KANTARA (2022) – KANNADA BLOCKBUSTER FALLS SHORT OF GREATNESS

Kantara (transl. Mystical Forest) is a 2022 Indian Kannada-language action thriller film written and directed by Rishab Shetty. The film stars Shetty as a Kambala champion who is at loggerheads with an upright forest officer, Murali (played by Kishore). However, the movie mixes mythology with present day corruption and greed. The mythology of the movie involves the depiction of the “Buta Kola” a ritual dance performance prevalent among the Hindus of Tulu Nadu and parts of Kasargod in northern Kerala, India.

According to the mythology, a wild boar perished in Lord Shiva’s pleasure garden. The young boar’s offspring was adopted by Goddess Parvati, the spouse of Lord Shiva. The young boar became destructive as he grew older and began destroying the plants and trees in Lord Shiva’s garden. Lord Shiva became upset by this and decided to kill him. Goddess Parvati, however, defended the boar and asked her husband to pardon him. So instead of killing him, Lord Shiva banished the boar to earth and tasked him with protecting the people of earth. This particular became a Bhoota (divine spirit) known as Panjurli – a spirit which is an important part of the film.

The movie begins in 1847, we are shown that there lived a king who had a great kingdom as well as a loving wife and child, but could not find peace and satisfaction. He sets out on a journey to discover true happiness and comes upon a stone in a forest occupied by Panjurli Daiva, the deity introduced earlier, that protects the villagers that reside in the forest. He donates vast amounts of his land to the villagers in exchange for taking the stone with him. Panjurli warns the king that his family and successors should keep their word and not reclaim the land, which will incur the wrath of Panjurli’s companion, the ferocious Guliga Daiva. Fast-forward to 1970, the King’s successor asks a Bhoota Kola performer, who is possessed by Panjurli to make the locals hand over the land to him, which the performer refuses and states he will die vomiting blood if he tries to. The successor raises doubt on performer’s possession by Panjurli, to which the performer replies he would vanish if he is possessed, after which he runs into the forest and is indeed never seen again. As warned, the king’s successor dies mysteriously, vomiting blood a few months later on the steps of the court, where he was going to argue the land case.

The performer leaves behind his pregnant wife, who bears him a child Shiva. Shiva, is a Kambala athlete (An annual buffalo race held in the southwestern Indian state of Karnataka. Traditionally, it is sponsored by local Tuluva landlords and households) from the Kaadubettu village which forms the centre of the movie’s plot. In 1990, Murali, a forest officer, is tasked with converting the villagers’ land into a forest reserve which brings him into conflict with the villagers led by Shiva. Shiva is backed by his patron and the village’s landlord, Devendra Suttooru, who is the king’s successor in the present. Although Shiva is continually asked to perform the Bhoota Kola, he refuses due to the trauma of his father’s disappearance. Instead, his cousin Guruva takes his place. Next follows the part which screws up the movie’s essence. A whole hour of the movie is spent in Shiva and Murali’s cat-and-mouse antics and dull humor from Shiva and his friends.

Anyways summarizing all of that, Shiva’s escalations cause him to be jailed for opposing the Government’s takeover of the forest. His cousin Guruva asks Devendra, the landlord, to bail Shiva, but Devendra, who just like his father covets the land of the villagers, tries to bribe him to act as if Panjurli orders the villagers to give him their land in the next Bhoota Kola. Guruva refuses and Devendra kills him; learning that Murali has figured out his ulterior motive, Devendra decides to set Shiva against him. Shiva, after hearing about his cousin’s murder, meets Devendra, who lies about Murali being Guruva’s killer. Enraged, Shiva goes to kill Murali, but learns from his blacksmith friend Mahadeva that Devendra himself killed Guruva. Shiva is attacked by Devendra’s henchmen, but manages to escape and meet the villagers, whom Murali has told about Devendra’s land seizure. After Shiva reveals that Devendra killed Guruva, he and Murali set aside their grudge and unite the village.

Devendra and his henchmen attack, leading to an intense battle where several of the villagers are killed. After nearly dying in the fight, Shiva hits his head against Panjurli’s stone, gets possessed by the Guliga Daiva, and kills Devendra and his henchmen, in a crazed performance that borrows from some of Nicholas Cage’s wildest uncontrolled performances. A few months after the battle, Shiva performs the Bhoota Kola, and is possessed by Panjurli, where he, Murali and the villagers join hands in a symbolic gesture and blesses the villagers. Later, Shiva disappears into the forest after meeting what seems to be his father’s spirit.

The movie excels in its realistic depiction of the Buta Kola performance and providing an insight into some of the hidden rituals and beliefs in Hinduism. The movie’s start and end keep audiences hooked even though to a Western audience, most of the rituals will seem bizarre but these are ancient and belonging to a religion and civilization older than most others. The movie is however, let down by the middle portion and the dull writing. The dialogues between the villagers are repetitive and Shiva is portrayed as an angry man who runs to fight at the smallest slight and is only afraid of his mother. The actress who plays Shiva’s love interest, Leela, could have been played by a wooden pole and would have made a similar impact. The movie is redeemed by Rishab Shetty’s energetic performance but is let down in the middle by its writing and boring plot. Though it introduces a fascinating mythology not known to many Indians as well, it suffers due to the mistake of adding masala elements to something that could have been much more richer had the focus remained on the mythological plot.

JAY’S VERDICT

Watch Kantara for its magnificent dance sequences, costumes and cultural history – ignore the masala elements to truly enjoy this movie.

AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER (2022) – AVATAR’S LONG AWAITED SEQUEL IS AS MESMERIZING AS THE ORIGINAL

Avatar: The Way of Water is a 2022 American epic science fiction film directed by James Cameron and a sequel to the 2009 box-office smash Avatar. 13 years is a long wait for a sequel. Avatar (2009) when it released, became a pioneer in terms of the cinematic experience. Wearing one’s 3D glasses and watching Pandora come to life on the big screen made for a fascinating experience. For those who have forgotten since obviously Avatar came out 13 years ago, in Avatar, we were introduced to the world of Pandora – a fictional exoplanetary moon inhabited by a sapient indigenous humanoid species called the Na’vi, as well as varied fauna and flora.

In the Avatar universe (set in the year 2154), we were told that humans had achieved a very technologically advanced, post-industrial society dominated by powerful corporations and industries who have also exhausted Earth’s resources which is where our current global situation seems to be heading. One of Earth’s most powerful corporations is the globally integrated Resources Development Administration (RDA), a public company which evolved from a Silicon Valley startup, that owns all resources off Earth. The Interplanetary Commerce Administration granted these sole rights to the RDA. Known RDA personnel on Pandora included head administrator Parker Selfridge (who was sent back to Earth after the RDA’s defeat in Avatar), Colonel Miles Quaritch (who returns in this movie despite dying in the first, in an Avatar form), Dr. Grace Augustine (whose character merged with Eywa but kind of returns in this movie in the form of her “daughter” born from her Avatar body. Don’t ask who impregnated her – even her fictional daughter can’t tell), Dr. Norm Spellman (who makes a return in this movie), and Samson 16 pilot Trudy Chacon (who died during the final fight against the RDA in the first movie)

Another quick info-bite about Pandora for the Avatar newbies before I begin my review, Pandora is depicted as being located in the Alpha Centauri A system, about 4.37 light-years (276,000 AU) from Earth. It is one of the many natural satellites orbiting the gas giant Polyphemus, named for the Polyphemus of Greek mythology. Pandora’s atmosphere is a mix of nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, xenon, methane, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, the latter three of which are unbreathable for humans, who wear Exo-Packs when outside their buildings or vehicles. The atmosphere of Pandora does have enough oxygen for humans (21%-22%), but too much carbon dioxide (16%-18%). The Na’vi have special organs (similar to kidneys) called Wichow that take advantage of this atmosphere to extract greater amounts of oxygen for their bloodstream. These organs use carbon dioxide and water in their bodies and convert them into methane and oxygen.

In terms of who the Na’vi are they are an indigenous species that live on Pandora. They are humanoid in appearance and are 9 to 10 feet (2.7 to 3.0 m) tall, having pairs of eyes, ears, arms, legs and feet like humans, as well as a nose, a mouth, and expressions recognizable to humans. The Na’vi differ from humans in having blue striped skin, pointed and mobile ears, large eyes, catlike noses and tails, and hands each with three fingers and a thumb (hybrid avatars, on the other hand, retain the five-fingered hands of their human DNA). While taller than humans, they have narrower proportions in body frame. Their bones are reinforced with naturally occurring carbon fiber. The Na’vi also have a distinctive tendril feature protruding from the back of their heads, surrounded by hair (resembling a long plait or queue), feeding directly into the brain. This organ allows them to connect with other organisms around them, transferring electrochemical signals such as thoughts and memories to the trees, plants, and other creatures.

Already so having satisfied the nerd within me, let us move on to the actual movie review. More than a decade after the Na’vi repelled the human invasion of Pandora by the Resources Development Administration (RDA) (also because James Cameron took that long to make a bloody sequel) , our hero Jake Sully lives as chief of the Omaticaya clan and raises a family with Neytiri, which includes sons Neteyam and Lo’ak, daughter Tuk, adopted daughter Kiri (born from Grace Augustine’s inert avatar), and a human boy named Spider, the son of Colonel Miles Quaritch who was born on Pandora (again who the mother is is as unclear as why the Na’vi’s method of connecting with nature and having sex is similar) and was unable to be transported to Earth in cryostasis due to his infancy. The big bad RDA returns to prepare their homeworld Pandora for human colonization, as Earth is dying (obviously as they probably sent Greta Thunberg back to school and completely ignored climate change). Among the new RDA arrivals are ‘recombinants’, Na’vi avatars implanted with the minds and memories of deceased human soldiers, with Quaritch’s recombinant serving as their leader.

Jake stages a guerilla campaign against RDA supply lines, but Quaritch and his subordinates conduct a counterinsurgency mission against Jake and kidnap his children which is a disadvantage he didn’t have in the first movie, although over there he was always hooked to a machine without which his Avatar could not function. Jake and Neytiri arrive and free most of them, but Spider is taken by Quaritch, who recognizes him as his son (no clue how). He decides to spend time with him in order to draw Spider on his side, and in turn, Spider teaches Quaritch about Na’vi culture and language. Aware of the danger Spider’s knowledge of his whereabouts poses to their safety, Jake and his family exile themselves from the Omaticaya and retreat to the Metkayina reef people clan at Pandora’s eastern seaboard. Although Jake and his family are given refuge, they are viewed with antipathy from some of the tribesmen due to their human heritage. Nevertheless, the family learns the ways of the reef people, Kiri develops a spiritual bond with the sea and its creatures, and Lo’ak befriends Tsireya, the daughter of clan chief Tonowari and his wife Ronal.

The next bit of the movie is a lot of teenage crap where basically jealous kids take one of Jake’s kids to the territory of a dangerous sea predator and abandon him there. Lo’ak is saved and befriended by Payakan, a tulkun, an intelligent and pacifistic cetacean species (basically like a whale) whom the Metkayina consider their spiritual family. Upon his return, Lo’ak takes the blame on himself, winning Aonung’s friendship, but is told that Payakan is an outcast among his species. On a trip to the Metkayina’s Spirit Tree, Kiri links with it to meet her mother but suffers a violent seizure. She is healed by Ronal, but when Jake calls Norm Spellman and Max Patel for help, Quaritch is able to track them to the archipelago where the reef people live. Bringing Spider with him, he commandeers a whaling vessel which is hunting tulkuns to harvest their brain enzymes for anti-aging remedies called amrita (a little side note for Western audiences – “Amrita” is actually called Amrit in Pali and Sanskrit and is part of one of Hindu mythology’s most famous stories – the churning of the primordial cosmic ocean by the Devas (Gods) and the Asuras (demons). It is supposed to give immortality and stop ageing to those that drink it. Please don’t assume James Cameron came up with it).

Quaritch begins to brutally question the indigenous tribes about Jake’s location; when this proves fruitless, he orders the whaling crew to wantonly kill tulkuns in order to draw Jake out. Lo’ak mentally links with Payakan and learns that the tulkun was cast out because he went against the pacifist ways of his species and fought back against the RDA whalers who killed his mother. When the Metkayina learn of the tulkun killings, Lo’ak takes off to warn his Tulkun friend Payakan, followed by his siblings, Tsireya, Aonung, and Rotxo (I think James Cameron came up with these names while being drunk in his director’s trailer and asking his assistant to write down anything he mumbled). They find Payakan being chased by the whalers, and Lo’ak, Tsireya, and Tuk are captured by Quaritch. With their children in danger, Jake, Neytiri, and the Metkayina set out to confront the humans. Quaritch forces Jake to surrender, but upon seeing Lo’ak imperiled, Payakan attacks the whalers, triggering a fight that kills most of the crew and sinks the vessel. Neteyam rescues Lo’ak, Tsireya and Spider, but is fatally shot. Jake faces Quaritch, who uses Kiri as a hostage. When Neytiri does the same with Spider, Quaritch at first denies his relationship with him but desists when Neytiri cuts Spider across the chest.

