Review: The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (2021)

Preamble

To quote Randy Quaid’s character from Independence Day (1996), “Hello, boys! I’m BAAAAAACK!” I won’t bore you with the details of my long absence, but it’s honestly great to blog again. Better yet, this post marks the first time I’m reviewing a theatrical release since The Invisible Man in March 2020. Honestly, returning to cinemas has carried a series of mixed emotions.

On the one hand, is the sheer comfort of returning to a place that’s meant a great deal to me. When walking to my local Odeon, I realised that cinematic experiences are like virtual time stamps that hold memories and times of years gone by. We don’t just remember seeing something but also reflect on the circumstances that surrounded that point in time. With that in mind, cinematic experiences are important emotional artefacts that speak to particular instances of our past.

I’m also conscious that we’re still in the weeds of the pandemic. Despite the record-breaking vaccine rollout in the UK, there are still many people who feel too afraid to venture out to the cinema. At the same time, India has been tragically ravaged by the virus on an unprecedented scale. Despite being very fortunate, I realise that we’re not collectively out of the woods yet.

Before I get to my review of The Conjuring 3, what did you think of the film? Will the Devil be enough in making you see the film? Let me know in the comments below. On one final note, if you enjoy my review of The Conjuring or like my ramblings on Horror cinema, then you can find more pieces at my second home: https://horrorobsessive.com/author/sartaj-singh/

Review

The Conjuring series has constantly stupefied me. Its success has resulted in three mainline films and a host of spin offs; varying from entries about the Annabelle doll to a hissing Nun. But none of the Conjuring films have come together for me. They’re films with good moments and interesting virtues, marred by bad choices that often make them feel like silly dress ups of classic horror films. Despite suffering from similar problems that plagued previous entries, “The Devil Made Me Do It” is the best of the trilogy. It pushes the series’ central couple to the forefront, and introduces a refreshing self-referential spirit.

Set in the early eighties, the latest Conjuring film centres around the infamous “Trial of Arne Cheyenne Johnson” (Ruairi O’Connor). After killing his landlord, Arne’s lawyer pleads not guilty on the count that her client acted under the influence of demonic possession. In a race against time, Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) attempt to find and gather evidence to prevent Arne from receiving the death penalty.

The third Conjuring film trades the mostly isolated haunted house structure for an expansive story. This reverses that dynamic of previous entries that relied on the strength of the families who were getting haunted as opposed to the Warrens. By doing this, “The Devil Made Me Do It” plucks at the string of its central strength, which is the relationship between the married couple.

As ever, the Warren’s dynamic is playful and touching. But thankfully, the film does not coast on this familiarity, and adds a new wrinkle to their dynamic. Previous films played on Lorraine’s vulnerability due to being an empath who could recreate and feel the haunted encounters. In this film, Ed suffers from a heart attack in the opening Exorcism and becomes a lot more vulnerable. This change results in some of the film’s most humorous moments, notably one line where Lorraine asks Ed to hold her purse, before she goes down into a spooky basement.

This quality extends to the entire film. From the plotting that’s about dissecting a demonic encounter (after its seemingly disappeared) to a priest quipping in the third act- “It’s just bad wiring” (in the context of a supernatural encounter) “The Devil Made Me Do It” is much more light-hearted and emboldened to pick at the cliches of its world and horror movies at large.

Visually, the film is impressive with its lighting taking centre stage. Whether it’s the use of natural light or the minimalist lit sequences (mostly via table lamps), this latest entry has the quality of a horror movie that’s close to being lit by candlelight. I also appreciated some of the cinematic choices. One standout moment is a sequence shot to evoke movement through a house while a character is going about their day.

And in a series that has boasted monstrous supernatural antagonists, it’s quite something that the human antagonist holds her own. Often appearing in silhouette with a chilling stillness, Eugenie Bondurant’s screen presence is formidable. Her character feels like a throwback to the female harbingers in films such as The Haunting (1963) and The Omen (1976).

However, despite these strengths, “The Devil Made Me Do It” is maddening in some of its aspects. These come from the choices in the scare sequences. Many of the big moments are constructed as though they’re a cage match in a boozy underground bar, with a loud sound design that drowns out what people are saying and mercilessly attacks the audience with cacophony. The finale also has this quality, coming across as a grungy 90s music video with flickering lights and an emphasis on rapid-fire editing to contrast its two settings. By the end, I felt more afraid by the filmmakers than any of the supernatural aspects that pervaded the film.

