Archive for the ‘action/adventure’ category

The Matrix Resurrections

December 25, 2021

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There’s a whole bunch of plot jibber-jabber in The Matrix Resurrections, as there was in the previous three films in the series, but at least this one is a bit more emotionally readable. Lana Wachowski, one-half of the Wachowskis who engineered the Matrix franchise, has said that her impetus for going back to the Matrix well was the deaths of her parents. She wanted them back, and she put that yearning into a story in which everyone moves heaven and earth to get Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), the heroes of the earlier movies, back together and in charge of the resistance against those who would misuse the Matrix.

I have very little understanding or recall of what happens scene for scene in The Matrix Resurrections, but the elation of having these two back cuts through the murk like a foghorn. Even if, like me, you were never sold on the brilliance of The Matrix, some part of you may respond to the characters’, and Wachowski’s, gratitude that Neo and Trinity are still up for a fight, though this movie takes a while to re-acquaint Neo and then Trinity with reality outside the Matrix. In the matrix, Neo, or Thomas Anderson, is a rich and betrophied videogame designer, whose game The Matrix was a big hit. Thomas happens across Trinity in a coffee shop, except she’s now Tiffany, married with kids.

There’s a fair amount of meta snark here. Thomas faces doing a belated sequel to his original Matrix game trilogy, because if he doesn’t, Warner Brothers will find someone who will. There’s some talk about how originality is dead and entertainment rehashes the same stories endlessly. Wachowski is on thin ice here, but the strong thread of feeling — which we’re told here affects people more than facts — carries us through. Wachowski talks about the dangers of submitting to a comforting fiction (the Matrix, with its taste of steak) while submitting to a comforting fiction; this isn’t hypocrisy, it’s an honest assessment of what we often want and need from art. If the first Matrix films were really about the trans experience (although the sequels kind of got bogged down in set pieces), this one is about making a self out of one’s own, or others’, creations.

The pertinent question here might be, How is it as a Matrix film? I doubt it’s possible to go back to the relative simplicity of the first movie and disregard the convolutions larded on by its sequels (the way, say, David Gordon Green’s Halloween sequel did), and Wachowski acknowledges that on some level. A lot of clutter has to be thrown in the path of Neo and his new band of acolytes before Trinity figures things out and re-assumes her role; it’s significant that it’s a choice she must make for herself, a subtext unlikely to win the movie fans among conservatives. (As much as she must have wanted to, Wachowski doesn’t have time here to include scuzzy incels appropriating her red-pill-blue-pill metaphor. There is, however, chit-chat about binary ways of thought and living, and how those are truer to a machine’s view of humanity than to the reality of it.)

Back in 1999, The Matrix felt like a brutal-cool riff on the old themes of individuality vs. oppression (we didn’t yet know the story had deeper meanings for Lana and Lilly Wachowski; Lilly chose to sit out this film). I wasn’t terribly wowed at the time, but in hindsight it emerges as one of an accidental run of movies in that year grappling with reality and our role in it. It makes more sense in its 1999 context as a sharp, sickly-green pre-millennium vision than as the start of an increasingly bloated franchise. The Matrix Resurrections ultimately can’t go home again, and Wachowski knows it; there’s a streak of melancholy running through the film, but intertwined with a streak of hope that the elders of cool, Neo and Trinity in their black-on-black get-ups, still have something to teach us, and that there are younger warriors willing to go to the brink to rescue their wisdom. And if you’re looking for a review that tells you how the new Morpheus is, or how bad-ass the fights are, you took the wrong pill.

Kate

September 12, 2021

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Slicker than goose shit, Netflix’s #1 trending new film Kate is stylishly brutal and will probably be praised in some quarters accordingly, but it leaves us wanting more. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is laconically terrific as Kate, an assassin who gets poisoned and spends the remainder of the movie, and the rest of her shortened life, searching for the yakuza higher-up who gave the order. Kate kills her way through Japan, coughing and injecting herself with stimulants to keep going. Even just this far into the review, film titles may have popped into your head: John Wick and the Crank films and DOA (either version) and many others.

In and of itself, Kate is smoothly pieced together, but it simply echoes too many of its ancestors to earn a place among them. It’s probably best for fans of Winstead and of gnarly action — the fight choreography is quick and vicious, and the digital effects augment the carnage (Kate takes out one poor sap by shoving a knife through his lower jaw up through the bridge of his nose). Segment by segment, the movie keeps us going, like those stimulants, but ultimately it winds down, and our interest with it. Kate is provided with a damsel in distress, teenage Ani (Miku Martineau), whose uncle is a yakuza bigwig; her father had earlier been killed in front of her by sniper Kate, though Ani doesn’t know this.

