Review: Spencer (2021)

Preamble

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

Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Personal Post: Vagueness and the Movie Reviewing Process

Preamble

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

Personal Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: The Batman (2022)

Preamble

To quote Jack Skellington from A Nightmare Before Christmas “What’s this?” Another blog post in the space of a week. “Well pickle my walnuts!” In all seriousness though, (and god-awful Len Goodman lines aside), The Batman seems like a call to arms film for moviegoing at the moment, a near 3-hour crime drama that promises to be a bold new direction for the comic book hero. Does it succeed? Well, you can find out after the jump. But before we get to my review, what did you think of The Batman? Let me know in the comments below.

Review

There’s no doubt that Batman is one of the most versatile comic book characters. He’s been a silent movie creation in Tim Burton’s films, a high glossed celebrity of 90s excess in Joel Schumacher’s movies, and a socially constructed ideal in Christopher Nolan’s beloved trilogy. By comparison, Matt Reeves’s foray into Gotham is an engrossing graphic novel esque experience, that occasionally sinks under the weight of its unique spins on the comic mythology.

The 2022 film sees Bruce Wayne two years into his crime-fighting career as the Batman (Robert Pattinson). His grip on the criminal and mob elements is interrupted when a mysterious figure called The Riddler (Paul Dano) starts setting unsettling puzzles with the intent of unmasking the corruption of Gotham City. At the same time, Wayne crosses paths with Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz), a mob employee, who seeks answers on the whereabouts of her friend Annika (Hana Hrzic), after she ends up missing for many days on end.

In contrast to other films in the franchise, The Batman plays like a heightened neo-noir. Much like movies from that sub-genre, there’s an inherent cynicism from the protagonist who sees their mission to clean up a corrupt city as a futile exercise. This quality comes from various internal monologues that Batman has during the film. Despite this element, the Batman strives to be a twisty 90s thriller in the vein of Seven (1995), complete with a rain-soaked and persistently bleak portrait of Gotham City. In his direction, Matt Reeves juxtaposes this aspect with salacious and voyeuristic camera moves that feel at home in a Brian De Palma picture.

But his best moment of direction comes near the end where Batman guides survivors out of trouble. Reeves uses a top shot, which is illuminated by a red flare that the character is holding. It’s an excellent visual metaphor for the enduring appeal of the comic hero, as he becomes a symbol of light that leads people in the dark. It’s a shot that dubs Batman as The Dark Knight as much as the final shot of Nolan’s 2008 film, which visually gave weight to that moniker.

In his performance as Batman, Robert Pattinson comes closest to embodying the comic book character. Over the years, the comics I’ve mostly enjoyed are the ones that contrast Batman’s larger than life persona with his humanity. Pattinson walks this fine line quite beautifully with moments that illustrate sweeping heroism, such as a moment where he gets to the top of a building, contrasted with a palpable fear when he glides of said building. He also feels closest to Micheal Keaton insofar as his eyes illustrate so much of the character’s soul. At once, they gleam with an inhumane callousness (particularly during one tense moment with Selina) and an aching empathy, demonstrated in an early scene where he stares at a kid who has just discovered his father’s dead body.

I also admired how driven Pattinson’s Batman is. For all intents and purposes, his Bruce Wayne persona is scorched, rarely making public appearances and coming across as a distant and grungy rock star (when he does). It’s a mask he has to wear as a means to an end to his crime-fighting. This stark single-mindedness whereby Batman’s humanity is nearly extinguished has always been appealing on the page, and makes Pattinson’s subtle flickers of emotion all the more resonating.

With his erratic line readings and belaboured breathing, Paul Dano proves to be a fearsome screen presence as a reinterpreted Riddler, who exists as a missing link between the Zodiac killer and a Jim Jones styled cult leader. Colin Farrell delivers a transformative Robert DeNiro esque performance as Oz/The Penguin. Jeffrey Wright injects an excellent sense of casualness that goes a long way in showing the appealing everyman quality of Jim Gordon. And Zoe Kravitz brings a great deal of assuredness and righteous indignation to Selina Kyle.

