Brief Consideration: Prey (2022)

Preamble

If there’s one movie that can get me of the proverbial couch to board the chopper (that is my blog) then it’s Prey. For years, a period centric Predator film has been on the cards, and it’s so surreal that it’s finally here. Does it work? Before I get to my brief thoughts after the jump, have you seen Prey? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments below.

Brief Consideration

The Predator franchise has always felt shackled in a perpetual cycle of being one-note. Conceptually, the franchise is about humankind embracing its primal side to combat a creature, who finds our race prey in the grand scheme of things. However, because its origin is rooted in the machismo of an eighties action film, the execution of this premise has never had complete lift off. With its unique emphasis, minimalist approach and patient filmmaking, Prey comes closest to fulfilling the promise of the Predator franchise.

Prey is about a Comanche woman, Naru (Amber Midthunder), who aspires to be a great hunter. However, she’s discouraged by her older brother, who believes she hesitates too much. But when a series of grisly murders start appearing near Naru’s home, the young woman’s curiosity and hunting are put to the test, when she comes face to face with the Predator (Dane DiLiegro).

Despite existing in a franchise that’s prided itself on action, Prey instead plays like an exacting and rich documentary that depicts the Comanche life style and the wider activities of the surrounding wilderness. This quality imbues the already known elements of the franchise with a newfound freshness that feels immediate and terrifying. One example is an early scene where Naru sees the cloaked Predator ship. It’s hidden behind clouds that are swirling in the sky akin to the rhino in the clouds, featured in Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. This quality of the central creature being given mythical weight is further reinforced when Naru refers to what she saw as a Thunderbird, a creature of legend she heard from childhood stories.

This aspect is coupled with the notion of Naru being a nascent hunter. With this choice, there’s an inherent tension as Naru is challenged in many ways before she faces the Predator. The most memorable being an extended sequence that involves an encounter with a bear. At the same time, there’s some scenes dedicated to placing the central creature in the existing food chain, which seeks to use the nature documentary esque style to establish something we’ve seen in a unique way.

In her performance as Naru, Amber Midthunder is impressive. These are not only in the moments where she holds her own, but also in instances where she hesitates or gives subtle hints of frustration. Likewise, Dane DiLiegro’s precise and dominant physicality make the Predator a formidable presence.

Sarah Schachner’s score prove to be bombastic with its use of percussive elements and experimental with some electronic strings that provide some sharpness for some of the fight sequences. And in his second feature, Dan Trachtenberg shows promise with subtle camera moves, whether it’s a deep focus shot to establish a foreboding atmosphere or a use of 180s degrees shot to create a subdued sense of immersion.

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Review: Elvis (2022)

Preamble

Hi everyone. Morbius was so bad that it turned off the lights of this grand ol’ blog. Hyperbolic sentiment aside, the mundanity of real life including work, getting settled into a new place, and a general lack of motivation has kept me away from blogging. But I’m back now and ready to rock and roll. If there were two things that are equivalent of two north pole magnets repelling insofar as my attention is concerned, then it would be Elvis and Baz Luhrmann.

Despite adoring Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby, his other films have been slick but overly produced and tiresome flights of fancy. Combine that with Elvis, whose music I’ve never really cared for, and you have a recipe for something that would have me running from the cinema in sheer terror. Did that prove to be true? Well, you can find out after the drop. What did you think of Elvis? Let me know in the comments below.

Review

If there’s one figure who has an eternal omnipresence in pop culture, then it’s Elvis. He’s spawned music, movies and even a cottage industry of impersonations from Nicolas Cage to aspiring Vegas amateurs. The pairing of his story and Baz Luhrmann seems like a curious choice. Luhrmann’s last film- The Great Gatsby, struck a balance between the sheer dizzying excesses of the period and the humanity of the title character’s incorruptible dream. It’s the sole Luhrmann film I’ve liked and proved to be a striking exercise in literary adaptation. With its unique vantage point and themes, Elvis is at times electrifying and fascinating. But it’s also exhausting and somewhat one note in nature.

Told from the point of view of Elvis Presley’s (Austin Butler) manager- Colonial Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), Luhrmann’s film depicts the rock and roll singer’s musical career from his early days among country singers to his exhaustive Las Vegas tour. This is contrasted with an ever-changing climate in American culture as it comes to terms with the death of Martin Luther King and John F Kennedy.

Much like his previous films, Luhrmann’s feverish fairy tale is told from an interesting perspective, namely Parker, who narrates the story from his deathbed. The result is unique spin on the typical structure that constrains bio pics. The film explores the icon of Elvis and his effect on the world. At the same time, it also grapples with what truly killed him.

By the film’s admission, the creation of Elvis is cut from the same cloth as seeing a freak act at the circus. But rather then be horrified by the act, the audience is instead aroused and stimulated as though it’s a sex act. This depiction of Rock and Roll as a Pandora’s Box for the denizens of 1950s America lends the film with its potent power. At the same time, Parker argues that the audience killed Elvis insofar their love and adoration kept him hooked in a cycle of performing for their constant attention. This quality along with aspects that touch on cancel culture and parasocial relationships makes the film’s subtext, fascinating in its scope.

