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.
Alien: Covenant - Ridley Scott
It's safe to say that the Alien franchise hasn’t kept the bar high over the years. Alien and Aliens are still landmark films that hold up incredibly well with their masterful practical effects to the light subtext of the scripts. The series couldn’t maintain that quality, mostly due to studio intervention, leading to David Fincher’s Alien 3, among other things, and later, Alien: Resurrection. Shudder. Even when the property was put back into Ridley Scott’s hand for Prometheus, the series seemed to have been cursed by its originator.
Where things seemed to turn around was Scott actually titling the next prequel appropriately with Alien: Covenant. The prologue introducing the Covenant crew and mission is fine, but the second prologue is a spoiler and hindsight, and a fairly major one. There was a lot of buzz surrounding the film as the redemptive entry we've been waiting for, but now that's it out and is receiving praise, we need to dive into the film and get a good look at what's going on.
The Covenant is a mission to arrive on a suitable exoplanet for for colonization with two thousand people in cryosleep, plus crew. Walter, a synthetic, is thrust into dire circumstances as the Covenant hits a radiation pocket caused by a solar flare and incurs some major damage. The crew is awoken to repair, but a rogue transmission reaches them with someone singing a familiar country song. Upon investigation, it's determined that the transmission is coming from a nearby planet much more favorable for the mission, and the decision is made to temporarily abandon the original mission to assess and maybe rescue the person transmitting.
Before we jump into the meat of the discussion, let's get a few things out of the way that are fairly objective. It's a gorgeous film. As seen in the trailer, there are a number of extreme wide shots of the crew, instilling a sense of isolation, but the earth-like terrain adds that extra layer of discomfort, especially when coupled with the brief moment the crew question how familiar vegetation could end up on this planet so far from home. While the film isn’t marveling at the landscape, the eye level moments with the actors reveal painstakingly elaborate and practical sets. It was one of the only things Scott got right for Prometheus, and it's even stronger here with a more vibrant environment. While we're on effects, I can't say I care for the new look of the Xenomorph. It's not as drastic a change as it is between Alien and Aliens, but subtle changes along with the full CGI construct is disappointing, especially since the decision seems to be made to make it more intimidating and agile compared to the originals, but it doesn't pay off. The impregnation, using the spores, and the birthing scene are incredible moments. They may not match the classic chestburster scene, but it's so violent and chilling watching crew members convulse and explode. As for the acting, there are really two stand out performances. One being Michael Fassbender for perfecting his android mannerisms. He had a ton of work and if any of it was short of excellent, it would've fallen apart. Second, and surprisingly, Danny McBride is the only other one who gives a complex performance. Good for him. One of the serious downsides to every other performance is actually the pre-release prologue. It's the same issue I had with Rogue One: separating required character exposition from the film doesn't make the film better, it makes the writing feel weaker.
Heads up, spoilers are now coming. I know that I haven't talked about the quality of the plot, but it's so intertwined in possible spoilers. If you want to avoid them, skip to the last paragraph, if not, you've been warned.
The film takes the best of Alien and Prometheus and mashes them together in an attempt to bridge the gap, more or less. Covenant has clear divides in it's script between the two carrying a significant tonal shifts. Following exclusively the crew is reminiscent of more recent horror without false scares and jumps, and David's entrance into the story brings the philosophical edge Prometheus was full of and drops it in like solid blocks. There are plot points that take the two aspects together, like David unleashing the black liquid onto the Engineer’s homeworld and Elizabeth Shaw being killed for his experiments, but in reality they only take the feeling from one of these sides, instead of the complex atmosphere it tries to create. The film is, within itself, divisive and compartmentalizes these two aspects. What might be worse is that Covenant is mostly; first half horror, second half slow-ish thinker. Except it breaks to return to an easy action finish that seems to retread the events of Alien at breakneck speed. It's all very jarring, forced, and makes it harder to pin down exactly what the film tries to be. Although, at the last minute of the film, Covenant instills probably the most dreaded feeling of the film, Daniels being put in cryosleep as David reveals himself after taking Walter's place. That hopeless feeling while slowly watching the only character that knows slip out of consciousness and is killed off camera.