This is compounded by Arne largely becoming a narrative tool as opposed to a genuine character, who the film forgets in many sections. The film also suffers from the same mawkish sentimentality and religious righteousness that defined previous films. These qualities fundamentally take the bite out of any lingering horror that the film could have had.

In essence, this is the Achilles’ heel of the Conjuring series. It wants to evoke and pretend to bask in the same horror that defined films such as The Exorcist and The Omen. However, those films were never reassuring, but instead quite frightening and disturbing in the subject matters they tackled. Even in its best moments, “The Devil Made Me Do It” is still playing dress-up.

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My Top Five Most Formative Films

Preamble

Between work becoming horrendously busy and a general lack of motivation, posts have been a rare occurrence on the blog lately. So, to remedy this, I’ve decided to write posts that take stock (in a sense) and indulge in a pool of comfort.

As I turn the page on my twenties (in a few months), I’ve been thinking about the aspects that have led me to this point in my life. Part of this has made me wonder about the movies that have been formative in my passion for writing about cinema (for a number of years).

However, before we get to the post, what are some of your formative films? What movies made you fall in love with the medium? Let me know in the comments below.

5) The Wind Rises (2014)

While Disney movies introduced me to animation, it’s not a genre that’s held much interest for me (in my adult years). However, this all changed when I saw The Wind Rises last year. It was a resonating experience that explored creativity and its conflict with commerce. But above all, it considers a question that not many films, let alone animated ones consider; what constitutes a well lived life? And how do you square that between your personal life and ambition? It’s a touching and beautiful movie, illustrating the soaring heights the genre can reach.

4) Inherent Vice (2015)

While Sin City (2005) was my first exposure to the Neo-Noir sub-genre, Inherent Vice cemented my love affair with it. Crucially, it sparked my fascination with characters who are inhabited by their demons (in the midst of being involved with an overarching mystery). Doc’s dope smoking demeanour combined with the elusive nature of the plot made for an experiential and comedic effort that greatly appealed to me. At the same time, the film taught me important lessons about reviewing and got me to read Thomas Pynchon.

3) A Clockwork Orange (1972)

Quite simply, A Clockwork Orange was the first film to needle at me. I was not sure how I felt about it. My fixation with getting a firm read off it sowed the seeds that grew into my hobby of writing about film. The early seventies film also made me sit up and start considering the auteur theory, black comedy and the importance of set design in moviemaking. It was also one of the first classic films that I saw on the big screen, which felt quite transgressive (given Orange’s infamous UK release).

2) The Exorcist (1974)

As alluded to in one of my recent posts, The Exorcist is one of my cinematic obsessions. In part, I’m fascinated by its choices, filmmaking, and approach to adapting the source material. It’s also one of those films that proves how a work of art can have a particular power that goes beyond its subject matter. This almost haunting quality that exists in its most mundane and quiet moments will always keep me coming back…

1) Star Wars (1978)

From James Cameron to Ridley Scott, everyone and their mother has found Star Wars to be a formative film. However, for a six-year-old who was largely ignorant of moviemaking, the Special Edition of Star Wars on VHS was my first glimpse of what it takes to make a film. It also gave a sense of history with George Lucas’s choices being an interesting view of how a filmmaker sees their work over time. Oh, and the film itself and how it inspired me was the gravy on top.

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Review: Godzilla Vs. King Kong (2021)

Preamble

Honestly speaking, I’ve treated this pandemic like I’m a soldier in a long unwinding trench. I’ve only focused on what’s in front of me as opposed to placing any expectations on finding an exit to the perpetual maze. However, Godzilla Vs. King Kong was the one film I hoped would be my return to cinemas. The title alone loudly proclaims big-screen entertainment.

Alas, with England still under many restrictions (including the closure of many indoor venues), it remains a product of streaming. This has somewhat taken the wind out of my sails for seeing it. But as this whole situation has proven, surprises come in many forms, and event movies (for lack of a better phrase) still have their place in this strange climate.

However, before I get to my review, was the grand match worth it? What did you think of Godzilla Vs. King Kong. Let me know in the comments below.

Review

By and large, versus films have a law of diminishing returns. Filmmakers invariably have to pick a side in what character and franchise they have to distil to create conflict. Alien Vs Predator was ostensibly an Alien film with the Predator as the heroic figure. Freddy Vs Jason was a Nightmare on Elm Street film with Jason Voorhees coming across as an ultra powered Dream Warrior. By comparison, Godzilla Vs. King Kong comes out to bat for the giant ape. To paraphrase the wise words of the old knight in The Last Crusade (1989)- it chose wisely.