The film also acknowledges that Parker killed Elvis in some senses by trapping him in an eternal cycle of performing at the same place, so he could indulge in his gambling addiction. These moments where Elvis becomes a glitzy and forlorn Gothic horror in which Vegas stands in for the soul of the singer, who night after night loses a part of himself in performing is when Luhrmann’s movie really engaged and spoke to me.

However, this structure proves to be a double-edged sword. Just like Parker (in a sense) traps Elvis in a persistent cycle of performing in Vegas, so does Luhrmann with his portrayal of Elvis. Due to sketching him in the most heightened and appealing way (via his various performances), there’s little humanity or dimension to the character. In fact, there’s quite a telling line at the tail end of the movie where Parker likens Elvis to a ghost outside of his live shows. This problem coupled with Luhrmann’s knack to overegg visual metaphors (including one eye-rolling scene about feeling lost in a hall of mirrors) makes Elvis sometimes feel like a chore to sit through.

To say that Austin Butler embodies Elvis is an understatement. Instead, it sometimes feels like a spooky act of resurrection, particularly in the latter stages of the film where the star is at his most well-established status. Butler’s physicality and energetic verve also feel like a perfect fit for Luhrmann’s brash and operatic direction. In fact, the Hayride performance sequence illustrates this melding excellently; playing like a tennis match between Elvis’s gyrating crotch and Luhrmann’s flurry of close-ups and low-angle shots. Meanwhile, Tom Hanks is in top form as Colonial Tom Parker, delivering nearly every line with the devilish glee of a pantomime performer.

Elvis is the definition of a mixed blessing. It’s an effort that represents the excesses of Luhrmann’s style and his strength in creating beguiling myths that attempt to parallel and juxtapose the past and present in fascinating ways. However, by a certain point, I felt trapped by the film’s one-note portrayal of its title character and was yearning for more shading.

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Review: Morbius (2022)

Preamble

At this point, Morbius has become a rite of passage for understanding social media and its ability to frame and process a piece of art. Witnessing the pendulum swing between the initial reaction (mainly bafflement and disappointment) and ironic love (via memes) has been an interesting experience. At the same time, the various platforms and their collective power to get the studio to re-release the film (in a limited run) has been nothing short of a chuckle-inducing illustration of the sheer foolishness of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

With this in mind, does Morbius deserve a second chance? Or was it a turkey that always deserved roasting? Well, you can find out after the jump. What did you think of Morbius? Let me know in the comments below.

Review

Compared to other villains that grace Spider-Man’s rogue gallery, Morbius does not seem like an entirely bad idea for a solo film. By themselves, good Vampire movies can be fun, sweeping, scary and inherently romantic. If anything, Morbius could coast off these elements without fluttering twice like a bat. Aside from a few moments, Morbius is a mostly ho-hum tale of two vampires that undermines and illustrates the banality of its title character.

The 2022 comic book movie is about Dr Micheal Morbius (Jared Leto) and his recent attempt to cure a terminal disease he’s had since childhood. The experiment in question involves splicing DNA from vampiric bats he’s captured from Costa Rica. Naturally, the experiment goes wrong, and the good doctor has to stave off the thirst for blood (via drinking artificial blood, nicknamed blue blood). However, complications arise when the blue blood loses effectiveness and Morbius’s childhood friend, Lucian aka Milo (Matt Smith), takes the serum that turned Morbius into a blood-sucking creature of the night.

Aside from dying from a slow death of a thousands continuity cuts (including false advertising in its trailers about Micheal Keaton’s role as the Vulture), Morbius also exists in a strange purgatory. On the surface, it wants to have the pathos of David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly, paralleling its main character’s terminal disease with that of Jeff Goldblum’s metaphorical terminal disease (via the transformation into the central creature).

Some initial choices early on from Jared Leto (including a coy sense of determination in his line readings) make the movie seem game for this tragic premise. However, it’s undermined by a persistent sense that once Morbius becomes a vampire, the film wants to make him loose and funny. Leto struggles during these moments of the character becoming like a Kevin Williamson character to a seemingly uninterested audience. In fact, the movie as a whole does turn into a Saturday Night Live audition tape with many of the supporting players delivering awfully written jokes with the glum enthusiasm of someone whose has just attended a funeral. This is compounded by a persistent feeling of the film loosely dancing around the troupes of a vampire movie, without ever committing to them with any gusto or feeling.

Elsewhere, the filmmaking from director Daniel Espinosa is occasionally fun, if not entirely pedestrian, whether its scene transitions or an extended sequence involving a long shot in a hospital with flickering lights being used as a backdrop for a vampire kill. However, these ultimately lack bite because of little tension and the audience being two steps ahead of the movie.