Jake, Quaritch, Neytiri, and Tuk end up trapped inside the sinking vessel. Jake strangles Quaritch into unconsciousness and is rescued by Lo’ak and Payakan, while Kiri summons sea creatures to help her save Neytiri and Tuk. Spider rescues Quaritch, but renounces his cruelty and rejoins Jake’s family. After Neteyam’s funeral, Jake informs Tonowari and Ronal of his decision to leave the Metkayina. Tonowari, however, respectfully identifies him as part of the clan and welcomes his family to stay. Jake and his family accept and forge a new life at sea, with Jake vowing to keep fighting the human invaders. Basically this movie, is not about Jake Sully as much as being about his kids. Kiri does at times give off a blue-haired feminist vibe at times which makes her annoying but thankfully she spends most of the time chilling in the ocean. The two boys are mostly the same except one gets into trouble all the time and the other is a good boy who ends up dying in the movie, so we need to remember one less name going into Avatar 3 which probably might be released when I am 43 (give or take a decade as James Cameron seems to have found some “amrita” of his own which is why he takes so long to make a sequel)

So why were the critics so mad at this movie? Basically the 3D experience got too old, the ocean world was not creative enough, the movie was too long and the “Avatar” concept was broken in this movie. Okay let me destroy these “issues” one at a time. 3D Experience got too old – um not really. Yeah we had a dozen or so Marvel 3D movies come out but atleast the Avatar world takes us on a unique journey instead of experiencing Thor’s biceps in 3D. Ocean world was not creative enough. All these “genius” movie critics saying that should realize most story tellers build universes based on their personal experiences, slightly altering the same. The Pandoran wolves and leopard type creatures from the first movie, also had roots in animals found on Earth except with more limbs or different appearances. So why are you expecting something super crazy now? Even the flying fish creatures, ridden by the sea people have a basis in the Exocoetidae. Next complaint was, it is too long. Um, Lord of The Rings anyone? To describe a fictional universe, you need to take your time. The Harry Potter series tried to rush through The Goblet of Fire and the Order of the Phoenix and we got two pretty average flicks compared to the awesome books. Last was the “Avatar” concept was broken. Well, the villains were all in Avatar suits and plus technology moved ahead in a decade so obviously they could not be lugging heavy boxes everywhere. Plus, most of the original soldiers were already dead so they would need to introduce a whole new set of enemies and give them sort of back story and that would have made the movie even longer.

Avatar – The Way of Water is a brilliant movie and way better than most of the “woke” Marvel movies we have been enduring lately since Endgame. It is creative, it adds a whole new universe to Pandora and it keeps you engaged till the very end.

JAY’S VERDICT

Avatar – The Way of Water is as good as the original and still manages to leave audiences awestruck. Go watch it and explore a new world in Pandora.

WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING (2022) – A DISAPPOINTING ATTEMPT TO TURN A LOVE STORY INTO A MYSTERY THRILLER

Where the Crawdads Sing is a 2022 American mystery thriller drama (basically even the director and producer couldn’t decide the genre) film based on the 2018 novel of the same name. It was directed by Olivia Newman from a screenplay by Lucy Alibar, based on the novel by Delia Owens.

The movie follows an abandoned yet defiant girl, Kya, who raises herself to adulthood in a North Carolina marshland, becoming a naturalist in the process, while falling in love twice. When Kya’s ex-lover and town’s “pretty boy” is found dead, she is the prime suspect and tried for murder.

The movie delves into Kya’s past mostly – her growing up with siblings and a father who physically abused their mother. Kya talks about her mother leaving her father who is an alcoholic and a gambler too, Kya’s mother and older siblings flee one by one, leaving Kya alone with him until he too abandons her at the age of seven. She survives by selling mussels at Barkley Cove’s general store where the store’s owners James “Jumpin'” Madison and his wife Mabel Madison, treat her with kindness and sympathy. The townspeople, however know her as the “Marsh Girl”.

Over the years, her slightly older friend Tate Walker lends her books and teaches her to read, write, and count. They share an interest in nature and begin a romantic relationship until Tate leaves for college and breaks his promise to return to her on the 4th of July, devastating Kya and destroying her dreams of a normal life.

Kya, in the meantime, has her nature drawings and writings published and the income helps her keep her home and land. Her older brother Jodie reappears and tells her their mother died before she was able to reunite her children. Jodie promises to visit when he can. Her two other siblings have disappeared though.

In 1968, Kya begins a relationship with popular local quarterback Chase Andrews, who promises her marriage. Chase gives Kya a small shell which she makes into a necklace and gives to him. A year later, Tate returns to Barkley Cove wanting to rekindle their romance, but Kya is unsure and with Chase. Kya however, ends her relationship with Chase when she discovers he is already engaged to another girl in an awkward encounter in town.

Kya rebuffs Chase’s persistent attentions and when he tries to rape her, she successfully fights off his attempt, vowing to kill him if he does not leave her alone. The threat is overheard by a fisherman. Chase returns to Kya’s home and vandalizes while she hides in the bushes destroying her paintings and shells like a spoiled, angry little boy who cannot handle rejection like a grown up.

Days later, Chase is found dead at the bottom of a fire tower from which he had apparently fallen. The muddy bog floods at high tide, destroying any tracks from the killer, and no fingerprints are found in the tower. The shell necklace, which he had been wearing on the evening of his death, is missing from his body. Kya is charged with first-degree murder and prejudged by the suspicious townspeople who considering her to be different, believe that she is a criminal as well.

Despite knowing Kya had been meeting with a book publisher in Greenville at the time, the police and the prosecutor speculate she could have disguised herself and made an overnight round-trip bus ride to Barkley Cove, lured Chase to the fire tower during the brief layover and killed him. With only the unfounded theory, the missing necklace, and the fisherman’s testimony, Kya is found not guilty at her 1969 trial.

Kya and Tate spend the rest of their lives together. Kya publishes illustrated nature books, and is frequently visited by Jodie and his family. While boating through the swamp in her 70s, she imagines seeing her mother returning to the cabin. Tate finds Kya lying dead in the boat at their dock,. Boxing up Kya’s things, Tate finds a passage in her journal saying that to protect the prey, sometimes the predator has to be killed. It is accompanied by a drawing of Chase. Next he finds the missing shell necklace, meaning that Kya had indeed killed Chase to save her herself from having to live in constant fear of him. Tate throws the necklace into the marsh water.

Now, the movie by itself isn’t that bad for what it is – a romantic love story full of hardships, lost love and disappointment followed by redemption. However, it is portrayed as a mystery thriller which it definitely is not. The “thrills” are nowhere to be found – not in the slow boat rides through the marshes, not through the hum-drum fake accents of two of the three primary cast members who are English and not in the courtroom drama which is dreadfully dull.

The movie is driven by a strong performance from Daisy Edgar-Jones who portrays Kya and David Strathairn, who portrays Tom Milton, the kind man defending Kya in her trial. The two male leads are basically just pretty boys who do not really do much other than give Kya a headache from time to time. Even their “fight” in one of the scenes involves one guy just punching the cap off the other. The Madisons play their part well, as the kind black couple who take care of Kya, in a town which treats them as outsiders too.

The movie is gorgeously photographed and makes the marshlands look like a magical place. Had it not been for the annoying characters, one could think they were watching a tourism advertisement for North Carolina.

JAY’S VERDICT

Go watch it if you like a romantic drama. Don’t watch it if you’re expecting a mystery thriller.

X (2022) – TI WEST SLASHER FLICK ASKS SOME INTERESTING QUESTIONS

X is a 2022 independent slasher film written, directed, produced and edited by Ti West. It is from arthouse distributor A24 and a slasher movie about what really horrifies us. Writer/director Ti West (from The House of the Devil fame) builds a movie that a youth-obsessed society is far more terrified than a evil boogeyman, of not only growing old, but of confronting the fact that the elderly may still possess some very inconvenient desires.

The movie is set in 1979 Texas and stars Mia Goth as Maxine, an aspiring young porn performer who travels with her older producer boyfriend (Martin Henderson) to a remote farm outside Houston to shoot an adult film for the booming theatrical pornography market. Along for the ride are two other performers (Kid Cudi and Brittany Snow), as well as the director and soundperson (Owen Campbell and Jenna Ortega), the latter of whom quickly decides that her best talents lie in front of the camera, not behind it. Bobby-Lynne and Jackson strike up a romance, while Lorraine is unimpressed with the film’s content until she sees Jackson “performing”, with RJ attempting to make it seem like a serious cinematic piece.

True to form, the farm is isolated and creepy, and the group’s first interaction with the ancient proprietor (Stephen Ure), Howard, comes at the business end of a shotgun. Howard makes it clear that he disapproves of any youthful shenanigans on his property (and that’s well before he realizes what they are actually up to). He claims he wants to protect his elderly wife, Pearl (also played by Mia Goth) from any shocks. But just who needs protection — and from whom — quickly grows complicated and forms the crux of this disturbing story.

As filming commences without Howard’s knowledge, Maxine is invited inside the couple’s home by Pearl (after almost being eaten by an alligator in the couple’s pond of which she was blissfully unaware of) where they have a conversation. Pearl laments her age, expresses jealousy for Maxine’s youth, and makes a sexual advance towards her. She later watches Maxine have sex with Jackson and is aroused. Pearl pleads with Howard to have sex with her, but he refuses, claiming his heart is too weak. Night falls, and the film crew relaxes in the guesthouse. Lorraine, keen to shed her reputation as a prude and intrigued by the film, asks to participate in the shoot. RJ is immediately opposed to the idea and accuses the group of putting her up to it, though they assure him that they did not and that Lorraine’s choice to be in the movie falls on her alone, regardless of his feelings. RJ then films the scene of Lorraine and Jackson having sex.

Frustrated with the change in the script and in shock by Lorraine’s unfaithfulness, RJ sets out to leave the crew stranded at the farm while they are asleep, but he is stopped by Pearl, who attempts to seduce him. When he rejects her advances, she stabs him to death in a gory bloodlust. Lorraine and Wayne notice RJ is missing and go searching. Pearl kills Wayne with a pitchfork in the barn, right through his eyes, while Lorraine is invited into the couple’s house by Howard, who claims Pearl is missing and asks Lorraine to retrieve a flashlight from the basement. When Lorraine attempts to leave the basement, she discovers she has been locked in. After turning on the light, she discovers the rigged corpse of a male sex slave horrifying her.

Howard approaches the guest house and asks a gloriously nude Jackson and his “extra long Johnson” to help him locate Pearl. Jackson finds a submerged car in a pond (belonging to the corpse in the basement) before Howard shoots him dead, revealing himself to be complicit in Pearl’s violent tendencies. Meanwhile, Pearl enters the guest house and climbs into Maxine’s bed naked. Maxine awakens and screams, causing Pearl to flee the house, which Bobby-Lynne witnesses. In the farmhouse, Lorraine uses a hatchet to break through a panel in the basement door, but Howard attacks her, breaking her finger, and forces her back inside. Bobby-Lynne follows Pearl outside to the nearby lake and tries to guide her away from the water. Pearl angrily accuses Bobby-Lynne of being a whore before pushing her into the lake, where she is devoured by an alligator.

Maxine sees Pearl and Howard return to the guest house and hides under the bed. The elderly couple discusses the murders before having sex. Maxine manages to flee to the van, where she finds RJ’s corpse and the tires to the van, slashed. Armed with a pistol from the glovebox, Maxine enters the farmhouse and frees Lorraine, who angrily blames Maxine for what has happened. Lorraine panics and runs out the front door, only to be shot by Howard. As Howard and Pearl begin moving the bodies, intent on framing the crew as intruders, a dying Lorraine moves, startling Howard, who has a heart attack and dies.

Maxine retrieves the keys to Howard and Pearl’s truck and attempts to shoot Pearl, but the pistol is not loaded. Pearl tries to shoot Maxine, who dodges, while the recoil from the shotgun causes Pearl to fall and break her hip. As Pearl lies injured outside the house, she begs Maxine for help. Maxine refuses, and as Pearl berates her, Maxine runs her over with the truck, crushing Pearl’s head. Maxine drives away from the farm. The next morning, the police arrive at the house to retrieve the bodies. It is revealed that Maxine is the daughter of a fundamentalist Christian preacher, whose speeches frequently played on Howard and Pearl’s television. The police discover RJ’s camera and speculate about what it contains.

Since “X” is a slasher film, it’s not spoiling anything to note that most of these people will not make it out alive. An axe, a pitchfork and a shotgun are all in easy reach, and for good measure there’s an alligator in the pond. Howard and his wife, Pearl, give off sinister vibes, and West’s knack for zooming, cutting, manipulating point of view and layering sinister sounds creates an unmistakable anticipation of doom. Ti West wants to show that despite their physical superiority over the, ahem, monsters on the loose, the visitors are nevertheless doomed by their ignorance and inexperience, underestimating the threats on the farm until it’s too late. It never even occurs to them to consider what some people might still want — or be capable of. Basically a flaw inherent in almost every horror movie actor. Still, in the tradition of A24 arthouse horror such as Hereditary, Midsommar, and The Witch, the movie puts ideas in the foreground as much as it does bloodshed. West knows that slasher and porn films are less about violence and sex, respectively, and more about the shock and titillation of social transgression. With X, he has made a movie in which the most unsettling moments compel the viewer to question what society really considers taboo and why.

For one thing, X could hardly be more upfront about its son-of-“Chain Saw” atmosphere — which is to say it’s a deliberate, loving, and meticulous homage that isn’t simply trying to cash in on the legacy of the greatest horror film of the last half century. “X” is threaded with blithe references to key films — a car in a swamp like the one in “Psycho,” an ax through a door like the one that kicks off Jack Nicholson’s rampage in “The Shining,” an alligator borrowed from “Alligator” (ingeniously shot from high above in one jittery sequence), an ending that nods to the premise of Paul Schrader’s “Hardcore” (which came out in 1979). All in all, X is a highly enjoyable film and it makes me look forward to the prequel, “Pearl” which dives into the background of the film’s villain.

JAY’S VERDICT

X is a comeback for the Slasher film genre, reminiscent of classics like Texas Chainsaw Massacre while asking deep questions about aging and desires. Prepare to be uncomfortable while enjoying this slasher flick.

FAR CRY PRIMAL (2016) – ENTER THE LAND OF OROS AND DISCOVER YOUR PRIMAL INSTINCT IN THIS PRE-HISTORIC MASTERPIECE

Far Cry Primal is a 2016 action-adventure game developed by Ubisoft Montreal and published by Ubisoft. It is a spin-off to Far Cry 4, and the tenth overall installment in the Far Cry series. It is set during prehistoric times and follows the story of Takkar, an unarmed hunter who enters the land of Oros but will rise to become the leader of a tribe – the Wenja, using his special gift of taming animals and holding the title of “Beast Master”. Primal adapts the traditional Far Cry formula to its prehistoric setting, replacing modern firearms with primitive weapons like spears, clubs, and bows and arrows, and allowing players to summon animal companions (beasts) during battles. Everyday survival is a key aspect of the gameplay, as players have to watch out for both natural predators and rival tribesmen.

The game is set in 10,000 BC during the end of the Upper Paleolithic and beginning of the Mesolithic period in Europe. It takes place in the fictional Oros valley in the Carpathian Mountains of Central and Eastern Europe ,an open world filled with different types of flora and fauna especially prehistoric life. There is prehistoric wildlife such as woolly mammoths, dire wolves, cave bears, cave lions, woolly rhinos, brontotherium, Irish elk and saber-toothed cats along with forms of modern creatures like brown bears, badgers, and deer. As the game is set in prehistoric times, the traditional gunplay and vehicle gameplay featured in the Far Cry series were removed, and the player can only get access to melee weapons such as spears, clubs and ranged weapons such as bows and slings. The player cannot purchase weapons and must craft them using the materials scavenged in the world such as wood and stone.

However, to replace the vehicular combat abilities, Takkar is given the ability to control various beasts and use them to scout, hunt and even ride into battle. Besides facing natural predators, the player must also compete with other hostile tribes occupying the area. By attacking and seizing bonfires and camps, the Wenja tribe will move in and begin patrolling the nearby region, and the player will gain fast travel points as well as camps to rest in. Non-player characters will also task the player to rescue tribe-mates and perform other tasks which improve the village, as well as provide free crafting materials. The game also features a dynamic weather system and day-night cycle, which affects the gameplay.

At night, more predators are present, and many become more aggressive and dangerous, whereas at the day, the player can gather food and scavenge other resources such as tools for hunting. The player can also make use of fire as a tool for personal protection or hunting at night. The night time gameplay is one I enjoy as it truly creates an atmosphere of fear as the still waters have deadly crocodiles and bite fish while the long grass holds jaguars, wolves and the deadly sabre-tooth tigers.

In terms of the human combatants, the Wenja are hunted by two tribes in particular – the Neanderthal-like Udam tribe who live in the northern mountains, prize warfare and hunting, and frequently kidnap Wenja to cannibalize them. With the help of Tensay, a Shaman who becomes an ally whose missions allow Takkar to become a “Beast Master”, Takkar discovers that the Udam are eating Wenja flesh in hopes of gaining immunity from a terminal genetic disease, the “skull fire”, that is wiping out their tribe, then tracks down and apprehends the Udam commander Dah to learn more about the Udam’s techniques. Several Wenja reject Takkar’s decision to give shelter to an Udam warrior at first, and take him to a cave to be executed by drowning, until Takkar himself arrives in time to rescue Dah and chastise the tribe for disobeying him, earning Dah’s gratitude and help.

The other is when the agrarian, ritualistic Izila, another, more advanced tribe that lives in the marshlands of southern Oros, begin capturing Wenja prisoners for slavery and human sacrifice to the Sun goddess Suxli, Takkar invades their domains to rescue them, coming face to face with their leader Batari. After he refuses to become Batari’s slave, a war begins between the Wenja and Izila. Takkar then infiltrates the camp of an Izila commander named Roshani (Ali Momen) and captures him, allowing him to live in exchange for sharing Izila technology in both warfare and agriculture.

So let me discuss one of the best things about Far Cry Primal – the ability to control animals. Beast Master skills are abilities that allow Takkar to tame and control animals he encounters in the wilds of Oros. They are unlocked by recruiting Tensay the Shaman, then improving his hut and completing quests for him. There are 14 beasts that can be tamed in the wilderness of Far Cry Primal – in addition to three beasts that can be acquired by taking on legendary hunts. When you first unlock the Tame Wildcats and Tame Apex Predators abilities, these are the creatures I would advice taming first:

Jaguar: The Jaguar is perfect for players who are focusing on stealth, as this lithe jungle cat can silently take down enemies for you.
Cave Lion: The Cave Lion, while not as stealthy as the jaguar, is just as valuable, since it can automatically mark and tag nearby enemies. This makes infiltrating outposts and bonfires much easier when using this feline companion.
Cave Bear: The brown bear is a formidable ally of a beast, both because it can sustain and deal a high amount of damage, but also because you can ride it.
Sabretooth Tiger: Similar to the brown bear, Takkar can ride the Sabretooth – the big difference is that this fearsome prehistoric cat is by far the fastest predator in Oros. This means riding a Sabretooth will get you around far faster than on a bear.

Feeding your animal companions with meat sourced from prey brings them back to full health, with the same doing wonders for Takkar, too. Only a scarcity of meat would prevent you feeding your animals and yourself, but over the course of Primal it was more difficult to prevent my inventory sack becoming overloaded than it was to keep it stocked. That, of course, might change dramatically come final release. The chances of your companion making a successful kill are, invariably, dependent on the awareness and strength of your target. The wolf will dismember the native deer-like creatures with little difficultly, but even the bear is unlikely to succeed against an alert sabre-toothed tiger. One human is easy enough for your animal friend to handle, but if the attack alerts others from a tribe, it pays to call the animals back immediately before the arrows and spears flowing in from all sides do some permanent damage.

Disappointingly, you can only have one animal in play at a time, although you always have the option of calling in an owl to help. It acts like a high-altitude military drone, casting its telephoto eyes down upon the terrain in an attempt to seek out enemies, routes of infiltration, and resources to gather. Once the initial scouting run is complete, you can instruct your owl to—with better accuracy and fewer innocent casualties than any missile—dive out of the sky and tear to shreds whomever you’re pointing at. To prevent the death-from-above tactics being too powerful, the owl comes with a cooldown timer that prevents the constant spamming of its abilities.

Far Cry Primal is a case study in how a game’s setting can drive its every layer, from the tone of its story, to the dangers of its world, to the brutality of its combat. That setting is the Stone Age. Takkar searches throughout the game for the lost members of his Wenja tribe. They’re scattered across the Oros Valley, a dense wilderness of forests, swamps, and frozen caves, complete with mammoths and sabertooth tigers. As Takkar, you’ll build up a new Wenja village with a multifarious cast of characters. This reconstruction sets up Primal’s progression system. By recruiting the aforementioned Wenja–such as the shaman Tensay or the warrior Karoosh–you’ll unlock new items, weapons, and abilities. When you look past the facade, it’s essentially a new skin for the franchise’s traditional upgrade structure. But it lends character to what could be a lifeless system. As you build up your tribe from within, you encounter members of other groups, the majority of whom have plans contrary to your own. The identity of each of the game’s three tribes, and the political dynamic between them, sets up conflicts in a natural way.

A day/night cycle also adds more tension to the world: predators are more abundant and aggressive in the darkness. Even now, after dozens of hours in this valley, I still feel anxious as the sun goes down, hoping I have enough animal fat to ignite my club and ward off hulking carnivores. This focus on survival permeates Far Cry Primal. In the northern wastes, the cold becomes a factor, making each bonfire a glowing beacon of safety as you fight to stay warm. In Primal’s lush swampland, avoiding danger means avoiding the water, where underwater predators abound.

As a solitary hunter with simple tools, you’re also less equipped to defend yourself than the protagonists of Far Cry 3 and 4. Gone are handguns and grenade launchers–here you have spears, clubs, and slingshots. They not only bring a slow, measured pace to combat, but also add to Primal’s overall identity and tone. You’re a lone wanderer here, not a walking armory. However, the combat does become repetitive considering you can only use clubs, slings, spears and bows. There aren’t even swords as you’re still in the stone age. The plot also could have been more complex with perhaps one or two other tribes.

Far Cry Primal is, however, a huge, sprawling source of great gaming joy, and wisely, Ubisoft resisted the temptation to shoe-horn in any dubious multiplayer modes. Any worries about the lack of modern weaponry are quickly banished by the array of available arms. Takkar has a club, a spear and a bow, all of which are available in different iterations, can be set on fire and are fully upgradable. He gets the Stone Age equivalent of grenades, in the form of bags of bees that leave enemies flailing or bags of rotten matter that induce them to lay into each other or fire bombs which burn enemies from above when dropped by the owl. There’s one gadget – a grapple – which proves invaluable when negotiating mountainous territory, and provides a centrepiece for a few puzzle-solving side missions. The gameplay is pleasantly varied – there are plenty of sequences in which Takkar has to employ stealth, or use his hunter’s vision to track prey and effectively operate as a Stone Age detective.

JAY’S VERDICT

Immerse yourself in a ruthless open world where only survival matters. Hours of engaging game play awaits all those who dare enter the unforgiving world of Oros.

THE BIG BANG THEORY (2007 – 2019) – A FUN LIGHTHEARTED NERDGASM WHICH SPELLED DOOM FOR THE LAUGH TRACK

The Big Bang Theory was an American television sitcom created by Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady which ran on CBS from September 24, 2007 to May 16, 2019, having broadcast 279 episodes over 12 seasons. It follows two roommates Sheldon and Leonard – both scientists – whose lives change when a beautiful new neighbor moves in next door. What follows is their journey of individual growth which involves them finding love and getting into several science based escapades with their fellow nerds – Howard and Rajesh. As with most of Chuck Lorre’s creations, it involves an annoying laugh track which went out of fashion with the ending of FRIENDS.

The Big Bang Theory however is enjoyable since it doesn’t pander to the LGBTQ movement unlike almost anything on Netflix or Amazon Prime these days where in the name of “inclusion”, it makes the LGBTQ community a majority instead of a minority. Anyways, as having such characters is currently “in” right now, we can’t help it as studios will milk any trend which gives them the most money. Coming back to the Big Bang Theory, you’ll notice that aside from Rajesh, who is the whitest Indian guy ever, there are hardly any minorities in the show who play a major role. Although if I remember correctly, in Season 3, episode 22, they do bring out the guy who used to live in the apartment across the hall before Penny – a cross-dressing, gay black dude which I guess was Chuck Lorre trying to tick every box in the LGBTQ in one character and also satisfy the minority hiring bit. For South Asians, the character of Rajesh seemed to be a trend in the right direction although his full name “Rajesh Ramayan Koothrappali” is a middle and last name hard to find among a billion Indians. Plus having a middle name like Ramayan is like saying Bob Bible Moore or Imran Koran Khan – seems idiotic and doesn’t seem like Chuck knows much about India or Indians. Although as we dig deeper into the characters, Rajesh Koothrappali is also the least knowledgeable about India, despite being Indian. He says Indians consider the cow to be a God which isn’t true or his facts about life in India which even to rich Indians would appear quite strange.

Anyways, atleast all the other racial stereotypes work out nicely. We have Howard Wolowitz who is creepy but funny; Leonard Hofstader who could be basically any straight white guy trying too hard to be a “feminist” and you have Sheldon Cooper, a Texan nerd with Aspergers, who as played by Jim Parsons, is a brilliant character and the reason why most of us stuck with the show. Penny is played by Kaley Cuoco, is your typical hot but not too bright blonde. Then you have two other characters – Bernadette Rostenkowski played by Melissa Rauch and Amy Farrah Fowler played by Mayim Bialik, who are love interests for Howard and Sheldon respectively. Both characters however are dull, boring and unfunny with Bernadette literally being a manipulative bully and Amy being the most exhausting characters ever to be cast on television. The show is mostly fun if you ignore Bernadette and Amy and focus on the five main characters and two supporting characters – Stuart Bloom (who owns the comic book store), Howard’s Mom Debbie (who is never seen but her interactions with Howard are golden) and Barry Kripke (a co-worker at Caltech who annoys Sheldon).

So who are the main nerds? First up is Leonard – an experimental physicist with an IQ of 173, who received his PhD when he was 24 years old. Leonard is a nerd who loves video games, comic books, and Dungeons & Dragons. Leonard is the straight man of the series, sharing an apartment in Pasadena, CA, with Sheldon Cooper. As mentioned earlier, Leonard has a crush on his new neighbor Penny when they first meet, and they eventually marry after a series of bad dates, breakups and finally realizing they are meant for each other.

Next is Sheldon Cooper – originally from Galveston, Texas, Sheldon was a child prodigy with an eidetic memory who began college at the age of eleven and earned a PhD at age sixteen. He is a theoretical physicist researching quantum mechanics and string theory, and despite his IQ of 187, he finds many routine aspects of social situations difficult to grasp. He is determined to have his own way, continually boasts of his intelligence, and has an extremely ritualized way of living. Despite these quirks, he begins a relationship with Amy Farrah Fowler, and they eventually marry.

Third is Howard Wolowitz – an aerospace engineer who got his master’s degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Howard is Jewish and lives with his mother, Debbie (Carol Ann Susi). Unlike Sheldon, Leonard, Raj, Bernadette, and Amy, Howard does not hold a doctorate. He goes into space, training as an astronaut and serving as a payload specialist. Howard initially fancies himself as a womanizer (but never succeeds), but he later starts dating Bernadette, and they get engaged and married. Howard also has a tendency to waste money on toys and argues with Bernadette because of his oddly low income as an engineer and her high income as a pharmaceutical biochemist and because Bernadette is also extremely manipulative and controlling.

Fourth, is Rajesh Koothrappali – A particle astrophysicist originally from New Delhi, India. Initially, Raj had selective mutism, rendering him unable to talk to or be around women unless under the influence of alcohol, which formed the basis for most of the gags on his behalf in the early seasons. Raj also has very feminine tastes and often takes on a stereotypical female role in his friendship with Howard as well as in the group of four men. Raj later dates Lucy (Kate Micucci), who also suffers from social anxiety, but it eventually ends. He later speaks to Penny without alcohol, overcoming his selective mutism. He begins dating Emily Sweeney, and their relationship later becomes exclusive. Raj also has a Yorkshire Terrier named Cinnamon. Despite his considerable quirks, Raj has the most success with women in the group but remains single at the end of the series for unexplainable reasons. Although there is one episode where all of his ex-girlfriends get together to tell him why he was such a bad boyfriend but do meet the list – a cripplingly shy girl who isn’t much in the looks department who leaves him when he suggested meeting his friends (Lucy), a seemingly normal dermatologist who likes cutting people and watching excruciatingly gory horror flicks (Emily), a deaf gold-digger who used him to pay off his credit card debts (another Emily) and a woman who herself couldn’t decide whether she wanted Raj or not and then blamed her issues on him by calling him needy and vain (Claire).

Now, the primary female character is Penny (surname unknown) – an aspiring actress from Omaha, Nebraska. Penny moves in across the hall from Sheldon and Leonard. She waits tables and occasionally tends the bar at The Cheesecake Factory. After giving up hope of becoming a successful actress, Penny becomes a pharmaceutical sales representative. Penny becomes friends with Bernadette and Amy, and they often hang out in each other’s apartments. Penny and Leonard form a relationship and eventually marry.

Much of the series focuses on science, particularly physics. The four main male characters are employed at Caltech and have science-related occupations, as do Bernadette and Amy. The characters frequently banter about scientific theories or news (notably around the start of the show), and make science-related jokes. Science has also interfered with the characters’ romantic lives with Leonard’s initial relationship with fellow scientist Leslie petering out due to a difference in opinions. Nerd media, like Star Wars and Star Trek play a major role in the characters’ lives – a little too much considering Sheldon gets laid for the first time with the characters watching the latest Star Wars movie in the background. The jokes are funny at times but the forced laugh track isn’t.

Stand-out characters are Sheldon due to Jim Parsons wonderful facial expressions and body language. Rajesh is another interesting character although as with all of Chuck Lorre’s characters since Two and a Half Men, he has to make one straight character extremely feminine and pathetic, which might be due to some of his own personal issues or might not. Guess Charlie Sheen had a point? *insert laugh track*. Penny works in the role she is given – the other two major female characters definitely do not. Leonard and Howard are fun at times too although the probability that any normal person would endure a guy like Sheldon for so long seems unlikely.

JAY’S VERDICT

A light-hearted comedy one can enjoy but if you’re looking for intellectual stimulation better to just read a book.

THE CONQUEROR SERIES BY CONN IGGULDEN (BOOK REVIEW) – TRANSPORT YOURSELF TO THE WORLD OF GENGHIS KHAN AND THE MONGOLS

Connor Iggulden is a British author who writes historical fiction, most notably the Emperor series and Conqueror series. In 2007, Iggulden became the first person to top the UK fiction and non-fiction charts at the same time. His series “Conqueror”, covers the Mongol Empire created by Genghis Khan – Iggulden covers Temujin’s humble beginnings and the background which resulted in him growing from Temujin to the man who would soon become Genghis Khan.

The narrative follows the early life of Temujin, the second son of Yesugei, the khan of the Mongolian “Wolves” tribe. His father is attacked by assassins and soon dies from his injuries. Yesugei’s first bondsman, Eeluk, assumes control of the tribe. Fearing the sons of the former khan may contest his leadership when they reach adulthood, Eeluk banishes Temujin’s family from the tribe, leaving them to fend for themselves on the harsh Steppes. The expectation was that Temujin’s family would perish in the unforgiving winter, but Temujin, along with his mother Hoelun, his four brothers Bekter, Khasar, Kachiun, Temüge, and his baby sister Temulun, survived against all the odds, albeit in poverty. In an argument over food, Temujin kills his older brother Bekter, much to his mother’s anguish.

After a few years of trading with other wandering families, the family establish a small home. But the Wolf tribe return to the area, and advanced riders, sent by Eeluk to ensure the family had perished, capture Temujin. He is taken back to the tribe where he is tortured, and kept in a pit, in preparation for a ritual murder. He is freed by Arslan and Jelme, father and son wanderers who joined the Wolves after looking for Yesugei, whom Arslan owed a debt. They join Temujin and his family and begin a new tribe, accepting other wandering families into their protection. Temujin assumes the role of khan.

Temujin returns to the Olkhunut to claim his wife Borte. Shortly after, Borte is captured by a Tartar raiding party (in real, Borte was kidnapped by the Merkits and not the Tartars). Temujin and his brothers chase down the captors and murder them, recovering Borte. The small army retaliates with repeated raids on Tartar camps. The Tartars respond by sending armies to crush the new menace. It is then that a Chin emissary approaches Temujin with an offer from Toghrul, Khan of the Kerait. Temujin joins his small fledgling tribe with Toghrul’s, and leads a joint army to advance on the Tartars. It is in the following battle that Temujin begins to show outstanding tactical abilities, as the Mongols ease to victory. Upon interrogating a Tartar prisoner, Temujin learns that the leader of the Olkhunut conspired with the Chin to lead the Tartar assassins to his father. He also learns that a massive Tartar army is advancing into Mongol lands.

Temujin returns to the Kerait, then travels to the Olkhunut tribe, where he murders the khan in his ger and assumes leadership of the tribe, and takes them back to join the Kerait. The Mongol alliance prepares for battle, when they are joined by the Wolves. Temujin and Eeluk agree to settle their feud upon victory over the Tartars. Under Temujin’s faultless leadership and strategy, the Tartar army is crushed. As the battle ends, Temujin and Eeluk fight, with Temujin emerging victorious. He claims leadership of the Wolves and takes the warriors back to the Kerait. Fearing an inevitable challenge to his leadership, Toghrul sends assassins to Temujin’s ger. The attempt is unsuccessful, and Toghrul is banished out of the unified tribe. Temujin proclaims himself khan of all Mongol tribes and bestows the name Genghis upon himself.

The book does deviate from some historical characters – Genghis’s childhood friend, blood-brother and eventual rival Jamukha is missing from the narrative. But it provides us with ample understanding of the hardships endured by the great conqueror Genghis and whose early life influenced his brutality in the future.

The next book in the series, The Lords of the Bow, covers the uniting of all Mongol tribes under one banner and led by the Great Khan – Genghis. It takes on the Mongol conquest of the Xi Xia kingdom and the war against the Chin, by-passing the Great Wall of China. The following summer sees the tribes gathered, waiting for Genghis to lead them where he will. They are anxious to be off, but he is determined to wait for the Khan of the Uighur to show up with the five thousand soldiers he wishes to have. While stuck in one place, the new Nation becomes impatient and tempers flare. In one incident, Genghis’ brother Khasar is forced to defend his honour against the sons of a lesser Khan. He is helped by the young Tsubodai, who is rewarded later in the book. In this book, we are also introduced to Genghis’s great general Tsubodai, the great strategist responsible for many of the Mongol Empire’s great victories.

The entire Mongol nation then begins to march southwards, to take the kingdom of the Xia. Facing them is the arduous crossing of the Gobi desert. Having crossed the desert the Mongol hordes attempt to take the kingdom of Xi Xia, the Mongols inexperience in siege craft shows when they are held at bay by the walls of Xi Xia, the division between the kingdom of Xi Xia and the Chin empire is also highlighted at this time. Eventually the Xia kingdom capitulates and Genghis wins a princess of the city as his bride as well as many other spoils of war. From this point on, there is tension between Borte (Genghis’ first wife) and Genghis’ second wife., Chakahai Also highlighted in this book is Genghis’ estrangement from his eldest son Jochi (whose legitimacy Genghis doubts) and the strife within Genghis’ family that this estrangement causes, especially between Jochi and his brother Chagatai.

The Mongol war strategies are also introduced in this book and some great battles especially the battle of Badger’s Mouth (also known as the Battle of Yehuling).

Bones of the Hills focuses mainly on the Mongol invasion of Islamic Central Asia, the war against Shah Muhammad II of Khwarezm and his son Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu and the brutal massacres at Urgench and Merv. Although relations between the Mongols and the Khwarezm were initially cordial, Genghis was angered by a series of diplomatic provocations. When a senior Mongol diplomat was executed by Khwarazmshah Muhammed II, the Khan mobilized his forces, estimated to be between 90,000 and 200,000 men, and invaded. The Shah’s forces were widely dispersed and probably outnumbered — realizing his disadvantage, he decided to garrison his cities individually to bog the Mongols down. However, through excellent organization and planning, the Mongols were able to isolate and conquer the Transoxianan cities of Bukhara, Samarkand, and Gurganj.

However, in the book, Iggulden proceeds stating the Mongols were outnumbered by the Shah’s forces. This could be because sieges and massacres are less exciting than the underdog turning the tables on a bigger and slower foe. Bones of the Hills also brings about the rivalry between Jochi and Chagatai to the forefront. Genghis Khan, continues to treat Jochi badly and the rift between father and son continues to widen. This finally results in Jochi rebelling and taking his Tuman north, until he is hunted down by Subotai, who being his friend, also is frustrated with his Khan’s stubborness. Ogedai becomes the heir to Genghis Khan, setting up the premise for his story to be told in the next book of the series.

The Mongol Empire in 1227 at Genghis Khan’s death

In the next book, Empire of Silver, Genghis’s tough and canny heir, Ogedai, is on the verge of becoming the new Khan. Inexplicably, Ogedai has delayed his coronation to complete a project many deem a folly: the building of Karakorum, a magnificent city amid the wild plains. His decision emboldens his arrogant brother Chagatai to violently challenge him, leaving their noble sibling Tolui caught between them. Yet even as they clash, the Khan’s armies extend his reach farther than ever before, into southern China and across the rugged mountains of Russia to the vulnerable heart of Europe, where the most courageous warriors the West commands await the coming onslaught.

It also brings in a new character, Batu Khan, a son of Jochi and made a prince of the nation by Ogedai Khan. Batu, being a grandson of Genghis, is given titular command of the army under Subotai sent to conquer Kievan Rus and the European kingdoms by Ogedai. Though Subotai is in overall command and the main tactician, the entire army is incorrectly labelled as the Golden Horde of Batu Khan.

The attack on Europe was planned and carried out by Subotai, who achieved his lasting fame with his victories there. Having devastated the various Russian principalities, he sent spies as far as Poland, Hungary, and Austria in preparation for an attack into the heartland of Europe. Having a clear picture of the European kingdoms, he brilliantly prepared an attack nominally commanded by Batu Khan and two other princes of the blood. While Batu Khan, son of Jochi, was the overall leader, Subotai was the actual commander in the field, and as such was present in both the northern and southern campaigns against Kievan Rus’. He personally commanded the central column that moved against the Kingdom of Hungary, and likely gave detailed instructions to his subordinates.

The book also brings about the end of the stories of Genghis’s brothers – Khasar (dying of boils), Khachiun (dying due to gangrene in the mountains) and Temuge (being killed for rebellion). Great generals such as Jelme and Jebe also disappear without too much written about them. However, it does bring up the sons of Tolui, Mongke, Kublai, Hulegu and Arik-Boke as key characters to unleash in the next book. It also brings up Baidur, son of Chagatai and Guyuk, son of Ogedai, who accompany Subotai on his great trek west which ends in Hungary, after the sudden death of Ogedai, forces Subotai to return to Karakorum with his great army.

Conqueror, focuses on the short reign of Guyuk Khan, a weak Khan and the subsequent ascension of Mongke Khan, a strong but brutal Khan in the mold of Genghis himself. Mongke sends Hulegu to carve out a Khanate for himself in the lands of the Middle East and Kublai to subdue the Song dynasty in China. Arik Boke rules the homelands of Mongolia. The book covers the destruction wreaked by Hulegu and sack of Baghdad. It also covers Kublai’s strategic mind and that he was a kinder ruler than the Mongol Khans before him. At the end, Mongke’s death at the hands of an assassin (artistic license apparently), unleashes a civil war between Kublai and Arik-Boke, with Kublai emerging victorious. But, what the book doesn’t cover is that since Ogedai’s death, the Mongol Empire was essentially split into various Khanates and not one united empire as it had been during the time of Genghis and Ogedai.