The fourth film in Legendary’s MonsterVerse is about a tech organisation called Apex Cybernetics. After Godzilla attacks one of their facilities, the company’s CEO- Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir) recruits Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) to find an energy source found within the Hollow Earth (the home of the Titan monsters). Lind seeks out Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), who is involved with keeping King Kong safe (in a manufactured Skull Island habitat). Meanwhile, a conspiracy theorist podcaster and Apex employee called Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry) is tasked by Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown), to go to Hong Kong to uncover the mystery behind Godzilla’s recent attack.

Demonstrably, Godzilla vs. King Kong gives the floor to the American monster who has captivated audiences since the 1933 film. This is not just in terms of focus but also in terms of time spent with the character. Andrews has an adopted daughter- Jia (Kaylee Hottle), who communicates via sign language with the giant ape. These touching moments are a gentle reminder of the all too human qualities of the character. There are also extended sequences where we just witness Kong’s moments of behaviour. The standout sequence being where the character finally reaches the Hollow Earth environment. In these scenes, his movement evokes the childlike jumping scenes of the Hulk in Ang Lee’s 2003 film.

These moments are a fascinating reminder of the stop motion work in the original King Kong; (and by extension- Andy Serkis’s mo-capped performance in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake)- whereby the effects provide the creature with character. In that film, Kong was akin to a stubborn child who liked playing with his food. In the recent film, Kong is much like a weary middle-aged man who wants to be left alone. This reluctant quality injects many of the fight sequences with a relatable pathos.

At the same time, director Adam Wingard punctuates the fight sequences with an impressive sense of scale. One particularly cool moment is when Kong reaches for a plane to throw at Godzilla. At first, the vehicle looks like a toy before it turns into a dizzying and harrowing point of view shot that eventually registers as a minor explosion on Godzilla. Along with this, Wingard’s frequent use of lower angle shots imbues the title characters with plenty of awe-inducing majesty.

However, for all the enjoyment of the monster mayhem, all is a bit too quiet on the human front. It’s not just that many of the introduced characters are shallow, hardly developed or engaging; it’s that they mainly exist as an obvious chorus for what we’re seeing. One particularly egregious example is in the aftermath of the second showdown between Kong and Godzilla. Lind turns to the camera in an almost fourth wall breaking manner and says “Round 2 to Godzilla!” This aspect of over-egging the pudding exists in many moments of the film. Several semi-poetic scenes are jettisoned in favour of zippy moments to convey information.

As it stands, Godzilla vs. King Kong is not as visually breathtaking as King of Monsters. Nor does it have the spin the bottle tone of Skull Island or the cosmopolitan Spielberg flair of Gareth Edward’s Godzilla film. Instead, it’s a middling monster movie that’s redeemed by the humanity of its digital effects.

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Brief Thoughts on a Trailer: The Suicide Squad (2020)

Preamble

DC Comics has been quite prominent recently with the release of Zack Snyder’s eagerly anticipated cut of Justice League. I saw it. While I enjoyed it immeasurably more than Joss Whedon’s tinkered 2017 version, I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. Part of this comes from the film being a distillation of Snyder’s aesthetic for the entire genre. With this in mind, I’m not sure how I quite feel about his approach to the DC movies. So, without that much needed context, I feel I could not properly comment on his final bow to the DC extended universe.

The timing of the first trailer for The Suicide Squad could not be more perfect. As the warm reception for the Snyder cut continues to ablaze social media, more calls have been made for Snyder to finish his vision for the DC movies. At the same time, there have also been requests for the legendary “Ayer Cut” of Suicide Squad (2016) to finally see the light of day. While Warner Bros has formally rejected this call, the release of this trailer is a line being firmly drawn in the sand, for the studio’s forward looking stance for the anti-hero team.

Before I get on to my brief thoughts, what did you think of the film’s first trailer? Let me know in the comments below.

Brief Thoughts

At their very core, trailers are supposed to intrigue and sell you on buying a movie ticket. Perhaps more than any trailer in recent memory, the preview for Suicide Squad did this in spades for audiences. Set to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the sneak peak was a hyperkinetic, stylish and irreverent showcasing of its characters and world. The trailer was so influential that it shaped much of the subsequent reshoots of the film to make it more like the preview. This was a far cry from the more sobering and starker Comic Con trailer that released several months earlier.