Michael Giacchino’s score continues in the great tradition of Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard in delivering varied and interesting music. In particular, his haunting innocent theme for The Riddler proves to be a motif that embodies the damaged quality of many of the characters that litter the film. Likewise, his Catwoman theme is a noir-inspired piano and string piece that laments in the spirit of Jazzy blue music. And his heroic theme for the title character impresses in its relentlessness much like a droning atonal sound.

Despite these virtues, The Batman suffers when it comes to some of its underhanded elements; namely the revelations about Bruce Wayne’s parents. The Riddler’s last target is Bruce Wayne and his father’s legacy. However, the revelations prove to be fruitless because no context’s been given for them. The audience is told that Bruce revered his father, but we don’t see that in his actions or words. The plot point proves to be hollow and not used as an interesting irony in fuelling Wayne’s vigilante career. The same goes for a revelation of Bruce’s mother being an Arkham. It feels like a plot point as opposed to something that Bruce grapples with, i.e are his predilections to being Batman hereditary or learnt behaviour.

With these points, I was reminded of Roger Ebert’s criticism of Seven during his Great Movies essay on the 1995 film. “Seven is not really a very deep or profound film, but it provides the convincing illusion of one.” In the same vein, The Batman wears the clothing of profundity in the form of social disenchantment and Nietzschian parallels between Batman and Riddler, but proves to be for nought as it pulls its punches on its more subversive elements. In this way, the film is far from being the cinematic definitive article on the character. Instead, it comes across as a mildly thrilling if not shallow cover song.

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Brief Consideration: Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)

Preamble

To quote John Wick, “Yeah, I’m thinking I’m back.” Sorry it’s been a while since my last blog post, but there’s one piece of writing that required my constant attention, along with a general lack of motivation to blog. Suffice to say, that post and feeling have been conquered and I’m excited to be back on the ol’ hamster wheel of blogging.

I long held out against seeing Spider-Man: No Way Home because of not feeling entirely safe of returning to cinemas (amid the Omicron variant). But recently that feeling has passed and it was still playing at my local cinema. Based on the Box Office alone, everyone and their mothers have seen this movie, so before I get to my brief thoughts on Spidey’s latest adventure, what did you think of No Way Home? Let me know in the comments below. And if you like my ramblings on the webhead or horror movies, then you can find more of my work at my second home https://horrorobsessive.com/author/sartaj-singh/ (Horror Obsessive).

Brief Consideration

Honestly, expansive multiverse stories can be a mess. This is because creaky and awkward plot mechanics give rise to various strands that often do not coalesce. Despite this, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was an imaginative and surprisingly nimble animated feature that used its multiverse concept for Miles Morales’s resonating search for identity. By comparison, Spider-Man: No Way Home is a fun and surprisingly emotional affair that finally imbues its central character with a genuine sense of tragedy.

Picking up right after the events of Far From Home, the third MCU Spidey film depicts the Web-Head (Tom Holland) trying to cope with life after Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) reveals his secret identity to the world at large. When his identity problem causes his girlfriend, M.J (Zendaya) and best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon) to be rejected from MIT, Peter Parker decides to visit Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). In responce, the sympathetic wizard attempts to cast a spell to make the world forget about Peter Parker being Spider-Man. However, Parker’s numerous interruptions result in many of the Spider-Man villains from across the multiverse making their way into his reality.

If Homecoming was a perfunctory footnote and Far From Home was a mildly interesting post-modern exercise in how Peter Parker and the MCU at large were dealing with the absence of Tony Stark, then No Way Home is a recalibration of the notion of secret identity in the MCU. In contrast to many other heroes (especially Iron Man), No Way Home illustrates how the public attention of Peter Parker being Spider-Man can be damming for his loved ones. These moments of sugary high and immediate concerns (best encapsulated in a jaunty Steadicam shot of Peter going about his Aunt’s apartment webbing windows) are the foundation for showcasing the neurotic charm of Stan Lee’s and Steve Diko’s creation.