JAY’S VERDICT

Read Conn Iggulden’s Conqueror series and be transported into the world of Mongols – immerse yourself the strategic genius of Subotai, the all-conquering spirit of Genghis Khan and the barbarism of Hulegu.

THE CASE AGAINST INCOME TAXES – WHY IT IMPOVERISHES THE PEOPLE

An income tax is a tax imposed on individuals or entities (taxpayers) in respect of the income or profits earned by them (commonly called taxable income). Income tax generally is computed as the product of a tax rate times the taxable income. Taxation rates differ by type or characteristics of the taxpayer and the type of income. The tax rate may increase as taxable income increases (referred to as progressive tax rates). The tax imposed on companies is usually known as corporate tax and is commonly levied at a flat rate. Individual income is often taxed at progressive rates where the tax rate applied to each additional unit of income increases.

For most of human civilization, we did not presuppose taxes being based on factors such as a money economy, reasonably accurate accounts, a common understanding of receipts, expenses and profits, and an orderly society with reliable records instead of taxes on wealth, social position, and ownership of the means of production (typically land). In the early days of the Roman Republic, public taxes consisted of modest assessments on owned wealth and property. The tax rate under normal circumstances was 1% and sometimes would climb as high as 3% (3% being classified as high sounds hilarious in today’s Canada or EU) in situations such as war. These modest taxes were levied against land, homes and other real estate, slaves, animals, personal items and monetary wealth. The more a person had in property, the more tax they paid. Taxes were collected from individuals.

The inception date of the modern income tax is typically accepted as 1799. Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger introduced income tax into Great Britain in his budget of December 1798, to pay for weapons and equipment for the French Revolutionary War. So basically as with most problems of the modern era, it all began in “Great” Britain.

The US federal government imposed the first personal income tax on August 5, 1861, to help pay for its war effort in the American Civil War (3% of all incomes over US$800). This tax was repealed and replaced by another income tax in 1862. It was only in 1894 that the first peacetime income tax was passed through the Wilson-Gorman tariff.

Soon income tax caught on, all around the world, and before you knew it, those with the least to pay were sacrificing proportionally ever more out of their salaries and wages over time, a sacrifice to the finance gods who paid pretty little in the way of taxes of any kind, let alone income. The rich and powerful – the owners of tech giants, large conglomerations and wealthy families – pay very little in terms of income tax.

But what if we got rid of income tax altogether? Income tax doesn’t really pay for government services federally. So why do we, the 99%, even need to pay it? Isn’t it just punishing people for earning? In Canada, for example, average rents in Toronto are around CAD $2500-3000 in downtown. On top of it, if you pay around 35% out of your income, after paying for rent, you are barely left with anything to feed yourself and your family as due to inflation, grocery prices are sky high.

Economist Henry George argued back in 1897 that income tax actually reduces people’s incentive to earn income. He said that taxes on income and even profit distorts economic activity and encourages off-shoring for those wealthy enough to be able to afford to pay people to hide the rest of their gains, forcing a greater burden of tax on those least capable of paying. He also claimed property tax punishes owners for improving or maintaining the quality of the establishment.

The implementation of an income tax system is very complex, especially when trying to regulate the rich and the corporations. So complicated in fact that an entire industry exists to simply monitor and control the system. The government must enforce every line of the tax code, for example in the US the IRS requires 90,000 tax accountants. Another part of the same industry of tax accountants consults the big corporations and the rich on ways how to exploit tax policies’ loopholes. Tax evasion and deceitful avoidance favors the wealthy as they are the ones able to pay for costly tax ‘advice’. As legendary investor Warren Buffet has been known to say, it is unfair that his secretary pays 30% in taxes while his accountants manage for Buffet to only have to pay 17% on his income.

Taxation exists to prevent inflation so some form of it will always be required to provide stability, but there are countless better ways to do it than taking away badly needed funds from people already struggling to pay their bills. The federal government does not need people’s taxes to pay for anything, so why are we handing over hard-earned income to be destroyed when we could be spending it? Or saving it. Or paying off debts. In the current climate, with wages stagnating or in some countries even going backwards, it makes little sense to take money away from people already struggling to pay their bills for the sake of an almost permanent deficit.

Some argue that for those in the lower middle class and lower classes, an earnings tax may be a financial hardship. Others believe that income tax is a violation of a citizen’s individual freedom. An income tax that gets progressively more burdensome the more money you make reduces the incentive to work harder and be productive the higher you move up the ladder.

Albeit differently implemented, income tax is present everywhere throughout the world. Low personal income tax countries such as the US and Japan promote their highly consuming economies through low personal rates but limit their colossal corporations through a high corporate rate. Scandinavian countries, Belgium and France need abnormal tax revenues to finance their government expenditure and social benefits. Places like Ireland, Poland Hungary and the Slovak Republic stimulate their much needed development by attracting investment with low corporate taxation.

Lately, pure tax economists argue that a consumption tax is superior to an income tax because it comes closest to attaining the so called “temporal neutrality”. Although impossible in reality, a tax would be considered to be temporal neutral if it did not alter spending habits, change behavior patterns or affect the natural allocation of resources.

An income tax creates a discrepancy between the value of a person’s work and what they actually receive (disposable income). This is weighs on the economy because it causes people to work less and pursue more leisure activities than would otherwise be the case if income taxes did not exist. The barrier created by income taxes also produces fewer saving because capital is taxed. This reduces investment, discouraging innovation and ultimately contributing to a lower standard of living when compared to a pure consumption tax. A well planned consumption tax is more neutral and does not affect the allocation of resources as dramatically as an income tax. Taxes are only assessed on any income that is consumed (spent on goods, services, etc.) while not taxing savings. This eliminates any deterrent to savings and actually would encourage people to save more, increase available capital, and ultimately produce a more solid, robust economy.

Taxation makes individuals across the world into modern day serfs. We get what’s left over in our paychecks after the federal government has taken its share. That means the fruits of our labors belong first to our government. Countries like Canada, claim that it is to maintain a welfare state that such exorbitant taxes are levied but with raging inflation and lack of rent control, people live paycheck to paycheck just to survive the month. A country as blessed in natural resources such as Canada along with a small population, can always seek to build its income from its other sources. Lowering taxes is a good start but eliminating them would ensure that the dream many dream of, migrating to a new country, would remain one that could eventually come true.

This is even truer for emerging economies like India, where the Government provides no benefits for the tax payers and a large percentage of the population do not pay taxes and the burden of the tax hits salaried individuals the highest. A rethink of taxation is the need of the hour going forward. The world is in a fragile state post-Covid and the horrors of the Russo-Ukraine war still being inflicted. The world economies must do away with income taxes and make sure corporate income taxes are levied properly and fully and the rich and the powerful do not escape being taxed on their unequal share of resources. Only then can true and equal opportunity to build a better life, be provided to all men and women and not just the sons and daughters of the already wealthy.

WHAT SUN TZU WOULD NEVER DO – THE RUSSO-UKRAINIAN WAR ASSESSED THROUGH THE ANCIENT CLASSIC

Anyone who has been following the news lately has not been immune from hearing about the Russo-Ukrainian War, which although having begun in 2014, after the Ukrainian Revolution and the seizure of Crimea, escalated rapidly in 2022, with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. In 2021, Russia began a large military build-up along its border with Ukraine, amassing up to 190,000 troops and their equipment. On 21 February 2022, Russia recognized the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, two self-proclaimed breakaway quasi-states in the Donbas. The next day, the Federation Council of Russia authorized the use of military force, and Russian troops promptly advanced into both territories.

Now the reasons for the war, aren’t going to be discussed. There were Western provocations and there were some insane theories only justified in Putin’s head. That’s not the point of this article. Anyone who has ever read anything about strategy, has definitely come across the great classic – The Art of War, written by Sun Tzu, an ancient Chinese military strategist whose comments on war and strategy still resonate strongly in the modern era. Sun Tzu was one of history’s finest military tacticians and analysts and his teachings and strategies formed the basis of advanced military training for millennia to come. The book is divided into 13 Chapters – obviously it is too extensive to discuss in detail. However, what I am trying to do, is assess the Russian war strategy in Ukraine against the principles espoused by Sun Tzu and assess why it is a war characterized by massive blunders.

I am going to look at some of Sun Tzu’s most apt statements regarding the conduct of warfare and see if the Russian Armed Forces paid heed to these or not.

“Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move fall like a thunderbolt.”

A major mistake made was that Putin informed Ukraine where his forces would attack and even mobilized in a slow and cumbersome manner. There was no great deception or disguised plans – anyone and everyone knew what would be coming. This was a major error, as it allowed Ukraine to prepare traps and to build up resistance. It also allowed Ukraine’s allies in the EU and the US, to prepare a vast array of sanctions to wage economic war against Russia. This ensured that the war if not won quickly would be a massive drain on Russian resources.

“The worst strategy of all is to besiege walled cities.”

Let’s redefine as having to conduct siege warfare against any city. In a city, in close urban combat, defenders have an advantage that few can last out against many. You need numerical superiority to overcome a city’s defenses – mobile warfare doesn’t work. Had Russians read the history of their own defenses against Nazi Germany in Stalingrad, they would have by-passed such cities to destroy Ukraine’s military forces. Instead they attacked Kiev, Kharkiv and Mariupol, the last of which resulted in the defenders holding up in the Azovstal Steel Works. Kiev and Kharkiv were massive failures. Urban combat in modern days is a meat grinder – tanks and armored vehicles are of not much use in closed settings where a single soldier with AT weapons could carry out a deadly ambush and choke major roads and lanes. Artillery turns buildings into rubble but it also means, more hiding places for the defenders. If your army is set up for short wars (like the Russian Army), it needs to take out military targets and by-pass cities. Once supply lines are closed off and the threat of reinforcements eliminated, a city can fall.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself, but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

The entire war was fought on assumptions instead of cold hard facts. No one in Putin’s inner circle, carried out a simple analysis – what are Russia’s actual strengths? Will Ukrainians defend their country aggressively? Have the Ukrainians upgraded their defensive capabilities since 2014 when Crimea fell? Is the Russian Army prepared for an offensive on multiple fronts? Are the logistics set up to endure economic sanctions and a long grinding war?

From the goal of the war to his own army’s strengths and weaknesses, Putin and his cronies got it all wrong. After the Covid pandemic, there was little enthusiasm for war even in Russia – especially against Ukraine who most Russians have close ties with (which were destroyed as the war progressed). What was the objective? To eliminate Nazis? An army cannot accomplish such a vague objective? There was no endgame – we liberate Donetsk and Luhansk and then we stop or we take Kiev and then we negotiate – no. Just vague aims and grandiose goals of rebuilding the Soviet Union without their old power. Just like Hitler’s Nazi Germany got it wrong when they invaded the Soviet Union, Putin’s Russia underestimated Ukraine’s resolve to defend their motherland.

What is apparent in Ukraine – on both sides – is not just an ability to continue to resist, but an astonishing ability to persist. In what has become a grinding war of attrition with high numbers of casualties on both sides, neither combatant appears ready to throw in the towel. But in this scenario, as an aggressor, for Russia this achieves nothing.

“Military tactics are like water. For water, in its natural course, runs away from high places and hastens downwards. So, in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and strike at what is weak.”

Again, like I mentioned earlier about avoiding cities – here the Russian military commanders made several mistakes. Attacking a well-defended city like Kiev was a massive mistake and that too with few parachute regiments. Artillery is a supporting arm – however, for the Russian Army, everything supports their artillery. Artillery is excellent at pounding strongholds or suppressing enemies – as a primary arm, it also destroys what you seek to capture. Cities and villages made into rubble turned every corner into an ambush zone for Russian armor.

Warfare needs to be flexible to maintain the initiative – the Russian Army has showed itself to be highly inflexible in terms of how it conducts the warfare. Firstly instead of full mobilization right from the beginning, where it would have had 6 months to prepare the next lot of conscripts, it classified a full-scale invasion as a “special military operation” thus, meaning reserves could not be tapped or trained well. Second, it bombed cities and random targets without destroying the enemy’s ability to strike back – which means expensive munitions were wasted against targets of no strategic importance. It resembled Hitler’s V1 and V2 rocket attacks on London – of no military consequence whatsoever.

“There are five essentials for victory: He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight. He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces. He will win who’s army is animated by the same spirit throughout all it’s ranks. He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared. He will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign.”

So let’s take on this dictum, one at a time. Putin did not assess his own army and country’s mood for war when he decided to move forward. He did not take Ukrainian will to resist, their army being supplied with advanced weapons and the response of the EU and the US to his invasion. Thus, had he been a good strategist, he would not have attacked Ukraine at a time when not only was his enemy ready for him but also his own country and army were unprepared for the difficulties of war. Next, Putin took on the gamble because on paper, the Russian Army seems to be a juggernaut surpassing Ukraine’s reserves in tanks, planes and artillery. However, most of the equipment was Soviet-era and unfit for active combat. Plus, there were not enough trained personnel to man the equipment they had. Destroyed tanks can be replaced but trained crew-men cannot easily be replaced.

Next we talk about the spirit of the army – the Russian army didn’t really know what they came to Ukraine for. If they were liberators, why did the Ukrainians resist so fiercely? If they came to kill Nazis, then where were they and how to eliminate them? On the opposing side, the Ukrainian army was filled with the spirit of resistance and defending their motherland – one simple goal – to resist and fight back invaders. Thus, on the third point, Russia failed too. Then, we talk about being prepared and waiting to take the enemy unprepared – here too, as mentioned earlier, Putin did not try to utilize an element of surprise. He caught only his own army unprepared asking them to wage a war on a broad front against the second largest country in Europe after Russia itself. Plus, having warned Ukraine for almost a year and then a slow and chaotic mobilization on Ukraine’s borders, made sure that the Ukrainians would not be caught unprepared.

Last, they would win who has military capacity and are not interfered with by the sovereign. Though Russia had the military capacity on paper, the capacity that could be brought to bear quickly was small and was not taken into consideration. Plus, an army with conscripts, mercenaries and proxy soldiers is not an army with strict discipline and control. Also, untrained soldiers means NCOs cannot take on day-to-day decisions and senior commanders are needed for even minor decisions thus, the high casualty rates among Russian generals which is usually unheard of in modern combat. In terms of interference, Putin made similar mistakes like Hitler and continued to micro-manage military strategy while having no clue about the same – being a spy and being a general are not the same.

“There is no instance of a country having benefitted from prolonged warfare.”

Modern warfare is expensive. Each bomb and missile thrown at the enemy needs to have a ROI (return on investment) associated with it. Add to that economic sanctions resulting in your economy not being set up to support prolonged war. Though oil and gas are plenty in Russia, it lacks the industrial capacity for high-tech missile components and microchips which are the bread and butter of modern weapons. The modern army is efficient and needs to move fast and accomplish its goals quickly otherwise the burden of supplying it becomes an enormous expense. With the invasion having gone on for more than six months, the war has no real end in sight and huge quantities of ammunition and equipment have been used up and reserves are not up to the mark.

For example, the Russian military relies on artillery to destroy enemy formations: Russia’s fondness for the “god of war” dates back several centuries and Russian tactics still emphasize artillery as a decisive instrument for destroying enemy formations, while maneuver units handle mopping up the survivors. While self-propelled artillery vehicles can accompany troops on offensive maneuvers, in general the Russian military now seeks to keep the enemy at arm’s length from its frontline positions so that the artillery can blast enemy troops without hitting friendly forces.

Moscow has long been wielding more and bigger guns as a means to compensate for its forces’ qualitatively inferior training. Whereas Western militaries increasingly use artillery to launch precision strikes against enemy positions, the Russian army still values large-scale area bombardments with overwhelming volumes of firepower. However, a weakness of Russian artillery is its centralized command-and-control structure, which makes it difficult for frontline troops to request fire missions. This results in an enormous wastage of shells against a broad area and cannot be utilized to aid swift movements.

Vladimir Putin’s use of inaccurate data often undermines his decisions. Putin’s wishful thinking about the power of the Russian military is reflected in his apparent expectation that it could conquer Ukraine with only 150,000 military personnel. This is significantly less than the 250,000 soldiers in the Ukrainian armed forces and far off the ratio of offensive to defence forces traditionally needed for a successful campaign – 3:1. Putin seems to have decided to launch the invasion based on the expectation that Ukrainian citizens would surrender without a fight and their political leaders would run away. Clearly, the data he drew on was deeply flawed.

At the beginning of the full-scale invasion, the Russian military entered Ukraine in marching columns rather than combat formations. The Russians’ assumption that they would not face resistance caused them to suffer huge losses in the first few days of the war, forcing them to withdraw from the Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy regions. The inadequate training and incompetence of Russian military personnel – combined with the strict hierarchies in which they operated, which left officers incapable of acting on their own initiative – meant that they were unable to quickly coordinate advances deep into enemy territory. The Russian military responded to these failures by reverting to tactics based on artillery barrage fire: it launched massive artillery strikes on Ukrainian positions that lasted several hours, clearing the way for offensives involving infantry and armoured vehicles. The Russians mainly used this tactic – which resulted in more territorial gains than any other approach – in eastern Ukraine, where they concentrated more than half their forces.

But the situation changed after the US provided Ukraine with M142 HIMARS – mobile multiple rocket launchers that the Ukrainian armed forces used to destroy more than 50 Russian ammunition stores in just a few weeks. This severely inhibited the delivery of ammunition to Russia’s artillery units, thereby reducing the intensity of the shelling in several areas and slowing the Russian advance in eastern Ukraine. Logistics are also a traditional weak link in the Russian army. The Russian military’s logistics were so poorly organized that many units simply could not reach their destinations. There are many causes of such disorganization – Ukrainian forces’ operations to disrupt Russian logistics, corruption and negligence in the Russian army, the indolence of Russian generals, and so on.

The Pentagon estimates that up to 80,000 Russian soldiers have already been killed or wounded in the war. Now, this could be an exaggeration especially as most of the information comes from gung-ho Ukrainian estimates. However, even if not 80,000, the death toll has been high. Russia has also sacrificed a colossal amount of equipment, including more than 1,700 tanks (equivalent to 65 per cent of its pre-war inventory); 4,000 armoured vehicles; and 200 aircraft (which again, though exaggerations from Ukrainian sources, point towards high numbers). For example, in a single battle in Bilohorivka in May, Russia lost almost 1,000 soldiers and nearly 100 pieces of equipment while trying to cross the Siverskyi Donets River.

One of the main reasons why Russian forces have incurred huge losses is that the Kremlin prioritises political goals above military objectives – as one could see in Izium and Severodonetsk. The capture of Severodonetsk became a political goal simply because it was the last city with a large population in the Luhansk region. The Kremlin wanted to seize the city as proof that it controlled the entire region. However, the operation had limited strategic value and required the Russians to weaken their positions on other fronts.

Thus, as we see, the war is one, Sun Tzu would be ashamed of a strategist. Not only is it being fought for the wrong reasons, it is also being fought poorly. The only winner in this war is death and a good leader would forego his ego and try to bring the war to a swift conclusion. Sadly Putin has shown himself to be a poor strategist surrounded by sycophants. Non-adherence to Sun Tzu’s dictums has already predicted the loser of this conflict. It is now for time to decide, whether anything can be salvaged or not.

THE GRAY MAN (2022) – NETFLIX ACTION THRILLER IS ENTERTAINING BUT PREDICTABLE

The Gray Man is a 2022 American action thriller film directed by Anthony and Joe Russo and is based on the 2009 novel of the same name by Mark Greaney. The film stars Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jessica Henwick, Regé-Jean Page, Wagner Moura, Julia Butters, Dhanush, Alfre Woodard, and Billy Bob Thornton.

So the first thing one can say about The Gray Man is that it is fast-paced – apparently The Russo Brothers were told that they needed to keep rushing during the film if they wanted Netflix funding to continue. The movie begins as does every great spy/assassin thriller, with a man who doesn’t really want the job but it’s his only chance for redemption. We see Sierra Six (as apparently 007 was taken)- Ryan Gosling, who may not have played a superhero (yet) but he gets closer than ever in this movie- being recruited by a CIA biggie, while he serves out his sentence for killing his father to protect his younger brother. So this lays the foundation that Sierra Six has a strong moral code apparently.

We next see Sierra Six, as a seasoned assassin, on a mission in Bangkok working with fellow CIA Agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas) to assassinate a target suspected of selling off national security secrets. He is unable to do so stealthily without harming civilians and attacks the target directly, mortally wounding him. Before dying, the target reveals that he worked in the Sierra program too as Sierra Four, and hands Six an encrypted drive detailing the corruption of CIA official Denny Carmichael, who is the lead agent on the assassination mission.

As Sierra Six gets suspicious and refuses to tell Carmichael that he received an encrypted drive and sends the drive to ex-Sierra program handler Margaret Cahill in Prague. Carmichael hires mercenary Lloyd Hansen, an ex-CIA Agent kicked out of the agency for his sociopathic tendencies, to track down Six and retrieve the drive. Hansen does so by kidnapping Fitzroy’s niece Claire, forcing Fitzroy to authorize Six’s murder by the extraction team. However, Six kills them and escapes. Frustrated, Carmichael sends his subordinate Suzanne Brewer to oversee Hansen and keep him in line. Hansen keeps Claire hostage in a mansion in Croatia, where he has based his operations. Hansen also puts a bounty on Six’s head to attract mercenaries and assassins to hunt him down. Six heads to Vienna to find Claire’s pacemaker’s serial number from Laszlo Sosa, but Sosa betrays him for the bounty. Six escapes just as Hansen arrives with his team, and is rescued by Miranda. Miranda’s reputation is in tatters following the Bangkok mission and she initially plans to bring him in to salvage her career at the CIA. Six convinces her to drive him to Cahill’s apartment in Prague, where she decrypts the drive, which reveals the extent of Carmichael’s corruption on behalf of a mysterious benefactor working for a shadow government. Hansen sends several teams of assassins to Cahill’s home, and the terminally ill Cahill blows up her home to give Six and Miranda a chance to escape.

Six is arrested and handcuffed in the square. A shootout in the streets of Prague follows and Six escapes on a tram. A long chase and gun battle ensues, and Six is saved by Miranda, in Cahill’s bulletproof car. The two infiltrate a hospital to track down Claire through the wireless signal broadcast from her pacemaker. The mercenary “Lone Wolf” – Dhanush as some Sri Lankan Ninja who steals the drive from them, knocking them out, and brings the drive to Hansen. Six and Miranda follow the pacemaker to Hansen’s base. Miranda creates a distraction while Six infiltrates the mansion and rescues Fitzroy and Claire. Fitzroy is mortally wounded as they flee and sacrifices himself in a failed attempt to kill Hansen. Miranda knocks out Hansen’s men, but Lone Wolf narrowly escapes. He defeats Miranda in a fight but gives her the drive, having become disgusted with Hansen’s willingness to kill children and his lack of morals.

Hansen manages to take Claire hostage and drags her into a hedge maze. After a standoff, Hansen lets go of Claire and fights with Six. Before Six can kill him, Hansen is shot and killed by Brewer, who tells Six that she plans to pin Carmichael’s actions on Hansen in order to gain leverage over him. Furthermore, Brewer pledges Claire’s safety but only if Six continues to work for the CIA. Six and Miranda are forced to co-operate in the cover-up, where ultimately no action is taken against Carmichael. After the debriefing at the CIA headquarters, Miranda threatens to kill Carmichael if any harm comes to Claire. Six escapes custody and frees Claire, who is being held at a secret location.

MCU juggernauts Joe and Anthony Russo share directing duties, promising splashy stunts to take advantage of the ludicrous budgets Netflix drops for such star-studded projects. Despite all this, The Gray Man fails to be solidly fun. Instead, it feels like a mixtape, pulling bits from a bunch of much better, much more daring action movies, to create a medley that is mediocre at best. There are instances of different movies which are scattered throughout the movie. Like Suicide Squad, Six (Gosling) is a “hardened criminal” who is let out of prison to go on top-secret assassination assignments for a shady government organization. Like The Bourne Identity, this highly trained assassin falls out of the organization’s good graces when he botches a hit to save a child bystander. Like the Bourne franchise or Black Widow, he goes on the run to preserve his life and bring the shady organization down. Like John Wick, a huge bounty is put on his head, sending a swarm of killers on his tail. Like Léon: The Professional, he’s trying to best the baddies while protecting a young orphan girl (Julia Butters) from harm. She was “Taken” by a mercurial mercenary (Evans), so Six and his “particular set of skills” are on a mission to get the girl, save the day, and limp off into the sunset, maybe with his pretty female colleague (de Armas).

There are plenty of fight scenes, but the actual fight choreography is frequently uninspired hand-to-hand combat. The Russos seem to know these sequences fall flat; as if to distract us, the editing is especially frenetic, bounding from location to location without concern for visual flow or spatial geography. This turns several fight scenes, including a sprawling, city-smashing car chase, into an illogical blur. In terms of the cast, Chris Evans is wicked fun as a mustachioed villain. Like his MCU bud Chris Hemsworth in Spiderhead, Chris Evans seems to relish the opportunity to slide into a baddie role. If you loved him as the lusciously sweatered, duplicitous douche in Knives Out, you’ll appreciate his distinctive turn as Lloyd Hansen, a gleeful killer with the trash ‘stache of a Boston cop and the casual wear of a Wall Street dirtbag. Sadly, the dialogue repeatedly lets him and the rest of the cast down.

While Evans’ manic energy makes some of his rougher lines go down smooth enough, Gosling and de Armas stumble in their cool posturing, trying to find the fun in bickering over keyboard typing and gun-throwing etiquette. Their chemistry is likewise lackluster, making the will-they-won’t-they of their edged flirtations more frustrating than fun. Gosling’s slow-burn performance is smothered by all the smoke, explosions, flickering lights, and clamorous cutting. Where his cool-as-a-cucumber Six should play as a slick foil to Evans’ volatile villain, the film is too caught up in its flashy visual confetti to dig into character. Anything below a big gesture is lost in the fray.

JAY’S VERDICT

Watch the movie to for the sensory overload – it’s a bit like being trapped inside a first-person shooter challenge being played by a 16-year-old gamer – The Gray Man is undeniably entertaining.

NOPE (2022) – SAY HELLLLLLLLL NOPE TO JORDAN PEELE’S SCI-FI DOWNER

Nope is a 2022 American science fiction horror film written, directed, and co-produced by Jordan Peele under his Monkeypaw Productions banner. It stars Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun, Michael Wincott, and Brandon Perea, the film follows two horse-wrangling siblings who attempt to capture evidence of an unidentified flying object. Sounds good? It isn’t. The movie’s title tells you all you need to know about watching the movie. Should you watch it? NOPE.

Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” was a masterpiece – a movie which provided chills as well as made you think deeper. “Us” suffered from several flaws but was still bearable. “Nope” is in a class of its own with the worst plot and acting I have seen in quite a while. Daniel Kaluuya looks bored out of his mind, Keke Palmer’s job description apparently was to mimic every stereotypical portrayal of black women possible within the same character and Steven Yeun seems to be wishing for Negan’s bat to his head (like it was in the Walking Dead). Brandon Perea is just a lone latino who believes in UFOs and there is no backstory for any of the characters.

Nope fails because it doesn’t know what its goal is – is it to scare audiences? Is it to make them think? Because it fails in all these aspects. Boredom is a far stronger emotion during the movie. In terms of making audiences think, it does succeed if the goal was to make audiences question their life choices and why they decided to watch this dreadful movie in the first place. Yes, there are those on online review boards, who have decided that just because the movie is by a black director and has a diverse cast, it doesn’t have any flaws. Judging the quality of a movie is based on its entertainment value or its ability to make you question. If it does neither then its just a bad movie no matter who the cast is.

In terms of the UFO/Alien creature who sucks up humans but cannot digest metal, there is nothing special or scary about a creature (*Warning Spoilers) who resembles a jellyfish when fully open and a flying saucer when closed. The humans in its digestive tract could have been a horrifying scene but that too is left to imagination. Back stories for the characters are missing whereas Get Out provided us a rich history to understand characters better and resonate with them. Even “Us” made the characters stronger than “Nope”. Not only has Nope bored me to death, it has also made me get annoyed at the sight of horses (who I love).

The initial backstory of the chimp going berserk and attacking live audiences is a tribute to Siegfried and Roy and the exploitation of animals for human entertainment but this alien creature doesn’t raise those comparisons as it looks more like a machine than a creature. Even the entire backstory about Steven Yeun’s character doesn’t amount to anything as the alien devours him and his entire audience without any time for questions to be asked. Nope could have been a good movie had it eliminated these flaws and focused on thrilling audiences instead of trying to do everything Jordan Peele envisioned. The acting is average at best and if you are scared of this alien then the Alien franchise or Predator series is not for you. In terms of visual effects, you can go on Youtube and check out jellyfish videos to have a better sense of awe rather than wasting money streaming this.

JAY’S VERDICT

Enter the world of Nope at your own risk. Boredom and utter bewilderment await any man/woman brave enough to watch this.

Stop – don’t watch this movie…

THE NORTHMAN (2022) – ROBERT EGGERS DELIVERS HYPER-VIOLENT VIKING VENGEANCE BRILLIANTLY

The Northman is a 2022 American epic historical action thriller film directed by Robert Eggers. Based on the legend of Amleth, the film stars co-producer Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk, and Willem Dafoe. The film is heavily influenced by Norse mythology. It demands audiences deconstruct overbearing patriarchal values, masculine heroism, and the folly of revenge by pulling viewers through extreme devotion to familial honor.

In AD 895, King Aurvandill returns to the island of Hrafnsey after his overseas conquests, reuniting with his wife, Queen Gudrún, and his heir, Prince Amleth. To prepare Amleth for his eventual ascension, the two participate in a spiritual ceremony overseen by Aurvandill’s jester, Heimir. The next morning, Aurvandill’s bastard brother Fjölnir murders the king, raids his hillfort and carries away Gudrún. Amleth flees by boat, swearing vengeance.

Years later, Amleth lives as a berserker with a band of Vikings. After an attack in Gardariki, Amleth encounters a Seeress in the temple of Svetovit; the Seeress predicts that Amleth will soon take revenge on Fjölnir, and that his path is intertwined with a Maiden-King. Amleth learns that Fjölnir was overthrown by Harald of Norway and lives in exile in Iceland. Posing as a slave, Amleth sneaks aboard a ship. He encounters a Slavic woman named Olga, who claims to be a sorceress. They are taken to Fjölnir’s farm, where he learns his mother has married Fjölnir and bore him a son named Gunnar.

One night, Amleth encounters a magician who facilitates a spiritual dialogue between Amleth and the late Heimir, revealed to have been murdered by Fjölnir. He then tells Amleth about Draugr, a magical sword at the Gates of Hel. Amleth enters a mound and obtains the blade after fighting the undead Mound Dweller. He hides it upon return to the farm. The next day, Amleth is selected to compete in a game of knattleikr against another farm. The game turns violent and Gunnar is almost killed, but Amleth saves him. As a reward, Fjölnir’s adult son, Thorir, grants him overseer duties and allows him to choose a woman.

During the evening celebrations, Amleth and Olga make love; they promise to overcome Fjölnir together. Amleth kills several of Fjölnir’s men, and Olga mixes their food with fly agaric, a potent hallucinogen. The ensuing chaos and the suspicion that the Christian slaves are behind the killings allows Amleth to enter Fjölnir’s house. He meets his mother, who reveals that she was originally taken into slavery and that Amleth’s conception was the result of rape. She reveals that she wanted Aurvandill and Amleth dead; she tries but fails to seduce Amleth. Enraged, Amleth kills Thorir and steals his heart.

Gudrún reveals Amleth’s true identity to Fjölnir, and calls for him to kill him. Fjölnir threatens to kill Olga, but Amleth offers to trade Olga’s life for Thorir’s heart. After a severe beating, Amleth is released from his restraints by a flock of ravens. Olga rescues Amleth and the two escape by boat. Amleth has a vision and discovers that Olga is pregnant with twins, one of whom will become the Maiden-King prophesied by the Seeress. Fearing that his children will never be safe, Amleth decides to kill his uncle and jumps overboard, despite Olga’s pleas.

Back at the farm, Amleth frees the slaves and kills most of Fjölnir’s men. While searching for Fjölnir, Amleth is attacked by his mother and drives Draugr through her heart. Gunnar attacks Amleth, stabbing him repeatedly in the back before Amleth kills him. Fjölnir, discovering his wife and son dead, tells Amleth to meet him at the Gates of Hel—the crater of the volcano Hekla—to resolve the conflict via holmgang. At the volcano, Amleth and Fjölnir engage in a fierce swordfight; Fjölnir is decapitated, and Amleth is fatally wounded. As Amleth lies dying, he has a future vision of Olga embracing their twin children, before a Valkyrie appears to carry him through the gates of Valhalla.

Eggers uses slicker aesthetics and broader emotions, played out over a grander scale, with his familiar interests in the inherent weirdness that courses through ancient mythology. This isn’t a prototypical hero’s journey replete with a dashing royal, however. Amleth occupies a different, harsher kill-or-be-killed era where no higher honor can befall a king than to die by the blade. In the world of “The Northman” we’re all just rabid animals occupying flabby sacks of human skin. The only obligations we have are primal: to avenge one’s father, and to defend one’s mother and kingdom. For example, one of the best and most vicious sequences in the movie involves Amleth and a band of skin-clad Vikings, covered in bear-pelt headdresses, edited with razor-sharp clarity, sees the pack methodically rampaging a village for kills. The elaborate tracking shot accompanying the scene feeds the camera’s delirious appetite for flesh with bodies bathed in blood, and the bone-chilling macho screams emanating from insatiable men. One shot, recalling the 1985 Soviet antiwar flick “Come and See,” finds a burning house filled with wailing villagers as a backdrop to Amleth’s unflinching gaze into the camera. Unlike Klimov’s film, this isn’t the image of a boy horrifically marked by war. This is a savage and defiant man fueled by conflict and gore.

A defining aspect of this movie is “rage” – at its most primal. “The Northman” is the kind of movie where even the mud has rage; it is a visceral film filled with codas to the inescapable darker regions of nature: animal, elemental and the harshest of all, human. David Lowery’s “The Green Knight” will probably serve as an all-too-easy comparison for many. But “The Northman” operates on a different emotional spectrum and is much less boring while trying to achieve the same. This is a story of blind ambition stretched toward morally flawed ends in a world that prizes such malleability. That doesn’t mean these flawed characters don’t see themselves on the side of right. A virtuous anger fuels Amleth as he destroys his victims in his quest for revenge.

The last act is a slog, composed of a couple false endings hoping to attain a poetic plain. The final showdown between Fjölnir and Amleth, in the mouth of a volcano, in fact, is somehow anti-climactic. Certainly, the scene aims to explain the ways a hero’s journey, the expectation of fulfilling one’s destiny, no matter the consequences, carries a toxic burden, but the sentiment doesn’t translate in the overstated molten chaos. Amleth inhabits a world whose operating principle is cruelty. Driven less by plot than by a succession of intensifying moods, these films dig into historical moments when the boundary between the human and the supernatural felt especially thin. Archaic forms of belief are treated not as superstitions, but as ways of understanding scary or inexplicable facets of experience. The witches and mermaids are as real as anything else.

JAY’S VERDICT

Watch The Northman for a high-octane action thriller where violence and vengeance reigns. If you are whiner regarding what you consider “toxic masculinity” then do avoid.

THOR – LOVE AND THUNDER (2022) – WOKE THOR IS A DOWNER DESPITE INITIAL PROMISE

Thor: Love and Thunder is a 2022 American superhero comedy film based on the Marvel Comics character created by Stan Lee, produced by Marvel Studios and distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. It is the sequel to Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and the 29th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The film is directed by Taika Waititi, who co-wrote the script with Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, and stars Chris Hemsworth as Thor alongside Christian Bale, Tessa Thompson, Jaimie Alexander, Waititi, Russell Crowe, and Natalie Portman.

In its essence, it is a direct sequel to Thor: Ragnarok but unlike Ragnarok which was fresh and brought a humorous element to the Marvel superhero, Thor: Love and Thunder makes him super-woke and fails in both humor and plot as it tries to squeeze in a LGBTQ agenda, like many other failing Netflix shows and movies to appease a single minority while ignoring what truly attracts audiences – entertainment. In Thor Love and Thunder we are given it all – homosexual aliens, a female Thor who while wielding Mjolnir gets the suit and flying abilities while poor Captain America got none of that in Avengers: Endgame. But hey, virtue signalling is how these Hollywood makes its money as LGBTQ sells these days just like sex used to and the weirder your agenda, the more attention it grabs.

The movie’s plot won’t be discussed as you can probably get it anywhere on the internet and the movie is an extremely short one so it’s not worth the effort. Basically Thor is raising hell with the Guardians of the Galaxy and he has a mixed relationship with his axe Stormbreaker, still yearning for his hammer Mjolnir and Jane. However, Jane who has Stage 4 cancer gets Mjolnir which turns her into feminist Thor. Then there is a new villain called Gorr who is called the God Butcher due to his vendetta against all Gods (Christian Bale who looks like Voldemort with too much sun screen and no dental plan). Gorr kidnaps all the children of New Asgard and Thor, female Thor, the alcoholic Valkyrie (played by a bored Tessa Thompson) and Korg who was super funny in Thor:Ragnarok but is unfunny and dull in Love and Thunder and whose most important job is to be a virtue signaler for the LGBTQ community (basically which Valkyrie already achieved by being a lesbian but guess it wasn’t enough for Marvel or basically anything these days).

The CGI is dreadful – Marvel’s second phase has been horrible when it comes to CGI. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness was iffy at times, Ms. Marvel’s new light construct powers don’t look great (just like the show), and She-Hulk could use loads of improvement (basically by not existing). Due to flat lighting, iffy shot composition, and shoddy set design, many of the various backdrops have no depth to them in Thor: Love and Thunder. They immediately stand out and are very easy to spot. It ends up looking no better than a cheap greenscreen or worse.

The movie’s humor sucks compared to Thor: Ragnarok. The first hour of the movie ends feeling like an endless train of jokes more than anything else. It comes off as if Taika Waititi is throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks. Even the entire Guardians of the Galaxy feel like they’re only there for a gag so that the director can rush them out of his film. Also it really feels as if they have no real role or powers until Thor comes in and attempts one of Van Damme’s iconic splits. The last time we saw Thor, in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, he’d decided to join Guardians of the Galaxy for some spacefaring adventures in the wake of Thanos’ defeat. But the God of Thunder totally outclasses his new allies, making him seem like an overpowered video game character as he crushes their enemies and leaves the Guardians looking a bit useless.

Christian Bale provides an incredible performance as Gorr, no doubt. But what the character needed was far more time on screen. For one, his backstory held back for no reason. In the comics, he loses his mother, then his wife, and then his children, thanks to starvation. That’s some heavy trauma to carry, which would have made his snap far more believable. He does touch the Necrosword, which then starts to corrupt him, but intensifying that backstory could have worked better. In theory, it would have also led to more scenes with his daughter, making the end of the movie hit harder. His name is Gorr the God Butcher, and throughout the whole movie, audiences actually only see him kill one God. It makes the threat feel far less impactful, and he never truly feels like a danger.

