July 2022 Roundup

Thor: Love and Thunder

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Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures // Directed by Taika Waititi // Starring Chris Hemsworth, Christian Bale, Tessa Thompson, Jaimie Alexander, Taika Waititi, Russell Crowe, Natalie Portman

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The God of Thunder returns in his fourth solo outing, the bombastically subtitled Love and Thunder, and one of the industry’s busiest directors, Taika Waititi, also returns for his second fling with Thor. 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok was well received and praised for shaking up the perception of the titular character played by Chris Hemsworth, and, given the sometimes lukewarm reactions to Phase Four of the MCU, maybe some gonzo action-comedy from a franchise OG could put the Phase back on a more even footing. Well, Love and Thunder isn’t as strong as Ragnarok and actually provides another stand-offish entry into the franchise's usually super-connected narrative. It feels more contained (despite extended cameos from the Guardians of the Galaxy who appear to remind us that we’re watching an MCU movie) and happy to riff on the Waititi brand which is successful at times but, here, the gags don’t land as often as they should and can derail sequences and moments intended to carry weight or emotion (a criticism sometimes levelled at Ragnarok and the MCU, in general). Alongside that, there is a disjointed feeling to the movie, as if we are watching tonally warring sequences being forced to abide with each other against their will. The balance, though, is a lot of those tonally warring sequences are very decent - the action is solid for the most part (the opening salvo versus bird-faced creatures was fun and the mid-movie Zeus introduction had its moments), the jokes are great when they land and Waititi flexes his filmmaker biceps at times with some stylish transitions and visual choices. The performances across the board were simply fine with the exception of Christian Bale who threw himself into the villainous role of Gorr the God Butcher with relish, consistently proving to be the highlight of Love and Thunder (even if the character itself was hollow and underutilised). Hemsworth is decent, whereas Portman delivered a solid performance on her return as Jane Foster and Thompson did well with the scraps she was afforded (wait until you see Russell Crowe in this too, another classic accent). One of the key issues here is that, whilst it’s great to see Natalie Portman return, it’s clear that she is simply a foil, a device required to allow Thor to reconcile his emotions and personal issues - it’s a decision that ultimately ensures the return is underwhelming despite carrying plenty of emotional baggage (even that feels surface level, the deeper themes seem almost to be restrained in their exploration). One thing that can’t be argued is that Love and Thunder is a great-looking movie (once you move past a few dodgy StageCraft shots), the use of colour throughout provided some dazzling visuals and the Shadow Realm where Gorr lurks looked great devoid of any colour and basking in its black and white moodiness. At just shy of two hours, it’s a shorter entry for the MCU which was welcome, alongside reports that Taika had to leave much of his work on the cutting room floor. Despite its inconsistencies throughout, Love and Thunder still crackles with enough verve and energy to remain an entertaining addition to the franchise even if it doesn’t feel as vital.

 

Dashcam

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Blumhouse Productions // Directed by Rob Savage // Starring Annie Hardy, Amer Chadha-Patel

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The creative minds behind 2020’s Host have returned, and this time gone is the Zoom interface, instead replaced with iPhones and a…dashcam (obviously). Directed by Rob Savage, Dashcam follows Annie Hardy (playing a ‘version’ of herself), an obnoxious, right-wing American live streamer with a penchant for creating adhoc songs as she cruises the streets at night. When she gets embroiled in an Uber Eats-esque collection gone wrong, she - along with her British friend Stretch (Chadha-Patel) - must fight for their lives all whilst the watching eyes of the world are on them. Now, Host was a taut, smart, and solid horror that captured the zeitgeist of COVID lockdown spectacularly so I was genuinely intrigued by how the team (including writers Jed Shepherd and Gemma Hurley) would follow it up, especially now with the power of Blumhouse behind them. Sadly, Dashcam is a far less enjoyable and creative outing, in fact, it’s hard to get through. I want to point out, firstly, that the movie is technically well made and structured, Savage continues to show that he has a flair for filmmaking and the atmosphere that is created throughout is certainly the strong point here. At points, some of the more recognisable horror beats are executed well and the overall story is certainly interesting. The problem is Annie Hardy in the lead role. Politics aside (as it should be), her performance is nauseatingly bad, she was clearly afforded carte blanche with her dialogue and it is horrifyingly bad - hearing her vomit out churlish, juvenile, and painfully unfunny ad libs whilst being stalked by the movie’s antagonist was torture (I was pleading for the baddie to put us all out of our misery). Her anti-vax views, COVID conspiracies and MAGA love are plainly intended to get people’s backs up, that’s who the character is and that’s not in itself a bad thing, people have differing opinions than others, but it’s too much. Every detail and moment is twisted into a crappy song and no situation is afforded any real weight, nuance is left at the door for an attempt at cheap laughs or ‘shock’ value (with many kills being smothered in panicked shaky cam for further frustration). Despite further evidence that Savage is an up-and-coming UK talent, a lack of genuine scares, a nonsensical narrative (at times), bland supporting characters, and the worst leading role in years combine to create what is a hugely disappointing affair. Dashcam tries too hard to be edgy, cool, offensive, and funny. It fails on all accounts.

 
 

Where the Crawdads Sing

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Sony Pictures Releasing // Directed by Olivia Newman // Starring Daisy Edgar-Jones, Taylor John Smith, Harris Dickinson, Michael Hyatt, Sterling Macer, Jr., David Strathairn

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Delia Owen’s novel Where the Crawdads Sing became a huge hit upon its release in 2018 and being lauded by Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine Book Club certainly aided sales and popularity. For this adaptation, Witherspoon takes a producer credit with Olivia Newman in the director's chair for a movie that came with plenty of anticipation. As someone who hasn't read the book, I approached the movie with no ‘expectations’ and ended up being mainly satisfied. The movie follows the trial of Kya - known to the townsfolk as the Marsh Girl due to her living as a recluse out in the marshes and swampland - where she is accused of the murder of her abusive ex-partner, Chase (Dickinson). With the trial as the framing device, the narrative flashes back to various moments in Kya’s life, including her early, torrid family life and first romance with the hunky Tate (Smith). There’s more than a whiff of Nick Cassavetes here and there’s plenty of mawkishness and flights of fancy to boot also - though that isn’t necessarily, or always, a good thing. Thankfully, the movie is anchored by a fabulous lead performance from Daisy Edgar-Jones, she delivered the perfect amount of innocence, naivety, and strength through her portrayal of Kya, and it all felt authentic. Her performance, alongside a strong showing from Straitharn as Kya’s lawyer, elevates the movie to a higher level than it probably deserves. At times, the dialogue feels as if it had been simply lifted directly from the pages of the novel and often felt clunky or unnatural and some of the characterisations were weak. It’s also a very ‘clean’ movie given that the main protagonist literally lives alone and isolated surounded by a swamp - more could and should have been done to deliver less of a polished presentation and this lent another level of stretched fantasy to a story that appeared to want to be taken rather seriously. Frustratingly, the movie offers up plenty of intrigue with its plot and thematically as well, but it never seems overly interested in peeling back the layers which leave it feeling surface level despite a few emotional moments in the final third. Overall, Where the Crawdads Sing is perfectly serviceable and works as a solid enough mystery drama, but it’s hard not to wonder what it could have been. Edgar-Jones is excellent throughout and without her, the movie would have been much worse off.

 

The Gray Man

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Netflix // Directed by the Russo Brothers // Starring Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jessica Henwick, Regé-Jean Page, Wagner Moura, Julia Butters, Dhanush, Alfre Woodard, Billy Bob Thornton

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Whilst Netflix is having all kinds of problems off-screen and behind the scenes, their latest original is possibly the most expensive release the streaming service has produced. The Gray Man, based on Mark Greaney’s novel, is intended to be the first in a series of movies for the service, and, here, the story centres on Six (Gosling) - an elite CIA mercenary assassin - as he is hunted by his maniacal ex-colleague Lloyd (Evans) after uncovering key evidence in a plot that could do immeasurable damage to the agency. I’ve always been wary of Netflix action movies, generally I find them to be bland, cliched, and uncharismatic, and, to be fair, The Gray Man doesn’t necessarily change my mind in a huge way. However, the charisma of the cast elevates it above its streaming peers and the action is far better than what has previously been the norm - yes, it is chock full of quippy one liners, impact statements, and as many logic leaps as you’d imagine, but I found a fair bit to appreciate here. From the (literally) explosive opening action sequence to a fiery fight aboard a doomed plane to an impressive tram sequence, the Russo's pack in plenty of bombast and adrenaline-fuelled set pieces, the problem is, there is one too many crammed into the one-hundred and twenty-nine minute runtime which comes at the expense of real character moments (yes, even the action flicks of the ‘90s had quieter moments) - it begins to becoming tiring before we reach the denouement and inevitable showdown of the beefcakes. Both Gosling and Evans apply themselves solidly to their roles, there’s more than a hint of fun being had by the both of them which does help prevent The Gray Man from being stale. The impressive supporting cast all have moments to shine, but I couldn’t shake the annoyance that de Armas and Henwick were underutilized (which will never not be a shame). Julie Butter’s Claire becomes the MacGuffin of the movie, and, whilst she shares some lighter moments with Gosling, it was clear that she was also intended as the heart of the movie For all its spectacle, The Gray Man is sorely lacking a spark and pulse that would allow ourselves to truly become attached to the characters. Some style is utilized in the overall filmmaking but there’s no real flair, the over-reliance on drone shots, vanilla score, and quick cuts are more of a detraction than anything as the Russo's again show that, outside of the MCU, they are fumbling to find their directorial voices. It’s hard to deny their action chops, though, as thankfully the key sequences all land to provide some of the better action I’ve seen this year. Whilst it may not be particularly innovative, The Gray Man offers enough exciting action, two game leads, and plenty of spectacle over substance. As long as you don’t expect too much, you’ll have fun with this.

Minions: The Rise of Gru

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Universal Pictures // Directed by Kyle Balda // Starring Steve Carell, Pierre Coffin, Taraji P. Henson, Michelle Yeoh, Russell Brand, Julie Andrews, Alan Arkin

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Everyone’s favourite squeaky yellow buddies are back with their new movie that’s subtitled with someone else's name! OK, it’s subtitled with Gru’s name, the ever-present ‘villain’ of the Despicable Me series, but, still, whose movie is this? I get that 2015’s Minions made an insane amount at the box office ($1.159bn!!) but an origin story for Gru? Sigh. I don’t mind the Despicable Me movies generally, I’ve had many a chuckle at them whilst watching alone or with my daughter, but Rise of Gru feels a bit too light, and, sadly, tedious. The Minions, of course, are the standouts but even their cute and goofy antics are starting to get a bit…old now. The story itself also is limp - even if the movie is primarily aimed at children, it’s wrong to assume that a kid's story shouldn’t or can't have a strong narrative and plot. That said, kids will have fun with the movie which is key - there’s plenty of Minion madness to placate throughout and the movie has a tight eighty-eight-minute runtime so it never overstays its welcome. Once more, the voice cast is excellent, Carell as Gru is as comfortable as they come (despite playing his twelve-year-old persona), with Alan Arkin and Michelle Yeoh providing strong work as Wild Knuckles (the former leader of the movies antagonist group, the Vicious 6) and Master Chow (the Minions kung fu teacher…) respectively. There’s nothing innately wrong with Minions: The Rise of Gru, it just feels uninspired, like some of the franchise's joy and pizazz has worn off. Franchise die-hards will get a kick out of this and there is plenty for the kids to enjoy, so that’s a win in my eyes even if the movie itself isn’t. Recent movies subtitled The Rise of… aren’t riding high on the waves of brilliance (runs and hides…)

 
 

Resurrection

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IFC Films // Directed by Andrew Semans // Starring Rebecca Hall, Grace Kaufman, Michael Esper, Tim Roth

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Did you ever hear about the movie with the baby in the oven? That would be Resurrection…and the baby isn’t really in the oven. Well, it is. Kind of. Watch the movie and you’ll see. The key aspect to take away is that you should watch Resurrection, Andrew Semans psychological thriller (with a dash of horror) about a woman, Margaret (Hall), whose seemingly comfortable life is thrown into chaos when a menacing presence from her past, David (Roth), reenters her life. The movie unravels as a slow, atmospheric burn whilst we witness the decaying of Margaret’s mental strength, Rebecca Hall delivering a fantastically complex performance once again as she attempts to protect her daughter from David and the perils of the outside world. The need for an element of control is hardwired into her character and this need spirals viciously as the movie begins to play its hand against the backdrop of Margaret's crumbling personal and professional life. Alongside Hall, Tim Roth is gleefully manipulative and menacing in his best performance in years, with Grace Kaufman providing a solid supporting role as Abbie, the headstrong teen daughter. Resurrection isn’t just a simple movie about a man disrupting the life of his ex, this moves beyond portraying the trauma, anguish, and abuse of women as a cheap device. This is less hysteria, more gaslighting, and cruel possession - one that remains a taut thriller even if it threatens to fall off the rails at certain points past the midway point with certain decisions and demands made by David (the movie does go in at the end, however). Semans’ screenplay further elevates the story, including a magnificent one-take, one-shot monologue delivered by Margaret regarding David, pain, lies, trauma, grief, and abuse - it sounds heavy, and, it is, but, like the movie as a whole, it is nothing but compelling. Whilst Resurrection looks and feels rather clinical visually, the narrative execution and Hall's superb performance propel this past similar genre efforts - it's one that's well worth your time.