With this context in mind, the trailer for The Suicide Squad is an altogether different in what it’s trying to sell. While the preview has many striking shots, I feel it attempts to give the audience a sense of the writing (via the encounters that various members have with one another).

It also puts the director (James Gunn) front and centre, with his name being prominently shown in front of an American flag. This moment that features many of the team members walking and making silly gestures is my favourite scene of the trailer. On the one hand, it encapsulates James Gunn’s knack for goofy irreverence with the scene parodying typical group walking shots. At the same time, it’s a tantalising glimpse of Gunn’s approach for the film.

One of his previous films was called Super (2011) and it featured the same kind of homemade absurdity that made Kick-Ass (2010) an interesting outlier in the genre. The Guardians of the Galaxy movies were big budget space operas where you could see the money on the screen. Some of the images from The Suicide Squad trailer, have the quality of seeing someone that happened to dress up as a superhero for their weekly shopping trip. This even extends to some of the more outlandish characters that are shown to be terrifying and adorable (King Shark).

This sew-saw between sincerity and irreverence has kept me at arms length with Gunn’s Marvel efforts. But the balance here seems quite apt, given the concept of the team; who are redshirts that society (at large) don’t like. The trailer was certainly intriguing and did not have the quality of manufactured coolness that the preview for the first film had. The Suicide Squad is due for release later this year on 6th August (in UK cinemas).

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Review: Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist (2019)

Preamble

The Exorcist has always been one of my cinematic obsessions. When I was younger, its premise of a demonic possessed girl stuck with me like a formative camp fire story. When I saw it in my late teens, the film was far more engaging and horrific then I imagined. Despite finding it less scary in the intervening years (in large part to paling in comparison to the superior and terrifying source material), the 1973 film shows how dramatic and thematically rich the horror genre can be. With that in mind, whenever there’s an Exorcist documentary on the block, I gravitate to it like Pac-Man does with fruit. Before I get into my review of the documentary, what do you think of Leap of Faith? Let me know in the comments below.

Review

Despite having The Exorcist in the title, Leap of Faith is far more than a simple tell-all about the celebrated horror film. It’s a personal meditation on the concept of faith and a cinematic manifesto for William Friedkin’s documentary style. The phrase Leap of Faith takes on a fascinating meaning, with some of the events that happened during the making of the film (such as Friedkin replacing Stacy Keach with Jason Miller). But this concept also extends to Friedkin’s faith in certain sequences in the film.

The most notable being the opening in Northern Iraq where Father Merrin comes face to face with a statue of the demon he will confront in the film’s climax. Despite puzzling audiences and William Peter Blatty’s publishers, Friedkin contends that the sequence is “the very solid underpinning for the whole piece.” Its inclusion has always spoken highly of the director’s faith in the audience to understand its meaning and place in the narrative.

At the same time, the documentary has some lip service about fate with Friedkin contending that many of the film’s elements came from “forces beyond me that brought things to that movie like offerings.” The inclusion of this aspect does create an interesting tug of war between artistic intent and the dominos of life, that sometimes combine to create a perfect clarity (when viewed in hindsight). Friedkin splits the difference between acknowledging the role that fate played in him getting the gig and being clear about the film he wanted to make (after reading Blatty’s novel).

Aside from these notions that permeate the film, Leap of Faith is at its best when Friedkin is expounding upon choices for certain scenes. The best one being the various camera moves in the scene between Lieutenant Kinderman and Chris MacNeil. They’re both sitting at a table and there are two setups; with the camera, over MacNeil’s shoulder as it moves towards the Detective and vice versa. It’s a remarkable instance of subtle filmmaking that creates a fundamental tension between both characters (in an intimate and mundane setting).

This aspect also extends to a discussion about the paintings and artworks that inspired some of the film’s most iconic scenes. In particular, Friedkin’s breakdown of how René Magritte’s painting- “The Empire of Light” inspired the dreamlike image of Father Merrin outside of the MacNeil house, is a highlight.

Leap of Faith runs into problems when it comes to how it addresses William Peter Blatty. While there are instances where Friedkin discusses great points of contention with Blatty (such as the writer’s initial screenplay for the film and the fact he wanted to play Father Damien Karras), there’s no moment where Friedkin reflects on the legacy of the man’s work or his friendship with him. The closest the documentary comes is a moment when the director says that he and Blatty bonded over the love of their mothers.

