Review: Thor: Love and Thunder (2022)

Preamble

It’s just occurred to me dear reader, that I’ve never actually reviewed a MCU Thor movie on this humble blog before. That’s not been out of any avoidance or a sense of spite. But before this becomes a Taika Waititi esque rambling on intention, have you seen Thor: Love and Thunder? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments below. And if you happen to enjoy my musings on the horror genre, then you can find out more at my second home, Horror Obsessive. https://horrorobsessive.com/author/sartaj-singh/

Review

Despite being the longest-running solo character franchise in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Thor has felt like he’s being rebooted the most. He starts out as an arrogant fool in the intimate and Shakespearian-inspired 2011 entry and ends up as a space Viking that’s depicted in tall tales. With this in mind, Love and Thunder is a heartfelt and barmy deconstruction of its title character.

Taking place after the events of Avengers: Endgame, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) finds himself unfulfilled in the pursuit of spirited adventures after his break-up with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). Unbeknownst to the God of Thunder, Foster has recently been diagnosed with Stage 4 Cancer. When Jane hears murmurs of Thor’s old hammer (Mjölnir), she travels to New Asgard to commune with the mystical object. Meanwhile, across the galaxy, a being called Gorr (Christian Bale) rises after killing a God with a deity-slaying sword. All these three elements converge when Gorr makes his way to New Asgard, and Thor returns to the haven; shocked to find Jane as the newly-minted Mighty Thor.

Despite thinking that Thor Ragnarök closed the book on Taika Waititi’s beguiling cosmic comedy interpretation of Thor, Love and Thunder prove Waititi still has plenty left in the tank for the character. Crucially, he depicts the central hero as a felon entity who can no longer find excitement in the adventures he partakes in.

These early scenes with the Guardians of the Galaxy play like a meta-commentary on the nature of monthly comics and how they can become stale, with the hero becoming detached from the adventures they lead. At the same time, these early scenes introduce the theme of the film, namely the power of myth and how it can provide hope and comfort for people. Thor’s arc is of going from someone who perpetuates his own myth as a form of armour for loss to someone who uses myth to inspire the next generation (in reference to the children of Asgard who get kidnapped by Gorr during the early part of the movie).

Waititi has a lot of fun with riffing on myth. One extended scene depicts the son of Heimdall, Axl (Kieron L. Dyer), telling the story of how Thor got Stormbreaker and cut off Thanos’s head with it. This is contrasted with Gorr putting on a freak show where he takes the head of a shadow creature. I also think Waititi is making a larger point about how Gods use myths as a form of control. This is illustrated by the opening prologue in which Gorr (in human form) seeks salvation from his God after the death of his daughter. But Gorr is strangled when he pricks and pops the mythical balloon by renouncing his God.

This aspect is also shown in the first post-credit sequence where Zeus (Russell Crowe) asks his son Hercules (Brett Goldstein) to redeem him when he finds the presence of superheroes troubling because they make people cease to believe in him.

Waititi has always been an underrated director in the MCU. He adapts and depicts comic accurate imagery with ease. But he’s also able to create impressive visuals in engaging ways. One example is an extended scene when Thor, King Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and Mighty Thor reach the Shadow Realm. It’s done entirely in black and white, with slight flickers of colour, resulting in a foreboding atmosphere.

I also adore how Waititi moves the camera in Love and Thunder whether it’s these dizzying 180-degree paparazzi shots that reveal Portman’s Thor or surreal point of view shots from quite bewildering but nevertheless amusing objects, such as a cuddly toy in the third act. But he’s also quite subtle with the camera, whether it’s Stormbreaker slowly coming into the frame or these pristine Wes Anderson-esque shots that punctate some of Thor’s actions.

Chris Hemsworth has always been good at playing the pure arrogant bravado of Thor. However, in this film, he’s best when he’s trying to reassure and calm people around him, as the bravado becomes a touching exercise in heroism. Christian Bale’s performance plays like a Red Bull-infused pinball game of horror impressions, that vary from The Nun to Pennywise the Clown. But my favourite moments of his were his loose moments of pure comedic expressions that are on full display in the third act. They were akin to seeing Klaus Kinski’s Nosferatu by way of the silent facial expressions of the ancient vampire in ‘What We Do in the Shadows.’

Natalie Portman surprised me in an amusing turn as a hero in the making, who attempts to carve out a no-nonsense superhero identity on an eternal search for the perfect catchphrase. And Tessa Thompson is a cheeky delight in a performance that’s equal parts teasing and tough.

Love and Thunder resonated with me in ways that were unexpected and delightful. Above all, Waititi captures the sheer sense of loss one can feel after a breakup, and the lies we tell ourselves to keep going, in the vain hope of developing some armour for our broken state. It just so happens that this universal feeling is delivered on a colourful, bombastic and often humorous stage.

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Review: Nope (2022)

Preamble

For the first time in a while, Nope has felt like a genuine event movie. With minimalist and eyebrow raising teasers and the promise of Jordan Peele tackling the alien invader sub-genre, there’s been a palpable eximent on my part for its release. Does it live up to the hype? Well, you can find out after the jump. What did you think of Nope? 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. I recently did a piece about my top five horror movie shots, which featured Jordan Peele’s Us. You can out, which one by clicking the link below.