Matt Smith’s Milo occasionally enlivens the film’s energy with quirky actions and an amusing sense of play between the morphing vampire effects of his face and actions. The latter quality particularly reminded me of the sadistic qualities of Jerry from the original Fright Night. However, Smith’s character is an ultimate reminder of the sullen and boring nature of Morbius and how the transformation has made him less engaging.

I’ve seen a lot of comic book movies at this point. But I’ve never seen one that’s so dead set to illustrate how bland its central character is. With this in mind, the ironic love for this movie on social media almost becomes like an exercise in character revival. By giving Morbius a catchphrase (It’s Morbin’ Time) and leaning into the meme of it, the character suddenly stands as an amusing and cornball creation with some sense of irony. I wish the actual movie had these qualities. But as it stands, Morbius is a testament to how boring you can make a seemingly tragic vampiric character and the generic colours you can paint your superhero movie in.

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Review: Men (2022)

Preamble

If there’s one studio that’s makes me excited about the state of cinema these days, then it’s A24. They give directors the chance to create varied and fascinating fare that would be classed as medium budget films in the pre superhero blockbuster era. They’re the exception to what type of films are made these days. With that in mind, a new Alex Garland film with a provocative title (for the time we live in) had my attention. Does it succeed? Well, you can find out after the jump. What did you think of Men? Let me know in the comments below.

And if you like this post or any of my other horror-related ramblings, then you can find more at my second home- Horror Obsessive: https://horrorobsessive.com/author/sartaj-singh/

Review

Alex Garland is no stranger to the endangerment of women at the hands of men. The last act of his script for 28 Days Later had a twist of a sadistic system that placed the fair sex into a form of slavery. And if you were to remove the science fiction trappings of Ex Machina, than you would have a chess game between a creator and his female creation insofar as the latter is trying to escape captivity via the central protagonist. On the surface, Men is Garland’s clearest statement about female peril. However, as it goes along, the film unravels into many branching paths about its theme, resulting in an ambitious but murky experience.

After her estranged husband, James (Paapa Essiedu), commits suicide, widower, Harper (Jessie Buckley) decides to holiday at a country retreat. However, as her stay continues, the young woman finds herself involved with some alarmingly incidents. This is coupled with an uneasy sense that all the males she encounters in the village are the same person or a supernatural entity.

Like the folk horror classic, The Wicker Man (1973), Men is made with an exacting and patient sense of dread with flickers of startling imagery combined with a subtle sense of the uncanny entering the mundane. The best example is when Harper takes a photo of a characteristic house and we get a glimpse of a mysterious pale figure in the centre of the picture.

Men also earns its creepy factor from the nerve-racking encounters Harper has along with the last twenty minutes playing like the missing link between David Cronenberg’s The Brood and John Carpenter’s The Thing.

Unlike those films, Men is fundamentally flawed in its thematic exploration. On the face of it, you could interpret it as the weight of male attention (in various guises) crashing down and ultimately suffocating Harper. However, with allusions to the Adam and Eve parable (including a moment where Harper picks and eats an apple from a tree), and tiny details making the film seem like an internalised chamber piece about the guilt of being a domestic abuse victim; Men does not quite connect the dots in what it’s about.

This is a shame as the rest of the proceedings proves to be quite excellent. Jessie Buckley gives a fierce and vulnerable performance as a woman, trying to come to terms with her husband’s abusive behaviour and suicide. Rory Kinnear gives a stunning and engrossing Brechtian style performance that encapsulates the attitude of a dismissive and aggressive being.

And in his third feature, Alex Garland creates a foreboding atmosphere with his filmmaking. The best example is a montage of images that juxtapose Harper’s tranquil piano playing. There’s a medium shot of a long stretch of field that looks like a shadow is being cast over it. The moment gives the impression of a ship looming over the area, or we’re seeing a version of desert and shifting sands. It’s scenes like this that show Garland is a talented horror director. However, by the end of Men, I was wishing for the disquieting simplicity of The Wicker Man (at least insofar as exploration of theme etc).

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Review: Top Gun: Maverick (2022)

Preamble

Legacy sequels are all the rage these days. However, the strangest among them (at least on a conceptual level) is Top Gun: Maverick. Does it prove its worth and still have the need for speed? Well, you can find out after the drop. What did you think of Top Gun: Maverick? Let me know in the comments below.

Review

Top Gun is the perfect hang out movie. It’s infectiously fun despite suffering from a glaring lack of stakes and pretty weightless action sequences. It exists as something to vibe and revel in (preferably amongst a group of friends or a packed midnight fan screening). With my mixed emotions on the original, it comes as something of a surprise that Top Gun: Maverick is a fascinating counterpoint to the 1986 movie. In fact, it’s quite an exhilarating, deeply moving and ultimately humbling sequel.