The entire idea behind Gorr is to explore the concept of putting faith in a higher power. What happens when that higher power doesn’t exist, or worse, simply ignores you? Past the opening scene of the film, that theme is almost entirely dropped. It was a thematic thread that should have weighed heavily on Thor; what does he mean to the people who look up to him? Are Gods even worthy of love and praise given all they don’t do? In the comics, Thor comes to realize that the answer is no—causing him to become unworthy of Mjolnir. This eventually leads to Jane being the one to pick it up next, though it clearly played out in a far simpler fashion in the movie.

Next up is the plot and the writing itself which lacks coherence. The story is filled with plot conveniences or questionable continuity gaffes. One example is in how the group’s visit to Omnipotent City goes. Their reasoning for the trip is for them to gather a group of Gods to help in their crusade against Gorr. However, not only do they quickly make up their minds that the Gods won’t help them, but Valkyrie then suddenly becomes obsessed with Zeus’ lightning bolt. There’s absolutely nothing even hinting that the weapon is particularly special in any way or how it could give any specific advantage over Gorr. All it ended up doing was giving Val a weapon to use and then conveniently being there for Thor when he lost Stormbreaker later in the movie.

Then there are inconsistencies in continuity when it comes to Thor’s abilities—all so that the plot can get from A to B. For one, how can Zeus’ lightning bolt function like the Bifrost? Also, since when can Thor just temporarily grant his powers to groups of people, using another God’s weapon no less? The writing needed the story to advance in a certain direction, and the writers could have used more time to smooth the journey out so that it all felt more organic and not rushed. Also, Thor certainly found out where Eternity was pretty fast for a location that no one has theoretically made it to up until this movie.

Finally, Russell Crowe’s Zeus – one word – UGH. Firstly the accent which was grotesque and would have led all Greeks to choke on their olives. Second, he wielded the most fake Thunderbolt one could have imagined. Third, as the leader of all Greek Gods, couldn’t they have chosen an actor with some sort of physique as he looked more like the CEO of Kentucky Fried Chicken rather than the Greek God Zeus. Lastly, the mid-credit introduction of his son Hercules got more laughs from the audiences than anything else. Zeus in the DC universe looked like a badass but as with everything else, Taika Waititi turned him into a clown.

Zeus portrayed by Russell Crowe in Marvel
Zeus portrayed by Sergi Constance in DC

JAY’S VERDICT

Watch Thor: Love and Thunder if you are a Marvel addict and can’t miss anything they make even the Phase 2 crap currently being offered. Avoid if you are watching a Marvel movie for the first time.

THE BLACK PHONE (2021) – ETHAN HAWKE SHINES IN PSYCHOLOGICAL HORROR THRILLER

The Black Phone is a 2021 American supernatural horror film directed by Scott Derrickson and stars stars Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, James Ransone, and Ethan Hawke. The Black Phone is about a child who after being kidnapped is able to communicate with the former captives of his abductor. The movie is based on the short story of the same name written by Joe Hill.

The movie begins in 1978, a serial child abductor nicknamed “The Grabber” prowls the streets of a Denver suburb. Siblings Finney and Gwen Blake live in the area with their abusive, alcoholic father. At school, Finney is frequently bullied and harassed. He has a friendship with a classmate, Robin, who fends off the bullies. One of Finney’s classmates, Bruce, is abducted by The Grabber. Gwen, who has psychic dreams much like her late mother, dreams of Bruce’s kidnapping and sees that he was taken by a man in a black van with black balloons. Detectives Wright and Miller interview Gwen but struggle to believe her claims. The Grabber abducts Robin, as well as Finney days later. Finney awakens in a soundproofed basement. On the wall is a disconnected black rotary phone that The Grabber says does not work. Later, Finney hears the phone ring and answers it. Bruce, unable to remember his own name or who he was when he was alive, tells Finney about a floor tile he can remove to dig a tunnel to escape. The Grabber brings Finney food and leaves the door to the basement unlocked. Finney prepares to sneak out but is stopped by another boy on the phone called Billy. He explains this is a game that The Grabber plays, and he is waiting upstairs to attack Finney with a belt if he leaves the basement. Billy instructs him to use a cord Billy found to get out via the basement window. While climbing Finney breaks the bars on the window, preventing him from climbing back up. Gwen dreams of Billy being abducted and confides in her father about what is happening.

Wright and Miller speak to an eccentric man called Max who is staying in the area with his brother. It is revealed Finney is being held in Max’s basement, of which he is unaware, and The Grabber is his brother. After an agitated exchange with The Grabber, where he tests Finney’s honesty, he makes it seem as if he would have let Finney go. Finney speaks to another one of his victims, Griffin, on the phone. Griffin shows Finney a combination to a lock and informs him The Grabber has fallen asleep upstairs. Finney sneaks upstairs and unlocks the door but The Grabber’s dog alerts him to Finney’s escape. Finney flees down the street but is recaptured. Upset over his failed escape attempt, Finney answers the phone to hear another victim, a boy called Vance whom Finney was scared of. Vance informs Finney of a connecting storage room he can escape through if he breaks a hole in the wall and exits through the freezer on the other side of the wall. Finney creates a hole with a toilet tank cover and enters the back of the freezer only to discover that the freezer door is locked. The phone rings one more time with Robin at the end of the line. He comforts Finney and encourages him to finally stand up and fight for himself. He instructs Finney to remove the phone receiver and pack it with the dirt he had dug up to use as a weapon.

Gwen dreams of Vance’s abduction and discovers the property of The Grabber. She finds the house and contacts Wright and Miller. Max realizes Finney is being held in the house and rushes to the basement to free him, but his brother kills him with an axe. The police rush to the house Gwen found but find it abandoned. In the basement, they find the buried bodies of The Grabber’s victims. The Grabber attacks Finney with the axe, but Finney manages to trip the Grabber with the cord, causing him to fall into the tunnel Finney dug, where the Grabber breaks and traps his ankle in the window bars placed at the bottom. The ghosts taunt The Grabber over the phone before Finney breaks his neck with the phone cord, killing him. Finney distracts the guard dog with meat from the freezer and escapes the house using the combination he learned. Finney exits the house across the street from the gravesites where he reunites with Gwen and the police rush to the property.

Some of the creative decisions taken by Derrickson make for a truly unique and visceral viewing experience, and nothing embodies that better than those grainy Super 8 flashback sequences featured in the film, which bring to mind the disturbingly hellish snuff videos of 2008’s Sinister, also directed by Derrickson. What differs however from Sinister and is praiseworthy in its own right, is how the same method was effectively employed in two different movies to elicit completely different emotional responses from the audience. True, the overall creep factor is present in both scenarios, but what they are trying to achieve couldn’t be more different from each another. Where one is used to horrify audiences and go through horrifying experiences like the victims (Sinister), the other is used as a tool of hope to give clue about how the kidnapping victims were taken and where Finney was, ultimately leading his sister to find him (The Black Phone).

Violent high-school encounters, ugly domestic disputes and abuse hurling adolescents are all commonplace in 1970s America or it so feels from the film. The world crafted by Derrickson feels so immersive and real, that you can almost feel the grime under the fingernails, the dried bloodstains on the curb. Aesthetically, it’s not too dissimilar from David Fincher’s Zodiac. The pacing is pitch perfect, giving us the audiences, enough and more time to connect with the story’s characters and understand their motivations and why they do the things they do. The performances across the film are simply phenomenal with the clear standouts being Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw and of course, Ethan Hawke. Thames and McGraw’s relationship, as brother and sister, is simply beautiful to behold and their chemistry is undeniable. Now, what can be said about Ethan Hawke? The veteran actor is certainly a treat to watch here. He is diabolical, utterly terrifying but at the same time very human and not some overwhelming force of nature or anything supernatural. It’s not over-the-top nor is it understated. His performance has the right amounts of all the right elements, and that’s what makes it work.

Hawke’s Grabber is characterized by personality reversal. His faking disposition towards being jolly flaunts animated mannerisms and a high-pitched voice. It’s eerily childlike, hitching itself to a suggestion of trauma-based age regression behavior, and juxtaposing with the adult-like profanity and maturity with which the kids speak. But the zany harlequin act is fleeting, leaving Finney at the mercy of a total change: a husky, deep tone of voice and unforgiving, violent demeanor. It’s in these moments where Hawke flexes his performance and versatility. His villainy is unpredictable and volatile. He expertly tiptoes a dissonant line of sprightly youthfulness and depravity. Switching on a dime, and with a mask covering the lower half of his face for most of the film, his acting relies on body language and the emotive flickers of his eyes. Hawke, having played “good” characters in his past roles was understandably reluctant to take on a negative role but his performance is perfect and couldn’t have been acted out better.

JAY’S VERDICT

The Black Phone works as a thriller that manages to pack equal amounts of scares and substance. Watch for Ethan Hawke’s brilliant turn as The Grabber.

THE LOST CITY (2022) – LOW-KEY ENTERTAINER DOESN’T DISAPPOINT

The Lost City is an action-comedy released in 2022. It stars Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum as a romance novelist and her cover model, who must escape a billionaire (Daniel Radcliffe) and find the lost ancient city described in one of her books. The film co-stars Da’Vine Joy Randolph, with cameo appearances by Brad Pitt and Stephen Lang.

The movie’s plot involves Dr. Loretta Sage (Sandra Bullock) who writes romance-adventure novels centered around a fictional heroine, Dr. Angela Lovemore, and her romantic interest, Dash McMahon (played by Channing Tatum). To promote the latest book on Lovemore, her publisher, Beth Hatten, insists that Loretta embark on a book tour with Alan Caprison, the book’s cover model for Dash, despite her reclusiveness since the death of her husband.

After a disastrous start, mostly due to the popularity of Alan’s Dash persona, Loretta is taken by Abigail Fairfax (Daniel Radcliffe), a billionaire who realizes that Loretta based her books on actual historic research she did with her late archaeologist husband. He discovered a lost city on a remote Atlantic island and is convinced the Crown of Fire, a priceless treasure, is located there. When she declines to help decipher an ancient map to the treasure, Fairfax, fearing an active volcano will destroy the site, chloroforms and takes Loretta to the island.

Alan, who is secretly enamored with Loretta, witnesses her kidnapping. He recruits Jack Trainer (played by Brad Pitt), a former Navy SEAL turned CIA operative, to meet him on the island and coordinate a rescue. Jack, with no assistance from Alan, breaches Fairfax’s compound and frees Loretta, but is shot in the head before they can make it to the airport, forcing Loretta and Alan to escape into the jungle and their crazy adventure begins.

As a Jungle movie, it can be compared to The Jungle Cruise starring Dwayne Johnson. However, the movie succeeds despite the simple plot as unlike Jungle Cruise, it plays to the strengths of its actors and doesn’t take itself seriously. Sandra Bullock plays characters with a proverbial stick-up-their-butt quite well, only to be swept away off her feet by the guy she never liked (The Proposal anyone?). Channing Tatum basically looks pretty and dumb as he always does like in the Jump Street series. Brad Pitt comes, is awesome and then dies, similar to his cameo in Deadpool 2. Daniel Radcliffe still is hard to accept in anything but Harry Potter and especially not as a villain. However, despite the predictability, the actors bring entertainment in large doses including Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Beth Hatten, Loretta’s publisher, who is responsible for most of the laughs in the movie.

We also have Oscar from The Office, playing the caricature of a random Hispanic man and is neither funny, nor to be taken seriously in his comments about being friends with a goat. Channing Tatum is funny by accident through his dialogues and his interactions with Sandra Bullock is the real reason for the success of the movie including a hilarious leech scene. Tatum also doesn’t disappoint his female fans by taking off his shirt and pants whenever it is possible. Channing Tatum is great casting for a role like this on several levels; not only does he look like he belongs on the cover of a romance paperback, he’s also an actor who understands his own appeal and has proven time and again that he isn’t afraid to play it for laughs.

Sandra Bullock is composed and serious but ends up loosening up due to the situation around her. Together with Tatum, the pair exude fun and a sense of affection that’s easy to get caught up in.

The movie has some wonderful locales and hilarious scenes and is a good movie to enjoy after a stressful day at work. Beyond that if you are trying to analyze the movie in some deeper sense, please stop. Now. The Lost City has no layers and it’s not supposed to have one. It has one job and it does it well – to entertain. The actors, despite the presence of two Oscar winners and Harry Potter, know this as well and don’t go beyond what is needed. The movie does have its share of cliches with the damsel in distress narrative although with the damsel being 15 years older than the hero trying to save her. Regarding the villain, there is a lack of seriousness about Daniel Radcliffe as a villain – even with a gun, it’s hard to see any real threat emanating from him. Radcliffe is the only element of the movie that doesn’t work quite as well as the rest.

“The Lost City” isn’t an especially unique film; its premise draws on countless adventure movies. Its punchlines are recognizable from a distance as the volcano dominating the remote island where most of the story takes place. But this familiarity offers a sense of comfort and which is why the movie succeeds. The makers of the movie deliver an undeniably charming romantic romp. This is a movie you watch in the theater, with popcorn, then again and again on streaming, with a glass of wine. Ultimately, “The Lost City” is interested in ticking all the boxes viewers’ demand head on. It does so in a somewhat obvious way, but with an amount of care that’s sure to ensure repeat viewings.

JAY’S VERDICT

Go watch The Lost City – a decent entertainer and a light-hearted silly movie which doesn’t try to be anything else.

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