For the most part, Alien: Covenant is almost a great film on paper, but has some fundamental flaws in trying to be more instead of trying to be good. Same thing on the technical side. Scott has these great spaces and art team to create these locals, but the Xenomorph is still disappointing. Nonetheless, I would recommend people see it. It's not bad at all. If anything, I think it simply misses the mark. This is probably the best since the first two films, but it still comes up far too short.
- Alex B.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter - Oz Perkins
Before I sat down with it, The Blackcoat’s Daughter was little more than a name and some internet buzz. Out of all the cast, I recognized only Emma Roberts’s face, and that took me until almost the halfway mark as I am not very familiar with her work. From what I understand, her role in this movie isn’t entirely left-field since she has starred in American Horror Story and Scream Queens before, but my instincts tell me that her involvement in those horror properties probably didn’t demand quite the level of nuance she demonstrates here. With relatively little dialogue across the board, and hers a fairly minimal role in the scheme of things, she is mostly constrained to physical acting and does an excellent job communicating shifting emotional degrees through changes of posture and expression, as well as a notable turn in her relationships with the rest of the movie’s characters.
“The scheme of things” takes a while to puzzle out, as The Blackcoat’s Daughter follows a nonlinear, dual-storyline structure and a measured, thoughtful (but not slow) pace. Google’s official synopsis is this: “During the dead of winter, a troubled young woman embarks on a mysterious journey to an isolated prep school where two stranded students face a sinister threat from an unseen evil force.” Roberts plays “troubled young woman” Joan, the “two stranded students” are Kat (Kiernan Shipka) and Rose (Lucy Boynton), and although the movie avoids telling us outright, it’s clear that Joan and Kat are connected early on. Kat and Rose are stranded at their Catholic prep school, which is let out for winter break. Kat’s parents seem to have vanished en route. Rose’s, she explains, did not know school was getting out earlier than Friday, and will not be able to reschedule their flight any earlier. After some discussion, it’s decided between the two girls, the headmaster, and a pair of school nurses on duty over the break that Rose, a senior, will watch over freshman Kat until Rose’s parents arrive to take her away and Kat’s situation is sorted out.
Things complicate, or rather, are already more complicated than they appear. The movie opens with a disquieting segment in which Kat dreams of her father, dressed in black and his face perpetually out-of-frame, pointing out her mother’s wrecked vehicle in the snow. Some time after the girls meet with the headmaster, it comes to light that Rose’s parents aren’t simply neglectful - Rose needs to tell her boyfriend that she is pregnant, and lied to her parents about the exact day her winter break begins. The intrigue already mounting, things take a turn when Rose introduces the movie’s first hint of the supernatural in the midst of your typical “spook the freshman” gesture: she asks Kat whether she knows that the nurses wear wigs, and that their eyebrows are false. When Kat indicates that she doesn’t know, Rose coolly informs her that they were caught devil-worshipping right at school, and burned them off in the course of worship.
Meanwhile, Joan is picked up at a deserted bus stop by kindly man named Bill. Joan is quiet and reserved, and it is easy to feel for her as she wanders the night in previous scenes, and to feel afraid for her as she accepts Bill’s offer. That his wife is present in the car diffuses some tension, but it is difficult to believe in the kindness of strangers, especially in a horror movie - and for a while, it seems as if our fears will be justified. One of the film’s most unnerving scenes occurs in the hotel the three stay in overnight when Joan, in no more than a towel and her hair still dripping, lets Bill into her room. The apprehension mounts as he locks the door and takes a seat opposite her, the scene unfolding in peculiar ellipses as they ply one another for motivation. Nothing happens, ultimately, but this scene leaves an unshakeable impression of danger that lingers over the rest of the movie.
It, as well as virtually the entire movie, is awash in chiaroscuro. Light always seems to be weak or departing, leaving thick swathes of shadow to suggests a constant threat. In tandem with a rumbling score occasionally spiked with cello trills straight out of The Witch, The Blackcoat’s Daughter is a study in dread one that relies on atmosphere and structure to scare us and uses minimal gore to enhance these strengths. As such, its flaws reveal themselves slowly: despite a small cast and its tightly-written narrative halves, the pregnancy subplot feels thinly-written, inserted just to give Rose an excuse to mislead her parents and move the plot along. It’s used for equally thin dramatic effect and has no payoff. The supernatural elements of the plot are compelling and expertly-handled for the most part, and in an effort to preserve the film’s mystery, I have tried not to give away specifics. But once it becomes clear what kind of “supernatural” we’re dealing with, several tropes infiltrate the film, and the nature of the threat becomes a bit too literal, bringing down what could have been a far more fascinating slab of horror filmmaking with more reason to doubt what is happening and what ultimately unites the narratives. Still, we do get a memorably disturbing image a blade in phallic silhouette that, despite having no connection to the encounter between Joan and Bill earlier in the film, manages to fulfill the unspoken threat hanging over their meeting. There’s no doubt regarding its significance in context, and it reorients many of the films thematic concerns around a brutal metaphor.
Like The Witch last year and The Babadook the year before that, The Blackcoat’s Daughter joins their ranks as another Bechdel-approved, psychologically-intensive, bonafide horror movie that, while not nearly as original as either of those movies, is bold enough in its storytelling and focused enough in its direction to earn a place on your horror watchlist for the year. It’s altogether a richer and more layered film than it seems and an exemplary piece of atmospheric modern horror.
- Brian L.
Life - Daniel Espinosa
In the “Most Anticipated of March” article, I put Life on the list. All I wanted from it is the disposable experience. The trailers don’t make it out to be anything spectacular, just something that is fun as long as it's in front of you and maybe something you may not remember in the long run. Out of curiosity, I wanted to see who was directing and what they’ve done. I’ve only seen one of Daniel Espinosa’s films before this, Safe House, and for the life of me I can’t remember a thing about it other than the leads, and partially because they were on the poster. Despite seeming like I might be right, I sat down with an open mind, ready for a fine popcorn flick.
After successfully gathering samples from Mars looking for traces of life, a diverse team of scientist on the International Space Station wait for the return of the probe. After going through a number of samples, the biologist stumbles upon a single-cell organism, but it isn’t moving. In an effort to provoke a response, one of them nurtures it until it moves again. Excited, some let their guard down right before it jumps into an aggressive state. The team desperately try to contain it in fear of their lives and letting it down to Earth.
Without spoiling anything, the film takes a lot from Alien. Not just in structure, but some visuals as well. As the alien starts taking shape, we initially start seeing less definitive shots of it, much like the face hugger into the Xenomorph. It really makes the full reveal much more impactful beyond the seemingly sinister nature. While not every shot succeeds, like a recurring alien vision that seems like a mash up of a Xenomorph and Predator, most are effective. And again, without spoiling anything, the actual creature seems to be one of the more imaginative aliens in recent memory, number one being the heptapods of Arrival. It's always great seeing something outside of the cookie cutter “little green men” look.
Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds and others make for a pretty good crew. Everyone seems to have been typecasted, which isn’t a problem because they all do it well, even if the script put in front of them won’t really give them the chance to act. Everyone is reacting to the next big problem. For me, that's always a signal that the filmmaker is trying to keep the audience caught up in action so they don’t notice the flaws, and that's true to an extent. In the heat of the moment, it's exciting, but some questionable choices shine a light on the poor writing. In the short moments between, dialogue either serves the plot or, is so cheesy you can taste it, or background noise. Honest to God.
It's certainly a fun film, one that I would even watch again, but not without its faults. Some of them are more glaring than others, but I would say it's at least worth its hour forty minute runtime. So in other words, it's the kind of disposable film I was expecting, despite doing my best to keep an open mind. I also have to ask why this isn’t coming out later in the year. Yeah, it may be a little less than summer blockbuster quality, but it certainly could have picked up more money without competing with Ghost in the Shell. That just seems like an absent minded thing to do.
Song to Song - Terrence Malick
Terrence Malick’s impressionistic earlier work put him on the map. His loose plot structures and tendency to rethink the purpose of voiceover make his work philosophical, and at times, poetic. While I can’t speak about recent ventures, it seems all but one show he's losing his touch: The Tree of Life, which is a contender for his best. Having only seen Badlands and The Thin Red Line, I was excited to see how his style has evolved, and was enticed by a cast filled with heavy hitters like Michael Fassbender, Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, and Natalie Portman. But what sealed the deal was getting another film set in the music industry, intent on showing the trials and tribulations of the musician: Inside Llewyn Davis is my favorite film, Whiplash is one of the most inspirational movies I can think of, and La La Land is just a great homage to early Hollywood musicals. So saying I like the representation of music in film is an understatement.
Song to Song follows musicians Faye (Rooney Mara), BV (Ryan Gosling), producer Cook (Michael Fassbender), and waitress Rhonda (Natalie Portman). These four lives intertwine in the passionate Austin, Texas scene and leave their mark on each other, for better or worse.
The poetic tale of these broken characters are told in the disjunctive edit as they live moment to moment, “kiss to kiss, song to song.” This is accentuated by the plot, which structured so that we follow characters episodically and sporadically. The real question though is if the film does this well.
Let's get this out of the way first, the film is gorgeous. Not only is Austin a beautiful city, but the directing is incredible. The always-moving camera really brings out the raw emotion and physicality of the world the central characters live in, especially in how that movement misses subjects in the heat of the moment. The poetic quality is even shown visually, which was kindly pointed out to me by Brian, like a relationship bookended by the two walking down a hill from a secluded date spot, and then later back up to it. Also, rounding out the beautiful visuals is the cast. Everyone is playing their typical sexy characters, except for Natalie Portman who is on another level. Think Margot Robbie in The Wolf of Wall Street.
While that is, in most cases, all that's needed to make a decent film, here things are different. Very different.
The disjunctive editing, which I understand has only been part of Malick’s style in recent films, works a fraction of the time. When it clicks, it has a pretty interesting effect, but when it doesn’t, the film becomes incredibly exhausting. The style throws away the rules of scene development and instead uses montage incessantly. The average shot length is probably less than seven or eight seconds because it really is montaging all the time. When the film needs a specific and integral moment, the scene is cut to bits, presenting sometimes the most interesting parts instead of what's necessary, with little continuity between cuts despite being separated in reality by seconds. This in turn makes the plot feel incredibly trivial, almost to the point where the film feels devoid of any. To be completely honest, I didn’t know the actual runtime of the film until recently. In the moment, I could have sworn three hours had gone by, but apparently it was only two. Brian and I both agreed this was right behind Silence as the longest-feeling film we’ve seen together, and that was actually a three hour film. Not to beat this dead horse anymore, but it probably didn’t help that there were multiple times the film seemed to be wrapping up, only to go on...and on...and on.
Malick in the 70’s reinvented the voiceover. It could be more than a tool to transition the characters from one scene to the next, and gives incredible insight into character and context. For example, Badlands had a line from Holly’s voiceover along the lines of “I read the map and spelled cities and sentences on the roof of my mouth with my tongue.” What made it memorable was that it came after her realization that Kit is more unhinged than he let on, and started showing regret for going down a certain path. It almost seems as if she would rather keep to herself than speak to Kit, and considering she's really only ever with him, she can’t come out and say so. Song to Song just doesn’t have that. With four characters and four voiceovers saying what amounts to nothing, it loses its novelty minutes in. There is roughly three times more voiceover than dialogue, and it’s constantly switching between vague philosophical lines that, to the best of my knowledge, don’t quite match what's on screen, or light exposition that comes in droves. Hell, there's even times where the voice over is the only thing pushing the “plot” forward.
One last thing that I’m almost positive I’ll be alone in thinking, but I ask myself why these characters are written in the music industry. You can count the number of times they’re shown playing or writing music on one hand, and considering the entire film is a montage, these instances are short and quickly buried amid countless other scenes that have nothing to do with music. It seems they were written this way to literalize the “kiss to kiss, song to song” theme. I’m not saying the film should be as honed in on the music as Inside Llewyn Davis, Whiplash, or La La Land, but again: what’s the point of writing them as musicians? Is it so Malick can shoot at these festivals, or interview a handful of real-world musicians?
If you don’t care for Malick or haven’t seen his work, skip this. If you consider yourself a mega fan, then you’ll see it anyway, but temper your expectations. If this is your first Malick experience, it's not indicative of his other work. Far from it. Maybe start with Badlands and work your way chronologically until you finish The Thin Red Line, then skip to The Tree of Life. Like I said, I haven’t seen The Tree of Life yet, but given the amount of praise it's received over the years and now rumors of a Criterion release, it's probably safe to say it's better than this. Song To Song might be the first big disappointment of the year for me.
Logan - James Mangold
Rating: 9 out of 10
Logan is a movie of profound warmth for its titular character. It may age him, weaken him, and brutalize him, but it digs into Logan’s psyche deeper than any before, making full use of its R rating to spare us nothing. Freed from the constraints of broad-appeal storytelling as well as the Gordian knot of the X-Men film continuity, director James Mangold sets out to craft a western out of the superhero movie and triumphs. Everything missing from Bryan Singer’s X-Men universe is here in spades, from the profanity and viscera that is so illogically absent from the original franchise to a richer, more nuanced focus on character.
In the future, mutants are scarce. There is Logan, who works as a chauffeur to pay for the medication he must administer to the ailing (ex) Professor Charles Xavier, who is looked after by a reptilian mutant named Caliban when Logan’s away. Logan is old and cantankerous, far more so than in any previous iteration. Xavier, whose paternal attitude became a difficult sell once James McAvoy’s portrayal of the young, hedonistic Charles was introduced, is more foul-mouthed, more damaged, and more believable than before. Caliban may be underdeveloped in the scheme of things, but for perspective’s sake, demonstrates more personality in his half-hour of screentime than Cyclops across three movies.
That seems to be it. They live on the U.S./Mexico border in an dingy, dusty factory, driven to these meager environs by an event for which “Westchester” becomes shorthand - a disaster for which Xavier feels responsible, and which is heavily implied to have spelled the end of the X-Men. Xavier is old, and his mind, classified as a weapon of mass destruction by the U.S. government, is slowly deteriorating. The medicine and the drum-like structure Xavier is kept in quickly make sense, and despite some conflict among the three, they seem to be getting along well enough in these conditions until a woman named Gabriella comes to Logan for help.
His first response is a curt “Get the fuck away from me,” but there’s more to her than it seems. She’s a nurse on the run from a shadowy organization with an interest in her daughter, who Gabriella desperately needs to get over the Canadian border. Her pursuers are represented by a man with red Ozzy glasses, a mechanical hand, and a condescending drawl, and he starts applying pressure from the moment he enters the picture, murdering Gabriella and storming the factory where Logan and company are holed up. What no one counts on is Gabriella’s girl, who isn’t her girl at all, but a subject of the same experiments that turned Logan into the Wolverine. In one of the film’s numerous showstoppers, she lays waste to scores of heavily-armed men on her own before Logan steps in to help. The girl, aka X-23, is an absolute dynamo. Some of the credit must go to the choreographers, editors, and special-effects personnel, but the performance is Dafne Keen’s, and she is a find like few others in recent memory. Because X-23 is mute for most of the film, Keen’s physicality comes heavily into play. The sheer skill it takes to pull this off is admirable, but comparing the depth of her performance to her age, it’s nothing short of incredible. And her battle screech is terrifying.
With no choice but to honor Gabriella’s request, Logan takes off across the country with Xavier and X-23. The latter bond almost immediately, but ever the gunslinger, Logan is frosty and distant in his interactions with her. He treats her and her journey like a job to get done. It’s when he doesn’t that things go awry, as an extended stay at a family ranch, a critical point for many of the film’s blossoming plot threads, demonstrates. There’s no lasting peace in a movie like this. One might be tempted to call the scenes at the ranch predictable, but that would be missing the point. Logan isn’t out to reinvent basic storytelling but the limitations of the superhero genre, which have been rather strict. Watchmen and Deadpool, another (loose) X-Men property, should be credited with starting the push for A Better Superhero Film, but Logan should be regarded as the one that really expanded the playfield once all is said and done. It employs tropes like the troubled hero, the moment of respite shattered by violence, the father-daughter relationship, and the redemptive arc not out of laziness, but to make the point that the superhero genre can function as more than an origin-story generator or smash-’em-up showcase while still including elements of both.
Not to say that there aren’t some missteps along the way. They don’t always detract from the experience, and in some way enhance what’s special about Logan, but they deserve mention all the same. One trope Logan can’t shake is the superhero movie’s insistence on spotlighting every freaky superpower with annoying, lingering close-ups. The X-Men movies has always been pretty shameless about this, though admittedly, there are a lot of diverse and interesting mutants with diverse and interesting superpowers. It’s just that most of them didn’t make it into this movie. Sometime in the third act, we’re introduced to a horde of mutants who each get half a minute or so to show off their powers...right in the middle of the climactic battle. It’s jarring and clownish after almost two hours of serious filmmaking, and it’s difficult to tell whether they’re supposed to be callbacks to Singer’s franchise or the result of studio intervention. The girl with the frost breath and the other girl who can...control wood splinters or something, are the worst offenders, and it’s even more disappointing that these subpar mutants take down most of the film’s antagonists - which isn’t saying much, actually, since there is a surprising deficit of personality among them. The organization that created X-23 is clearly dangerous and adequately fills the villain spot, but after two almost-back-to-back viewings, I still have trouble remembering any of their names apart from X-24. I won’t spoil his character for those who haven’t seen Logan yet, for whatever reason.
Luckily, this isn’t a movie that requires larger-than-life adversaries. It may go without saying that Logan is one of the good guys, but in the tradition of the western, the distinction isn’t clear-cut in the world of the film. It even states this point for us in the words of an actual western playing on a hotel TV: “good and bad is a brand.” There’s more to the quote, but these words are vital: the distinction between hero and villain, human and monster, amount to projection, perspective, and semantics. Actions are just actions, and their meaning is ours to supply. It’s not a new idea, but it’s nearly revolutionary in the context of a superhero movie, especially one connected to a franchise that’s never really worked with anything but absolutes - and in its exploration of this ambiguity, it is truer to the tormented character of the Wolverine than any film before or, we pretty confidently predict, since.
Get Out - Jordan Peele
To say I was excited for this movie is an overstatement. I like Jordan Peele’s work in select Key and Peele segments, and Keanu is decent despite a few scenes. Judging from the trailer, Get Out looked like a run of the mill horror film with a racial spin, so when reviews started pouring out with wide support, scoring 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, it was surprising. But what really shocked me was Criterion posting an interview with Peele. The only other instances that come to mind where Criterion covered a film in theaters were Oscar-winning Moonlight and one of my favorite horror films, The Witch.
Get Out follows Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) on a trip to his girlfriend’s parents house. He’s apprehensive about meeting her parents, mainly because of their reaction when they find out he’s black. When the moment comes, Chris is welcomed with open arms. There are a few questionable comments here and there between these liberal parents, brushed off as harmless mistakes. It isn’t until Chris starts talking to the groundskeeper and cook, both black, that we begin to realize that something fishy maybe going down.
Almost immediately, the film gives a taste of the tight rope walk Peele had to tread in order to create an effective horror experience while keeping the tone light and incredibly humorous. The cold open puts Andrew, a friend of a friend of Chris’s, in a suburban neighborhood at night, talking with his girlfriend on the phone, vocalizing how creeped out he is. The play on stereotypes is so apparent through the perspective of these characters that it's hard not to uncomfortably laugh as you then remember maybe doing the same. Even if you consider yourself a non-racist liberal, you still feel the awkward moments, like the weird emphasis on “black mold,” or “I would’ve voted for Obama a third time.” They also cross over the genre divide with comments about Chris’s genetic makeup being perfect for MMA and provoking a fight.
One of my worries was the use common horror tactics, namely the jump-scare: still silence brutally interrupted by an unexpected appearance and a sting from the score. These moments exist, and I really can’t help but roll my eyes at them, especially considering some of them weren't even startling. But this is only one side of the coin. Get Out takes its time planting sinister details, presenting innocuous actions that click the wrong way. When the mask falls, you can't help sinking in your seat, paralyzed. Its these moments where the Criterion interview makes sense. Peele talked about Rosemary’s Baby, mainly how he saw it young and has come to regard it as his favorite film. His mother, he tells us, used to go on about how the film perfectly portrayed pregnancy; having a feeling you just can’t shake, while everyone around you tells you everything is fine and blames your feeling on hormones. Get Out does the same. An early scene conditions you, showing the police are a little less than reasonable by asking for Chris’s license after an accident despite him being the passenger. Later on, the flash of police lights in the darkness evoke that same sinking feeling.
I’m so happy I was wrong about this film. Get Out is a ton of fun and shows that Peele can do more than smart comedy. I may have some issues, but if someone told me the cheap jump scares were there because the studio meddled with the script to appeal to that audience, I wouldn’t be surprised. Also, YouTuber YourMovieSucksDotOrg played with the idea that they were used ironically but poorly done, which I can also see and might agree with. Either way, see it. This is one of those types of horror films we need to see more of. Peele deserves the keys to the kingdom and free reign to do whatever he wants to do in the future.
- Alex B.
xXx: Return of Xander Cage - D.J. Caruso
I have to confess. I not only liked the original xXx and will fight in its defense, but I was also really excited for this. As a fun, stupid action movie you can turn on when you just don’t care about finding something good, xXx is perfect. There's nothing offensively bad about it. It's a disposable flick that doesn’t care about being serious. If you didn’t get that from the cold open of a man murdered on stage and his body crowd surfs to Rammstein’s Feuer Frei, that's your fault. So when the trailer drops and we see Vin Diesel reprising his role, a cornucopia of talent, and “Kick some ass, get the girl, and try to look dope while you’re doing it...” Yeah, that's exactly what I want out of this.
After a satellite crashes back to Earth, the NSA learn of a device capable of doing this with precision. After they retrieve it, Xiang (Donnie Yen) and his crew break into a secret meeting and steal the device in flashy trick combat. With their back against the wall, they try to find a man that supposedly died years ago, Xander Cage (Vin Diesel). Cage puts together a team that he trusts and knows is capable of badassery.
As the film started playing and the minutes ticked by with insufferable dialogue, cliches, and cheese, I was worried I might have made a terrible mistake. When I say the dialogue is insufferable, I mean it. For the most part, it's one liners that clearly try to make it to the trailer. The exposition is dull. The introductions to these new characters are awful, with info cards populated with embarrassingly bad writing and facts like, I shit you not, “Call of Duty tag: Lady_Boner.” It's a real shame considering this badass cast (Ruby Rose, Rory McCann, and more), don't get the appropriate introductions their characters deserve.
As soon as the action starts, the film clicks. It's a fun, badass, testosterone filled ride. It really shows that Vin Diesel wanted to represent a wide range of action talent and it’s always interesting, even when it's off the rails, like when a motorcycle rides on water. Rose is the woman who can hold her own better than some of the guys, McCann is a blockheaded wildcard, Donnie Yen is the deadliest man even without a gun. There's also an EDM guy, “The Hood.” Not everyone can be great. Especially considering Nina Dobrev’s character, who is honestly the most annoying character I've seen in the past year. She's the fangirl gawking at Diesel every moment she gets. The character is supposed to be over the top and incredibly forward, but the combination of the writing and execution make her scenes miserable. There aren't many scenes with her, so that a plus. Out of the whole cast, Donnie Yen is seriously levels above everyone. After seeing this, Rogue One underused that man's talent. If this performance is indicative of the rest of his work, I've got a ton to watch. The speedy execution of his choreography, his fierce precision, and even his harm, has me salivating for more.
Beyond that, there's nothing too special. The effects aren't great. It's about half-practical, half-CG. The CG is pretty noticeably CG, so it's terrible. The average shot length in these action scenes are only about a second. The quick cuts would be a problem if there was shaky cam, and while there's a lot of camera movement, it's by no means shaky and not hard to follow. You get the full effect of the stunt work, but still. Long takes, with wide and steady shots really display the expertise of these people.
Is it what I wanted? Yes and no. I still believe the original is at least a fun film that you can't call objectively bad. This, however, is the other end of the spectrum. It is certainly a bad film, but there's still a lot to appreciate. There’s nothing wrong with hating it, of course, but you can hopefully find something - anything - to appreciate. Like Donnie Yen!
- Alex B.
"Curtains" is where you can catch movie reviews by the Metal Lifestyle staff.