Atomic Blonde - David Leitch
From the director of both John Wick movies, Atomic Blonde comes pre-loaded with a certain familiarity: before the move has even begun, you can expect top-tier action sequences amid sumptuous set design against a killer soundtrack, which the movie delivers in spades. Every frame is awash in neon or chilly grey, and the action is handled with expertise by a seasoned team of action movie alumni, delivering thrills intermittently throughout the movie’s unexciting noir/espionage-thriller narrative.
Nowhere in its long and rambunctious marketing campaign did I see mention of the fact that Atomic Blonde is an adaptation, but it’s based on a graphic novel called The Coldest City, so now you know. The movie (and its source material, I presume) is the story of a botched rescue mission that occurs within the political pressure-cooker of 1989 Berlin, Germany, on the cusp of the Berlin Wall’s destruction. It’s told in flashback by Charlize Theron’s British spy/hitwoman Lorraine to Toby Jones and John Goodman, British and American government representatives, respectively. Outside of the narrative, this is the third hyper-stylized action film from David Leitch after reviving Keanu Reeves’s career, and is the next full-blooded action movie in Theron's career following Mad Max: Fury Road, suggesting that these kinds of movies may become a trend for the star. That wouldn’t be a bad thing.
The film opens with a quick summary of the historic significance of the Wall, graffitied out and replaced with “This is not that story” so there’s no confusion: Atomic Blonde is exactly what its trailer suggests, an exercise in style more concerned with staging action than investing it with meaning. The narrative isn’t entirely superficial, and we get time to see Lorraine’s humanity and absorb some zeitgeisty detail about the period setting, but that stuff is all in snatches and glimpses--the film’s eye, and so the audience’s eye, is on how much ass Lorraine kicks, and how many times she can get her own ass kicked before kicking back even harder. The most interesting aspects of Atomic Blonde’s world are those moments we get in the streets of Germany, bustling through crowded back alleys and neon-lit clubs. Breakdancing, mohawks, weird outfits, and tokens of skater culture all make appearances alongside your usual earmarks of brutal police regimes--dour expressions, matching uniforms, bad-cop/worse-cop tactics--but the world-building is an overall step down from the deftness of the John Wick franchise. We can always blame the source material, but you’d think this would be the one aspect to get a boost from some pre-existing lore.
No matter. Atomic Blonde plays fair by being so unapologetic about its intentions early on, because its shortcoming only really begin to show after the movie ends. While it’s on, it’s hard not to admire it as another round of near-perfect action choreography in scenes like the opening car chase, and the movie’s indisputable guitar solo: a hand-to-hand, no-holds-barred murderthon in a hotel stairwell that pits Lorraine against four armed Soviets. Its inventiveness is sublime and is probably the most visceral thing I’ve seen in a theater this year (barring the emotional carnage of It Comes At Night), the rare sort of fight that earns the right to be described as utilizing “everything but the kitchen sink,” and only because there isn’t a kitchen in the vicinity. A lesser movie would have you glancing around the frame at various makeshift weapons and tsk-tsking missed opportunities, but not this one. On top of that, it’s shot in one take, or at least edited to appear so, but it’s such a seamless composition that any camera trickery hardly matters. If it wasn’t clear by now, this is why and where you’ll get your money’s worth.
It’s almost enough to want to gloss over the movie’s problems. Entertaining as he is, James McAvoy has played this scumbag role a few times now in exactly the same manner. He’s had too varied a career to be typecast at this point, but his array of facial tics and fixed staring is grating when you’re seeing them for the umpteenth time, and when the script offers no openings for ambiguity or development. Intriguing as it initially seems, the whodunit mystery, and even the double-crosses, are rote and unengaging thanks to a lack of investment in these characters or their motivations. The effort at a more complex narrative is commendable; we don’t need to repeat the simplicity of John Wick, nor do good stories always need rootable characters, but it would be nice if the movie interrupted its own channeling of the emotional frostiness of the James Bond movies to give at least one character, other than Lorraine, a heartbeat to go with their poker faces. Her ostensible love interest Delphine (Sofia Boutella), a French operative Lorraine gets the drop on early and recruits for sex seemingly for titillation’s sake, is especially flat. We can predict her dialogue, the “twists” their relationship will take, and how she will serve the plot as accurately as we can predict McAvoy’s. It’s boring, and drains a lot of the film’s two-hour runtime of the guesswork that’s usually the draw for these kinds of films.
Atomic Blonde is a well-mounted, well-staged, and attractive film with a few excellent action setpieces mired in a lot of passable spy drama and good lighting. Excising half an hour would have done the movie a lot of good, maximizing the impact of its action sequences, which are admittedly worth the price of admission on their own. It could do without the flashback structure--unreliable narration is a cool device when used appropriately, but it’s such a straightforward story that the twist seems gratuitous, adding little more than an artificial “gotcha” to drum up excitement--but it’s an acceptable, if disposable, two-hour diversion. Catch it when it hits your preferred streaming service.
Spider-Man: Homecoming - Jon Watts
Spider-Man has been kicked around by Marvel and Sony’s cinema teams nearly to death, but right off the bat, Spider-Man: Homecoming had the potential to be the best adaptation to ever bless the live-action comic universe. The fact is, Andrew Garfield should never have been Spider-Man, and Sony’s Amazing Spider-Man movies should never have happened, if only because the second is such a horrible mess it retroactively improves the first Garfield outing and softened my feelings for Raimi’s Spider-Man 3. That, especially, should never have happened. Garfield is too cool-guy to play dorky Peter Parker, and his Spider-Man too smarmy to take seriously as a hero. Tobey Maguire plays to both of the character’s strengths: he’s convincingly awkward out of the suit and charmingly witty in it, and was incontestably the best version of the character we had on-screen until Tom Holland hopped aboard the unprecedented Sony-Marvel partnership, surpassing both to claim the title as The Best Movie Spider-Man.