By the same token, the documentary skates around The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen that came out in 2000. It would have been interesting to see how the director views this extended version after nearly 20 years, and how the editing process spoke to some of the choices he made with the original cut.

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Brief Thoughts on a Trailer: Mortal Kombat (2021)

Preamble

This week has seen a few trailers, between Zack Snyder’s Justice League, Cruella and Mortal Kombat. I could not muster much enthusiasm for the previews of the upcoming Disney film or Snyder’s four hour experience, beyond some virtual chicken scratches that you would find in a bad Chinese fortune cookie. However, Mortal Kombat’s first trailer piqued my interest due to what it means for video game adaptations. Before I get on to my full thoughts, what did you think of the film’s first trailer? Let me know in the comments below.

Brief Thoughts

The trailer for Mortal Kombat has enough ultraviolence to make Alex from A Clockwork Orange, smile. But beyond that is a genuine sense of the filmmakers taking the material seriously. Some notable instances of this quality are the set up of the premise, a pretty nifty bit of set design (the statue of Shao Kahn) and some of the fight sequences.

This aspect can be a sliding scale as the video game property does not lend itself to the most sedate narratives. If there’s one thing that does give me pause about the trailer, it’s a sense of sullen self- seriousness that could sink the entire film.

In this regard, the trailer for the 1995 film does notably beat (pun intended) the current preview’s earnestness with its sugar high goofiness, along with (practically) lifted game audio when announcing the roster of characters.

On the other hand, there’s something nice about not breaking into a fit of laughter when hearing Sub-Zero introduce himself or Scorpion’s iconic line- “Get over here!” And my mouth was agape when seeing Scorpion’s fiery dragon manifestation for the first time. For all my concerns about the film’s tone, the spirit of the fighting game series appears to be intact.

The trailer’s use of violence is also quite interesting. Aside from matching one of the staples of the game franchise, (via the brutal attacks you can inflict upon your opponent called Fatalities) it also serves a purpose. In the trailer’s opening moments, Sub-Zero freezes and crushes an agent’s (Jax) arms. Later on, we see that Jax has metal replacement arms. From that one plot point, the violence in the film seems to have consequence.

At the same time, this aspect made me realise that Mortal Kombat is fairly immune to the central problem of video game based movies. There’s always a law of of diminishing returns when translating video games into movies. Fundamentally, you’re always trading an active experience whereby the player interacts and absorb the story first hand, as opposed to passively watching it. While there’s a thrill with learning and pulling off a Fatality, this feeling can be replicated or even evoked via watching one too.

In this way, a Mortal Kombat film has the same quality as a slasher film, where the audience turn up to see the kills by the antagonist as opposed to the story and characters. Whether the 2021 film coasts on its brutal fight sequences remains to be seen.

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My Top Three Christopher Plummer Performances

Preamble

2021 has seen its first great loss in the realm of movies with the death of Christopher Plummer. Much like Stan Lee and Christopher Lee, the 91-year old Canadian actor belonged to a rare category of people, who made you believe they were going to live forever. Reflecting on his performances has made me realise how formative he was in my appreciation of cinema, and realisation of what an actor could bring to a film. What are some of your favourite Christopher Plummer performances? Let me know in the comments below.

3) The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus (2009)

In his latter day career, Plummer had a knack for playing patriarchal figures in interesting ways, whether thinking of his sly turn in Knives Out or emotive performance in David Fincher’s remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. However, his acting as the title character in Imaginarium is captivating. It’s such an unassuming performance, comprising of stillness, quiet reflection and occasional barminess; fueling the notion of Parnassus being a forgotten entity in the modern world. With this in mind, it’s an impressive piece of subtle acting. It feels so ingrained within the film’s spirit that you almost take it for granted.

2) Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1992)

Combining Shakespearean gravitas and broad theatricality, Plummer’s performance as the warmongering Klingon- General Chang is a joyful exercise in villainy. It’s also quite versatile too. You could take it out of this movie, and it would equally play well in a restaging of Julius Caesar, as much as a vintage Saturday Matinee serial. There’s also something quite amusing about Plummer reciting Shakespeare to a nonchalant William Shatner (considering their history with the Bard’s various productions for stage and radio).

1) The Sound of Music (1965)

Before Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable and Cary Grant, Christopher Plummer’s dashing and debonair performance as Captain Von Trapp was my first exposure to the Hollywood leading man. His performance was also my introduction to the seemingly larger than life quality of Hollywood, where actors carried this monumental weight of romanticism. Aside from these qualities, Plummer’s performance proves to be a foundational text for a lot of his patriarchal roles.

Many of these parts have a veneer of respectability, in which there’s always something altogether surprising and vulnerable, going on beneath the surface. Moments such as Von Trapp’s wry smile to Maria (Julie Andrews) after their dance and accidentally saying “Captain” during a heated exchange illustrate this quality well.

In this way, Plummer was quietly subversive at presenting and pricking at the perfect picture of the Hollywood leading man, with flickers of humanity that made the pristine fantasy a little more real.

For this reason and many more, Christopher Plummer was a towering figure in Hollywood history.

May he rest in peace.

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Review: Songbird (2020)

Preamble

Since I was made aware of its existence, Songbird is a film I’ve been curious to see. Despite its subject matter, I think films like this are important for helping us deal with our stark times. And I was curious, if it had anything meaningful to say about our COVID-19 world. Does it speak to our times? Or use its premise as mere window dressing? Well, let’s put on our masks and find out.

However, before I get to my thoughts on the film, there’s something that needs to be acknowledged. Earlier this week, the UK reached 100,000 people who have died from Coronavirus. These are people who’s stories have been tragically cut short and never allowed to resume. For those of us who remain, it’s our duty to remember these people, whether it’s by reading about how much they meant to the people they left behind or being extra vigilant. Stay at home, wear a mask (outdoors), and cherish the fact that you’re still able to tell your story.

Review

Despite having a provocative premise, Songbird is the cinematic equivalent of chewing gum, enticing the viewer with a strong focus on its button pushing set up. However, it soon becomes so insipid that like a stick of gum, you’ve forgotten you’d watched it entirely. Even now, I struggle to remember much about it. And I only watched it a couple of hours ago.

But for the curious and people still awake at the back, Songbird is about a lovestruck couple who must survive amidst COVID-23 (a mutated new strain of the disease). The boy in question is Nico Price (KJ Apa), an immune courier who delivers packages to people in his city. The girl is Sara Garcia (Sofia Carson), a shut-in who likes to draw and speak Spanish. After Garcia’s caretaker falls ill, Price is in a race against time to get his girlfriend an immunity wristband, to prevent her from being taken to one of the Quarantine Zones (Q-Zones).

From top to bottom, Songbird is a mess. Its screenplay is a sprawling and frustrating exercise in sentimentality, often jumping to supposedly quite deep and moving moments without laying a solid foundation. In this way, the movie plays like a fifth or sixth episode in a television series, wherein the audience is expected be moved by its important moments (despite a lack of context).

One such moment is a conversation between Piper Griffin (Demi Moore) and her immune compromised daughter- Emma (Lia McHugh). Emma expresses sadness and guilt at being a burden and not being strong enough to cope with the virus. Conceptually, it’s an interesting struggle to grapple with. However, nothing in the story up until that point justifies this emotional confession. Neither her mother or father express frustration with looking after her, and there’s been no encounter where she’s being scorned for being weak etc.

This aspect is compounded by some of the more interesting aspects of the premise being sidelined. These include the notion of living as someone whose immune from the disease, and the horrifying implications of the Q-Zones (which are strongly implied to be concentration camps).

Worse yet is the screenplay playing fast and loose with its rules. Based on the technology we see in the film, the responses to people falling ill and being rounded up appear to be quite swift. Despite this, the middle part of the film is elongated to ensure that Price can hatch and carry out a plan to save his girlfriend (even though she would have been targeted much earlier).

The camera work is comprised of many sources that vary from iPhones to body cams. On the surface, this is an interesting way to portray a sense of immediacy. However, the editing and cutting between shots is so short. They’re akin to someone whose had too many Red Bulls, and decided to scroll and switch between the apps on their phone at lightning speed. And for the rare moments that do linger, they tend to come across as boringly staged and lit sequences that do not trigger any emotion. For a film that’s set during a pandemic, it’s quite a feat that the sequences of empty streets are not haunting or chilling.

Despite all these problems, the picture is not without its redeeming qualities. Chief among them is Peter Stormare’s exhilarating performance. Stormare plays the part as though he’s delivering a protracted and animated villain’s monologue from a Quentin Tarantino directed James Bond film, that happens to involve buzz words, and new lingo about COVID-19. It’s quite a display and certainly prevents the film from becoming a total tedious experience.