Shooting and stabbing her way up the ladder of the Japanese underworld, Kate needs to keep the whiny Ani alive, and every time we see Ani, we’re reminded of how false this relationship feels, how roughly it seems forced into place. Thank God Kate’s maternal instincts aren’t awakened by Ani — Kate feels bad for getting Ani’s dad’s blood all over the kid’s face, but that’s about it. When Kate takes scissors to her hair in a restroom, she comes out looking a bit like Sigourney Weaver in Aliens. The script, sadly, doesn’t give Winstead much to call her own. Kate is professional and pained and vengeful. She doesn’t have time to be anything else. For the sake of a cool visual late in the film — when Kate should be almost dead — she comes out, loaded for bear, smoking a cigarette and backed by numerous yakuza. Sorry, is this the same woman we’ve seen coughing in every scene and, pre-poison, jogging and parkouring up alley walls? There’s no reason for her to put more toxins in her body and mess up her respiration other than Rule of Cool.

Which, I suppose, will be enough for some. It’s probably an homage to Chow Yun-Fat in The Killer or Hard Boiled, or any number of films where an assassin blithely sucks up some nicotine before rolling up their sleeves and aerating dozens of foes. But Kate has too many moments like that, where we figure something’s there because someone (maybe director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, or writer Umair Aleem, or both) thought it’d look awesome. It does, kind of, but in all the old ways. Filmed in Tokyo, Bangkok, and L.A., Kate is full of decadent neon and Japanese hip-hop and densely packed nightclubs. There’s also an evil gay assassin (played by the musician Miyavi, the obsessed sergeant in Unbroken) who fights well enough but, jeez, why the yellow/pink peril?

It’s not as if the movie had anything to say about sexuality. Kate takes a rando to bed (contemptuously tossing a wad of cash on the nightstand), and if not for this guy, she wouldn’t get poisoned. Nothing he says to her strikes us as witty or persuasive enough to score with her, so why does she bother? Then again, we never ask why James Bond or other male assassins pause to savor the touch of a woman; maybe she just needs to work off some nervous energy. God knows she doesn’t have anyone else in her life, other than Woody Harrelson in a handful of scenes as Kate’s handler Varrick. (Is his first name Charley?) I wasn’t aware Harrelson had entered the stage of his career when he pops in for extended cameos in empty-calorie actioners; he probably does it better than Bruce Willis does at this point, but that’s not saying much. As with Winstead, his professionalism is appreciated, but one wants to be watching either of them in anything else.

Godzilla Vs. Kong

June 13, 2021

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The cartoonist Sergio Aragonés once pointed out something in an interview that has stuck with me for some thirty years. He said that when Superman in the comic books was rendered less realistically and more cartoonishly, he could pick up a tall building by its corner and we could believe it. In later years, Aragonés said, when Superman and his surroundings were depicted with more physical realism and you could see all his veins and muscles, all the bricks in the building, we could no longer believe in such a feat — we would assume the building would just crumble apart. Aragonés’ insight applies as well to movies, which can depict the unreal with surface realism — you can see all the details — but lose something in the realm of fantasy and imagination.

Who ever wanted to see a realistic King Kong or Godzilla? Kong as realized by Willis O’Brien in the 1933 film has a rough-hewn magic that inspires glee and fear, sometimes both at once. The Godzilla, or Gojira, of some of the goofier Toho films was clearly a man in a suit, and accordingly had a human vibe. He was the kind of monster we felt close to, sorry for. All of that is lost in Godzilla Vs. Kong, in which the title opponents are of course created in computers. And boy, you can see all the details. Nothing is left to the imagination — at least as it applies to the damage the titans do to each other. Humans, on the other hand, die as afterthoughts, as gnats in what they thought was their narrative, but which instead belongs to the bestial and gigantic. And when the titans clash in the middle of Hong Kong, buildings are atomized, blown apart into coffee-cake crumbs, scattered like drops of mist. 

We’re told the city has already been evacuated, but that hardly matters. What we’re seeing is vast destruction, and the assurance that there’s no human toll is the sheerest hypocrisy. The fact is that we didn’t care fifty or sixty years ago if there were people in the buildings Godzilla wrecked, and we don’t care now. The problem is that even the buildings are rendered here with the utmost realism. So this sort of narrative handwaving is less convincing now than when the buildings were obvious cardboard. These are made to look like real creatures in real space destroying real objects. The cartoonish quality of a vintage Toho monster mash is gone. The fun, for me, is gone.

Does the story really matter? Demian Bechir plays an arrogant tech moneybags who believes the Titans — Kong, Godzilla, and the critters Godzilla fought in 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters — threaten humanity’s status as the planet’s alpha, its apex predator. So he has built Mechagodzilla to kill them. Godzilla and Kong don’t get along at first, but ultimately they join forces against Mechagodzilla, and truly when you distill this thing down to a brutal synopsis it sounds like something you’d see on a 22-minute episode of the ‘70s Hanna-Barbera Godzilla cartoon. And it would have been more entertaining there. Instead, Godzilla is charmlessly ugly, and Kong is always unhappy and riled up, and Mechagodzilla is this clangorous mess of steel, and there’s no exhilaration in it except for one moment when Kong and Godzilla roar at each other.

Godzilla Vs. Kong made money against all odds, so there will be more movies in this “MonsterVerse” franchise (which also includes 2014’s Godzilla and 2017’s Kong: Skull Island, the latter of which I missed). This might be the time for me to tap out of this series, though. The look of most of them is grim, gray, drizzly. (Kong’s milieu, though, is naturally sunnier and more colorful — the bits I’ve seen of Kong: Skull Island seem to bear that out.) Everything is drab now — the Bond films, superhero films, and giant-monster films. They’re depressing to look at and to spend any length of time in. So I’ll stick with the old monsters. Even the black-and-white monster films have a sharper visual pop than the dishwater dregs of Godzilla Vs. Kong. 

Army of the Dead

May 23, 2021

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It’d be nice if Athena Perample got a career bump from Zack Snyder’s mediocrity at length Army of the Dead. A stuntwoman, Perample appears in the new zombie film as a character credited as Alpha Queen, and she slinks around hissing and looking fabulous in an undead Corpse Bride fashion. (Even the zombies are hotties in Snyderverse.) I’ve seen Army of the Dead described as being full of characters who could carry their own interesting movies, but are instead all stuck with each other in a boring movie. The Alpha Queen would be exhibit A. Are the alpha zombies the top of the hierarchy of zombies? Do they have a culture? Leisure activities? They’re said to be smarter than the usual “shamblers,” but are they building anything or just squatting on the dust of a dead world?

There’s little evidence that Zack Snyder cared all that much about the implications of a zombie society. Snyder isn’t a thinker; like Christopher Nolan, he works up to big, showy sequences, devoted to his jock-nerd idea of cool. I don’t think Snyder is without merit: he did well by Watchmen and made an accidental masterpiece with Sucker Punch, which I persist in considering unconscious art. But without a strong structure, his films tend to go by in a semi-sequential blur. They have no internal clock, no rhythm. Something happens, something else happens, and it’s all on the same emotionally null level. 

Army of the Dead is never more risible than when it asks us to sniffle over the fates of characters we barely know, even though Snyder has plenty of time to acquaint us with them. Hell, George Romero’s longest Dead film was only 126 minutes, and it was described as “epic” despite being confined mostly to one location. This damn thing runs for two hours and twenty-eight minutes, and though it mashes up the zombie genre and the heist genre — a group of hardcases are tasked with getting millions of dollars out of a Vegas casino before the whole zombie-overrun city gets nuked — it doesn’t even give us a montage where the players plot things out. Dave Bautista gets top billing as a mercenary (I guess?) who puts a team together to fetch the money, and again, as with Man of Steel, the connective narrative — when Bautista recruits various people (a safecracker, a hard-bitten expert at zombie warfare) — feels like placeholders. Snyder kind of just goes through them so he can get to the good stuff, when zombies bite folks real good and then get shot up real good. In both cases, blood sprays all over the place.

Army of the Dead is raring to be big and excessive, and the concussive deep bass and scale of it can be mesmerizing in fits and starts. Sometimes we look at the chaotic images and we lament the kind of zombie opus that George Romero was never given the budget to make. Romero would’ve known what to do with this cast, too. I like Bautista — his cartoonishly wide frame holds some tenderness — but Snyder doesn’t do much with him. A lot of the publicity has surrounded Tig Notaro being digitally ported in to replace accused sexual scumbag Chris D’Elia, but the movie neither gets the best out of her nor deserves it. We’re supposed to root for all these people because they’re not zombies, I guess, although the film sometimes seems on the verge of switching our allegiances around (hey, zombies have feelings too!) but ends up fumbling that too.

Snyder spent the better part of a decade in the DC Comics wilderness, making dour, overlong films nobody much enjoyed. Did he ever even like superheroes? He seemed more at home with the deconstructionist superhero valedictory Watchmen. I thought Sucker Punch was a possible unaware shiv in the ribs to the Comic-Con rules of cool — Snyder the naive satirist. But in Army of the Dead he’s back doing stuff seemingly calculated to make high-school boys exclaim “Badass!,” except this time nothing is skewered. The story is bloated and amorphous, and whatever targets it might have are murky. As in his Dawn of the Dead remake, Snyder isn’t using the zombie movie as a Trojan horse for social comment; even the crass irony of zombies feasting on Vegas schmucks and showgirls is threadbare and abruptly handled. Snyder just wants to get to the parts where hordes of zombies get their brains blown out, over and over. It gets old for us a lot sooner than it does for him. 

Nobody

April 17, 2021

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Sometimes you just want a brutality expert wrecking house and perforating faceless bad guys, and Nobody gives you that and then some. At ninety-one minutes, the movie embodies “lean and mean,” and it’s not about anything — it’s just an excuse to get our hero into as many ferocious encounters as possible. It’s the kind of pure cinema that traditionally gets little respect except from action-film fans, who have seen everything and just want to see it done well. Is it realistic? Gedoudda here. It’s a cartoon. But as directed by Ilya Naishuller (Hardcore Henry) and written by Derek Kolstad (the John Wick series), it’s made by people who know what they’re doing. When a baseline of competence is in place, there’s solid ground from which to jump, take flight, indulge in excess.

Perhaps best known these days for Breaking Bad and its spin-off Better Call Saul, Bob Odenkirk would seem, at the very least, cast against type here as Hutch Mansell, an apparently meek office drone crunching numbers in his father-in-law’s business. (Indication of the fun to come: dad-in-law is played by badass character actor Michael Ironside.) About half an hour into the movie — by which time we’ve seen Hutch decline to meet a couple of home invaders with a violent response — we find out that Hutch used to do wetwork for “the three-letter agencies.” A tough guy in a tattoo parlor sees a tat on Hutch’s wrist and backs right down; he knows what that means. Soon, a group of goons threaten a young woman on a bus Hutch happens to be on, and we’re off to the races.

The fight choreography and bone-snapping editing give us a clear view of the carnage. Odenkirk trained for over two years to master Hutch’s lethal moves, and it shows. Is it easier to get a performance out of a nonactor but professional fighter (say, Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire) or to hire an actor and train them to fight? In this case, Odenkirk brings a resigned slouch to his pre-violent scenes as the retired hit-man turned family man (he has a wife, played by Connie Nielsen, and two kids). Hutch once thought he wanted the quiet life, but after some years away from the bloodshed he wants back in. He doesn’t really suffer any great tragedy to push him back into the fray. He’s just tired of, as the first song in the movie underlines, being misunderstood.

Hutch runs afoul of a Russian gang, led by casually vicious Aleksei Serebryakov. He could take them on alone, but where’s the fun in that? Hutch enlists the aid of two men whose identities I won’t spoil, and just the sight of them joining in the mayhem is boundlessly entertaining. Nobody made me deeply happy not in spite of but because of its dedication to gritty, grunting, gore-splattered climaxes. I liked the reasoning behind Hutch letting the two thieves go at the beginning: as someone well-acquainted with true evil, Hutch didn’t sniff it on these nitwits. Hutch’s wife and son, it turns out, don’t know him very well; they take him for a boring wimp. His little daughter on some level knows what he is; she feels safe with him.

Some fans are already agitating for sequels, or a crossover set in the John Wick-verse. I say let Hutch (and Odenkirk, who’s 58 and probably doesn’t have many more Nobodys in him physically, though I have no doubt he could still kick my ass) stroll off into the sunset and take pride in a job well done. Not everything has to be a franchise. As it is, this plays like the sort of outstanding but obscure action tape you used to find on the bottom shelf of a mom-n-pop video store, a fierce one-and-done. Its story is complete. Hutch came back once; he doesn’t need to keep coming back. By its very energy and happy ingenuity, Nobody argues pretty persuasively for Hutch’s violent past, at least as the subject of a solar-plexus-punching B movie. It’d be depressing in real life. And the other side of Odenkirk’s phenomenal performance is that Hutch, we sense, knows just how depressing. Odenkirk shows us the contradiction of the samurai, many of whom were also Buddhist. Also there’s a dude who gets chest-bumped with a fucking Claymore.

Tenet

January 24, 2021

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There’s a guy, brave and smart. We’ll call him the good guy. Watch now as we point him in the direction of the bad guy. The bad guy wants to make everything die. Why? Because he’s the bad guy. The good guy, being the good guy, must stop the bad guy. This, sincerely, is all you need to understand Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. It’s also the basic bones of your choice of spy tale, including the Bonds. But, as with many of those spy stories, that good guy-bad guy skeleton is all you take away from Tenet. That’s fine; not every movie needs to be Tarkovsky. Tenet is perfectly readable and enjoyable as the “ride” Nolan wants you to go along for.

Of course, people will want to hang analytical ornaments all over it, wrestling with what this or that symbol or word really means. Let them, but if you value your sanity, follow them not too deeply into the weeds of interpretation. Someday, I hope long after I’m gone, someone will sync Tenet to a deep-cut Pink Floyd side — Atom Heart Mother, maybe — and the world will end, folding in on itself into an origami chicken that pecks itself to death. On a certain level, Tenet can and will be taken as a higher-math mind trip, though one that, like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, relies for its humanizing element on the trope of a mother-and-child reunion. Here, the trope is somewhat cauterized by the casting of Elizabeth Debicki — whom Warner should be looking at to play an Amazonian rival of Diana’s in a future Wonder Woman film — as the mother.

About a head taller than most any man with whom she shares the frame, and with no attempt by Nolan to cover by putting the men on soapboxes, Debicki has the equipoise to shoulder Tenet’s emotional weight without herself becoming bathetic. Her Kat Barton at least has recognizable human motives, unlike the protagonist (John David Washington), puckishly named only as The Protagonist. T.P., as I’ll call him in the interest of saving space, is a CIA agent charged with the mission of preventing a Thing (McGuffin, bomb, worldkiller, whatevs) from getting into the hands of the Bad Guy (Kenneth Branagh). The complication: the Bad Guy can access the future. So T.P. and his new bestest buddy Neil (Robert Pattinson) go back and forth between the back and the forth in pursuit of the Bad Guy. Most of this is only an excuse for Nolan, whose gleeful little inner child playing with trains really shows himself here, to indulge in massive set pieces involving squadrons of crew, an actual plane ramming into an actual building, many millions of dollars, and Kenneth Branagh doing a muted version of the Bond villain he’s always thirsted to play.

Other than a couple of scenes with Branagh and Debicki on a yacht — and even those are contextually loaded with dread and foreboding — Tenet is always in motion, never catching its breath, always beating feet to the next big bang. The physics/metaphysics by which people can travel to next week or last week washed over me nearly unnoticed. It’s just details. I responded to Tenet as a gigantic tone poem of motion proposed and then rescinded, bullet holes sealing themselves up and bullets rocketing back into their chambers. (What happens if you get hit by a backwards bullet? It ain’t pretty.)

I came to realize, with this and his previous film Dunkirk, that Nolan seems to be leaving plot behind to focus on story, and to make story bend to the reckless will of cinema. And it’s true, some of the stuff here has never been seen before (on this scale) and will likely only be seen this once. The really zesty moments wouldn’t work in any other medium, and watching it on my laptop (with subtitles), I understood with a twinge of sympathy why Nolan was so adamant that Tenet be seen on big screens. This work has been designed to be viewed on an enormous canvas, and Warner and Nolan should have held it back until it was safe for audiences to do so. But it may also find a life as a Brobdingnagian cult film, an ambitious and pricey folly to shelve alongside Cloud Atlas and a few others. It means what you want it to mean, and I don’t want it to mean anything. It’s just a ride.

Wonder Woman 1984

December 27, 2020

ww84Kristen Wiig is raring to give a classic large-scale performance in Wonder Woman 1984. Her character, the terminally awkward gemologist Barbara Minerva, sits with rage born of neglect. Barbara gets a chance at real power, and it turns her into a monster, literally: she further elaborates that she wishes she were an apex predator, and she becomes Cheetah, a cat-like villain. But why a cheetah? At least in Batman Returns, Catwoman had a cat and was saved by a bunch more. Barbara likes leopard print, so … okay, we’ll go with it. Anyway, Wiig would have an easier time of it in a movie that foregrounded her more, but the script brushes Barbara off as much as her colleagues do. She doesn’t even get a decent final scene, just a protracted fight that turns Wiig and star Gal Gadot into clashing CG figures.

This is not a good movie, and it’s not a bad movie. Wonder Woman 1984 is enormously ambitious, overlong, sincere, sloppy, trying to do something profound with somewhat silly ingredients. I much enjoyed 2017’s Wonder Woman (which like WW84 was directed by Patty Jenkins), but I think I feel a fondness for the sequel that I don’t for the original. The earlier film had the purity and sharpness of a drillbit; the new one, to put it outrageously mildly, does not. It has large things on its mind, some of which are accidentally relevant to the current moment; its message is that we should wish for the common good. An ancient stone comes across Barbara’s desk care of the FBI; it turns out to have the power to grant people’s wishes. Everyone wishes for self-serving things; even Wonder Woman uses her wish to bring back her long-dead soulmate Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). Eventually Cheetah draws blood, Wonder Woman’s powers are ebbing, and nuclear bombs dot the sky.

That’s a lot of balls to keep in the air; Jenkins drops more than a few of them, but not the ones that mattered to me, the emotional beats. There is another villain here, the bull-slinging television personality Max Lord (Pedro Pascal), who gets ahold of the wish-giving stone and absorbs it into himself. Sometimes WW84 wants to be about geopolitics, and sometimes it wants to be about relationships, and sometimes it wants to be about this magic stone that does weird things to people. It refuses to decide to be about one particular thing, and I grew to like that — indeed, WW84 is a terrifically likable movie. It doesn’t hate anyone, not even the skunky Max, who goes around granting wishes in exchange for power. But something has to give, and when we don’t get certain connective scenes featuring Barbara/Cheetah to give us more of a grounding in the process of her descent to villainy, some of the emotions the movie triggers in us get short-circuited. The narrative bumpiness can read as indifference to Barbara, and to us.

Then again, there’s a scene early on where Wonder Woman (in her day-to-day persona Diana — the name Wonder Woman is never spoken here, though, as in the first film) goes out to lunch with Barbara and they talk about love and loss and loneliness, just like two grown-ups in a film for grown-ups. Jenkins handles stuff like this with aplomb, and is equally good at the action insofar as the special effects allow. It’s the story beats that a superhero movie seems to require that get muffled or half-assed, as though Jenkins weren’t interested in them; we’re not particularly either, but every so often a chunk or bit of orphaned story will bob, chewed and dead, to the surface, and it’s disconcerting. Some people will come away from WW84 confounded and hostile, seeing it as the latest example of big-movie big-money assault on coherence.

I understand that response, and the movie doesn’t make it easy to get on board if you’re not on right at the start. But the Young Diana Chronicles prologue hooked me (I’m not sure it has a thematic link to what follows, but it sure is fun), and soon after came a goofball heist right out of comics and movies of the ‘80s, and I was in love. I always wanted more, not less. A four-hour cut of this thing sounds fine to me. As it is, it feels like they shot a six-episode Wonder Woman series and then hacked it down to feature length. Like I said, Cheetah suffers the most from what I presume were some pretty heavy cuts, although there’s a subtle detail that leaves the door open for Cheetah and, more importantly, Wiig to come back. It’s not as though Wonder Woman ever had many big recurring villains aside from Cheetah, anyway. But — and this question goes to the movie, not to the comics, which answered it — why a cheetah?

Da 5 Bloods

June 14, 2020

da5bloodsAt this point, I would sit for two hours of Delroy Lindo just monologuing into the camera, and maybe so would you after watching Spike Lee’s epic new adventure-drama Da 5 Bloods, in which there are at least two such monologues. Lindo, easily the film’s MVP, bites hard into his role as head-scrambled Vietnam vet Paul, bringing the frightening intensity familiar to those who first noticed him in Lee’s Malcolm X, Crooklyn, or Clockers. He carries this long and bruising film the way Paul totes a backpack full of gold: shakily enough to remind you of the character’s vulnerability, but steadily enough to point up his strength — and his dangerousness. It’s a large-scale performance, forceful and heartbreaking, and right now I honestly can’t see anything or anyone standing between Lindo and a Best Actor Oscar. It’s his to lose.

The film he’s in would justify its existence for enabling that performance even if it were otherwise junk, and it certainly is not. I very much enjoyed Lee’s previous feature, BlackKklansman, but that was deft entertainment and Da 5 Bloods is closer to art — impassioned, sometimes rough around the edges, a little explicit in its dialogue from time to time, but heartfelt and built out of guilt, trauma, and Marvin Gaye songs. (Gaye is almost the film’s unofficial co-composer; Terence Blanchard offers a rich, sweeping orchestral score.) I’m not sure if it’s meant to heal any wounds incurred in the Vietnam War or any rifts between Americans and Vietnamese — though one character seems designed to augment Gaye’s and the film’s message of love — but it doesn’t have to. It gives black vets as well as Vietnamese heirs of the pain we caused there a voice we don’t often hear.

Lee and Kevin Willmott reworked a white-focused script called The Last Tour (which Oliver Stone was once going to direct), and it isn’t just black skin mapped onto white characters — the story and its tensions seem to have been rethought from the ground up to speak to specifically black angers and torments. The story concerns four black vets — Lindo’s Paul, Clarke Peters’ Otis, Norm Lewis’ Eddie, and Isiah Whitlock Jr.’s Melvin — who return to their old horror grounds in Vietnam for two purposes: to find the remains of their squad leader “Stormin’” Norman (Chadwick Boseman in flashbacks) and to dig up a trunk full of gold bars they’d found in a downed CIA plane back then. These are the plot things — and Boseman is electrifying as the good soldier who sometimes has to keep his men’s rage in check — but what matters to us is the journey of Paul and his grown son David (Jonathan Majors), a teacher who comes along in part to reconnect with his dad and also to keep an eye on the old hothead. The other three vets get brief bits here and there, but Da 5 Bloods is really about a reckoning not only between father and son — a common theme in Lee’s work — but between guilty survivor and the memory of the dead.

Never a shy director, Lee more or less lets his story and characters speak for themselves. Among several powerful moments is a flashback in which the soldiers hear over the radio that Martin Luther King Jr. has just been assassinated; it’s turned into demoralizing propaganda by the real-life broadcaster “Hanoi Hannah,” and four of the five almost falter in the face of it, but Norman pulls them back from self-defeat. Norman’s climactic scene might read on the page as a bit too pat, but the acting involved is first-class and earns the wet eyes the scene pursues. Lee is still doing his weird double-dolly shot (though thankfully only briefly here), and I don’t know why he feels the need to capitalize every word not only on social media but, here, in subtitled Vietnamese or French. But this is still an ambitious achievement (using at least three aspect ratios — why let Wes Anderson have all the fun?) with as much love expressed for movies as for the young black cannon fodder who left their blood and bloods over there.

Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

June 7, 2020

starwars9And so we return one final time to the Skywalker family. After Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, we are told, there will be no more stories told about the spawn of Darth Vader and their various friends, spawn, and acolytes. With this, I officially lose interest in the Star Wars franchise; even back in 1983, when I thought Star Wars was over, I couldn’t find any hunger for the comics or the “expanded universe” novels or any of the other things Lucasfilm devised to keep the brand a going concern until George Lucas revisited the saga sixteen years later. So the multimedia Joseph Campbell rewrite will have to chug along without me.

This last go-round neither disappointed nor thrilled me; it just exists. There’s always something going on, and that’s part of the problem: there’s never not something going on, no pause for breath, no beauty or poetry. We ain’t got time for that now. The Final Order, a bunch of bad guys led by the Big Bad Guy, the resurgent Emperor Palpatine, plans to subjugate or destroy every planet everywhere. The Good Guys leap to the rescue — identity-crisis Jedi in training Rey (Daisy Ridley), rash pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac), former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega). Meanwhile, good-bad guy Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) wants to save Rey from Palpatine. His deal is as tangled as ever.

Some thematic relevance could be teased out of the previous entries, The Force Awakens (2015) and The Last Jedi (2017). The latter, which I consider the best of the new trilogy, dripped some poison into the ears of the faithful. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), like Achilles, renounced the heroic code; he literally tossed his lightsaber over his shoulder in disgust. Well, we’ll have none of that now, not with non-entity J.J. Abrams (who made the first of the sequel trilogy) at the helm. Abrams’ insight seems to be that the fans want endless lightsaber duels and shoot-outs and spacecraft looping around. Some of the action has a shoot-the-works electricity, but the special effects are as hectic, busy, and essentially insecure as anything in Lucas’ prequel trilogy. Abrams strains so hard not to lose our attention that, through sheer narrative vehemence, he loses it anyway.

There are some pleasures. I felt it would be churlish to try to make out the seams in Carrie Fisher’s performance — cobbled together from unused footage — as General Leia. I was grateful for however much the moviemakers could give me of her. Billy Dee Williams, as the returning Lando Calrissian, comes through with a suave turn that helps to remind us that acting was once possible in these things. (Adam Driver just about sprains himself trying to make something real out of Kylo Ren’s nightmares of conscience, but he did better under the tutelage of Rian Johnson, a real director, on The Last Jedi.) The young trinity of new stars sprint this way and that, hopping from world to world, in search of a McGuffin called “the wayfinder” that will lead them to the lair of Palpatine. This dark emperor is as boringly eeeeeevil as ever, and his connection to one of the heroes feels underdone, as if Abrams and his writers were wincing and hoping the parallels to a similar revelation in The Empire Strikes Back wouldn’t strike us as too blatant.

We’re frequently reminded of the stakes — this needs to happen or the bad guys will be very bad and everyone will die — yet the demands of fantasy on this budgetary level guarantee there are no real stakes. People die but come back one way or another; the total outcome is never in doubt. Here and there, a bit of business tugs at the old nostalgic feelings or packs a sidewise punch: Daisy Ridley’s teardrop falling on Carrie Fisher’s (or a double’s) shoulder; a droid, cowed by past abuse, who declines a human’s touch with a prim but slightly panicked “No, thank you.” Even old Luke returns as a force ghost, reassuring Rey and us that he was wrong and it’s important for good to stand up to evil. That point is made here in the most generic of ways; it doesn’t risk resonating with the world we live in, which even Lucas’ goofball prequels at least tried to do. That much-derided “deathstick” bit in Attack of the Clones, for instance, at least tried to engage with human frailty outside the franchise, albeit in a laughable dad way. Nothing like that here.

Charlie’s Angels (2019)

March 8, 2020

Screen Shot 2020-03-08 at 4.05.34 PM Should you find yourself detained by the 2019 Charlie’s Angels reboot, there’s something I’d like you to look for. Some movies have an injury-to-the-eye motif; this Charlie’s Angels has an injury-to-the-throat motif. People, usually faceless minions, are knocked out with a carotid pinch; others are decommissioned by trank dots from an Altoids tin, stuck, of course, to their necks, or shot in the neck by trank darts; there’s a scene where an Angel-in-training is captured and restrained by a metal collar fastened around, yep, you guessed it; and when an Angel gets her wings, the official tattoo goes on the back of — where? Got it in one. What this means, I have no idea, other than that perhaps the movie’s writer, Elizabeth Banks, who also directed, had a sore throat.

I remember very little else about Charlie’s Angels an hour after watching it, and I really want to; I really wanted to like it. I am, after all, on record as enjoying not only 2000’s Charlie’s Angels but also its sequel; this has gotten me, I suspect, disqualified from many friendships, disinvited from the best parties. But those movies’ director, McG, along with Angels-of-the-day Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu, delivered wedges of pop cheese that also spoke raucously for grrl power. Yes, there was a certain amount of “male gaze” going on (though not as much as you’d think), but it was always respectful, in its way, and assured its audience that women could be sexy and kick ass. Well, that lesson’s been learned, and now we get Angels whose dress-up scenes seem to carry a mildly … icky undertone. The camera no longer moves back to show them off; it moves close, sometimes in media res, to emphasize the sexy outfits are just costumes to be discarded along with their accompanying identity. The movie seems more awed by the promise of a huge wardrobe — of an abundance of choice — than by the actual stuff in it.

It’s not that this Charlie’s Angels is grim and gritty, like The Rhythm Section or something. It’s as light and fluffy as its predecessors, timed more for comedy than for action thrills. Banks and veteran cinematographer Bill Pope keep the proceedings warmly lit by the sun or by generous indoor light. It’s not dark and junky-looking, and Kristen Stewart, whose work I gave up on years ago, surprises with a wild-child performance that has the side benefit of adding some stealth queer energy. She seems to be keeping herself mildly amused, but her co-workers, newbie Naomi Scott and hardened MI-6 veteran Ella Balinska, don’t have a lot of personality or quirks — not even something like Cameron Diaz’s daffy daydream of dancing on Soul Train. The previous Angels risked looking like goofballs (indicating the knockabout sensibility of Drew Barrymore, who exec-produced the other two films and retains that role here). Here, they have no womanly foibles (like, say, Drew’s habit of falling for terrible men). They’re positioned as you-go-grrl action figures to represent persistence and rebellion.

The newbie Angel’s life is a miserable porridge of mansplaining and male assumption of credit for her ideas before the Angels swoop in and save her. Men are even less useful here than in the other two; heteronormative affection seems an afterthought. I’m all for what the movie is trying to express, but the MacGuffin (a gizmo that provides constant sustainable energy but can be weaponized) is tattered spy stuff, and when the script attempts to make us second-guess a character that anyone with a brain can figure out is on the level, it’s a bit insulting. Like I said, I wanted to enjoy this, to shelve it alongside the other two. But nothing in it really pops. It’s loaded with sugary grrl-power songs on the soundtrack (heavy on Ariana Grande), but those don’t pop, either. It’s like watching people pretending to have fun, instead of actually having fun and sharing it with us. Going back to that throat motif, the movie really does feel pinched, constrained, tranquilized — much the way a female filmmaker might feel when making a $48 million movie for a major corporation (and knowing that she and other female directors will be penalized for the movie’s potential box-office failure in a way male directors never are). It needed more of Drew Barrymore’s messy what-the-hell brio, but maybe, sadly, this isn’t the time for that.