Tessa Thompson

Thor: Love and Thunder

14/07/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

The MCU is a variable place. Sometimes its offerings can be po-faced and terribly earnest and, then again, they can occasionally be played for laughs. I tend to prefer the latter, which makes Thor: Ragnarok – in my humble opinion – one of Marvel’s better efforts. Writer/director Taika Waititi did a great job with the Thor franchise, amping up the laughs and throwing in fistfuls of surreal nonsense, just because they let him. So I go along to Thor: Love and Thunder with high expectations. For the film’s first half, I’m happy enough, though it’s probably true to say that, despite Chris Hemsworth’s best efforts, many of the jokes here don’t land quite as well as they did in the first film.

And then, in the second half, there’s an attempt to swing the mood towards more serious subject matter and I find myself less enamoured.

The events of the story are related by the rock-warrior, Korg (voiced by Waititi), who explains that – after much time spent voyaging with the Guardians of the Galaxy (who appear briefly but don’t get much of a look-in) – Thor parts company with them and answers a call for help from the citizens of a little village back on earth. It’s under attack by the sinister Gorr, the God butcher (Christian Bale, quite the most memorable character here), a man who has acquired a powerful sword and who has the intention of killing off every god in existence. Who shouted ‘hooray?’

Thor arrives at the same time as his old flame, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who is now calling herself ‘The Mighty Thor.’ She’s dressing like her former beau and, annoyingly, has control of Mjolnir, Thor’s mighty hammer. This is one really weird love-triangle.

A mighty punch-up dutifully ensues – though, due to the inevitable 12A rating, it’s a curiously bloodless affair. Gorr eventually makes his escape, taking all the local children captive – and now Thor, Jane, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and Korg must launch a rescue mission… but first they need to enlist the help of the mightiest god of all, Zeus (Russell Crowe), who might just lend them his thunderbolt and who, for reasons best know to Waititi, talks like an Italian waiter…

If the plot sounds like drivel, well, it pretty much is, but Hemsworth plays the central role with such knowing charm and swagger that he almost manages to make me overlook it. There’s lots of Guns ‘n’ Roses-style guitar noodling on the soundtrack and some neat tricks are played with the film’s colour palette (Gorr has a habit of draining everything to monochrome whenever he appears), but – for me – this lacks the sheer brio of Ragnarok and various attempts to twang at the viewers’ heartstrings feel a tad too cynical for comfort.

For those who like these things, there are, of course, a couple of post credit sequences. Whether they’re worth hanging on for is a matter of debate, but they don’t add much to what is, ultimately, a somewhat disappointing exercise.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Passing

10/11/21

Netflix

Passing marks the directorial debut of actor, Rebecca Hall (she also wrote the script), and it’s a project that’s been in gestation for more than a decade, inspired by her first reading of Nella Larsen’s source novel. Hall, it turns out, has some experience of the subject matter. Her own grandfather, a light-skinned African-American, often passed himself of as white back in his youth and so, to Hall, the book consequently felt like his story. Set in the 1920s and evocatively filmed by Eduard Grau in (appropriately enough) black and white, Passing unfolds its story at a sedate pace. For once, I don’t find myself grumbling about having to watch this on a small screen, because the film is intimate and compelling enough to hold my attention throughout.

Rene (Tessa Thompson) is a well-to-do Black woman, the wife of successful doctor, Brian (André Holland). Rene occasionally passes herself of as white in order to gain access to the ritzy New York hotels and restaurants she likes to frequent, and that’s what she’s doing when we first encounter her. Sitting in a swish dining room, she is astonished to be greeted by a white woman as though she’s an old friend. Except this isn’t a white woman: it’s her old school chum, Clare (Ruth Negga), who she hasn’t seen in years and who has taken the art of ‘passing’ to the extreme. With her elaborately coiffed blonde hair and carefully rehearsed mannerisms, Clare has erased all traces of her former self. What’s more, she is now married to successful white businessman, John (Alexander Skarsård), who – it turns out – is a bluntly spoken racist, and has no idea about Clare’s origins.

Understandably horrified, Rene excuses herself and tries to forget the encounter, but soon learns that Clare is not a character who’s ready to be conveniently brushed under the carpet. It’s not long before she turns up at Rene’s house and begins to inveigle her way into her former friend’s life, charming Rene’s husband, her two boys, her maid and just about everyone else she is introduced to. Only Rene’s writer-friend, Hugh (Bill Camp), seems to see through her meticulously rehearsed charm-school routines. But then, as a novelist, he’s well attuned to the concept of spinning stories.

As Clare exerts her hold over Rene’s world, so Rene begins to perceive an unspoken threat that lies behind her old friend’s vacuous smile…

This is an accomplished film is so many ways. I love the ambiguity of it. Seen entirely from Rene’s point of view, we’re never entirely sure if Clare really is the threat she appears. Could it be that she has been acting a part for so long, she’s no longer conscious of how avariciously she presents herself? She clearly hankers after the kind of life her deception has denied her – but how far would she be willing to go to reclaim it? Are Rene’s fears merely a product of her mounting paranoia?

Nothing here seems set in stone; indeed, even the film’s tragic conclusion leaves us with many unanswered questions.