Picking up over 30 years after the original movie, the legacy sequel is about famed and decorated navy test pilot- Pete Mitchell aka Maverick (Tom Cruise) returning to the Top Gun academy. He’s been instructed to train a new generation of graduates for an impossible mission. A team of six pilots have to bomb a facility that’s filled with enriched uranium and smart airborne missiles.

Complications arise for the title character when he finds out one of the students is Bradley aka Rooster (Miles Teller), who is the son of his former wingman, Nick Bradshaw aka Goose (Anthony Edwards). Goose died during a training exercise at the tail end of the first film. Along with navigating this strained relationship, Mitchell is also reunited with an old flame- Penny (Jennifer Connelly). She owns the bar that the ageing pilot used to frequent in his younger days.

If the original Top Gun was a post-modern showcase for a latter-day Cruise, and his penchant for doing death-defying stunts with a boyish enthusiasm; then the 2022 film is a humbling of that screen persona. There are many scenes that comedically and dramatically knock the character down a peg or two. One amusing recurring joke is some of the characters saying “Don’t give me that look”, a testament to Maverik’s one-note charm in the original.

And an opening speech by Chester Cain aka Hammer (Ed Harris) about Mitchell’s place in the future of aviation (with the advent of growing drone technology) exists as a grim spectre that looms over the film. For all his bravado and proficiency as a pilot, there’s a sense that Maverick can’t outrun his problems or stop feeling like a failure. This pendulum swing between making a case for the title character and picking at his flaws is the secret to why Maverick works so well.

This aspect also extends to the nostalgic homages, which have an inherent melancholic edge. No longer are motorbike rides during the sunset filled with a carefree and dreamy sense of triumph. Instead, they’re tinged with the bittersweet sting of time playing its subtle tune of wear. Another good example is a scene in the first half where Bradley sings and plays “Great Balls of Fire” on the piano. It’s a touching reminder that Goose’s sense of showmanship lives on his son, but also a potent reminder of the guilt Mitchell has for his former wingman’s death, and his conflicted feelings about sending Bradley on the mission.

Maverik represents Cruise’s most layered and interesting performance in years. Not only is the charm of his character present, but also a world-weariness and a palpable feeling of his emotions boiling under the surface. This last quality has defined Cruise’s performances ranging from Eyes Wide Shut to Minority Report, displaying a great source of vulnerability and humanity for the movie star. Equally as impressive is Connelly whose silent moments of regret and parental angst are a great illustration of how much more grown-up this sequel proves to be.

Despite the success of the performances and writing, the true headline of Top Gun: Maverik is its action sequences. They solve the problem of the original by giving the planes a great sense of weight, not only from how they’re captured (via great use of wide-angle and long shots) and framed but also with the sound design that makes them sound like majestic and roaring animals. Above all, the planes exist as an extension of the characters. One memorable scene is when Rooster and Maverik have a sparring war of words amid a training session, and the planes almost become stand-ins for piercing swords that punctate their heated sentiments.

By the end of Top Gun: Maverick, a single thought occurred to me: only one person has died in this entire movie. On the face of it, Maverick shares some of the qualities of its predecessor and many Tom Cruise movies (yes including one scene where he runs like the Energizer Bunny). However, the emphasis is unique. It fundamentally earns its crowd-pleasing moments because it creates a believable level of stakes and emotions in its dramatic aspects. More than any other blockbuster in recent years, it’s alive and energetic. But between these two states, it’s also an illustration of how time and ageing can change us.

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Review: Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)

Preamble

If there’s ever been a bad indication for the state of cinema at the moment, then it’s been the piecemeal release for Everything Everywhere All at Once. Despite coming out last week, the film has been harder to see than winning the lottery. Thankfully, the film has been give a wider release with it finally landing on the shores of Basingstoke cinemas. Was it worth the wait? Well, you can find out after the jump. In the meantime, what did you think of Everything Everywhere All at Once? Let me know in the comments below.

Review

What makes Multiverse stories so indelible? On paper, they can be a manufactured way of generating nostalgia by reminding you of a character’s prominence or a slanted way of looking at a central figure that makes you appreciate their original incarnation. Between Spider-Man: No Way Home and the recent Multiverse of Madness, this approach has been the standard-bearer of how the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has used the notion so far. By comparison, Everything Everywhere All at Once resets the canvas for Multiverse stories by showing how subversive, metatextual, emotional and bizarre the concept can truly be.

Split into three parts that reveal and are about each part of the title, Everything Everywhere All at Once tells the story of Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh). She’s a down on her luck businesswoman who runs a launderette, takes care of her ageing father, Gong, (James Hong) has a hard time coming to terms with her daughter’s lesbian relationship and ignores her husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan). These aspects are complicated when she’s confronted by an alternative version of Waymond, who claims she’s the key to saving the multiverse from an entity known as Jobu Tupak (Stephanie Hsu).