He’s funny, slick, endearing, and vulnerable over the course of Spider-Man: Homecoming, and the nuances of the subtitle are inescapable: watching Holland’s Peter do almost nothing but swing and flip above the city and bumble around as a high schooler at street level for the first forty-odd minutes of the film, you get the sense that the character is truly home under Marvel’s care, and you can almost forgive these forty minutes for kind of meandering. After three movies of alternately rigid and sloppy plotting, the chance to just watch Spider-Man be Spider-Man shouldn’t be taken for granted, and is really a joy to see; but we also can’t ignore the fact that the movie feels aimless for a long time, until the ferry scene glimpsed in the trailer. Here, finally, we come as close to the “with great power” stuff as the movie dares, nicely set against an echo of Spider-Man 2’s train sequence. Having just deus ex machina’d Peter from a failing attempt to rescue a rupturing ferryboat, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) tells Peter that if he’s no one without the custom-made suit Stark lent him, then he shouldn’t have it. You know: if he can’t be responsible, he doesn’t deserve its power. This, finally, provides conflict a little greater than “how can I get my crush to notice me,” and sees the movie picking up the thematic threads left dangling in the film’s Vulture prologue.
Marvel has a much tougher time setting things up with these villain-in-a-nutshell scenes than they do with their credit stingers, the nadir of the technique being the prologue to Ant-Man. To some extent, even the most serious Marvel films are tonally breezy, but they rarely feel so cartoonish. The idea to retool the Vulture’s origin so that his suit is a composite of Chitauri technology left over from The Avengers is inspired, reassuring us that the thematic baggage of Captain America: Civil War isn’t forgotten. In fact, it dovetails neatly with the power/responsibility tension that defines Spider-Man: actions have consequences, and every action is ultimately justified, so act responsibly. The problem is that, while the Vulture’s motivations check out, they do so in the blandest way possible--with Michael Keaton at his most prosaic everyman vs. the stern, unempathetic corporate representatives who won’t budge an inch to let he and his men make their living, no duh we’re going to side with the guy, ideologically. It’s cheap, and I can’t help but think that developing the character’s villainy parallel to Spider-Man’s heroism would have made it less so, sharpening up the delineation between good and evil as a series of choices in an uncondescending, but suitably comic-booky way. The Vulture never gets more time to develop beyond that opening scene, coasting on the “doing the wrong thing for the right reasons”/”For my family” rationale we’ve seen before, placing him well below Doc Ock, and even Green Goblin, on the scale of interesting Spider-Man villains. Still, it’s a refreshing change from Electro’s jealousy issues and The Lizard’s de facto evil, and his costume is easily one of the best designs in the MCU.
Let me be clear: Spider-Man: Homecoming is a good movie! As disconnected as the first half feels, it’s a lot of fun in isolation. Every joke lands, even if Peter doesn’t always; but seeing him fall flat on a rooftop after attempting a bigger swing than he’s used to making, or sprinting through a park in the middle of the night when he finds himself without buildings to swing from, grounds Spider-Man in a way the previous two entries never did. Ditto for the scene where Spider-Man does a backflip for a delighted pedestrian. He’s a kid with extraordinary powers, but he’s a kid first, and the movie makes that clear in an unforced way. He builds Lego Deathstars (Marvel’s going to make use of their Disney ties, so just accept it) with his best friend; can’t speak to his crush without stuttering; has a place of honor on the school debate team; and finds thirty minutes of waiting to be an eternity. Outside of Peter, the supporting cast is uniformly great, featuring an unusually diverse cast: Peter’s crush Liz Allan (Laura Harrier) is black; his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) is Filipino; Flash Thompson the bully (Tony Revolori) is Italian, and Peter’s not-very-secret-admirer Michelle is acted by Zendaya, which is some inspired casting. The film toys with audience expectation in this regard for a reveal that adds some appreciable punch to one of the movie’s tensest scenes, ramping up to the also-titular homecoming dance. Although the character is rather static, Michael Keaton is second to none at projecting working-class malice, and the Vulture’s better-than-average standing in Marvel’s stable of disposable antagonists rests solely on his professionalism. He can’t not act the hell out of anything.
And what’s a superhero movie without big set pieces? Apart from the ferry and its overtones of Spider-Man 2, the Washington Monument and the climactic battle around a Stark-owned “moving plane,” transporting classified tech, are the movie’s other pivotal action pieces, and they’re handled pretty well by Marvel’s standards. The monument gives Peter a chance to demonstrate a lot of time-crunched improvisation: the debate team is trapped in an broken elevator on the top floor, and he isn’t quite strong enough to break through the thick glass on the ventilation windows at the top of the monument without help. None of these movies are going to win awards for cinematography, but there is effort put into highlighting the peril of the situation, with dizzying shots from the top of the monument and some swoopy camerawork following Peter through the air and into the elevator shaft. In another callback scene, this time to Amazing Spider-Man 2’s clock tower sequence, Peter saves Liz from a lethal fall down the shaft. This, more than any other, feels like the point at which Sony officially passes the Spider-Man torch to Marvel. The plane scene, in which Peter does his best to thwart the Vulture’s hijacking attempt, is nicely handled and ends in a fiery, albeit brief, showdown between the two that may not take advantage of the Vulture’s potential for cool aerial battles, but proves serviceably climactic nonetheless.
If there’s a real complaint to lob at the movie, it’s exactly that: Homecoming is serviceable, and sometimes great, but it pushes no envelopes. At this point, asking for Marvel to shake things up is futile (at least until Avengers: Infinity War), but the fact that this movie is not an origin story, and that the name “Ben” crosses no one’s lips at any time, is incremental progress from a studio that could sit back on its haunches and see no change in its revenue stream. It’s not that far off from the origin-story mechanisms Marvel has fine-tuned to a science, and it’s tempting to be cynical and say that every movie under their banner is just a slightly tweaked configuration of the same elements, because there’s some truth to that statement. Homecoming is essentially Ant-Man with better jokes and better villains. But then there’s that scene, just prior to the Vulture taking off on his nefarious plot, when he appears to crush Peter under tons of rubble (accomplished by his independently mobile Vulture suit while Peter and the Vulture verbally duke it out, a la Spider-Man’s climactic battle. Callbacks everywhere!) Since the movie’s not called Vulture, we know Peter isn’t dead, and we see him a few minutes later, alive but certainly not well. He’s pinned beneath an iron bar and slabs of concrete, and there is nothing cute or quippy about any of it: he’s a terrified kid afraid of dying, like any sensible person. But he’s also a New Yorker, and he talks himself through it, until he lands on the right words--“Come on, Spider-Man! Come on, Spider-Man!”--and with a visibly tremendous effort, climbs out of the rubble.
It’s not a flashy scene; there’s no orchestral swell or cut-happy editing to dramatize the moment, but it’s just as impactful as Raimi’s train sequence because it beautifully frames the simple courage it takes to be not only Spider-Man, but a hero at all. Ant-Man doesn’t have that. Even Doctor Strange lacks a defining moment of this caliber. Here’s everything that drives Peter Parker in a single sequence: his belief in his own ability to overcome. It’s cliche, but it doesn’t feel it, because it’s not told to us. He doesn’t verbalize it later to the Vulture before landing a knockout punch, and he doesn’t confide it to Ned before strutting off into the ending credits. If the next Spider-Man outing can pick up on this sort of nuance and stay true to the authentic personality they’ve brought to this Peter Parker, the best Spider-Man adaptation may still be just over the horizon. For now, however, Spider-Man: Homecoming is officially the third-best live-action Spider-Man film. It’s good to have him back.
Dunkirk - Christopher Nolan
Some time after the release of Interstellar, people seem to have started turning away from Christopher Nolan, one of the only widely accepted auteurs today. I personally don't see why. Not only is Interstellar slightly different than what everyone was hoping for, but it doesn't retroactively diminish him movies for what they are: blockbuster marvels of a cookie cutter environment. Yeah, The Dark Knight Rises is a low point, but it's problems really just boil down to its length. Which brings us to here. The first teaser for Dunkirk couldn't have been any better, catching the attention of just about everyone. People were back on the Nolan train. It's a little disingenuous of the flip-floppers, but the dude still deserves the praise.
I wish I could go into the plot of the film, but to put it simply, there is no central arc. The story of the historic evacuation across the English Channel is told on three fronts: The Mole Way, The Sea, and The Air. Each has their set of circumstances and orders, but the throughline of a desperate struggle for survival is present as the Axis push the line and close in around the town of Dunkirk. There is no time for exposition on these characters. You learn what kind of people they are as they react to high-tension moments, like hiding under the edge of a dock to sneak on the next boat out or locking away a shellshocked trooper in the small room of a boat to continue the rescue effort. The lack of traditional character building and an almost formless narrative can divide audiences, and there isn't really getting around that. What will keep people in their seats, or better put, at the edge of their seats, is the sheer amount of tension.
The film opens ominously with a squad roaming the streets, scrounging for anything to drink or eat as propaganda fliers fall from the sky. A quite ring breaks at the crack of a gunshot, and the few take off past the last territory the Allies hold. From then on, the score revolves around the ticking of a stopwatch, Hans Zimmer's actually, almost without end. Time is of the essence with the enemy knocking on the door. The ticking fades only for moments like the screaming engine of a German ME 109 diving toward the beach, or destroyers, a sound that you quickly learn to fear. It induces utter hopelessness and adrenaline, coupled with Nolan's style, which favors practical effects. It's incredible how much of what you see is real. Early on, we see a medium sized vessel sunken at the end of the Mole Way in shallow water. Watching it careen into the dock, it's hard not to believe that Nolan actually sank a fucking ship. The same can be said about the dogfights. The careful and calculated maneuvers of the wingmen have a weight that is lost in other films that try to replicate the intensity of these battles with computer graphics.
The film is an experience like Mad Max:Fury Road, one that may lack story but is one hell of a time. The misery and desperation is a palpable cloud, making Axis move feel like it could be the end for everyone on screen. I have so few criticisms they're almost not worth mentioning. Maybe an edit or two, a slight rearrangement of the way the three stories intertwine, but I can't say for certain until I get another viewing in. I hope that you've been excited as I was, because it really is a great as you've been led to expect. Don't wait. Catch it in one of the large theaters.
- Alex B.
Baby Driver - Edgar Wright
If you really need me to introduce you to Edgar Wright, you’ve been fucking up for the past 10 or so years. Although he made his first mark with Spaced, The Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End) are what brought him to the attention of a wider audience. These three films not only show that he is a competent filmmaker, but also proved him to be one of the only directors to use filmic techniques to convey comedy rather than placing the burden solely on the cast. His style only grew more effective as the years went by, bringing slog after slog of comedies cashing in on the latest stand-up or SNL talents. Although only one of the Hot Fuzz gave a nod to big-budget action, Wright often expressed a desire to direct more action, and having seen how well he balances raw excitement with slapstick comedy, I’ve been eagerly awaiting a similar project. Enter Baby Driver.
Ansel Elgort plays Baby, a young guy with tinnitus who drowns the ringing in his ears with excessive amounts of music while tearing through the city as a getaway driver. Baby does the work to repay Doc, played by Kevin Spacey, when he stole Doc’s car and wrecked it along with a trunkload of merchandise. His debt nearly repaid, he happens to meet a woman named Debora (Lily James) at the local diner. Later, Doc offers Baby another job, and this time he takes it all.
From the first fucking second, you know this is going to be one hell of a time. Baby pulls up to the curb outside bank with “Bellbottoms” by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion playing, and the the action that follows is totally in sync with the song right to the end, marking a successful job. Even in my euphoric state, watching Elgort drift and trick around every obstacle from behind the wheel, it was clear to me that the track isn’t manipulated to fit the scene. Despite all the fast cuts, it's hard to say they detract from the experience when they action remains so clear and concise. And what makes Wright’s films feel so damn exciting is the mobility in the camera. Not afraid to circle or swing around in the heat of the moment, whether in the midst of a car shade or an open firefight, it adds an extra shot of energy to scene. There are very few steady shots overall, and those scenes shot from a tripod or featuring a more traditional, non-diegetic score are rare, conveying Baby’s discomfort with the whole enterprise. You may notice a slight ringing behind certain scenes, too. Run-of-the-mill scenes of the cast doing nothing more than moving across the screen are transformed into choreographed pseudo-dance by the lively score and soundtrack, so that the movie often feels like it’s only a step away from going full musical. It's these little details very few will notice that makes Edgar Wright such an excellent director, and in turn, make Baby Driver so exhilarating.
I’ve never seen an Ansel Elgort film before or listened to any of his music, but the guy portrays Baby with subtlety and nuance. It’s not Oscar-level, but the role doesn’t demand a performance of that caliber. That goes for the rest of the cast, too, from Jon Bernthal to Eiza González: everyone knows their part and plays is well. As for Jon Hamm--watching him death-stare straight through the back of someone’s skull is intimidating, to say the least.
If for some reason you’re an idiot like me and haven’t seen this after three weeks in theater, go. It's a really easy decision to make, even if you or a friend aren’t really looking for a big action movie. I don’t see it as a niche film because it’s near impossible not to find some enjoyment in its light and fun mood. All in all, Baby Driver is going to be butting heads with John Wick 2 as my favorite of the year: each have their own unique style and a level of appreciation for crafting action, and it would take someone putting a gun to my head for me to decide which I enjoy more. Like I said, it's been out for three weeks and may be heading out of theaters as early as next week. Don’t let it slip by.
- Alex B.
Castlevania - Adi Shankar
After the past year of major video game properties being panned in film, morale seems to be lower than ever despite some fair reviews of Warcraft. Assassin’s Creed would like to be forgotten, and after its blu ray release, people still ask why there was an Angry Birds Movie. A few months ago, rumors began circulating that Netflix had picked up the rights to make an animated Castlevania, with the only stipulation being that it would be a “Hard R.” Maybe a bit of a tough sell to executives at Netflix, but with Deadpool catering to more mature audiences with great success, they gave the creative team a test: make a four-part part animated series, each episode 20-25 minutes.
From the get go, that “Hard R” mentality greets viewers with a forest of severed heads on pikes surrounding the familiar gothic castle of Dracula from the games. An unlikely visitor, Lisa Tepes, finds herself at the doorstep as a roaming doctor. Invited in and introduced to Dracula advanced lab, the two develop a relationship for which Lisa’s church condemns her a witch. Her burning provokes Dracula to take vengeance against the church and surrounding town. Enter Trevor Belmont, a vampire hunter and the sole remaining descendant of his house, who wanders into the town after a night of drinking.
It's cliche to call any Netflix show “bingable” at this point, but this seems like one of those times when watching the entire show in one sitting is a must. The total runtime is about 100 minutes, a pretty average length for an animated film. That point is even conveyed by how the title sequence isn’t in subsequent episodes, or how most of the first scene of an episode starts exactly where the last ended without any repetition or bridging dialogue. It's commendable that the series is both respectful of its audience and economic with its time, but I can’t help but wonder why this wasn’t just a feature. The show is a few minor edits away from that, and it's not uncommon for a pilot to be a spectacle.
I wish I could comment about how closely the show represents the games, but I haven’t played any of them. If anything, the show makes me want to dive in. The absolutely brutal action and Gothic sets are pretty fun to watch and makes someone like me wonder about the games. A scene that comes to mind is Trevor coming to the aid of an old man in the middle of a robbery. Coming off of his drunken tirade, he's not as sharp as he should be with his whip, and an in an attempt to disarm one assailant and retaliate against the other, he ends up severing a finger and whipping someone's eye out of its socket, both unintentionally. It all comes together in gruesome detail thanks to the exceptional animation, whose best quality is its lighting. A handful of raging fires or use of magic with surprising particle effects cast excellent shadows in the creepy environment.
The only thing below-standard is the story. Despite some intrigue, there's very little addressing of Dracula. There are moments where his horde of gargoyles attacks the townspeople and Trevor, but no direct confrontation. If you’re familiar with Dragon Ball Z, think of Android 16, 17, and 18, and how they played a role in the Cell Saga. If you reduce their arc of 20 or so episodes and make it so that Goku and the team never meet Cell, you have the gist of Castlevania first, inconsequential season.
As it currently stands,Castlevania is lacking so much substance and progression that it's hard for me to recommend. I know people will be left unsatisfied after its short run, a fundamental flaw in an otherwise great showing. I feel guilty giving this a score at the moment. It feels like watching the first 4 episodes in a 12-15 episode season. If you haven’t already had that one sitting with the show, just wait until more arrives. Netflix already renewed it for a second season. Maybe then the show will get a meatier second season.
- Alex B.
Over the past few weeks, you may have already heard the name Oats Studio. The studio has uploaded some head-scratching 10 second clips, like one of Air Force One or a Presidential Motorcade. Only in the past few days has information started trickling out. The studio is Neill Blomkamp’s new pet project, releasing independent science fiction short films. What makes the whole situation interesting is its choice to upload these short films on YouTube and Steam. In a two minute video, the team reveals that they partnered with Valve not only to release on their platform, but also for funding. It was perplexing to think Oats Studio would be willing to make no direct income from any of their work, until the release of their first short, Volume 1 - Rakka. Under the link to watch on Steam is a $4.99 piece of DLC. Yeah, DLC for a short film, but this isn’t the darkest timeline. In it are assets from the film: concept art, scripts, 3D assets, the video file with 5.1 surround sound mix, and more to come, like dailies. Under that list, “We want users to engage with our content and hope that by opening up resources like these, we inspire young filmmakers.” What better way to help aspiring creators than giving them every fundamental piece of a seemingly high-budget short? Even I’m feeling compelled to drop the $5 and rummage around in the files. But also to their credit, what a great way to monetize this content if you’re on YouTube, where you’ll probably be served an ad if YouTube’s algorithm doesn’t automatically deem it non-monetizable, or on Steam, where the bundle is right next to the watch link, not to mention all the navigating you have to do through the storefront and its many deals.
Now, none of this would matter that much if they couldn’t deliver quality content.
If you’ve seen the Animatrix, Rakka’s structure will certainly feel familiar. Not every short from the Animatrix is worth watching, buts it’s to the two part short The Second Renaissance that Rakka draws comparisons. In the first half of the twenty minute short, we explore an invaded Earth and see humanity on its knees. Narration guides us through small city streets looted and dirty or towering terraforming megastructures, the recognizable and the not. It’s far from an original plot, seemingly done once a year in Hollywood. Something I always admire in any alien film is the design of the invading species, and Rakka’s snake-headed beings are chilling as they twitch into action with fluidity, even in slow methodical processes like integrating their technology into living subjects. It’s horrifying, graphic moments like these where similarities to other properties start to wash away. If you’re starting to think about the use of CGI and how that would look on the budget of a short film, don’t worry. The creatures are strikingly detailed and textured. In other words, it looks like Blomkamp is using the same team from his other works.
The later half follows an organized resistance group who find one of the very few people to survive the aliens’ brutal experiments and utilize the foreign technology fused to him. The sohrt stumbles in trying to push such heavy exposition and such a broad view of the world, partly due to mediocre dialogue. Given the time constraints, it's like Blomkamp and Thomas Sweterlitsch were aiming for functionality over subtlety, leaving us with a ton of cliche lines. Sigourney Weaver carries her scenes when the script fails, although it does pull together for the finale, a tense confrontation between the resistance and a cornered alien.
Rakka, if nothing else, shows hope for the studio’s future. As far as short films go, it's pretty good. It’s visually appealing, and even if you roll your eyes at the dialogue, the film is almost over by the time it gets bad. It's hard to say how Oats Studio will do, but considering Valve has their back and are offering the option to buy a ton of extra content, I don’t see why they wouldn’t continue charging forward. Rakka may not be among my favorite short films, but it’s likeable, and there's more than enough reason to want to follow the studio’s future work. It may even worth the $5 for the extras.
- Alex B.
Wonder Woman - Patty Jenkins
I know I’m being generous when I write the following, but the problem with the films in the DCEU lies in their abrupt emotional leaps. This problem reached its zenith with Batman v Superman’s infamous “Martha” scene, in which a fairly complex netting of thematic concerns and character decisions got badly tangled and lost somewhere in translation. It’s supposed to be the moment the scales fall away from Bruce Wayne’s eyes as his belief in Clark Kent as a hostile alien is shattered by the realization that Superman is capable of putting the life of a human before his own--and not just any human, but his adoptive mother. This is a kind of love Wayne has forgotten after twenty years branding, mutilating, and executing the scum of Gotham City, and the realization is thus twofold: he is faced with a choice to become the unfeeling murderer he thought Superman to be, or he can exercise mercy and reclaim his humanity.
There is an elegant way of communicating this without mounds of exposition, and you can see how the intent was to charge a single word with enough meaning to spark a change of heart of this magnitude, but too little time is devoted to Kent’s relationship with his mother, the dialogue is miserably prosaic, and the movie falls apart like dominos. It’s a wonder all on its own that DC Films was able to pull itself out of the ensuing avalanche of scorn to release the even more abysmal Suicide Squad, an almost post-modern example of how not to make a superhero film, and then, finally, Wonder Woman, DC’s first origin film since Man of Steel--another movie plagued, among other things, by a fundamental misunderstanding of how emotional beats are supposed to function.
But Wonder Woman marks a change. By now, it’s well-publicized as not only the female-directed, female-led, female-superhero movie that’s uniting audiences and critics in a collective shout of “Hey, this is pretty good!”, but also the female-directed, female-led, female-superhero movie that’s outperforming its now-playing competition to the tune of tens of millions, and closing in on some of the biggest-grossing films in the current comic-book explosion. The resounding message is that, for really the first time in movie history, a movie primarily by and for women is bankable. It is simultaneously not so different from comparable movies and radically new: it’s a simple fish-out-of-water meets coming-of-age plot with a period setting and big action setpieces, following Diana, Princess of Themyscira, as she (literally and figuratively!) enters the world of men.
Wonder Woman’s crowning success is its ability to frame Diana (Gal Gadot, like you didn’t already know) as a character with dimension and agency. Rather than having her grunt and scowl her way through a series of obstacles a la Superman in Man of Steel or keep her at a remote, goddesslike remove from the world of mortals a la Superman in Batman v Superman, they establish her as a character with ethics that are challenged at every turn. She is motivated by the sort of steadfast morality Superman should have had all this time, and by an idealism that is all her own. Her goal for most of the film is to find and defeat Ares, the god of war, who she plainly sees as the cause of World War I. Once Ares is defeated, Diana is confident that humankind will return to its natural state of compassion, empathy, and purity. You can imagine how that turns out, but the film does not patronize, reduce, or condescend, making certain that there are no clear resolutions to the challenges it presents her, and to the audience. The are only the choices she makes, and just as it is for anyone, it so happens that she can make the wrong ones.
The majority of these choices are expectedly obvious, but a sizable portion of Diana’s philosophical evolution occurs beneath the surface, in juxtaposition to the rest of the excellent cast. Robin Wright of House of Cards fame steps in for the role of Antiope, a hardened Amazon general who mentors and trains Diana from childhood to adulthood. She represents one of Diana’s potential futures and the one closest to what we see of her in Batman v Superman, balancing compassion and military grit in a brief window of time. Connie Nielsen, in the role of Diana’s mother Hippolyta, provides a sort of soft counterpoint to Antiope: she is as decisive and intelligent as she is temperate and even-handed, somewhat constrained by her role as queen but respectful of the burden of impartiality. Both are characters with agency and dimension, and one could imagine a different Wonder Woman paying more attention to their influence on Diana’s journey from girl to heroine. If the Doctor Poison role played by Elena Anaya, a Spanish actress some may recognize from The Skin I Live In and others from Habitación en Roma, feels a little underwritten, she is able to raise the character above its “villain” trappings with a tragic gravitas absent from the comparable role Svetlana Khodchenkova occupied in The Wolverine. She has a thematic purpose in Wonder Woman, but also a political one as a female villain in a movie with so many female heroines, and functions as a more defined counterpoint to Hippolyta and to Antiope. Doctor Poison is a glimpse at one of Diana’s options as a rightfully vengeful woman seeking the destruction of men at Ares’s side--but perhaps in soft counterpoint to her, Etta Candy enters the picture as a cheerfully domesticated woman, one who is either unaware of the accuracy of the parallel between her secretary position and slavery that Diana points out, or unwilling to do anything about it. She seems to awaken a bit in Diana’s presence, but all the same, represents an equally unsuitable alternative future.
Decisions, decisions. Dozens and dozens of thinkpieces by better thinkers and writers are being produced on the subject, so I’ll turn my attention back to the film itself to say that, of all its virtues, the one that stands out is Wonder Woman’s sense of humor. It soars above the stale puerility of Suicide Squad thanks to the chemistry between Gadot and Chris Pine (playing Steven Trevor, an American spy), which is another one of its greatest strengths, handled respectfully and with restraint. Their relationship develops naturally from guarded curiosity to working partnership to romantic affection, playing the same game as Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger to similarly rewarding effect. The scenes of their initial meeting and the getting-to-know-each-other stuff are sweet without saccharinity, but most importantly, their kiss (not a spoiler, because come on) is treated like it is: a kiss, not a chance for Pine to grope Gadot while the camera watches. There’s remarkable restraint on the part of the camera in general, even for the action sequences, which have historically been moments of CGI overkill and subsonic soundbombing that bore and irritate when they should excite. Wonder Woman finally puts all that testosterone-heavy action to use by, whodathunk, spacing it out in gradually escalating chunks. This leaves room to include the things the DCEU has been sorely lacking: character development, thematic exploration, and dramatic stakes, so that when things do go into full-blown spectacle mode, there’s reason to squint through the noise and glare to follow what’s happening.
But I can’t lie: although it’s been all praise thus far, Wonder Woman doesn’t erase the problem with movies in the DCEU we discussed, as it’s very much present in the third act. After an incredible scene where Diana reaches a philosophical crossroads of a profundity the likes of which Batman v Superman couldn’t match with three hours of broody pontification, we’re treated to the same kind of CGI-cumshot-compilation filmmaking that destroyed what remained of that movie’s credibility after the “Martha” debacle, with the added insult of reducing Diana’s entire character journey to a line as banal as “I believe in love,” while--I shit you not--she walks out of a blazing inferno, deflecting projectiles with her bracelets. In response, Ares--I shit you not--lifts his arms, screams “Then I will destroy you!” and proceeds to hurl lightning at Wonder Woman, who captures it, wraps it around her bracelets, leaps into the sky, and I shit you not, Kamehamehas him into oblivion.
Alex leaned over to me shortly after the scene wrapped up to say “I didn’t know we were watching Dragonball Z.” Hence the reference, but I make it only half-jokingly, because the climax of this otherwise measured and mature superhero film, one that’s shattering records and preconceptions of what a movie like this is supposed to do, one-hundred percent plays like a test-run for a live-action Dragonball Z adaptation. On one hand, maybe that’s okay. Maybe it was intentional, a reminder that these comic-book movies will always come down to wish fulfillment: we just want to watch beautiful people with superpowers blow each other up in the name of good or evil. Maybe it’s a goofy send-up of the excess of previous DCEU films, or even comic-book movie action in general, meant to make us cringe and then reflect on how ridiculous this shit has gotten. On the other hand, maybe it’s evidence of yet more meddling on DC’s part. Maybe it’s a stipulation in the contracts of all directors who sign on for DC films: “Stupid fucking explosions (to be referred to as SFEs from here on) are the DC Films trademark; therefore, we require several at minimum in the finished product,” etc.
Am I being hard on this part of the movie? A little, but when you’re this close to perfection, the blemishes look a lot worse. Don’t let that detract from the fact that there were long stretches of the film where I was filled with the emotional opposite of what I felt during most of It Comes At Night: joy, as Diana strides through machine-gun fire, leading a charge of men to take over a German ditch; as she slices her way through building after building of armed men and then demolishes a church building by leaping into it; as she discovers love, and then the complexity of human nature, and grapples with the choice to turn away from or defend us; as she discovers who she is and realizes what she can be. It may succumb to its genre trappings in the eleventh hour, but at its best, Wonder Woman is a truly magnificent superhero movie, and like its final shot of Diana, it’s ultimately such a vast leap forward it might as well be soaring.
- Brian L.
Bloodline - Season 3
There will be spoilers through Season 2
For a more general review, skip to the end
Bloodline is some of the first original Netflix content, but I only started watching a year ago a while after Season 2 premiered. The two weeks I spent binging both were fairly good. I thought Season 1 was excellent. The mystery surrounding the family was always engaging and compelling, the drama and tension was always palpable, and watching the death of Danny Rayburn in the last episodes was incredibly heart-wrenching, despite knowing it would happen since the cold open in the pilot. The second season had problems. Its admirable that there wasn’t a time jump, but there were a few episodes that felt like the show was spinning its tires. The reveal that Danny had a son was partially the reason. It never felt like anything more than a predictable season-ending twist, and the show’s insistence on holding onto Ben Mendelsohn for flashbacks didn’t do it any favors, either. Even still, it was entertaining when it needed to be, and had me wanting more after leaving Kevin Rayburn standing over Marco Diaz’s dead body.
Season 3 picks up right there: Marco’s dead, John Rayburn is leaving his family, and Eric O’Bannon is now fucked out of immunity. Kevin is scrambling in panic, trying to call John for his help yet again. Roy Gilbert finds Kevin and agrees to help cover it up. In the process, Kevin takes a bullet to sell the story that Eric killed Marco and shot him after finding them. John comes to his senses, returns, and ultimately helps perpetuate the false narrative. From then on, the season turns into a court drama as Eric is tried for killing Marco. The Rayburns do their best to convict while a state-appointed lawyer sees the holes in the story while serving for Eric.
The season sets itself apart from the rest of the series with the court case. It's not quite The Night Of, but it’s engaging and impactful. The courtroom scenes are used sparingly, only to highlight the holes in the Rayburns’ story, and the testimonies are tense as they dig Eric’s grave before him, but the season is held back by tired “trouble” sequences. Someone does something illegal, calls John Rayburn, things get worse, repeat. Kevin Rayburn and Roy Gilbert’s arcs is equal parts familiar and annoying. Kevin’s naivety is understandable, for the most part, but it’s almost out-of-character for him to be so easily manipulated so often. Had this arc been scrapped, it probably wouldn’t have been missed. If anything, it feels like an unfitting catalyst to propel the series to its finale. Along the same lines, whenever there is a lull, the camera itself tries to keep the energy from previous situations going with an insane amount of bobbing and shaking. It creates unnecessary tension, making it seem as if someone is going to pull out a knife even during perfectly relaxed scenes.
Now, since this is the last season, I want to talk about how the show ends. I will be specifically going into the last two episodes because they can’t be ignored. Before I get to it, if you’ve liked the show at anytime before, you’ll enjoy the season. If you share my thoughts on Season 2, then you might find this better, like I have.