Review

Ever since his barnstorming debut feature, Get Out hit screens in 2017, Jordan Peele has become a celebrated director whose efforts can make audiences squirm, think and laugh. Additionally, they’re often interesting riffs on classic movies, and concepts that greatly speak to our times; whether it’s Get Out’s underhanded racism in a post Obama America (via the premise of Guess Whose Coming to Dinner) or a fable about the class system in Us (via the theme of the blurred line between the civilized and uncivilized in The Hills Have Eyes).

Nope represents Peele’s most ambitious horror film to date. It’s expansive, intimate, occasionally harrowing, and subtextually fascinating in how it depicts two distinct ways in which horror movies are made.

Jordan Peele’s latest film is about a pair of siblings, OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) and Em Haywood (Keke Palmer), who attempt to keep their family’s business afloat six months after the passing of their father, Otis Sr (Keith David). The elder Haywood was renowned for training, looking after and ultimately handling horses for various television and film productions.

To make ends meats, OJ has been forced to sell some of his large stock of horses to Ricky Park (Steven Yeun), a former child star who now runs a theme park called “Jupiter’s Claim.” However, an opportunity arises for the Haywood siblings when OJ catches a glimpse of some spooky activity in the skies above his ranch. Armed with new cameras, the siblings, with the help of a conspiracy-loving tech adviser, Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) and a veteran cinematographer, Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), attempts to capture a perfect shot of the UFO.

In contrast to his previous films, Peele’s Nope feels much more grandiose. Part of this comes from the approach and chosen landscape, which feels in spirit a homage to John Ford Westerns, which shot areas like Monument Valley with a seductive Technicolor flair. Moments from Nope capture this similar quality of sweep, with the characters often feeling small in the frame, compared with their barren desert surroundings. This is contrasted with an ominous quality to many of the languid moments that plays with sound like wind and creaks with the same precision as Sergio Leone did in his later Western films.

However, the best moments of filmmaking come from these low-angle shots that are often framed in handheld tracking shots as OJ hides in a barn with limited visibility, catching small looks at the alien threat from the skies. These moments of camera movements, which depict OJ going from one side of the barn to the other are visceral in capturing the sheer dwarfing and frighting nature of the central ship.

At the same time, Peele’s theme is equally ambitious in its scope and presentation. Given in an almost flickering, piece meal manner, the filmmaker takes his time to lay down the tracks for where his horror train is going.

Crucially, Peele introduces the film with a scene that depicts the aftermath of a sitcom called “Gordy show,” in which a Chimpanzee has murdered nearly every one of his co-stars in an act of bloody carnage. With close-ups of a little girl’s shoes and the sheer surreal nature of the scene, Peele channels Italian filmmakers like Dario Argento, not only from the sense of portraying something so gonzo and alien (no pun intended), but also from the vantage point of playing with the idea of something innocent being corrupted. With the glitzy and silly nature of a sitcom contrasted with the sheer shock of a bloody act being committed, Peele taps into the same juxtaposition that made Argento’s Deep Red so unsettling.

Despite seeming out of place for much of the movie, this side plot point proves to be an intriguing contrast with the main plot. In fact, they both represent two ways of horror moviemaking. Park chooses to capitalize upon his trauma of being a child star who survived a crazy attack by franchising it via creating a museum of memorabilia that people come to see and engage with the lost episode and show.

This aspects plays like a metaphor for a horror movie franchise where the original comes from a pure place of wanting to explore quite vivid and particular fears. But as the franchise goes on, it becomes watered down, that those concerns cease to be scary and potent. In particular, I was reminded of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, where Wes Craven took many different aspects and concerns and distilled them through a central villain who was a metaphor for a nightmarish bully who would sadistically kill kids. When Park cites an Saturday Night Live (SNL) sketch of his traumatic experience, it reminded me of how Freddy Kruger became a clownish and goofy figure in an era where the songs from the soundtrack were given airtime on MTV (around A Nightmare Elm Street 4: The Dream Master).

In stark contrast, OJ’s and Em’s motives for capturing an image of the spacecraft feel in keeping with a horror director who wants to capture vivid truth with his movie. If Park’s plight is an analogue for the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise then OJ’s and Em’s storyline feels like an analogue of The Exorcist insofar as being a movie that wanted to ground its supernatural horror elements in documentary realism. The lip service given to how the image of the craft is going to make a difference also feels in keeping with horror moviemaking that has artistic value as its foremost intent as opposed to popularity.

Daniel Kaluuya gives an affectingly understated performance that relies on observation and subtle gestures such as eye movements and hand gestures. Keke Palmer lights up the screen with a lively and amusing performance that contrasts well with Kaluuya’s earnest character. And Michael Wincott provides a genuine sense of world-weariness in his turn as a famed cinematographer.

Michael Abels’s score also surprises with how adventurous it is, with some moments sounding like electronically infused outtakes of the theme for The Lone Ranger. But much like the film itself, it’s patient, exacting and gets under your skin.

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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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