There are also a few charming scenes that do hit at some interesting aspects of the pandemic, such as a moment when the central couple watch a movie together via a projector and phone link up. However, these moments were few and far between for my liking.

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Review: Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

Preamble

2021 brings its first ray of good news (relatively speaking) courtesy of the home release of Wonder Woman 1984 (via rental on various VOD platforms). Even with the movie being caught up in the pandemic delay blender, 1984 has felt like a long time coming. Originally, it was slated for a December 2019 release before moving back a month to November. From there, the film got pinballed around until its seemingly limited release in UK cinemas late last year. Was it worth the wait? Well, let’s put on a colourful oversized blazer or some embarrassing pink Yoga gear and take a trip to the eighties to find out. In the meantime, what did you think of Wonder Woman 1984? Let me know in the comments below.

Review

Looking back, Wonder Woman was somewhat of a revelation. Thanks to its solid direction, engaging screenplay and heartfelt performances, the movie effortlessly infused its larger than life title character with a mythical grandeur, that carried weight and pathos in its WW1 setting. In short, it was a surprisingly engaging and clever adaptation of comics’ most celebrated female character and her universe.

By comparison, 1984 is a light and excessive effort. The film comes across as an upmarket episode of Fantasy Island that’s mated with the spirit of Richard Donner’s Superman films.

Wonder Woman 1984 is about the title character aka Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), attempting to uncover the origins of a MacGuffin called the dream stone. It grants the sole wish of people who come into contact with it. However, in return, it takes away an essential quality of the person who wishes upon it. The artifact has personal implications for Diana, as her one true love from the First World War- Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) comes back to life via possession of another body.

Whilst dealing with this emotional revelation, Diana must contend with Max Lord (Pedro Pascal), a failing businessman who has absorbed the stone, and uses it to fulfil his selfish desires. At the same time, Diana’s new friend- Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) is transformed by the stone into a shadow version of Wonder Woman, and refuses to give up her power.

In its best moments, Wonder Woman 1984 does capture the spirit of Richard Donner’s Superman pictures. In fact, Gadot’s finest moments as the title character have an earnest commitment to the aspirational, and down to earth qualities of the character. They’re akin to Christopher Reeve’s performance as the Man of Steel, particularly when Gadot greets the criminals or interacts with some of the kids in the film’s early moments. At the same time, Gadot is often framed in a larger than life manner in some sequences- such as when she’s doing a tribute to the flyby scenes that came at the end of Donner’s films.

However, for all the Donner esque charm that graces 1984, the film lacks the strengths of those pictures (particularly the 1978 movie). At its best, Superman the Movie was akin to a biblical epic that juggled many disparate genres and types of films to tell its story. Because of these elements, Donner’s film near effortlessly papered over the cracks of its narrative problems. Wonder Woman 1984 does not share the same luxury.

This is in part due to a screenplay that even by standards of the genre feels simplistic and commonplace. The central dreamstone and its implications traps the characters in this perpetual void of single mindedness, that consistently feels shallow and emotionally uninteresting. It also serves to undermine Diana. She comes across as someone whose happiness solely comes from having Steve Trevor back in her life. This is a far cry from the first film that painted the character as someone who found enjoyment in the small charms of life. This character choice seeks to undermine an enlightened protagonist into a one note person, who occasionally slides into the realm of being unheroic.

The film also suffers in comparison to its predecessor. The 2017 film used its screenplay to consider Diana’s budding relationship with humankind at arguably one of its worst times. Without this central conundrum and depth, 1984 never rises above its shallowness.

Despite these problems, there’s some entertainment to be had in the performances. Pedro Pascal plays Max Lord like a sleazy televangelist whose channeling Mr Roark’s shiftiness and Donald Trump’s bravado. Pascal’s performance is a go for broke cocktail that mixes over the top line readings, occasional heartfelt moments, and enough zany energy to rival a battery operated Furby.

Despite being saddled with the cliche material of the nebbish geek, who lives in the shadow of the central hero, Kristen Wigg surprised me as Barbara Minerva. Her transformation felt quite engaging, and her awkward comedic shtick giving rise to an intense desperation felt resonating. At times, her performance reminded me of when Robin Williams turned his motormouthed comic persona into some great stark performances. Despite elevating the material, Wigg’s acting made me wish that the screenplay devoted more time to Barbara and Diana’s friendship, as tension in a female friendship is rarely seen in a comic book movie.