To its credit, Everything Everywhere All At Once is made in the same spirit as cult movies such as Phantom of the Paradise and Spider Baby. These are films that are appealing in their moment to moment weirdness. They also seemingly feel loosely held together in a manner that’s fun and anarchic. But much like those films, Once has a black sense of humour that’s absurdist and gonzo. In Paradise, Brian De Palma riffed on classic cinematic sequences from Touch of Evil to Psycho. Similarly, Once uses its Multiverse premise to playfully poke at scenes that have etched their way into our collective consciousness. The most memorable is a recreation of the famous slaughter in the “Dawn of Man” sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey where the attacking apes have giant hot dog fingers.

At the same time, Once’s slyness also gives way to a fascinating metatextual quality that plays on our perception of some of the actors in the film. Between Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and her various action roles, Michelle Yeoh has been the portrait of serene and controlled. In Once, her performance stands out because she’s overwhelmed and disenchanted, which makes the parts where she’s engaging in action all the more satisfying. This is due to the film giving us a credible context for her transformation from an unremarkable laundrette owner to a fierce and capable fighter. Likewise, it was also fun to see Jamie Lee Curtis (who has been the atypical final girl in horror cinema) transform into a Michael Myers esque figure whose unrelenting in her search for Evelyn (in the first half of the picture).

In a movie with such a chaotic verve, the filmmaking stands out for how subtle it is. Some of the early scenes play to this idea via simple panning shots and slow camera moves that provide perspective and depth. The film’s real technical feat comes from the editing. At once, it gives some scenes an indelible visual identity, such as one moment where Evelyn’s behaviour in one world affects all her counterparts in different dimensions akin to seeing multiple panels in a comic book. The editing is also commendable for how it keeps the emotional truth of its simple character moments intact amid the general chaos of the premise.

The standout sequence is a moment where Waymond gets a sense of the heartbreak that Evelyn causes him in other dimensions, and he still declares that he wants a mundane life that’s comprised of taxes and laundry with her. This scene is juxtaposed with various Evelyns across the multiverse, giving into Jobu Tupak’s nihilistic world view.

It’s moments like this that prove to be Once’s secret weapon. With themes that touch on the generational disconnect between parents and their children, depression and the meaning of life; Everything Everywhere All at Once’s greatest strength is the close alignment between the philosophical and personal. But rather than feel like mawkish sentiments, the debates have weight because they’re filtered through a potent mother and daughter relationship; whereby the daughter’s bleak point of view comes from her dismissive mother. This is the type of storytelling that’s always appealed to me where big concepts are given emotional weight and truth due to how they are grounded in the mundane and every day.

In this regard, I was reminded of the first time I saw The Matrix and how that film blew my mind with its juggling of philosophy, religion as well as eastern and western visual sensibilities. But in the case of Once, it effortlessly has the confidence of a sly cult movie and the emotional truth of a tear-inducing drama. Quite simply, Everything Everywhere All at Once made me hopeful for the continued existence of the cinema as a meaningful art form.

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Review: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)

Preamble

To reverse engineer a famous Shakespearean quote, (sorry William) “O {Raimi, Raimi}, where art thou {Raimi}.” The sequel to Doctor Strange represents a return for the American auteur- Sam Raimi. His directorial efforts have been as influential in horror cinema as much the comic book movie sub-genre (with his Spider-Man trilogy). Is his return to mainstream filmmaking a success? You can find out after the drop. In the meantime, what did you think of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness? Let me know in the comments below.

Review

Doctor Strange’s solo outing in 2016 was quite a frustrating experience. While there was a fundamental understanding of the title character (in the screenplay), there was also a timidness to the movie’s visuals. Scott Derrickson’s Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) effort played like a beginner’s course in surrealism with bland post Inception imagery and a muted colour palette; a far cry from the nightmarish Steve Ditko comic art of yore. It comes as something of a surprise that Multiverse of Madness is equally a mixed blessing as the first film.

Acting as a sequel to WandaVision and Doctor Strange’s various MCU appearances, the Multiverse of Madness is about Stephen Strange’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) mission to protect America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez). The young girl has the power to travel through the Multiverse and is being hunted by numerous creatures to extract her powers. The mastermind behind these attacks is Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) who hopes to kill America so she can travel to another dimension to be with her children.

Aside from arguably being the MCU’s first foray into horror, Multiverse of Madness does shine with its film-making. Featuring whip pans to reveal characters and frenetic demon point of view shots, Raimi’s style engulfs the 2022 sequel with an exciting sense of carefreeness. However, the moments of film-making that stood out were the ones where Raimi was attempting to top sequences from his previous movies.

There’s one protracted slow-motion sequence where America and Stephen are travelling through the Multiverse that plays like a series of splash pages in motion. The sequence imbues Strange with a much needed beguiling sense of surrealism that the first film lacked. It also has this “Hold my beer” quality insofar as comparing it to a similarly staged scene in Spider-Man 3, where Peter Parker attempts to reach for his engagement ring amid a fight with the New Goblin.

Likewise, there’s a sense of fun to Raimi’s horror sequences whether it’s seeing zombified versions of characters or simple scenes of tension such as a moment where two kids get scared from the lights going out. This aspect is also reflected in the music. There’s confrontation at the tail end of the film that involves musical notes. The scene slyly plays on Danny Elfman’s score becoming a source of diegetic music. The scene also mirrors the moment where Spider-Man dodges Green Goblin’s sharp blades in Raimi’s 2002 comic book movie. It reminds the viewer of the sense of play and weight that the director has in his comic book adaptations.

Alas, much like an annoying series of record scratches, Multiverse of Madness suffers from instances of its writing. Chief among them is the film’s handling of Wanda. The series WandaVision was a fascinating outlier for the MCU insofar as its depth was concerned. It used the pretence of Americana (via the nostalgia from various sitcom shows) to illustrate some emotionally resonating themes about trauma and loss. At the same time, the pathos for Wanda’s journey from emotional manipulator to someone who has to make a terrible personal choice for the livelihood of a whole community was powerful.

In Multiverse of Madness, this is undermined by a heel turn, which seeks to undermine and make the character incredibly one-note. To compound matters, the character’s agency is also lost due to a plot point of Wanda turning rogue due to exposure to an evil book called “The Dark Hold.” This also creates a split personality between Wanda (the good side) and The Scarlett Witch (the malicious side). Unfortunately, this rich vein of a premise is hardly explored.

I can see that part of this choice was to contrast Wanda with Stephen insofar as both are powerful beings who are willing to break the fabric of reality as a means to an end (for selfish and human reasons). However, there’s very little sense of the latter grappling with his reality-bending choices. It mostly feels like lip service and a prelude to a far more interesting film.

This is a shame as Elizabeth Olsen commits to the Raimi generated horror. This is particularly apparent in the third act where she has to play a version of herself that’s a cross between Samara (from the Ring) and the other female demonic presences that have graced the director’s work. In these scenes, Olsen’s sense of inhuman callousness was fun to watch despite the problematic way her character was set up. Benedict Cumberbatch gives his most emotional performance as the title character. There’s an often asked question that’s directed at Strange throughout the film- “Are you happy?” Cumberbatch’s performance during these times when he answers that question are the most impressive. He puts on a brave face to hide the sense of loss he feels. These are the moments that marry Raimi’s genuine appreciation for heroic pathos and the appeal of Doctor Strange as a comic book character insofar as being quite vulnerable despite the great power he wields.

Walking out of the Multiverse of Madness, I was reminded of The Monkey’s Paw. I got a Sam Raimi directed comic book movie (one in which he does not compromise on the emotions of his heroes and a gleeful sense of play to the horror elements). However, it came at the price of a show and character that I love. Sadly the old proverb- “Be careful what you wish for” still holds true.

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Review: The Northman (2022)

Preamble

When it rains, it pours. I’m back with another post (hopefully the start of many) and could not think of a better film to write about then The Northman. It’s an effort that’s not been on my radar. In fact, it has seemingly snuck up on me like a ninja. But tortured analogies asides, what did you think of The Northman? Let me know in the comments below. And if you like my ramblings on horror movies then you can find more of my written work on the genre at my second home- Horror Obsessive. https://horrorobsessive.com/author/sartaj-singh/

Review

So far, Robert Eggers has singled himself out as a director who makes surreal and mad capped psychological chamber pieces. His 2016 effort, The Witch was almost a call to arms for the recent trend of elevated horror with its depiction of an outcast New England family, succumbing to the feverish paranoia of their puritanical beliefs. Eggers’s follow-up, The Lighthouse was a tense and maddening morality play about a character’s descent into madness over the stories he hears about the title location. With a bigger canvas within a new genre, The Northman is a roaring and potent revenge parable about the dehumanising effect of myth.

The 2022 film is about a Viking prince called Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård). He seeks revenge after his uncle, Fjölnir (Claes Bang) kills his father, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke), marries his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), and takes over his kingdom. After spending many years in exile as a Viking raider, Amleth gets his chance to exact bloody vengeance when he disguises himself as a slave in his uncle’s farming community. He’s joined by a young priestess, Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), who seeks her own sense of retribution.

Early on, The Northman plays like a parody of a Robert Eggers film with typical arch line deliveries and exaggerated character actions (particularly a scene where three characters do their best impressions of howling wolves) becoming mockable as opposed to fascinatingly otherworldly. These aspects paired with what seemed like a one-note premise worried me greatly. However, the film finds its footing with its cinematic flourishes and imagery.

In particular, a motif of imagery that depicts Amleth’s family tree within the confines of the Yggdrasil tree draws the eye. In an era where Viking and by extension Norse mythology has reached near saturation point, Egger’s grungy storybook depiction of the supernatural aspects of the Nordic culture visually stands out. I also appreciated how he used scale to illustrate quite poignant incidents. In an early scene, there’s a tracking shot of a boy being separated from his mother in the general chaos of a raid on a village. The camera almost becomes shy as it subtly loops to show a group of villagers being forced into a barn before it’s set on fire. The harrowing incident ends with a cold and callous closeup of Amleth.