Thompson is terrific as the troubled Rene, and Negga wonderfully enigmatic as Clare. The era is convincingly evoked and it’s so refreshing to see a cinematic story about the pervasiveness of racism, even for those Black people not living in grinding poverty. My only issue with the film is the overuse of a jazz-inflected piano motif, which, though appropriate for the 1920s, becomes an irritating ear worm by the time I’ve heard it for the fifteenth time. It’s a minor quibble.

Passing is a fascinating story, effectively told and what’s more, as a debut feature, it’s no mean achievement.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Sorry to bother you

13/12/18

Boots Riley is a new name to me but, on the merits of this, his first feature, it’s one I expect to hear a lot more of in the near future. Sorry To Bother You is a quirky slice of satire and, in many ways, a polemic – a powerful critique of the current state of American society. Riley, who in a recent interview proudly announced that he is ‘a communist,’ clearly has a healthy distrust of big corporations and their ethos of rampant greed. He’s also more than happy to state his dissatisfaction with the situation.

The action occurs in a near-future Oakland, where a corporation called WorryFree offers workers food and board in exchange for a lifetime of unpaid servitude – and where the most popular show on TV is one where the participants are ritually humiliated and beaten to a pulp. Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) lives in his Uncle’s garage, where he shares the bills with his performance artist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson). Constantly strapped for cash, but understandably reluctant to take the WorryFree route, Cassius seeks a post at telemarketing company, RegalView, where he is told to ‘stick to the script’ and where he will be paid a commission on every sale he makes.

At first he struggles to stop his clients from hanging up on him, but then veteran employee, Langston (Danny Glover) gives him a bit of free advice. ‘Use your white voice, bro,’ Langston urges him, ‘and things will improve.’ Cassius prevaricates for a while, but soon finds he has a real flair for impersonating a white man’s voice. It’s not long before he’s closing many profitable deals and is being groomed to take the gold elevator up to the top floor, where the ‘Power Dealers’ rule.

But when co workers, Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) and Squeeze (Steven Yeun) decide to form a pressure group with the intention of securing a fairer deal for RegalView’s workforce, Cassius finds himself with a difficult choice to make…

What starts as an irreverent and amusing farce takes a much darker turn when Cassius opts to ride that elevator to the top floor. Up there, he is the guest at a lavish party thrown by RegalView’s enigmatic CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), who pressures him into performing a rap routine (something he has no talent for), and who then offers him a vast amount of money to head up a brand new initiative…

As I said earlier, this is a debut film and since Riley’s previous experience has been as a musician, STBY occasionally looks a little rough around the edges. There are some poorly lit nighttime sequences and occasional bits of character interplay that don’t really develop into anything – but there’s no doubting the power and passion fuelling this story. A scene where Cassius spills the beans about RegalViews secret plans only to see the companies shares go through the roof is, in the era of Donald Trump, all too believable. Stanfield and Thompson are beguiling in the lead roles and, as you might expect, there’s a powerful soundtrack to push along the action.

Slightly deranged and very, VERY original, this is the opening salvo in what could prove to be a powerful new voice in contemporary cinema. It’s well worth checking out.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

War On Everyone

null

09/10/16

Writer/director John Michael McDonagh dazzled with his first two movies – The Guard and Calvary, both set in Ireland – but his relocation to New Mexico for the nihilistic War On Everyone has resulted in a decidedly botched end-product. It’s a bit like one of those budget boxes of fireworks you buy cheap after November 5th – sure, there are some stunning pyrotechnics in the box, but there’re also a lot of damp squibs and even a few complete duds.

Bob and Terry (in what may or may not be a knowing nod to The Likely Lads) are a pair of corrupt cops, careering gleefully around their home town, taking bribes, sharing class A drugs with their perps and mercilessly beating up anybody who stands in their way. Much of this is presented as knockabout comedy, though most of it is very hard to laugh at. Bob (Michael Pena) appears to be the brains of the operation, a man as likely to start discussing philosophy in the course of his duties, as he is to read the Miranda rights. Terry (Alexander Skarsgard) is a hulking boy child who idolises Bob and doesn’t have much in his life, other than an addiction to the songs of Glenn Campbell and a complete belief in his partner’s genius. When the two men are sent to investigate a stabbing, they start to uncover a high-level crime syndicate, headed up by the suave and cultured Lord James Mangan (Theo James, channelling a young Rupert Everett). Much blood, gunfire and reckless driving ensues…

This is a film that will inevitably divide audiences. It’s true that there are inspired moments here – a scene where the two cops stand over a stabbed man, while his wife sobs helplessly in the background, yet somehow can’t stop themselves from eating burgers is brilliant; likewise the scene where Terry waltzes new girlfriend, Jackie (Tessa Thompson) around his empty flat to the strains of Rhinestone Cowboy is an unexpected joy amidst all the senseless violence and destruction – but for every scene that impresses, there’s also an artless collection of ‘jokes’ about Islam, gays, blacks and women, that are so stunningly inappropriate that it beggars belief – it’s as though McDonagh is trying so hard to be ‘cool’ that he’s lost all sense of quality control and, overall, the film suffers for his woeful lack of insight.

This is a shame because there are enough excellent moments here to convince you that the film could have been superb, if only McDonagh had managed to rein in some of its baser elements. As it stands, this can only be described as a great big missed opportunity.

3 stars

Philip Caveney