Along with Holland’s Parker realising the tragic lesson and value of “With great power, comes great responsibility” from Andrew Garfield’s and Tobey Maguire’s iterations, No Way Home’s multiverse storytelling proves to have a lot of heart and pathos. The single best scene that encapsulates these qualities comes in the aftermath of May’s death. On a rain soaked night, an unmasked Peter is watching a billboard of J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) publicly denouncing Spider-Man. With its close-up of a distraught and silent Parker, the scene echos Roy Batty’s final moments in Blade Runner, as Parker is baptised by tragedy and public outrage (the twin qualities that have often defined the comic book character).

Despite being filled to the rafters with call backs, easter eggs and references, No Way Home’s best moments of multiverse storytelling involve the villains. In particular, Willem Dafoe shines in an extended role, which equally gives weight to his altruistic ultra ego (Norman Osborn) and villainous persona (Green Goblin) who sadistically challenges Spidey’s values of power and responsibility.

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Review: Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City (2021)

Preamble

Happy New Year to all my readers and followers. I hope your 2022 is full of success, happiness and good memories. It’s been a gentle but slow return to blogging, but I’m nevertheless thrilled to be back. The Resident Evil movie franchise is one of those rare instances where I’ve purposefully not seen any instalments that pervade the series. Part of this is due to having little (if any) interest in investing time to the six movie series. The other reason is that I cherish my memories of the games too much. As of writing, I’ve played the remakes of 2 & 3, Resident Evil 4, 5, Leon’s Campaign in 6 as well as Biohazard and Village.

However, I’ll admit my curiosity was piqued by this reboot, which promises a much more faithful rendition of the beloved Capcom series. Does it succeed? Well, let’s find out after the jump. Have you seen Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City? If so, what did you think of it? Let me know in the comments below.

Review

What makes something faithful to its source material? Is it allusions, easter eggs and occasional moments of visual evoking via set design etc. This is the question that circled my mind throughout Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City. Based on the narrative of the first two games, the 2021 videogame adaptation sees Claire Redfield (Kaya Scodelario) return to Raccoon City to persuade her brother, Chris Redfield (Robbie Amell) of a conspiracy she stumbles upon about the Umbrella corporation. Meanwhile, Chris and a team of officers are tasked with investigating goings-on at the Spencer Mansion. These events play out among the backdrop of the denizens of Raccoon City transforming into zombies, and a newly minted rookie cop- Leon S Kennedy (Avan Jogia) attempting to survive on his first day on the job.

To its credit, Raccoon City does have a solid base of reference for its approach to adapting the source material. Almost taking place in real-time with title cards to tell the audience the time, the film has the same unnerving and glacial pace of the long credits sequence in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987). This is coupled with imagery that harkens back to some of Dario Argento’s corrupted sense of innocence in Deep Red (1975). One such moment is a juxtaposition of medium shots where a creepy toy gives way to the reveal of Lisa Trevor (Marina Mazepa) to a young Claire Redfield.

However, these sensibilities are mostly drowned out by a sledgehammer approach to the rest of the proceedings. These mostly come in the form of loud and inane sequences that use 90s music to fuel its scares and high octane sequences. It almost becomes comical that two separate explosions are caused by the popular music of that era. This approach is also taken with the characters that exist in a perpetual cycle of being one-note. In fact, at times, they come across more as vessels for attitude as opposed to people with genuine emotion.

The wise-cracking Leon S Kennedy of Resident Evil 4 is transformed into an incompetent buffoon that’s always screwing up to the point of bewilderment. Clare Redfield is now spiky and sassy as opposed to the empathetic and determined character in the remake of the second game. And the less said about Jill Valentine and Albert Wesker, the better…

While these characters are placed in locations that visually feel in line with the video games (the highlight being the reveal of the R.P.D. that evokes the grandiosity and a sense of the history of that place in Resident Evil 2), they’re usually left with nothing if anything to do at all. The appeal of the games were the choices players had to make every time they ventured forth from a save point. Do I have enough ammo? Can I get to location x without dying? How many zombies are around this corner etc? In this sense, playing the game was akin to being handed a Rubik’s Cube and asked to solve it during a stressful situation.

Aside from one incidental moment where Leon loses his gun and has to face down a zombie unarmed, no moments from the film capitalise upon the video game franchise’s inherently nerve-racking moments of survival horror. And this is the inherent problem with the picture, it feigns to understand Resident Evil, but this knowledge is on such a superficial level that it becomes insulting to watch at times.

In fact, with its rushed approach, underdeveloped characters and ignored political subtext (insofar as the zombies representing the working class who are victimised by the corporate class) Welcome to Raccoon City is a frustrating experience that’s often wandering aimlessly around faithful locations from its source material.

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My Top Five Films of 2021

Preamble

For me, 2021 has been a remarkably odder year then 2020. I think this comes from the sense of a start-stop to resuming many normal activities that I’ve enjoyed in a pre-pandemic era. I still take safety seriously, which is why reviews for some popular films (namely Spider-Man No Way Home) have not been covered for the blog. At the same time, my motivation has veined a lot this year, whether it’s my attention being taken up elsewhere or more personal reasons. Despite this, I’m pleased to have introduced One Great Shot to the family of posts and written more about trailers for upcoming movies. And it was a joy to return to the cinema for certain films. The cinematic experience is something I don’t think I will ever take for granted again. Although, I just hope I can inject more ambition and interest in the blog next year.

However, without further ado, here’s my top five films of 2021. What are your top films of 2021? Did you see any at the cinema? Let me know in the comments below.

5) No-One

No-One is the sort of film that lingers and stews in the mind long after the credits have rolled. Combining historical intrigue and underhanded romantic sparring, the Israeli-Ukrainian picture flickers between historical satire and grand Shakespearean tragedy.

4) The Matrix Resurrections

Made in the same vein as Wes Craven’s 1994 metatextual film, New Nightmare, the third Matrix sequel is a subversive and deeply personal film about how an artist views their best work long after it’s made an impact. This gives rise to a new ethos that’s philosophically interesting and emotional in its exploration of Neo’s and Trinity’s relationship. For this reason, and Lana Wachowski’s visuals, that vary from sun soaked Malickiean vistas to Carpenter esque horror, The Matrix Resurrections is my biggest surprise of 2021.

3) The French Dispatch

Despite suffering from a slight sense of law of diminishing returns with its storylines, Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch is nevertheless a charming love letter to vintage journalism in its last throes. Aside from the thematic exploration of how much a writer gets involved in their work, Dispatch is also playful in its comedy, lightly pricking at the pristine and picturesque visuals of Anderson’s oeuvre as well as modern art and celebrity.

2) Passing

Rebecca Hall’s adaptation of Nella Larsen’s novel is a sobering and poignant examination of race relations in 1920s America. Boasting impressive use of diegetic music, fade-in and a starmaking turn from Ruth Negga (who plays the character as a cross between Daisy Buchanan and Katherine Hepburn), Passing is as timely in illustrating the masks we wear in public, as much as the disconnect in the private perception of our biases and life circumstances.

1) Dune

Dune is an astounding singular work. It’s a film that embraces the convictions of the source material and trusts the audience to keep up with its vision. Long gone are the days of two-page glossaries being handed out at screenings for fear of audience comprehension. Instead, Denis Villeneuve believes in the cinema to weave Frank Herbert’s complex novel.

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Off The Cuff: The Suicide Squad (2021)

Preamble

Welcome to Off the Cuff, a series of posts where I will be writing about my raw impressions to a film that I’ve just seen. Rather than a review that acts as an overview for many aspects of a movie, Off the Cuff will focus in on an aspect or two. These posts are inspired by the “30 Minutes On” series of writings on Roger Ebert.com, whereby the critic in question would spend half an hour writing about a particular film. Alas, I will not be timing myself with these posts. With that in mind, what did you think of The Suicide Squad? Let me know in the comments below.

Off The Cuff

If there’s one director’s work who I’ve spilled a mighty amount of virtual ink on, then it’s James Gunn. His films have equally fascinated and puzzled me. His Marvel efforts (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 1 and 2) have interesting virtues but have kept me at arms length because of their awkward mix of irreverence and sentimentality. But his first feature- Slither worked for me, due to being a thematically on point homage to vintage monster movies. And the less said about Super, the better… However, The Suicide Squad truly surprised me.

Throughout the existence of the comic book movie genre, many filmmakers have feigned about making their movie faithful to the medium they’re adapting from. There have been movies where this intention is effortlessly achieved (i.e Sin City and Into The Spider-Verse). But for every one of these gems, there’s a horrendous misfire of intention (Batman and Robin) etc.

At a fundamental level, The Suicide Squad profoundly understands comic books and their appeal. It has a deep-seated love for the medium. Narratively, it’s constructed like a series of single issues that have been stapled together. There’s many vignettes that are launched by a title, which signal what that section is going to be about. These creative transitions evoke a feeling of watching a single issue play out for a period of time. Gunn’s screenplay is also not afraid to embrace the absurdity of the medium, whether it’s the sheer existence of King Shark or Polka-Dot Man.

By the same token, Gunn understands how the fantastical nature of the medium can be metaphorical. The main antagonist- (Starro) is a giant star fish that keeps growing via taking over the bodies of the local population. The entity is purely adapted silver age fare that becomes a metaphor for how governments cannot hope to contain opposition, be it political or journalistic in nature. The creature also feels thematically aligned with the idea of the collective in Slither, which represented the horrifying gossiping nature of a small town populace.

Gunn punctuates these aspects with many shots that feel like giant splash pages. The most striking being a rain soaked slow motion shot of the central team walking in unison. The Suicide Squad also becomes a fun playground for Gunn’s pendulum swing between classic and modern filmmaking. In the tail end, there’s one moment where he uses Sergio Leone’s cowboy shot and then proceeds to depict a tense gunfight as though its a scene right out of a post Matrix film (with the use of bullet time).

As for the seesaw between irreverence and sentimentality, I found Gunn’s balance here quite well done. Part of this comes from the premise that has an aspect of nihilism, with many of the characters being lambs to the slaughter. As a result, the sentimentality feels earned as opposed to forced like many moments in the Galaxy pictures.

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One Great Shot: Hellraiser (1987)

Preamble

Happy Halloween everyone. I could not let this spooky time of year pass by without a post. Hellraiser is one of my favourite horror movies, due to how it combines elements of Gothic, sexual and Lovecraftian horror. Hellraiser’s portrait of evil is also interesting, which is encapsulated in the film’s one great shot. What’s your favourite shot from Clive Barker’s film? Let me know in the comments below. And if you like this post or any of my other horror-related posts, then you can find more at my second home- Horror Obsessive: https://horrorobsessive.com/author/sartaj-singh/

One Great Shot

Despite Pinhead being on the primary poster and many of the home media covers that grace Hellraiser, he’s not actually the villain of the film. Instead, Hellraiser’s one great shot cements Julia Cotton as the film’s true antagonist. In fact, her transition from a morose woman who does not feel sexually satisfied in her marriage to a murderous complicator in a taboo relationship is arguably the film’s real horror.

At this moment, Clare Higgins plays Julia as though she’s a stony empress who just executed someone. There’s a cold-blooded quality along with a precise and still physicality that makes the character stand out. This is a far cry from the woman who previously felt distraught at having to commit murder. Clive Barker’s choice to include this shot amid a murder montage is excellent for illustrating Julia’s increasing nonchalant relationship with killing, and a general sense of dehumanisation.

At the same time, the shot also sets up the larger than life quality that Julia has in Hellbound: Hellraiser II. In that film, the character comes across as a mythic embodiment of the evil stepmother to the protagonist- Kirsty Cotton. Retrospectively, it feels as though Clive Barker is visually sowing the seeds for this portrait of Julia. With this in mind, the bait and switch between the perception of the film’s true baddie become even more fascinating.

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Review: Dune (2021)

Preamble

Briefly put, Dune is as close to fever pitch excitement that I’ve had for a movie since the Star Wars sequel trilogy. Part of this comes from my relationship with the property. The David Lynch adaptation got me hooked on his movies and ambient music. And Frank Herbert’s novels provided me great comfort and distraction during the peak of the pandemic last year. Silly fanboy confessions aside, did you see Dune over the weekend? What did you think of the film? Let me know in the comments below.

Review

Perhaps more than Lord of the Rings and Heart of Darkness, Dune has felt like the impossible book adaptation to slay. Originally conceived as an oddly long epic that was going to star Salvador Dali, and represent a life-changing experience (akin to LSD) for its audience; Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune is a testament to madcap vision and an interesting alternative reality for science fiction cinema. On the other hand, David Lynch’s eighties adaptation was an overexplanatory cliff notes version of Frank Herbert’s novel, which still managed to retain some of Lynch’s indelible surreal style. Visually beguiling and smartly written, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune proves to be an excellent adaptation that distils many of the themes that graced Herbert’s 1965 novel.

Roughly covering the first part of the novel (fittingly entitled Dune) the 2021 adaptation is about the Atreides family, who are tasked with mining spice on a planet called Arrakis. The substance in question provides the user with a heightened state of consciousness that can achieve interstellar travel and longer life. However, Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), his concubine, Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet) soon find more than meets the eye, when it comes to their newfound gifted responsibility from the Emperor, and former controllers of the planet’s spice production- House Harkonnen.

On the page, Dune is filled to the brim with many elements that harmonise to create a fascinating science-fiction epic. And this is without even mentioning the world-building that can veer into overwhelming territory at times. The screenplay, co-written by director, Denis Villeneuve, Eric Roth, and Jon Spaihts firmly plants its feet on two larger aspects of the novel. The first is a sense of fatalism that underpins the Atreides’ time on Dune. There’s a persistent sense of danger from larger forces at work that seek to crush the family’s political prominence. At the same time, there’s a clear ethos of Paul’s hero’s journey being akin to an inherited poisoned chalice. There are various visions the character has. They speak to the widespread turmoil and ruin his rule could bring. These moments coupled with a sense of one of the factions spreading a myth of a chosen one truly cements the screenwriters’ understanding of Herbert’s text.

If Dune is about anything then it’s about the interplay between how an environment defines someone and how various people attempt to imprint their will on said environment. This sense of myth clashing with political will is so clearly coursing through the veins of Villeneuve’s 2021 adaptation.

However, despite these virtues, the screenplay does occasionally indulge in trite pseudo-intellectual lines that do feel jarring. Some ideas are also repeated in case the people at the back of the cinema did not hear them the first time. And a few adaptation choices do lessen the impact of some tertiary characters who had more vivid life in Lynch’s 1984 film.

Visually, Dune’s first part is a marvel. In spirit, it has the grand vintage epics in mind with some of the tall and imposing set design that injects its science-fiction world with an authentic sense of place. The film’s visuals standout in quite subtle ways too. There’s a scene on a fog engulfed landing platform that with its use of close-ups feels like a homage to Ingmar Bergman’s existential films. The use of shadow to partially obscure Paul’s profile also feels thematically resonating in illustrating the uncertainty of the character’s future.

Likewise, the introduction of the Bene Gesserit with minimal (almost heavenly) lighting is painterly and stunning. It put me in mind of the William Turner painting- “Peace- Burial at Sea”, which used light to illuminate the age and beauty of its central ship. The same can be said of the Gesserit shot in illustrating the almost centuries-old existence of the female group. But some of my most favourite visual moments from Dune came from the shots that attempted to harmonise Dust Bowl era imagery and Middle Eastern exoticism.

Despite being saddled with the label of a naive boy throughout the film, Timothée Chalamet displays an impressive sense of authority and determinism in his performance as Paul. Stellan Skarsgård cuts an imposing and grotesque figure as a reinterpreted Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, who exists somewhere between Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now and Emperor Palpatine from the Star Wars films. However, Rebecca Ferguson steals the show in an impressive near-silent performance that walks a fine line between fragile and strong.

In a year that’s seen Hans Zimmer work on big movies such as Wonder Woman 1984 and No Time to Die, it’s quite something that his best score proves to be Dune. It’s an interesting inversion of his usual percussive work that’s employed to imbue tension, much like some of Ennio Morricone’s music did in Sergio Leone’s Western films. However, the German composer outdoes himself with an experimental, sharp, piercing, and ominous theme for the Bene Gesserit, which illustrates their uniformity and power as individuals.

Overall, Dune is an astounding singular work. It’s a film that embraces the convictions of the source material and trusts the audience to keep up with its vision. Long gone are the days of two-page glossaries being handed out at screenings for fear of audience comprehension. Instead, Villeneuve believes in the cinema to weave Herbert’s complex source material.

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Review: Halloween Kills (2021)

Preamble

If there’s one type of movie that people are always game for around October, then it’s a scary movie. And after many delays, Halloween Kills finally swoops in to enliven the spooky period. Does it provide one good scare? What did you think of the sequel to the 2018 film? Let me know in the comments below.

Review

At best, Halloween (2018) was a mixed blessing that I’ve grown to appreciate. Despite indulging in trends that made some of the sequels a far cry from the original 1978 film, it interestingly used homage to illustrate how Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) had in some senses morphed into Michael Myers in the years since her traumatic incident. By comparison, Halloween Kills proves to be an unrelenting exercise in nostalgia.

Taking place mere moments after the 2018 film, Halloween Kills sees the injured Strode women, Laurie, Karen (Judy Greer) and Allyson (Andi Matichak) recover in hospital after their encounter with Michael Myers (a combination of Nick Castle and James Jude Courtney). Unbeknownst to the family, the white-masked slasher escaped from fiery captivity after a group of firefighters attend to the scene of the incident. Meanwhile across town, survivors Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall) and Lindsay Wallace (Kyle Richards) attempt to drum up support for a mob to take down the rampaging Myers.

Nostalgia is no stranger to the Halloween franchise. H20 (1998) was practically a post Scream movie, which featured self-referential moments that alluded to John Carpenter’s film and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). However, Kills uses nostalgia as the be-all and end-all to its characters. Many of the new players are plucked because of their relationship to the original but are not developed beyond their nostalgic evoking. And in a particularly bad example, a female character from the 1978 film feels as though she’s just there to repeat the same sentiment and die in a manner that evokes her scare scene from the original. There’s never a sense that the screenwriters are interested in what time or the intervening years have done to the characters who were kids in Carpenter’s Halloween.

Instead, most of them exist to be an awkward greek chorus for the hammered and crowbarred theme of how fear spreads across Haddonfield. Conceptually, this theme plays on the fear of mobs. But the execution feels contrived and oddly mixed in illustrating the terrifying chaos of the mob mentality, and how they can be empowering in getting over trauma. This problem leaves Kills exposed as a placeholder film that uses its new characters as sacrificial pawns in a game of chess between Laurie and Michael.

Despite the problematic nature of the writing, Halloween Kills does somewhat coast on being a violent and at times shocking slasher film. This is due in part to the huge body count and some of the sequences. There’s one that feels the closest the franchise has come to generating the terror from the home invasion sub-genre; via minimalist sound design and great back and forth between its characters in building up tension.

And one kill scene plays likes a missing link between a brutal Rob Zombie Halloween sequence and the original’s demented sense of play with its staging of bodies. This scene depicts a dying woman looking at her husband getting stabbed multiple times (via a hazy and out of focus protracted point of view shot) and is something that will be lingering in my memory for a long time to come. On this score, Kills earns its title and will be a talking point for many hungry horror hounds.

John Carpenter in collaboration with Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies returns to score Halloween Kills. The result is music that illustrates the intensity of Myers’s slaughter of the denizens of the small midwestern town. However, the trio’s best work comes with what they do with established themes. In particular, the rendition of the main theme is haunting and melancholic with its use of choral music that feels like a lament for the town of Haddonfield.

Finally, some small moments do strike a chord. One scene has Laurie confesses how she saw a character when she was younger. Curtis’s performance is touching at this moment and displays some great humanity despite the Halloween II esque situation she finds herself in. I honestly wish there were more moments like this. But Halloween Kills attempts to paper over the cracks of its thinly conceived screenplay with bloody carnage. In some moments, this may be enough for a certain stripe of horror fan. But for me, it was a distraction from the true horror of what the best Halloween movies have been all about.

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