Moments like this go a long way to illustrating a subtle shift in Egger’s thematic concerns. In previous films, there was a sense that the characters were shaped by the myths in their respective worlds. But these aspects were ambiguous, often posited as possible things that transformed the protagonists, i.e the existence of the title figure in The Witch or Willem Dafoe’s character being a vengeful sea-based God in The Lighthouse. In The Northman, the supernatural and the real world have a much closer alignment. Part of this comes from a change in genre. But there’s also this idea of the characters being vessels for the supernatural to exact their will.

This especially applies to Amleth who carries the will of his father to exact revenge on his uncle and community. Aside from the implications of the Gods being directly involved with this spiteful mission, Amleth also carries a self-perpetuating myth of his father as a man and leader. The Northman’s best moments are when this perception is subverted and shattered to illustrate a tragic and sobering reality. Through a combination of pre-scripted myth and honouring the bonds of revenge (from his father), the young Prince becomes a dehumanised individual who does not care for the lives he savagely dispatches (throughout the film).

It’s in these aspects where The Northman transforms from a standard revenge thriller in Viking clothing to a tragic and heightened parable about the effect that myth and parenthood can have on a person’s character. But aside from this subtle shift in theme, I found the film appealing in other regards.

The middle stretch is akin to Gladiator if it was rewritten as a grotesque slasher film with religious overtones. There’s also one sequence where a character has to get a sword from a tomb that plays like a scrapped tutorial level from a Dark Souls game. And in a film where it mostly feels like the performances are delivered at the same intense pitch, I found Nicole Kidman’s showcasing of motherly love and poisonous affection to be impressive in its understated power.

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Review: Spencer (2021)

Preamble

Guess who’s back? Before I start quoting Eminem verbatim, let’s address the elephant in the room. It’s been over a month since a blog post, but I’m back now, raring to go with a film I’ve been meaning to catch up with. What did you think of Spencer? Let me know in the comments below.

Review

In recent years, Diana, Princess of Wales has been rife with interest. The rather safe and trite, Diana (2013) attempted to explore Spencer’s relationship with heart surgeon, Hasnat Khan. Meanwhile, the recent season of The Crown depicted the souring relationship between the late Princess and Prince Charles, with vivid intensity. It’s a credit to Spencer that it’s able to differentiate itself from these recent endeavours. In fact, the film proves to be an oppressive Gothic horror film with fascinating subtext and historical parallels.

Taking place over three days during the festive period, Spencer is about Diana (Kristen Stewart) attempting to survive the gruelling and regimented schedule the Royal Family has set out for her at Sandringham. To compound matters, tensions between the Princess of Wales and the Monarchy have increased due to several encounters Wales has had with the press and tabloids.

In its filmmaking, Spencer surprisingly takes its cues from horror movies such as The Shining and A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. One sequence that particularly evokes the 1980 film comes from the title sequence, where we get a protracted bird’s eye view shot of Diana’s car, entering the grounds of Sandringham. At this moment, Jonny Greenwood’s score flickers between the use of buoyant trumpets (representing Diana’s freewheeling spirit) and quite a sharp use of string to evoke the horrific situation that Diana is about to enter. With the character’s car looking like a tiny spec among a well decorated bit of greenery, and the use of foreboding music; the scene calls back to the moment in The Shining when Jack Torrence is overlooking his wife and son in the hedge maze.

Moments like this, along with a general sense of the Monarchy being an omnipresent force that can hear and see everything anyone does, carve out Spencer’s identity as a horror movie. Even the Queen, who typically exists as a warm grandmother figure, representing noble values from a nostalgic era is transformed into a near-silent and judgemental crime boss figure. These aspects carry a subversive power that made watching the film an electrifying experience.

However, the moments of direction that surprised me the most came in the latter stages of the film. Some of these sequences share the same liberating and ethereal qualities of Terrence Malick’s films, complete with sun-soaked vistas and handheld camera moves.

In her Oscar-nominated turn as Diana, Kristen Stewart remarkably captures the appealing qualities of the Princess of Wales, whether it’s her shy but confident photographic grace or playful sense of kindness. These aspects are contrasted with a palpable sense of fury and paranoia that seek to sink the character further into hopelessness and despair.

Much like Pablo Larrain’s other female-centric biopic, Jackie, Spencer is about the existential angst from existing in a long-standing institution, and the trauma that can come from trying to stamp one’s identity upon said institution. Jackie had a raw emotional truth from the title character trying to reconcile all the morphing contradictions of her late husband- as a man, president and father. This is in contrast to Spencer, which attempts to harmonise gothic sensibilities and historical weight.

These two aspects come to the fore in the last act; whereby Diana visits her dilapidated childhood home. Within it, she reconnects with her energetic and optimistic childhood self. But she also finds the ghost of Anne Boleyn. Throughout the film, she has found kinship with the historical figure, due to having a husband who cheated on her and got rid of her in a cruelly public manner. It’s within these moments that Spencer sings. Much like the title character remarks upon Sandringham early in the film- “Here, there is only one tense. There is no future. The past and the present are the same thing”, Spencer comes alive in the moments when Diana is lost in the fog of where the past starts and the present ends.

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Personal Post: Vagueness and the Movie Reviewing Process

Preamble

Honestly, I don’t know whether to breathe a sigh of relief or hyperventilate into a brown paper bag over this blog post. For a while, I’ve observed a trend in movie reviewing that I’ve wanted to give voice to. But in so doing, it’s made me reflect on the movie reviewing process, and why it remains my favourite form of writing. So, to that end, after the jump, let’s take a journey together into vagueness and film criticism. But before we start, I’d like to preface that in tackling these concepts, I do not want to throw shade at anyone. I will always advocate and champion people voicing their opinion in whatever manner they see fit. Instead, I’m a mere bystander who is just commenting on a trend, and reflecting on what it says about today’s culture etc. What do you think about vagueness in reviews? And do you think there are essential elements to a movie review? Let me know in the comments below.

Personal Post

So, our starter for ten is what is a vague movie review? Well, it resembles a shopping list insofar as the reviewer in question will list several things they like/dislike about the cinematic experience they’re talking about (akin to ticking off items on a shopping list). Many superlative or buzz words will be employed to make it sound enticing or abominable.

An example of one would be the following: Movie x has a great story, wonderful acting and a pitch-perfect musical score. The vagueness comes from nothing being elaborated about these aspects. To compound matters, further thoughts on a movie are usually omitted for the reason of spoilers or not wanting to give things away. Finally, the review will end with a rating for the film in question (be it a numbered or star rating).

On a basic level, this may be enough to get someone to see a film. For example, if you’re in a social situation, and you want a brief encapsulation of what someone thought of something etc. However, this type of review (primarily in video form) has become quite rampant in recent years. By itself, it’s pretty harmless, but as a trend, it has given me pause for thought.

For me, a movie review is something that feels as though it’s been considered; whether that’s in video or written form, you get a sense that the reviewer has a point of view, which in turn sparks a discussion. Vague movie reviews have no such aspirations. Instead, they timidly dance around the movie with generic appeals to extremes, be it positive or negative.

This desire to be uncritical is ultimately what makes these reviews quite alarming to me. It speaks to a larger aspect of our culture. There’s now this idea that being critical is a bad thing as opposed to something meaningful. This even comes into play when there’s a comparison between two movies. In reviews like this, there’s either a point of pride in not wanting to compare a film in a series or a blink, and you’ll miss appeal to positivity when someone says movie x resembles movie y etc.

I’m a great believer that no movie exists in a vacuum. Instead, depending on the genre, directors use previous movies as a template and source of inspiration for their mood, tone and cinematic aspects. With this in mind, it’s almost impossible to not compare a movie (relative to genre expectations or as part of a series).

In fact, one of my favourite movie podcasts (The Next Picture Show) tackles this idea head-on by looking at a recent release through the lens of a paired movie from the past. This approach results in many varied and fascinating discussions that further illuminate aspects of the contemporary film in question. For example, one of my favourite episodes is a discussion about the theme of spiritual isolation in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed compared with Schrader’s screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film- Taxi Driver.

At the same time, vague movie reviews reveal further things about today’s culture. It speaks to how we conduct our conversations and debates. There’s a tendency to ask what we think of something as opposed to why we think that etc. This differentiation tends to favour short bursts of thoughts and not the deeper aspects of any given review etc.

Ultimately, it makes me feel as though the movie review discourse has been watered down. Between an over-reliance on ratings and vagueness, talking about movies has become akin to complimenting a badge that someone is wearing, and not a discussion that can lead to a richer appreciation. And in my mind, that devalues something that’s become an art form in and of itself. With critics such as Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert and Matt Zoller Seitz, film criticism has become a hobby that I always strive to be better at. And I’m constantly learning from these critics too.

Kael has inspired me to trust my gut on a first viewing of a film. Ebert has taught me the importance of giving a bad movie its day in court by making it sound enticing for someone who may want to see potentially see it. And Seitz has gotten me into the habit of talking about filmmaking. And the benefits of movie reviewing have ranged from organising thought, being articulate and developing a better understanding of such a young medium.

Despite learning these lessons, I feel I’m not there yet. I don’t think I ever will be. However, the movie reviewing process will always fascinate me, whether it’s expressing a visual motif in a director’s work or how a single shot expresses an idea. But above all, film reviewing is akin to writing about a dream whereby you remember small details and out of those seeds, you start to build a picture of comprehension, meaning and judgement.

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