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Wonder Woman — 4/10

WONDER WOMAN (2017, Patty Jenkins)

Finally, the misogyny of Hollywood has been lifted just long enough to prove that women, too, are capable of directing and starring in crushingly boring, deliriously formulaic, overlong grey casseroles of CG mayhem. No longer merely the domain of greedy, artless male hacks, now the comic book superhero model of blockbuster that has shat itself across multiplex screens for the better part of the 21st century has proven its equality — even Patty Jenkins can make a movie as lame as Zack Snyder.

With producer and story credit to Snyder, it’s no surprise that this virtually indistinguishable entry into the colorless, humorless genre of DC bludgeon-fests has the Snyder-ized action scene earmarks of slo-mo jump-punching, bloodless bloodletting, and graceless editing. Jenkins may have had enough input to develop the deeper character traits of Diana (and indeed those aspects are among the film’s few merits), but she lends no original style to the action scenes or the overall pace and narrative, which are par for the increasingly numbing course. It’s edited carelessly by Martin Walsh (who in the last decade has done PRINCE OF PERSIA, CLASH OF THE TITANS, and WRATH OF THE TITANS) and photographed by Matthew Jensen, whose resume is almost entirely TV episodes save for Josh Trank’s debacle FANTASTIC FOUR. The fact that this movie looks like ass isn’t Jenkins’s fault, but she should’t get much credit either.

Take, for example, the second act, when Diana goes to London with Steve in search of her prey, the God of War. Jenkins and co. mine this sequence for fish-out-of-water laughs, but there are zero of them. Remember the only good part of THOR, which had a Norse god wandering through small town America ordering coffee in diners? None of that humor or satire is remotely present in this similar setup, which has Diana trying on a Victorian gown only to say “how can a woman fight in this?” Crickets. Chris Pine is allowed one or two moments of levity as Steve, but the IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT-inspired boat trip with Diana is forced and self-satisfied; not at all entertaining.

So the film just snoozes along for about 100 minutes, filling in the occasional gaps with perfunctory and predictable action beats, but we’ve been here before a thousand times (except with male heroes, who aren’t forced to spout dialogue like “love is the only thing worth fighting for”) so it’s all somnambulant garbage. Then the last 40 minutes hits, and it’s as loud, obnoxious, and stakes-less as you could expect. Gadot acquits herself nicely from the dour performance she gave in BATMAN v SUPERMAN, summoning nice physical skills to match her inspiring determination. And we do get a brief NAKED reunion almost 25 years later with David Thewlis and Ewen Bremner. But the overwhelming sensation this entire enterprise evokes is one of defeated plastic — yet another sausage product encased in the cynicism of a studio that has shrugged “might as well.” And the fact that this is a huge hit just proves that audiences are so thirsty for a film that serves this demographic that it doesn’t even have to be good. I’m not crazy about living in a post-quality cinematic world, where a film’s release (and its entire content) are an afterthought to its bottom line, but yet that is where we are. Welcome to 2017.

 

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It Comes At Night — 8/10

IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017, Trey Edward Shults)

Few horror movies lack subtext. But even some of the best ones make their metaphors obvious — whether they be political, religious, or existential. IT COMES AT NIGHT, directed by a kid from Texas who isn’t even 30 yet, is the rare thriller to not only contain intelligent, profound subtext, but to deliver it without hitting you over the skull. And the point Shults makes throughout — clearly, consistently, and smartly — is that every bit of human interaction involves risk. Every selfless gesture, every empathetic action, every attempt to grow closer to someone else — it means putting yourself at risk. Those who are risk-averse will tend to be safer, yes, but will also be less sociable, less sympathetic, and most likely lonelier. It’s a harsh truth, but a potent one, and you would’t expect a rich thesis like that to be found in a 6-handed, 90-minute body-horror suspense movie with a budget that couldn’t even cover Vin Diesel’s trailer.

Every time Joel Edgerton’s protagonist Paul suggests a violent or heartless action, he says it’s because “we shouldn’t be taking any risks.” The unknown illness driving the narrative (so undiagnosed and peculiar that people have to wear gas masks and gloves every time they’re outside just in case it’s airborne or easily contagious) presents several opportunities for Paul to justify his risk-aversion, but his humanity keeps trying to crawl through the cracks, like a disease penetrating the skin. Christopher Abbott is every bit his equal, a younger alpha-dad with similar motives. I didn’t think Abbott was going to be nearly as good as he was in JAMES WHITE, but then comes the scene where he tastes a nice glass of whisky and takes exactly the right amount of time after swallowing to go, “Oh, fuck. That’s smooth.” He’s sensational, and so is Riley Keough in two brief but memorable sequences.

Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s Travis, however, is the real beating heart of the story, and Shults understands so much about what makes a 17 year-old tick: the quick crushes you get as a horny teen, the devotion to a family pet, and the curiosity that comes with optimism and naiveté. Travis is hardly the person we expect to prove Paul wrong after the latter says “you can’t trust anyone but family,” yet every decision he makes is believable and interesting. It’s hard to know when you look in the mirror whether you’re sick or not.

Shults directs and edits this film with a lot of guts and rhythm. Its suspense scenes are fist-clenching, and the frames are filled with claw-like angles, rough edges, sharp perspectives, and confined space. I haven’t yet seen KRISHA, but for a second feature, this is remarkable.

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Alien: Covenant — 5/10

ALIEN: COVENANT (2017, Ridley Scott)

Ruthlessly bleak, nasty, and mean-spirited — it may be the right time for a movie that assures us nothing good will survive, and entropy is an unstoppable fate for all species, whether their undoing is by their own hand or by the vast indifference of the universe; but even so, that doesn’t mean such a film is a success.

If anything, the intelligent nihilism running throughout this series and especially this entry is so much of a bummer that it halts narrative momentum and pacing. Ridley Scott has never been the master of the fleet-footed romp (everything from BLADE RUNNER to BLACK HAWK DOWN to THE COUNSELOR has been marred by an uneven flow, with only THE DUELLISTS and GLADIATOR as exceptions to the rule), but this one is especially murky and lugubrious. It has Danny McBride in it, and he’s playing a straight dramatic role! Come on, man. Even Idris Elba had some light-hearted moments in PROMETHEUS, but this thing is a humorless dead zone of single-minded philosophical preaching. It’s almost like Ridley was offended his last film THE MARTIAN was in the Golden Globes Comedy category.

Billy Crudup and Michael Fassbender are dialed in perfectly nevertheless, the former conveying Captain Pussy’s wishy-washy nervousness succinctly and unmistakably, while the latter carries over his sensational PROMETHEUS performance and adds another character completely. The best joke in the movie is that the two Fassbenders are named Walter and David, after the franchise’s producers Walter Hill and David Giler. (Yes, that’s how few moments of levity are in this). The rest of the cast, however, gets crushed under the weight of the script’s grandiosity, finding precious little room to build memorable characters. I can barely remember any other names at all aside from “Tennessee,” so what lingers beyond the credits are some isolated moments of spectacular action (the med-bay in act 1 and the cargo lift escape in act 3), and some cool touches like the help-beacon’s sound being integrated into the score. As for the rest, yeah some disgusting space insects burst out of people’s torsos.

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 — 5/10

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 (2017, James Gunn)

Way too long and mostly boring, it’s difficult to imagine this appealing to anyone who isn’t already gung-ho for it. If Marvel movies aren’t your bag, this won’t change your mind. If you line up like a lemming for anything with a colorful costume or a spaceship, it’s doubtful you’ll be disappointed.

One thing Gunn’s sequel does well is focus heavily on character and motivation. It doesn’t dispense with spectacle — on the contrary, its big climactic set-piece is a yawn-inducing numb-fest with so many flashing lights and computer FX that you’ll find yourself going over a grocery list or wondering if Swansea will be relegated by the time it’s over — but in its downtime it makes personal conflict more important than interstellar ones. But it doubles down on the daddy issues that dominate far too many sci-fi blockbusters of late, not the least of which is the obvious template for this movie: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. And for a film that puts Chris Pratt and Kurt Russell at the center of this dynamic, it’s interesting that Michael Rooker comes out looking like the best part of the subplot.

Drax has some amusing lines (“Haha! I have famously huge turds!”) and Bradley Cooper continues to curiuosly give one of his best performances, but Zoe Saldana once again is left to play a thankless role of the humorless moral center (with Karen Gillan going through a lot of effort to draw out the running time for no good reason). And while Gunn  finds clever ways to keep the visuals fleet-footed and slick, he sticks to his K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the ’70s thing, to the point where a mid-movie prison break is hyper-violent and brutal but all you can think of when it’s over is Jay & The Americans’ “Come a Little Bit Closer.” As if that somehow makes the mass murder okay.

And how do you have a Tango & Cash reunion but never put them on screen together? Ridiculous.

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Colossal — 4/10

COLOSSAL (2017, Nacho Vigalondo)

A frustrating waste of an interesting concept. Vigalondo, who didn’t exactly inspire confidence with his incompetent entry (the first short, “A Is For Apocalypse”) in THE ABCs OF DEATH, gives us just enough to be totally let down. It’s female-centric but with only one female character. It’s misandrist by virtue of giving all its awful male characters no believable arcs. And it’s purportedly about returning home and having an alcohol problem, but treats those themes as window dressing.

What about the giant monster terrorizing South Korea, you ask? Good question. I didn’t mention that because it turns out to be somewhat of a red herring, aside from a crowd-pleasing climactic monster sequence. The gimmick is basically an excuse to set up a love triangle between three uninteresting people and pretend there’s an undercurrent of international sci-fi. This is really a cheap stage play using the monster movie stuff as a magic misdirect: the vast majority of the action takes place in three locations (the house, the bar, the park) and Seoul consists of some CG buildings embedded on a YouTube screen and one studio-lot-looking street.

Almost nothing is suggested or revealed with the camera — the plot is moved forward with dialogue, and the fact that so much is communicated through screens (Hathaway lives on her phone and laptop and the giant TV given to her early on) doesn’t indicate to Vigalondo that maybe he should take that as a cue. This needed to either be much funnier, much darker, or much more creative in order to survive the poor characterization, limp pace, and mediocre performances — not really the fault of the talented Hathaway or Dan Stevens, though; these are tough roles to flesh out. Sudeikis on the other hand, okay it’s kind of his fault. He’s not good.

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The Lost City of Z — 8/10

THE LOST CITY OF Z (2017, James Gray)

“I knew your father.”

“I didn’t.”

That simple exchange very early in this vast behemoth of a drama spells out a lot without saying much at all. Major Fawcett suffers from a form of social blacklisting because his father was a drunk and a gambling addict. (One aristocrat tells another that Fawcett “had a poor choice of ancestors”). Everything he’s about to do for the rest of his life begins with a quest to freshen the reputation of his family name — yet he proclaims that he didn’t even know his father. That is to say, what problem is it of Fawcett’s that his father was a fuck-up? They’re blood-related, but Percy is living his own life. Unfortunately, we’re blamed for things out of our control. All we can do is take it back.

In a decades-spanning arc, Fawcett goes from a guy with tragic flaws — hubris, arrogance, selfishness — to a man with an undying love for family, for duty, and a respect for humanity that is unmatched among on-screen British war heroes since perhaps Colonel Candy in Powell/Pressburger’s THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP. Hunnam plays Fawcett with steely resolve, not much humor, and a gravity that really nails the scene where he refuses to apologize. Gray’s camera dwarfs Hunnam and the rest of the cast in nature, but doesn’t reduce them — his classical framing and storytelling reminds one of what John Ford did in HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY. And it always helps to have Darius Khondji behind the lens.

Juicy as melodrama, this epic definitely feels like the book adaptation that it is — it’s novelistic where many films would narrow their scope to one or two of the APOCALYPSE NOW-ish trips up the river — but the pace never lags thanks to a detailed script by Gray himself. It provides just enough info for us to ask more questions, but refuses to preach very often. The best moments are gestures, not words. By the time one character tells another that, essentially, an ordinary life isn’t worth living, and the pursuit of novel and potentially futile adventure is more fulfilling than anything else, you believe it. Not because of any salesmanship, but because we’ve been on the journey too.

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The Fate of the Furious — 6/10

THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS (2017, F. Gary Gray)

Unrepentantly stupid, and not in the tongue-in-cheek way that the series’ highpoint to date (FURIOUS 7) was — nobody expects verisimilitude in a franchise where cars jump through skyscrapers and drive off airplanes, but the movies are still more fun when the plot isn’t so dependent upon people making the most senseless possible choices at every conceivable point. This may not reach FAST FIVE levels of idiocy, but it’s close, and it has only a few bravura sequences and a few savior cast members to push it into still-entertaining-but-a-little-disappointing territory.

Basically existing as meathead Bond films for the last several installments, Neal Moritz’s F&F movies improved tremendously with the introduction of The Rock as series regular, and since then additions like Jason Statham and Kurt Russell have been huge assets. Now it’s hard to imagine the movies being even remotely good without those three guys, because all the scenes with Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez are like Fred Durst’s version of a Lifetime movie. Now they’ve added Oscar-winner Charlize Theron as the new Big Bad, and audiences get to see her kick more ass in the ATOMIC BLONDE trailer that precedes the movie than in the film itself. She spends most of her time behind a bank of monitors, wearing a headset and barking orders. Does Gray not think she could have pulled off a sequence like James Wan (still the series’s best director, and only a one-time drop-in) shot between Ronda Rousey and Rodriguez in Dubai? George Miller would argue otherwise. In other casting mistakes, the loss of Paul Walker evidently required a new bland white guy to reach the frat bro demographic, so in comes Scott Eastwood to be amazingly unmemorable and boring, and to play an FBI agent who mispronounces “nuclear.”

The worst thing about these episodes has always been Chris Morgan’s writing (he’s done all but the first two scripts) and whenever the films are good, it’s despite Morgan, not because of him. I have to imagine Johnson came up with the Samoan soccer dance (one of the funniest scenes) and vets like Statham and Russell make even the corniest dialogue sing with their expert timing and charisma. But the first scene in F8 has Diesel saying “it doesn’t matter what’s under the hood — it’s who’s behind the wheel” and then instantly putting nitrous oxide under the hood of the car he’s racing in order to win.

Luckily, that car chase is tremendous. The prison riot that follows is equally thrilling (the face-melting rap banger “Speakerbox” from Bassnectar helps a ton), and the top-notch action sequence trilogy concludes a little over halfway through with the “make it rain” New York City set piece, which will give pause to everyone like me who simply can’t wait until self-driving cars are all that’s left on the road. Unfortunately, the Iceland-shot climax involving a nuclear sub (with some keen parallel action involving a baby with headphones straight-up ripped out of FACE-OFF) happens with the tank on E, as everything limps towards a predictable conclusion — as a flashback revolving around Helen Mirren tells a story we’d much rather be watching than what’s actually on screen.

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