Despite occasionally being marred by some odd riffs on some previously written material, Hans Zimmer’s score proves to be his most diverse music in years. It’s operatic, bombastic, and in many ways feels like an eighties superhero movie score. And I would be lying, if I did not say that the movie did not charm with its period setting. From the set design to the clothes and opening credits, 1984 fully embraces the eighties with a loving and nostalgic embrace.

In spite of having a considerable amount of shortcomings, Wonder Woman 1984 is a non offensive, fleeting trifle of a movie. It entertains, somewhat amuses, and provides a large popcorn bucket’s worth of escapism. However, it stands in the shadow of an incredible first film, that did interesting things with its mythology and storytelling. And in a genre that’s crowded, erratically plucking at the strings of a bare bones premise is not good enough.

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My Top Five Lockdown Films (Volume 2)

Introduction

Alas, 2021 is proving to be a continuation of 2020’s swift kick in the groin at random intervals. Earlier this week, England was put into a third lockdown, and with it comes a groundhog day insofar as restrictions are concerned. However, despite the sour note that the year has started on, the show must go on, and at my humble blog, I intend to do that with full gusto. We can beat Covid by being staying at home, and not letting it crush our spirits.

My first top five lockdown films list was a mixture of comforting favourites and movies that I attempted to relate to the crisis, whether it was art somewhat imitating life in 28 Days Later or the personal connection established between Jessie and Celine (via walking around Vienna) in Before Sunrise. For this reason, I thought a second list felt redundant.

However, the prospect of a New Year inspired an idea. Rather than pluck five movies out of the air with a vague connection, I thought I would use this list to pick movies that introduce the viewer to something: be it a genre, actor or even a whole cinematic trend. I’ve also ensured that all these recommendations can be found on various streaming services (UK versions).

5) Mortal Kombat (1995)

Mortal Kombat is the epitome of Pauline Kael’s wise quote on the medium- “Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them.” The movie serves as a fascinating introduction to the often maligned video game adaptations. Kombat takes a measured approach to adapting the fighting game series with its high spirited action, performances, and earnest commitment to the goofiness of its source material. But above all, it’s a snapshot of how the budding sub-genre was treated in a period of time when video games were slowly evolving. The 1995 movie is available to stream on Prime Video.

4) Stripes (1981)

It goes without saying that Bill Murray is a unique screen presence. He’s someone who can charm with a sardonic wit, and emotionally resonate with an inherent melancholy that makes his later characters relatable in their weariness and sadness. Stripes is the missing link between these two qualities of the actor. The film’s best moments illustrate this dichotomy, and is an excellent introduction to how we see Murray in films such as Rushmore, Lost in Translation and Broken Flowers. Stripes is available to stream on Netflix.

3) The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

From the small crop of Hammer Horror films I’ve seen, The Curse of Frankenstein is the best introduction to the studio’s horror output. In part, this is due to the film’s distinctive approach. It’s a slasher film with manners, with the central monster being Peter Cushing’s debonair and wolfish doctor. At the same time, it also contains the studio’s famed overt innuendo, garish colour scheme and general winking silliness. The film is available to stream on Shudder.

2) The Sword in the Stone (1963)

There are countless animated movies that could be your gateway drug into getting hooked on Disney. Heck you could pretty much pick any movie from the studio’s 90s era. However, I think The Sword in the Stone is as good a candidate as any. At the heart of the movie, is an emphasis on education being important for a child’s development. At the same time, the film greatly illustrates the studio’s charm with its amusing physical gags, charming characters and imaginative spirit.

But above all, the movie is slyly subversive insofar as the hero’s journey is cast aside in favour of something far more interesting. We know that Arthur will become king, but the movie establishes the building blocks of what will make him a great man, one whose defined by intelligence and not heroic deeds. The 1963 animated feature is available to stream on Disney Plus.

1) Rashomon (1950)

Where do I start with Rashomon? Well, its story about four unreliable accounts of a murdered samurai is a wellspring for future cinematic endeavours. It’s also the film that introduced Japanese cinema to an international audience, Akira Kurosawa to many notable filmmakers, and the actor- Toshiro Mifune to the mainstream. The fact that it birthed a whole storytelling style (the Rashomon effect) and its imprint can still be traced in films as diverse as The Last Jedi and Isle of Dogs make it a must watch. For these reasons and many more, Rashomon is a perfect foundation for thinking of cinema as art. The 1950 film is available to stream on the BFI Player.

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