Spoiler For Last Episodes
Well… “Part 32” (S3E9) is something. The previous episode ends with John’s drowning, so it was hard to imagine what the remaining episodes would look like, but what we got is either infuriating or incredibly profound. Why does the episode lead with 40 minutes of misleading visions or dream-like sequences or retreads of earlier scenes from the series with different dialogue? I can’t tell you. Watching the episode whip between seemingly different realities (John trying to kill himself; in the eye of state troopers; Sally Rayburn tragically dying; and Danny still alive in most of these scenes, too), tried my patience. If you’ve read any of my reviews, you’ve no doubt seen that I like digging into subtext, but the majority of the episode feels like nonsense. On the other hand, there are brief moments that shed light on the fundamental relationship between John and Danny. They look into John’s bottled-up resentment, which forced him to keep Danny down. There was also a great vision of the two when John was first rejected by his future wife, and how she might have had something with Danny when they were kids. I want to say it was a genuine flashback, but having it buried in this web of events that are either misrepresented or false makes me think otherwise.
The show returns to reality in the last episode and twiddles its thumbs until the third act. It doesn’t feel like a final episode. A lot of the weight washes away between “Part 31” and “Part 32,” and the significant amount of time devoted to the Kevin and Roy arc is underwhelming. Kevin’s arrest doesn’t seem to fit. The episode turns around in a moment with Sally. She fails to sell the inn and learns it’s worthless, leading her to a mental breakdown in which she recalls how each of her children was born. Danny was a landmark occasion. Kevin hardly had the strength to live. John destroyed her. These are heavy statements that loom over memories of previous events. It’s intense and distressing and something I probably shouldn’t have watched after midnight. As the episode closes, John turns himself into his sergeant for his brother’s death, among others things, but it ultimately leads to nothing since the sergeant has just decided to leave the force. He tells John to sweep it under the rug for the greater good, in some sense. Later, John goes to tell Danny’s son, but it ends right before they speak. I can see both sides of the ensuing argument: it’s either abrupt and unsatisfying or exactly what needed to happen. A lot of the show has been about the Rayburns covering up their every misdeed, and here, with the Rayburns finally face the music, the moment is monumental. At the same time, it’s still what I would consider a weak and lackluster end.
As it stands, Bloodline is worth the watch. It’s not a high-tier series, but it’s entertaining, and something you can lose hours into as you invest in the Rayburn family. Would I recommend watching past Season 1? It's hard to say. Proceed at your own risk, but if you do, it’s mandatory that you finish through Season 3.
- Alex B.
Trey Edward Shults - It Comes At Night
The horror of It Comes At Night is that even the murder of a child can affect nothing and go without consequence, a truth the universe validates with indifference. The movie opens, however, with the murder of an old man suffering from a disease that a lesser movie would turn into its hook, and whose novelty it would diminish by insisting on causes, symptoms, rules, a cure, blunting the brutal thrust of the film with tropes and exposition. This movie has no time for trivialities. There is a story to tell and a truth to disseminate; so the old man is murdered, presumably to save him from whatever this apocalyptic plague would have done. Some might call this euthanasia or “mercy killing”; a courtesy; something done for his own good, born of a moral decision. Paul (Joel Edgerton) might call the act pragmatic, but the movie doesn’t shy from terrible truths, and we won’t, either: it’s murder, as the nonconsensual ending of another’s life always is, and it’s the smoke of his burning corpse, dumped down a ditch and hastily drenched in gasoline, that carries us into the movie proper.
It Comes At Night follows Paul, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a small family who have established a routine of survival in a post-apocalyptic world turned on its head by a plague. They keep indoors as often as possible and deign never to venture out at night, although that self-imposed rule isn’t followed for a second of the film’s 91 minutes. In the middle of the night following the cremation of Sarah’s father (David Pendleton), a stranger named Will (Christopher Abbott) attempts to break into their home, but is quickly subdued by Paul and his rifle. He’s lashed to a tree for two nights but insists to Paul that he has a wife and child, Kim (Riley Keough) and Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), that need his help. Paul’s house seemed abandoned with its boarded windows, so he thought it would be safe to search for supplies. Will wins Paul’s trust, and upon concluding that both families have a better chance of surviving together, all six unite under Paul’s roof. Things begin to go awry shortly thereafter, and then take an even sharper turn to the worst.
Guilt is the multi-armed god that looms over the film, the It that Comes At Night, winding slowly through the film’s pitch-black interiors, staring back from the shivering darkness of the forest, infecting the bodies of our protagonists and ravaging them with dreams, distrust, and sores. Close to the heart of the film is Travis, our quiet cipher who shoulders the brunt of the guilt and for whom the weight becomes unbearable as he is subjected to dreams (or visions?) in which he is initially haunted by the plague-ridden specter of his grandfather, the old man with whose murder the movie begins, and then by more insidious torturers. He is lonely, as an excellent sequence of shots demonstrates by contrasting his solitary wakefulness in the night with the comfortable stoicism of his parents’ marriage, and the playful romance of Will and Kim’s relationship. Kim is the first woman other than his mother that he has seen in a long time. It’s never disclosed just how long that is, but Travis, long unaccustomed to women or to being social, botches his first conversation with Kim by openly ogling her breasts, a moment of excruciating discomfort that wins our sympathy for Travis while also defining for us the isolation and misery of both families’ situation through Travis’ frustrations.
Travis’ ogling drives a splinter of distrust between the two, but distrust suffuses every relation from the moment Paul meets Will to the film’s panicked, soul-altering climax. Paul’s relentlessly militant demeanor seems at odds with his past as a history teacher--“You need to know all about the Roman empire? I’m your guy”--but this offhand remark, dropped about halfway into the film, draws attention to the role of the past in the happenings of the present, of which so little is parceled out despite its seeming importance to the events of the film. In the lesser film this could have been, an origin for the plague would be vital to our understanding of the film’s post-apocalyptic scenario, helping us comprehend Paul’s inability to trust anyone but family, but It Comes At Night doesn’t waste the time or energy. This is a conscious choice, one made not out of any shortage of creativity, but because the events of the film, like the minutiae of life in ancient Rome that Paul spent so much of his life learning and passing on; like the small and intricate dramas of the little Roman lives that played out in it, all those centuries ago; like the lives and experiences of the men who ambush Paul and Will early in the film, erased by the pragmatic bullets Paul puts in their heads: all these things are without value or meaning in the indifferent regard of a cosmos that does not care for the moral convolutions of murder, whether of man or woman or child, or for the nature of intent, or even for the ravages of guilt, because the cosmos are remorseless, and survival is amoral.
The movie underscores this point again and again. I think of the shots of Travis bearing his lantern through the darkened corridors of the house, a symbol of vulnerability and hopelessness, of a vain search for meaning; of the red door they are never to open at night, which becomes a literal symbol of death in the third act, to which Travis is inexorably drawn; of the plague, which seems to afflict characters like a physical manifestation of guilt over the lies they tell and the people they murder--but since there is no explanation for the plague in the world of the film, it is just as likely that anyone and everyone would have caught the plague anyway, regardless of its allegorical applications. Solely in this regard, I am reminded of The Walking Dead, whose title we have long been informed by Robert Kirkman himself refers not to its zombies, but to its living, doomed to carry on with the knowledge that no matter what atrocities they overcome or deeds of selfless humanism they perform, they will eventually join the undead and advance humanity another step toward extinction. It Comes At Night comes cut from that same nihilism in an even darker, rougher hue.
Such is the appeal of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories: from Mad Max to The Road to The Girl With All the Gifts, they offer us a practically infinite sandbox where we are free to pose hypothetical situations and posit answers to any questions about mortality, nature, law, identity, and society that we can imagine. Every Big Question is met with a multiplicity of solutions, but it’s that very multiplicity that should remind us that there is no such thing as conclusivity. That, in turn, should remind us that our biggest questions, and even the notions they interrogate, are only exercises in self-awareness that have no bearing upon, consequence in, or effect upon the universe. The shovel that so easily manipulates sand shatters upon concrete. The dog that warns us of danger by day is slaughtered when it ventures into the woods at night.
If your child is killed, and then you are killed, to whom does the life of the child matter?
The Mummy - Alex Kurtzman
I can’t quite remember which Universal monster film I saw first. It was either Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein or The Mummy (1999), both being among the earliest movies I remember watching. Abbott and Costello is still a great film, but Mummy hasn’t particularly aged well. It looks as old as it is, but nevertheless it's still a lot of fun and sort of occupies the same vein as something like xXx. Cheesy, not technically perfect, but able to balance the core of the film well with light humor. It's too bad that the second and third failed to recreate any of that. So when rumors started circulating about The Mummy reboot with Tom Cruise, I was pretty excited. The trailers didn’t do any favors and were actually quite a detriment after the whole “swapping Cruis’ sound” ordeal. Still, I wanted to see this.
Two recon troops in Iraq, Nick (Cruise) and his apprehensive friend, sneak into a small town held by insurgents in order to find and loot ancient Mesopotamian artifacts. Things go sideways, and to get them out of their jam, an air strike is called in and accidentally opens an Egyptian crypt. After the dust settles, Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) comes in to study and eventually takes a sarcophagus out for further research. On their way to London, a swarm of crows bring the plane down, and miraculously Nick survives the violent crash. Well, it wasn’t as miraculous as he thinks.
As the movie starts building, a few things start setting in. The first short interaction between Nick and his friend is more of a comedy routine than anything. It's not like they're shooting the shit together, it's like Hollywood shovel comedy. No subtlety, just easy, loud jokes. That even carries through an action sequence that skips most of the excitement until the last minute of the fight and so much stupid screaming. I thought it couldn't get worse until there was a quip aimed at Nick’s bedtime stamina. I was starting to mentally check out, but the film throws a switch and immediately becomes a serious horror film when they find the tomb. Twenty minutes in, we’re treated to a block of exposition, but it's the exact same exposition we get from the cold open’s narration. Both aren’t particularly well done, but I’d be inclined to overlook them if they only kept one. At the time I didn’t know, but now looking at IMDB, I see there are six screenplay writers. SIX. WHY THE FUCK ARE THERE SIX SCREENPLAY WRITERS. It’s without a doubt a perfect case of too many cooks in the kitchen, and it persists. The only thing that starts to make up for it is that after the crash, it feels like someone at least revised everything that followed. There’s still awful and unfitting humor, but no whiplash-inducing tonal shifts.
Another thing I learned checking IMDB was that this is Alex Kurtzman’s fourth directing credit, the others consisting of two TV episodes and one other film, People Like Us, a disposable romance. I hate to repeat myself, but certain issues I had are made clearer. This is inexperience. There is a scene where our protagonists investigate a piece of the downed plane at night. Some no-name cops get picked off as they move through the wreckage, but the combination of lighting and camera angles don’t show any of it despite being in frame. Later on, a pre-dawn action scene that has Nick and Jenny running from undead minions suffers the similar problems. The low light and deep bluish-grey skin tone of the minions makes them hard to distinguish in the open setting. It also doesn’t help that these particular scenes are shot in enough shaky-cam to ruin a day's worth of shooting in a better move.
Every executive involved left their stain in this film, some less than others, but there's one in particular that disappoints me. If you’ve been reading my work for a while, I would first like to say thank you; but a year ago, I wrote a piece on the state of action in film today. I still stand by every word, including every mention of Tom Cruise’s dedication to the craft. There is no actor that better meets the demands of the action-hero role than him, but Cruise isn’t necessary to this film. There are no great action set pieces to showcase his talent. There is minimal fighting, and a lot of the time, he’s either being thrown around or running. Any actor could have filled the role. Even his undeniable charm, which keeps him afloat even in unlikeable roles, doesn’t have an effect. Cruise is supposed to be Universal’s ace in the hole to kick off the new Dark Universe, but this is what we get.
As for the Dark Universe stuff, it's there. I didn’t find it exciting or necessary, although that's what I thought about the first Iron Man, and now don’t care for really any superhero films because of this need to connect it all.
Just skip this. It's not worth money, even for a matinee. I don’t think I can even recommend catching it on HBO or Netflix, in good conscience, and the only truly exciting moment in this movie was a reference to the ’99 film. I’d rather not spoil it, whether you take my warning or not. The moment is short-lived, but it left me wanting to watch that far better Mummy film.
- Alex B.
"Curtains" is where you can catch movie reviews by the Metal Lifestyle staff.