clash between three fascinating characters, but they feel like shadows of the people we met in earlier films. McAvoy is more annoying than unsettling as Kevin, Willis’ David is straight-up boring, and Jackson’s portrayal of a conniving mastermind is serviceable but nothing captivating.

Shyamalan gets a few pleasingly tense moments in but is unable to sustain the viewers’ attention. The film feels hemmed in by its mental hospital setting, promising a set-piece finale that winds up severely underwhelming. This undercuts the promise of a grand, explosive conclusion to the trilogy. The dialogue is unbearably clunky in spots, with Shyamalan struggling to weave in references to story arcs and devices commonly found in comic books. His trademark cameo is also entirely awkward.

Split deservedly drew flack for its use of mental illness to signal life-threatening villainy. This reviewer’s friend compared it to a Universal Monsters film, except Frankenstein’s Monster and the Mummy aren’t real and Dissociative Identity Disorder is a real thing. While McAvoy sinks his teeth into the challenging role, the hints of hammy over-acting in Split have all come to the surface. As a result, Kevin is never truly scary and is sometimes unintentionally funny, and it just blends into a mass of silly voices.

While it is nice to see Willis back as David Dunn and there’s also strong continuity in seeing Spencer Treat Clark reprise his role as David’s son Joseph, the character just isn’t that interesting. Perhaps it’s a side effect of how Willis has spent much of his recent career sleep-walking through many direct-to-DVD action movies. The sense of inner turmoil and the compelling nature of an ordinary man coming to terms with extraordinary gifts drew audiences to David in Unbreakable, but here, Willis just shuffles along.

Samuel L. Jackson was by no means an unknown in 2000, but now he’s just ubiquitous, and perhaps that takes away some of Elijah Price’s mystique. The character’s gimmick, that he was a self-styled supervillain, seemed novel when Unbreakable was released, but Glass does surprisingly little with it. While there’s an attempt to flesh out the relationship between Elijah and his mother, with Charlayne Woodard delivering a heartfelt performance, it seems rote rather than adding to the mythos.

Sarah Paulson is typically reliable, but seems unnatural and stiff, hamstrung by sub-par material. Anya Taylor-Joy puts her very emotive eyes to great use as Casey, but the character’s bond to Kevin feels forced, even coming off Split.

There was every opportunity for Glass to be an original, unorthodox, engaging exploration of what it means to be a hero or a villain, and of the implications of superpowers being real. Just when he seemed on the verge of a credible comeback, Shyamalan blows it with an excruciatingly clumsy movie that breaks every promise of a thrilling threequel hinted at before.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong