Thor: Love and Thunder review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Taika Waititi
Cast : Chris Hemsworth, Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Taika Waititi, Jaimie Alexander, Russell Crowe
Genre: Action/Adventure
Run Time : 119 min
Opens : 7 July 2022
Rating : TBA

Over the past several years, Taika Waititi has become one of the most dominant creative forces in Hollywood. Between winning a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, his involvement in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars franchises, and the cult TV series What We Do in the Shadows and Our Flag Means Death, Waititi has a lot going on. Following the success of Thor: Ragnarok, which arguably launched him into the Hollywood big leagues, Waititi is back for the fourth solo Thor movie.

Following the events of Avengers: Endgame, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) travels across the cosmos with the Guardians of the Galaxy but is feeling empty and unfulfilled. He and Korg (Taika Waititi) return to earth, where New Asgard, under the rule of King Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), is in danger. Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale), a vengeful alien who has sworn to slay every god, has his sights set on Thor. To Thor’s surprise, he finds his beloved hammer Mjolnir, destroyed by Hela in Thor: Ragnarok, now re-formed. Its wielder: his ex-girlfriend Dr Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who has taken on the mantle of Mighty Thor. As Thor adjusts to this development, our heroes must defeat Gorr before the gods stand no more. Their journey takes them to Omnipotence City, home of various gods including Zeus (Russell Crowe) himself.

The discourse surrounding the MCU has gotten rather tiresome, and it usually loops back around to the movies being formulaic and feeling anonymous and prefabricated. That isn’t much of a problem here. Just as with Ragnarok, Waititi’s stamp is all over Love and Thunder. There’s plenty of personality and dynamism to the proceedings, and nary a sense of going through the motions. The movie has an ambitious scale but is focused on Thor’s character development, and links back to earlier movies in the series without leaving audiences feeling too lost. The story adapts the Jason Aaron run of the Thor comics, which introduces many memorable ideas and character arcs, including Jane becoming Thor and the villain Gorr the God Butcher. Waititi is working with strong source material, a game cast and endlessly inventive, eye-catching design. The movie plays with colour in fun ways, including having the Shadow Realm where Gorr calls home be rendered in black and white.

A major issue that this reviewer had with Thor: Ragnarok was that while it was ostensibly a buddy comedy, it was also a story about the destruction of Asgard and Thor experienced great loss over the course of the film. The overtly comedic tone undermined the more dramatic moments of the story. That problem is slightly less pronounced here, but still present. The Jane and Gorr arcs are both dark and do seem at odds with the overall light tone of the movie. There is also a lot of ground to cover, especially with Jane’s transformation into Mighty Thor, such that what played out over a significant amount of time in the comics feels compressed into this movie. Thor: Love and Thunder has many moving parts, and while the character arcs do work and many emotional beats do land, it still often feels somewhat flippant. The screenplay, written by Waititi and Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, attempts to navigate a somewhat dense mythology and isn’t always successful.

It can be argued that Thor: Ragnarok was the first time Chris Hemsworth seemed truly comfortable in the role of Thor, despite appearing in four prior MCU films as the character. Love and Thunder sees him continue taking the approach of equal parts goofy and heroic, and while Thor is a big loveable lunkhead on the outside, Hemsworth also sells the feeling of loss and a yearning for fulfilment that is key to the character’s arc.

It seemed like Natalie Portman was out of the MCU for good, but Waititi convinced her to return as Jane Foster. This is the most she has gotten to do in one of these movies by far, and like the other actors involved, Portman actually seems to be having a good time. It’s just a bit of a shame that, as mentioned above, the circumstances leading to Jane becoming Mighty Thor feel rushed.

Christian Bale isn’t an actor one typically imagines enjoying himself on the set and having fun with the roles he plays, but he does seem to relish the villainous part. There are moments when the character is sympathetic, and others when he’s cackling and deliciously evil. Unfortunately, a bit like with Cate Blanchett’s Hela in Ragnarok, Gorr never feels truly, legitimately terrifying. This could be because the comedy elsewhere in the film undercuts the grave stakes.

Russell Crowe steals the show as Zeus. At first, it seems like just a lark, but the character has more to do beyond being a comic relief figure, and there is an unexpected degree of drama to the scene in which he appears.

Summary: Taika Waititi carries over the exuberant goofiness and visual dynamism of Thor: Ragnarok into Love and Thunder. Its 80s rock sensibility and largely amiable tone is hard to resist. However, the comedic components do often undermine the more dramatic and emotional moments, especially in a film that, as bright and silly as it is, does also deal with some fairly dark thematic material. Those who loved Waititi’s approach in Ragnarok are likely to also enjoy this movie, but for anyone who perceived that film to be tonally imbalanced, Love and Thunder has many of the same issues. And of course, stick around for a mid-credits scene and a post-credits scene.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Annihilation movie review

For inSing

ANNIHILATION

Director : Alex Garland
Cast : Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac
Genre : Sci-fi, horror
Run Time : 1h 55m
Opens : 12 March 2018 (Netflix)
Rating : M18 (Violence And Disturbing Scenes)

Natalie Portman steps forth into the unknown in this sci-fi horror thriller. Portman plays Lena, a biologist and former soldier whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) has vanished under mysterious circumstances. Lena learns that Kane went on a mission into ‘the Shimmer’, an otherworldly anomaly. Within the Shimmer lie all manner of mutant flora and fauna, the structure of every living thing in its boundaries transformed by a meteor which hit a lighthouse.

Lena volunteers to join an expedition into the Shimmer, with the knowledge that none who have entered before have ever left. Psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) leads the team, which also comprises paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), and surveyor and geologist Cassie Sheppard (Tuva Novotny). The five women venture into the Shimmer, attempting to decipher its enigma and, more importantly, emerge alive.

Annihilation is based on the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer. The film was adapted for the screen and directed by Alex Garland, who made his directorial debut with the much buzzed-about sci-fi drama Ex Machina. Garland decided not to re-read the book, instead adapting the material as “like a dream of the book”.

There was a degree of intrigue surrounding Annihilation and it is clearly a film that was intended to be seen on the big screen, so it’s a bit of a shame that while it received a theatrical release in the U.S. and China, it is being streamed on Netflix everywhere else. It seems that Paramount financier David Ellison wanted the film reshot after poor test screening results, deeming it “too intellectual”. Director Garland insisted on keeping the film the way it is and was backed by producer Scott Rudin. Paramount eventually made a deal to let Netflix handle international distribution.

With that background out of the way, it’s easy to see why Annihilation might not win over mass audiences, but the very things that set it apart from typical commercial films also make it interesting. Annihilation is a movie that will mess with your head, and if challenging, cerebral sci-fi is what you’re looking for, you’ll find that and then some here.

In Annihilation, what’s scary is also beautiful. The Shimmer is a world in which lots of things have gone wrong – or has everything gone right, and it’s the world outside that’s out of order? Annihilation delves into some heady themes but has the visual invention to hold our interest as it burrows ever further into the madness.

With echoes of H.P. Lovecraft, the works of John Carpenter and Stanley Kubrick, Annihilation is deliberately opaque and vague, but is tense enough to reel the viewer in. Cinematographer Rob Hardy plays with the light within the Shimmer, rendering everything ethereal but slightly menacing. The effect, when combined with other atmospherics including the music by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, creates a beguiling yet disorienting world that is truly alien.

 

Annihilation isn’t all highfalutin ponderousness: there are a healthy number of visceral genre thrills, including sequences when our characters get chased by monsters like an albino alligator with shark teeth. There is one truly stomach-turning moment of gory body horror, but Annihilation gets under one’s skin with psychological trickery rather than overt grossness. Just like the characters, we’re questioning everything we see. Garland masterfully generates a sense of being sure of nothing except the danger.

It’s worth noting that the film’s main cast is all female. Each of the five characters who go on the expedition are distinct enough from each other and while there isn’t a great deal of development for everyone, there’s sufficient information conveyed about each character that we’re invested in them as a group.

Lena is competent and intelligent but haunted, and Portman portrays the character with admirable sensitivity. She’s somewhat detached from the world, as if she’s lost a piece of herself since the disappearance of her husband. Lena is flawed and difficult to pin down. We see Lena fight battles internal and external, calling on her wits and determination to survive an overwhelming, perplexing ordeal.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is severe and guarded as Dr. Ventress, the authority figure who’s hiding something. We’ve seen Tessa Thompson play badass and assured, so it’s interesting to see her play withdrawn and insecure. Gina Rodriguez is a lively presence who also brings a degree of unpredictability to the table. Of the main cast, Tuva Novotny is the blandest, and a scene in which she tells Lena about the background of each team member feels a little on the nose.

For all its trippiness and immersive atmospherics, Annihilation makes several missteps. While the framing device set after the events of the bulk of the film is ostensibly to contextualise the flashbacks, it also means that we know at least some of the outcome of the expedition. There are moments when the film feels like it’s being ambiguous and confusing for the sake of it, but it never feels lazy while doing so.

Annihilation is an intense, thrilling and deeply creepy slice of sci-fi horror that’s sufficiently different from what audiences are used to. Garland continues to show promise as a genre director with an exciting voice, and many spirited discussions about the minutiae of the film and what it all means are bound to ensue. Step into the Shimmer; it’s a wild ride.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Jackie

For F*** Magazine

JACKIE 

Director : Pablo Larraín
Cast : Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, Max Casella, Richard E. Grant, Caspar Phillipson
Genre : Biography/Drama
Run Time : 1h 40min
Opens : 16 February 2017
Rating : NC16 (Some Disturbing Scenes)

jackie-posterJacqueline “Jackie” Bouvier, the wife of John F. Kennedy, is among the most iconic First Ladies in U.S. history. This biopic pulls back the curtain on the queen of Camelot, limning the immediate aftermath of her husband’s assassination. Jackie (Portman) hosts a journalist (Crudup) at her home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, sitting down for an interview. It is not long after the assassination of president John F. Kennedy (Phillipson) in Dallas. The film depicts Jackie’s interactions with her brother-in-law Robert F. Kennedy (Sarsgaard), her confidante and the White House social secretary Nancy Tuckerman (Gerwig) and a priest (Hurt) who counsels Jackie on the day of the funeral. Jackie must also explain JFK’s death to their young children Caroline (Sunny Pelant) and John Jr. (Aiden and Brody Weinberg).

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Jackie aims to pierce the iconography that has surrounded Jacqueline Kennedy. Director Pablo Larraín and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim seek to unearth the woman behind the elegant style icon, while also sidestepping the expected tropes of an awards season biopic. The framing device of Jacqueline Kennedy’s interview with journalist Theodore H. White (who is unnamed in the film) contextualises several vignettes which are deliberately placed out of order. This creates a disorienting effect and makes it more challenging to follow Jackie’s emotional journey, but in a strange way, is also more engaging. However, this does lead to a choppiness, and there’s the possibility that without this structural trickery, the story would be boring and straightforward.

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Part of Jackie is a flashback to the filming of the 1962 television special A Tour of the White House, in which Jackie guides audiences nationwide through the executive mansion after the extensive remodelling she had spearheaded. Real footage from that TV special is spliced together with footage shot for this film, giving the subconscious effect that we are given a privileged look at the angles the TV cameras did not see. While much of Jackie is dedicated to how the title character processed the trauma of sitting beside her husband as he was violently killed, the film also explores how she cultivated her image and crafted the First Family’s legacy. Jackie discusses JFK’s fondness for the musical Camelot with the journalist, and a scene in which she stands in the otherwise empty Oval Office with the musical’s title song playing in the background is positively haunting.

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Since winning the Best Actress Oscar for Black Swan, Portman hasn’t taken on many high-profile roles, and has recently turned her attention to directing. Jackie puts her back on the awards season map, and her Oscar nomination for this film is well-deserved. It’s a bravura yet nuanced turn, and if the prospect of playing such a well-known public figure intimidated her, Portman never shows it. While she looks and sounds the part, Jackie is about more than how its title character looked or sounded. Portman conveys the profound sorrow and the pressure of life in the public eye, while also essaying Jackie’s impish appeal. The glimpses of fire behind her eyes are impactful, and when the camera locks on her face as she weeps, one cannot look away.

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Because of the film’s laser focus on Jackie herself, the supporting players are largely relegated to the background. Crudup’s Journalist is not even named in the film and is meant to be a cipher, therefore there’s not much personality he’s able to bring to the part. Sarsgaard’s Robert, also crumbling from grief and pressure, is magnetic and volatile. This reviewer was hoping for the relationship between Jackie and her close friend and White House employee Nancy Tuckerman to get more screen time than it did. The late John Hurt is a comforting, warmly authoritative presence even though it’s a small part.

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Director Larraín cuts through the narrative of the Kennedy clan as a tragic American fairy-tale, while not necessarily undercutting the notion. This film gives Jackie her due, and is a star vehicle that ideally matches Portman’s talents. First Ladies have been often appraised mainly for their style rather than their own merits, with Jackie inadvertently becoming the poster child for that. Jackie finds the woman behind the coiffed bob, Chanel coat and pearls, painting a vivid portrait of Camelot’s queen.

Summary: A biopic which plays with the genre’s conventions just enough, Jackie features an entrancing turn from Natalie Portman and is respectful of its subject while avoiding blandness.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Jane Got a Gun

For F*** Magazine

JANE GOT A GUN

Director : Gavin O’Connor
Cast : Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Ewan McGregor, Rodrigo Santoro, Noah Emmerich, Boyd Holbrook, Alex Manette, Todd Stashwick, James Burnett, Sam Quinn
Genre : Action/Drama/Western
Run Time : 98 mins
Opens : 18 February 2016
Rating : NC-16 (Violence and Some Coarse Language)

In Marvel’s ongoing Thor comics series, Jane Foster is the current wielder of Mjolnir. In this western, Jane Hammond (Portman) wields more conventional weapons. It is 1871 in New Mexico territory and Jane lives with her husband Bill “Ham” Hammond (Emmerich) and their daughter Kate. When Ham rides home seriously wounded after a gun battle with the Bishop Boys gang, Jane has no choice but to turn to her ex-fiancée Dan Frost (Edgerton) for protection. John Bishop (McGregor), a notorious outlaw from Jane’s past, has returned to torment her. Dan is still broken after losing Jane to another man, but he resolves to help Jane protect her family and her home as the Bishop Boys come a-knocking.



            Jane Got a Gun was plagued by numerous production problems, and it will be remembered more for its behind-the-scenes tumult than on its own merit as a film. The original screenplay by Brian Duffield was a hot property, landing on the Black List of best-liked screenplays in Hollywood back in 2011. Natalie Portman was attached to star and produce, with Lynne Ramsay of We Need to Talk About Kevin fame directing. Severe disagreements led to Ramsay dropping out on the first day of principal photography, with a bitter legal battle ensuing. Warrior director Gavin O’Connor was roped in to replace her, but the film’s troubles were just beginning. Michael Fassbender, Jude Law and Bradley Cooper were all attached at different points and Edgerton ended up switching roles from the villain John Bishop to the ex-fiancée Dan Frost. The release date was shifted back multiple times, with distributor Relativity Media dropping the film and The Weinstein Company later acquiring it.

            For all the drama involved in getting the film made, one would expect it to, at the very least, be bad in an interesting way. No such luck. Jane Got a Gun is soporific and dreary, sorely lacking in a key element of any revenge story: passion. It looks, feels and sounds like a western, but there’s so little energy and momentum behind it. The title suggests a fun genre piece with a feminist twist, perhaps something akin to Kill Bill in the American frontier. Some of the expected ingredients are there, including a tragic back-story and a score to settle with an old enemy, but it’s so plodding and self-serious that getting invested in Jane’s tale is quite the task. It’s sometimes a pretty movie to look at, but most of the time it’s visually dull: the picture is sepia-tinted, then the flashbacks appear to have another layer of sepia tinting on top of that and this stylistic touch ends up creating even more distance between the audience and the story.

            Portman may be playing the titular protagonist and has championed the film through the myriad obstacles it faced in getting made, but Jane Hammond will not go down as one of the great ass-kicking female characters in cinema history. There’s some emotional impact to Jane’s tortured past, but her supposed transformation into a gun-toting damsel no longer in distress is underwhelming. The love triangle between Jane, Ham and Dan bogs the movie down in melodramatics instead of creating any fireworks and nothing unconventional comes of the dynamics between the three characters. The villain in a revenge western should get to chew a good deal of scenery, but McGregor has too little screen time and too little material to work with, unable to create a particularly intimidating or striking villain. With Padmé, Obi-Wan and Owen Lars in the same movie, it’s a mini Attack of the Clones reunion.



            Jane Got a Gun has a round or two in the chamber: the climactic standoff brims with tension and the sombre atmosphere is sometimes effective. It is morbidly fascinating to read about how a straight-forward western got mired in so many production troubles and it is admirable that last-minute replacement director O’Connor was able to salvage it all. However, in the aftermath of this hullabaloo, all Jane Got a Gun has to show for it is mediocrity.

Summary: Dour and slow, Jane Got a Gun fails to make good on its promise of a fun genre piece starring a dynamic female lead.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong