Archive for the ‘sequel’ category

Bill & Ted Face the Music

August 30, 2020

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Before watching Bill & Ted Face the Music, I was assured I didn’t have to rewatch Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) — it’s true, you don’t — which was good, because I didn’t especially feel like rewatching them. (I last saw them both in ’91.) Having now seen the third installment, I do feel like going back and revisiting the younger Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves). B&TFTM has the effect of making us look fondly anew on these two doofus besties, who grew up to be pretty decent men — not perfect, not successful, but decent. The new movie is as good-natured as the prior two — maybe even moreso, because Bill and Ted no longer do that “we’re alive, let’s hug” bit and then back off each other saying “Fag.” They’ve grown into men who just hug.

In the intervening 25 years since Bogus Journey (which unfolded in 1995, so we’re told), the titular duo’s band Wyld Stallyns has plummeted off the charts and into wedding-party oblivion. They still dig making music, though, and they’re alive to the spirit of experimentation — at that wedding party, Ted breaks out a theremin and Bill commences Tuvan throat singing. The wonder of this is that Bill and Ted never come across as pathetic, not even in other timelines when they’re pretending to be rich, famous musicians or when they’re muscleheaded convicts. The pair’s happy acceptance of life remains a pure constant across the decades. But the movie, it turns out, isn’t really even about them.

Bill and Ted have married the medieval princesses they met in Excellent Adventure, and each union has produced a daughter named after each father’s BFF. So Ted’s daughter (Brigette Lundy-Paine, who precisely nails the ol’ Ted vibe) is named Billie; Bill’s blonde, easily amazed daughter (Samara Weaving) goes by Thea. Bill and Ted are tasked to save reality, which has become temporally shambolic, by writing a song that will unite the world. As Bill and Ted bounce back and forth in time, trying to steal the song from various future Bills and Teds, Billie and Thea go off on their own trying to piece together an epic band to deliver the song — Louis Armstrong, Jimi Hendrix, Mozart, Ling Lun, and a percussionist cavewoman named Grom (played by Patty Anne Miller, who has drummed for Beyoncé). Ultimately, the music that must be faced here is that Bill and Ted have to complete the process of being good husbands, fathers, and stewards of music that rocks. They have to step aside. They’re not the band, they play back-up now. This is a bittersweet message for Generation X, who now pass the baton (did we ever really have it?) to millennials and zoomers. The young and hungry and energetic can take over.

Not that Keanu and Alex lack energy here. Keanu can still activate that carefree beam, but as Owen Gleiberman noted, he has a more somber resting face now — he actually always had it, going back to River’s Edge and Permanent Record. But the face he wears now is hard-earned; it has the dents and scrapes of experience and loss. He seems to be having fun here, and believe me, I’m the last person to begrudge Keanu a fun time. Neither he nor Alex Winter seem to be doing this for any reason other than hanging out, goofing around, rocking some tunes. (In that respect, Jay and Silent Bob filled the void Bill and Ted left.) Bill & Ted Face the Music is sweetly nostalgic, yet never looks back on its own past. Growth and progression seem to be the goals, which partly means raising daughters to be weird and quirky, and to be excellent to each other. There’s a blessed sanity to the warmth and kindness of Bill and Ted and pretty much everyone else in the film — even Death (William Sadler again), who just wants to lay down sick bass lines. I wouldn’t say, as some have, that Bill & Ted Face the Music is “the movie we need right now.” But I sympathize with those who do. There isn’t a whisper of meanness anywhere in it. Its soul is safe and soft. 

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 something 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.

Doctor Sleep

February 2, 2020

doctor sleep Few, I imagine, will be surprised by the news that Doctor Sleep — based on Stephen King’s novel, a sequel to his The Shining — packs a heftier emotional punch than does Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. That doesn’t mean Doctor Sleep is the better movie; very few films can touch Kubrick’s The Shining. It does mean that the new film’s source material grapples with very human concerns — enduring childhood trauma, addiction, predators, the cycle of abuse, the fear of death. (Kubrick’s The Shining was imperiously disinterested in King’s own themes, chiefly alcoholic demons literalized as vicious spirits; like most Kubrick films, it had a broader target in mind, the hubris of mankind’s delusion of control.)

Still, Doctor Sleep is less a horror movie than a supernatural drama — only intermittently frightening, but engaging and saddening. It feels like the deep dull pain of a slowly forming bruise. The story’s protagonist, Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor), still has the telepathic gifts he had as a boy in The Shining; in his forties now, he is a recovering alcoholic, having turned to drink to blunt his visions (as his father Jack also may have). King’s narrative has three prongs. The second deals with an itinerant band of psychic vampires called the True Knot, who feed off the “steam” exuded by dying people who, like Danny, have “the shine.” The third follows a teenage girl, Abra (Kayliegh Curran), who may have more intense powers even than Danny, and whose steam is coveted hungrily by the on-their-uppers Knot monsters, headed by a demon known as Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). Abra contacts Danny for help, and we’re off.

I haven’t seen them all, but Doctor Sleep may be the most morose Stephen King adaptation since The Dead Zone. That’s not a criticism; the film’s writer-director Mike Flanagan pauses from time to time to take the full measure of death and pain. A ghastly sequence has to do with the Knot’s sacrifice of a little boy; Flanagan stages it as an atrocity that we need to see to understand the stakes, not as a gory tickle for Saturday-night horror fans. It’s not especially graphic, but we feel the boy’s pain and terror. This, I have to say, is not an effect Kubrick attempted (or was interested in). And a horror director with a healthy respect for human frailty and a cold revulsion for dealers of pain is not to be sneezed at. I have questions about a morally cowardly choice Danny makes near the beginning, in his pre-sober days, which after one ghostly visit is never referenced again; perhaps Flanagan’s longer cut, reportedly clocking in at three hours, acknowledges it more deeply. Otherwise, what Flanagan does here is decent in the ethical sense, and a fine tribute to both King’s and Kubrick’s The Shining. (King’s Doctor Sleep, on the other hand, I remember enjoying, but have forgotten most of its specifics. It cuts more mustard as a redemption narrative for an alcoholic; King wrote the sequel after many years sober, while he penned The Shining as very much an active alcoholic.)

I’ll be curious to see that longer cut; I appreciated Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep for its solidity, its commitment to the raw emotions of the situation. McGregor more or less can’t help conveying virtue even when his character wallows in the dregs — whether the worst toilet in Scotland or George Lucas dialogue — and he gives us a Danny who squares with the Danny we know from the Shining book and movie, fearful but taking peril full in the face anyway. The real hero, though, is Abra, whom Curran imbues with a certain equipoise that comes from serious abilities. In contrast, we’re catching Rose the Hat and her pack at a low ebb, from a shortage of “steam,” and Ferguson shows us hints of the lioness Rose once was and how her desperation and weakness have made her, if anything, more dangerous than ever. In part, Doctor Sleep is a meditation on power and those enhanced or burned out by it. I respect it and feel warmly towards it. Like The Shawshank Redemption, it’s somber and oblivious to hot-shot cleverness, and it deserves a home cult like Shawshank’s.

3 from Hell

October 20, 2019

3fromhellSo it turns out that Sid Haig’s Captain Spaulding was the corroded soul of Rob Zombie’s “Firefly” films. Haig, who went to the great grindhouse theater in the sky this past September 21, was front and center, a leering psychotic ball of greasepaint and rage, in Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses (2003) and The Devil’s Rejects (2005). In the new, much-belated third film, 3 from Hell, Haig has one vehemently defiant scene early on, and then ol’ Captain Spaulding gets the death penalty. (Haig was supposed to have a much bigger role, of course, but his health forbade it.) Although the striking Richard Brake takes over what would have been Spaulding’s grisly activity and is perfectly fine at it, Haig is dearly missed.

Given the choice of having Haig for a matter of minutes or not doing the film at all, I don’t know which I would have chosen (nor do I know if Zombie had the option to pull the movie’s plug). I do wonder, though, why 3 from Hell was made, because the rotgut masterwork Devil’s Rejects was a perfect, hard, diamond-like finish to the story of the Firefly family, rounded out by Spaulding’s daughter Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie), who makes Mallory Knox look like Mallory Keaton, and her hellbilly adopted brother Otis Driftwood (Bill Moseley). At the end of Devil’s Rejects, it certainly seemed as though Zombie had given them a Viking funeral and Peckinpah send-off all in one, but they survived the police onslaught (“twenty bullets in each body,” we’re told here), and Baby and Otis spend ten years in prison.

Cut to 1988. Baby is up for parole (hilariously) and Otis is sprung from a road crew by his half-brother Foxy (Brake). Soon enough, the three are on the lam, menacing enemies and strangers alike, and we get the depressing feeling we’ve seen this before. Baby does her drifty, swaying-cobra routine that snaps into lethal focus, and Otis drops pompously demonic pronouncements like a dinner-theater Manson. The usual gnarly sadism, vintage needle-drops, language that would make a Marine blush, and rather offensively offhanded nudity follow. (I am not as convinced as Rob Zombie apparently was that a Firefly victim, courageously played by Sylvia Jefferies, needed to be stripped naked and then be knifed to death in that state on someone’s front lawn in pitiless daylight. The death, and her suffering, would have had equal impact if she’d been allowed to stay clothed.)

I’ve only seen the unrated cut of 3 from Hell, so I’m not sure what bits of grue (a gory woman blubbering while her flensed face hangs on a tree; intestines out where we can see them; the results of arrows, machetes, and bullets versus flesh) made it into the R-rated version — but who, given the choice, is going to opt for watered-down Rob Zombie, anyway? The thing is, Zombie has already freaked us out with most of this violence before; even the bit with the disembodied face is a variation on a much stronger scene in Devil’s Rejects. Zombie probably wanted to get the old gang back together for one last bloody ride, and that’s understandable (as long as it is a last ride and we don’t see another of these goddamn things in 2025). Zombie has gifts; he really does. And I’d rather see him using them with fresh material than repeating himself, which is what he did to some extent in 2016’s 31 and also here.

Zombie, 54, will probably never change. If he lives to be 80 and he’s still able, he’ll still be making second-generation grindhouse fare in his jittery greasy-grimy-gopher-guts aesthetic — I don’t expect to see Zombie’s Ikiru or Fanny and Alexander. But B-movie integrity can be as much of a trap as insincere Hollywood romps; past a certain point, both approaches start to feel inorganic. The Devil’s Rejects felt like a story Zombie just had to tell, and a story that nobody else could tell so sharply. 3 from Hell doesn’t. Again, it seems to have no urgent reason to exist, except perhaps to give us a last glimpse of Captain Spaulding (if not Sid Haig, who will still appear posthumously in two more films by other directors). So, hooray for Captain Spaulding. The rest of these motherfuckers, not so much.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

August 25, 2019

Godzilla_-King-of-the-Monsters--Final-Trailer-Warner-Bros.-UK-0-46-screenshot Look, who are we fooling here? Does anyone go to a Godzilla movie for the plot? Or the human actors? For years I’ve been agitating for a disaster movie that is all disaster, or a giant-monster movie that is all giant-monster destruction, and to hell with the pallid subplots about parents trying to track down their kids in the midst of the maelstrom or whatever. Such a movie would be a pure-cinema mammoth with no dialogue and no stars except the disaster or the monsters. Name me one moviegoer who said “Let’s go see that new Kyle Chandler monster movie!” I’ll wait.

I should’ve known Godzilla: King of the Monsters, despite its promising title, would not be the answer to my demands, but really Godzilla’s amount of screen time has traditionally always been scant; in the original 1954 Gojira, the big guy only showed up for less than nine minutes (out of a 96-minute running time). But by now, the footage of humans staring at screens or discussing what to do about the kaiju or having moral debates while cities burn is so. fucking. dull. I appreciate that they’ve tried to get terrific actors like Chandler and Vera Farmiga (playing a divorced scientist couple) and Millie Bobby Brown (as their daughter), and there’s some comic relief from a sardonic Bradley Whitford. But there’s so much pressure on a big expensive thing like this — from Warner Bros., from Toho, from its own fan base — that it can’t truly be surprising or inventive.

The suspicion is that the old-school Godzilla movies play better in nostalgic memory than they do in actuality. And at least the old man-in-suit throwdowns between Godzilla and, say, Ghidorah — his big nemesis here — were fun, in a goofball way, and easier on the eyes and ears. In Godzilla: King of the Monsters, directed by Michael Dougherty (Trick ‘R Treat), the fight scenes between kaiju are always shot at night or during terrible rain or snow storms, the better to hide the CG seams, and the design of the creatures is “dark,” grim, gritty, ugly, lacking the charm of the old critters. And when they fight, they take down skyscrapers by the dozen, and even though the movie takes pains to establish mass evacuation, so what? These are not real buildings with real people inside. The assumption that we care about loss of human life in these movies is hypocrisy. Of course we don’t. The height of true sadness here comes when Godzilla appears to be dead.

The trailers for these things are always electrifying. When the trailer for this film landed and we first saw Godzilla and Ghidorah racing at each other in the middle of a city, we shuddered and laughed and swore to catch it on an IMAX screen — I did, anyway. I’m sort of glad I didn’t bother. There’s Godzilla and Ghidorah and Mothra and Rodan and a few other beasties named Scylla or Behemoth or Baphomet or Dennis, and there’s forever the problem of showing action between really tall creatures on a really wide screen — either you have to pull way back, or go so close in you might as well be watching leather suitcases bashing into each other. (The O.G. Gojira occupied the squarish 1.37:1 aspect ratio.) Godzilla started out in black-and-white movies and, for all intents and purposes, has circled back there. The look of this film is gray with the occasional blast of colorful radioactive breath; the sound is bass-heavy, headache-inducing. It’s not a good time or aesthetically pleasing or even very exciting. There are two or three fantastic apocalyptic images (see above), but that’s about it.

At this point, I prefer off-the-beaten-path big-monster stuff like Big Man Japan or The Host or even Colossal. They don’t have the big guy’s name recognition, or the giddy buzz (which soon dies when you see the actual thing) of going to a Godzilla flick. But they have more interesting things to say, and therefore better things occupying our brains between kaiju rampages. This movie tells us that the monsters are vital to the survival of the human race because they maintain “balance,” even though they tend to destroy cities (Boston gets turned into an ashtray here). Their destructiveness holds our destructiveness in check. This is a bitter pill to swallow when we’re watching the Amazon rain forest die in real time, and our children’s future with it. Save us, Godzilla! But he won’t. No one will. And movies like this add to the delusion that there’s hope to be found in the rubble.

Glass

April 14, 2019

glass When last we saw the almost-invulnerable hero David Dunn (Bruce Willis), he was sitting in a diner at the end of 2016’s Split, in a surprise appearance that linked the movie with David’s own movie, 2000’s Unbreakable. Both those films were written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, who returns to wrap up the trilogy with Glass. Shyamalan doesn’t really stick the landing, but I’m not sure he was supposed to, or was trying to. Taken in sum, the three movies are a morose meditation on comic-book tropes, and somewhat a critique of them; after all, the villains are both disabled in some way, and that’s part of the critique, that those whose minds or bodies are not “normal” are destined to turn to evil. (It’s a very Victorian notion, and the history of comics is lousy with it.)

David’s power of insight (he can tell what you’re guilty of by bumping into you) leads him to track down the serial killer Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), the mercurial antagonist of Split, who contends with dissociative identity disorder and currently has four cheerleaders stashed away in his rusty abandoned-factory hideout. When we meet Kevin here, he’s letting nine-year-old Hedwig take the wheel, but when David arrives, Hedwig tags in the Beast, who roars and bellows and has unearthly strength. Regardless, David almost defeats him, until some cops led by psychiatrist Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) capture them both and lock them away in a featureless asylum — along with Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), aka “Mr. Glass,” who resides in a wheelchair because his osteogenesis imperfecta renders his bones brittle. Dr. Staple’s goal is to get the three men to admit their views of themselves as exceptional — superhuman — are delusions.

Currently Elijah the mastermind is zoning out in his chair, seemingly doped up to his eyeballs, but you don’t hire Samuel L. Jackson and then not let him hold forth (although the cheeky Shyamalan denies Elijah speech for over an hour of screen time). There are times when Glass appears to fall victim to the same superhero clichés it’s tweaking — there are plans, master plans, counter-plans. Everyone in the movie seems to be plotting, except for sweet Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), a survivor of an earlier Kevin/Beast incident in Split, who feels a connection to Kevin, the only reachable and reasonable personality of “the Horde.” There’s also David’s now-grown son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) and Elijah’s loving mother (Charlayne Woodard), who must be, what, ninety years old by now? We see that Kevin was abused as a child by his mother, whereas Elijah wasn’t, but they both turned out bad; Shyamalan seems to be saying that in some cases, it’s pain that makes the difference between a villain and a hero.

We’re told in the movie that this is real life, and Shyamalan as usual grounds everything in the gray, glum streets and hallways of Philadelphia. But he also all but promises us a climactic face-off between David and the Beast atop a new skyscraper in the city, while Elijah plans to … but why spoil it? The twist addict in Shyamalan’s own screenwriting Horde breaks free and indulges himself, tying things together with a geeky abandon that’s part sneer at and part appreciation of comic-book plotting. In brief, what we get just raises more questions, especially as regards Dr. Staple, whose name may refer to the things that hold together comic books. Shyamalan finishes on a note of half-hearted optimism that, again, is either critical or symptomatic of comic-book endings, which never really end.

Shyamalan as writer has been erratic almost from the beginning; even the now-lauded Unbreakable struck me at the time as anticlimactic, though now, like Glass, it reads more as metacommentary. It’s as a director, a filmmaker with a natural command of mood and dread, that Shyamalan excels. Glass, which cost a pittance by today’s Hollywood metric ($20 million), spends a lot more time in quiet talking-heads passages than in superhuman beatdowns. Shyamalan still, two decades later, trusts the audience to sit still and be told a story. But they wouldn’t sit still if his control over tone and pace weren’t so appealingly rock-solid — there’s something about a self-assured director that makes an audience feel secure that they’re in competent hands. That’s what happens here. Glass is the conclusion of a lumpy and weird trilogy, the cumulative effect of which inspires respect. This series is unconventional and therefore not satisfying in a conventional sense. Its strengths, and goals, lie elsewhere.

Halloween (2018)

October 28, 2018

halloween-new-photo-h47lk753b8 Funny how the new Halloween seems to unfold in a present trapped in the past. Old Haddonfield, the site of the original 1978 Halloween’s horrors, looks pretty much the same now as then. The movie’s lead character, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), looks plausibly like a woman the original film’s Laurie would have grown to become in forty years. (This wasn’t true of Laurie’s appearance in 1998’s Halloween: H20, where she rocked a tres ‘90s pixie cut.¹) Laurie is so haunted by her past she’s destroyed any relationships she’s had, including with her grown daughter Karen (Judy Greer), although her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) keeps in tentative touch with Laurie.

Funny, too, how I should lead with this stuff about the past and family and not, say, how scary the new Halloween is. That’s because it isn’t, particularly, but in this case that’s not necessarily a demerit (it does pack a few good wallops for those who came for a horror movie). Halloween 2018 is a far different animal than Halloween 1978 — not better, not worse, but different. At times, the sad sight of the gray-haired Laurie wielding a shotgun in readiness for the violence she can never escape makes this feel very weirdly like a slasher version of Unforgiven. In writing the first Halloween, John Carpenter and Debra Hill didn’t put anything under the hood except what was needed to make the thing go. (And it went like a rocket.) This one seems to have all kinds of stuff under the hood. And that may be partly because something like this, a forty-years-later sequel that’s in tight continuity with the original while denying any other sequels happened, hasn’t quite been done before. It’s unique and strange — certainly the oddest duck to top $125 million at the box office in ten days.

While being transferred from one facility to another, the franchise’s Boogeyman, Michael Myers, causes the asylum bus to crash, and he escapes. Laurie has been waiting for this to happen — longing for it. In the new canon, Laurie is no longer Michael’s estranged sister (as was revealed in 1981’s now-nonexistent Halloween II). She was just a high-school girl who happened to catch Michael’s notice. Maybe she reminded him of the sister, Judith, he’d killed as a boy. The new Halloween doesn’t assume or require any knowledge outside of the first film; you don’t need to have seen Halloween 4 or 5 or Halloween: Resurrection (all equally consigned to canonical oblivion now, and good riddance) to understand this film. I wonder if you even need to have seen the first film (although of course you should), because its story is such a part of the shared American cultural fabric by now. Carpenter’s film may have become one of those touchstones everyone knows the story of even if they haven’t seen them, a foggily remembered Grimm fairy tale.

And what about the new characters? There’s a “new Dr. Loomis” who demonstrates what can happen if you become obsessed with one patient without having Loomis’s rock-solid morality. (I guess that’s why he’s there. His character is more intriguing to think about later than to watch; his actions resonate more as subtext than as text.) There’s Laurie’s family, three generations of strong, smart women trying to pull violence out of their DNA by the roots. Aside from a hilarious young actor named Jibrail Nantambu as a kid being babysat by one of Allyson’s friends, Jamie Lee Curtis owns the movie. She doesn’t make the mistake of playing a PTSD sufferer realistically; she gives Laurie a rigid righteousness that comes from years of dealing with having been singled out by the Boogeyman for no reason that makes sense to her. She thinks the shadows are full of predators and ghouls, and in this case — and not just about Michael — she’s right. (The movie begins with two dumb-ass podcasters whose presence in a plot sense seems boringly utilitarian, but they work as another kind of parasite on Laurie’s pain.)

The director/cowriter here is David Gordon Green, who has had one of the more peripatetic careers in recent cinema — he started off eighteen years ago as a Terrence Malick acolyte with George Washington, and has done various dramas (Joe) and thrillers (Undertow) and stoner comedies (Pineapple Express) and biopics (Stronger, Our Brand Is Crisis). Now this. Green, who wrote the script with Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley, has been circling the idea of bell-bottom-horror remakes for a while; he almost made the current Suspiria redo. Green’s Halloween (some jagoff will probably nickname this Hallogreen the way Rob Zombie’s two entries are known in derisive quarters as Zombieween) comes off as one fine director’s tip of the hat — of respect, of appreciation — to another. The images have an autumnal fullness and richness that recall Dean Cundey’s cinematography on Halloween ’78, though the editing here is much antsier, the compositions more jumpy. I felt that this is what the miserable Laurie’s Halloween would look like forty years on. It’s full of betrayal (even Allyson gets cheated on and then almost macked on by a drunk guy friend) and men who go off and die stupidly while the womenfolk hole up with their guns; it’s full of bashing violence. It all expresses Laurie’s worldview of death-filled shadows, but those shadows can be lit up, and the evil inside them turned to ashes — by women.

¹Not to dwell too much on Jamie Lee Curtis’s hair, but the way Laurie’s hairstyle in ’18 looks pretty much the same as it did in ’78 suggests that in some ways Laurie was stunted forever on that Halloween night. 

Deadpool 2

August 19, 2018

deadpool-negasonic-teenage-warhead-girlfriendThe Deadpool movies are more or less the only superhero films I’ll sit still for these days. Filthy and irreverent, splattering the camera lens arterially with great gusto, these are not remotely elegant examples of what the medium can do, nor are they conceived as such. They’re parties, all winks and grins and farts and jostling elbows. Somehow, despite (or maybe because of) their raunch and gore and in-jokey tone, the movies occasionally achieve real pathos, as in Deadpool 2, when the eponymous anti-hero (Ryan Reynolds) mopes around suicidally after his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) exits the picture early on, or when new antagonist Cable (Josh Brolin), a grim ass-kicker from the future, reveals his true motivation for trying to kill burgeoning, unhappy mutant teen Russell (Julian Dennison).

Some deaths and agonies are a lark; others are to be mourned or avoided. Hypocritical? I prefer to think that Deadpool 2, despite its meta clownishness, has a grasp of conflicting priorities. The plot demands that a bad character not be murdered by a character poised on the line between good and evil; however, there’s nothing saying the bad character can’t die some other way, preferably abruptly and hilariously. That’s not really a spoiler, because at a Deadpool film you know anyone who deserves an ignoble reduction to a fine red mist will get one. Because nothing in the movie is actually real, and because the moviemakers (Reynolds gets a cowriting credit along with original Deadpool scripters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) know this, there’s a freedom to play, to bend reality.

Director David Leitch (John Wick, Atomic Blonde) uses the CG palette to turn the movie into a roughhouse live-action Looney Tunes romp. It’s easy to create amusing chaos with a character cursed with bad luck, but how about a hero — Domino (Zazie Beetz) — whose superpower is good luck? An entire concussive sequence follows Domino as she casually sidesteps certain death at multiple turns, and it’s a lot funnier than misfortune plaguing someone relentlessly. (Unless it’s the lottery winner in Final Destination 2. Nothing will ever be funnier than that.) Deadpool himself has a healing power that renders him pretty well unkillable, though the same can’t be said for other members of Deadpool’s team X-Force, including regular guy Peter (Rob Delaney) — whose function here is similar to the comically bland human Stu in What We Do in the Shadows — and an invisible hero called the Vanisher, who brings us one of the film’s many cameos, references, and gags. (A subtle one is Deadpool’s fixation on a song from Yentl, a musical by Barbra Streisand, who’s married to Josh Brolin’s dad.) I’m sure I didn’t catch all of them, and Deadpool 2 may well be funnier for viewers who get the joke about “a guy who can’t draw feet” (a common fan complaint about Rob Liefeld, the original Deadpool’s co-creator). But as in Spielberg’s Ready Player One, the fun here doesn’t depend on a grounding in nerd trivia.

Famously, Reynolds hungered for years to play Deadpool, even settling for playing a ridiculously muted version of the character in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Now that he’s on his second outing with the preferred iteration of Deadpool, Reynolds still seems grateful and happy to be a part of this unexpectedly lucrative franchise, which, being a 20th Century Fox enterprise and not helmed by Marvel/Disney (well, until this past July, when Disney slurped up Fox), is off to the side with the X-Men, playing in a goofball backyard far away from Iron Man, Spider-Man, Captain America and the rest. Deadpool seems to take place in a reality where people watch the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and the DC Universe movies, or maybe it’s just Deadpool, whose powers might include the ability to comment on all entertainment, including that which features himself — or features Ryan Reynolds. (Keep watching through the end credits.)

The movie spreads its fun around; not only white hetero males get to bring the pain. Aside from Domino, there’s the very welcome return of the deadpan-hostile Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), who turns up with her new girlfriend Yukio (I assume a variation on Yukio from The Wolverine). The casual and, dare I say, mature way the movie handles NTW’s sexuality — there are neither jokes nor hubba-hubba leering — is refreshing and good-hearted. And despite all its hip mayhem, directed both at anonymous thugs and at well-thumbed pulp tropes, Deadpool 2 is also good-hearted. It doesn’t strike me as nihilistic or even cynical (the way some parts of the Kick-Ass movies and, God knows, their source comics did). It doesn’t want to punish you for enjoying the boomies and the splats and such spectacles as an enormous prisoner-transport vehicle tearing through cars like a bullet through wet Kleenex. It just wants to have a disreputable doofus good time and share it with us.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

April 1, 2018

jediSo much happens in these new Star Wars films, and at such a ferocious clip, you’d think Lucasfilm had enough material for another whole trilogy. (Many stand-alone “Star Wars stories” are planned, including Solo in May.) Star Wars: The Last Jedi is also, at two hours and thirty-two minutes, the longest of the nine movies thus far, and deep into the second hour it can feel a little draining. There’s some stuff that feels extraneous (the whole Canto Bight sequence, which seems to exist to set up a new Lando-like character played by Benicio del Toro), and the cycle of attack and retreat — mostly retreat — gets a bit monotonous. But writer/director Rian Johnson pulls it together for the finale, unfolding on a planet with white salt coating red soil. The tracks of vehicles and feet scoring out crimson marks in the ground, as if slicing and drawing blood, has a poetry that matches the binary sunset of Tatooine, an image stirringly echoed here.

In The Last Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) returns, only to tell us and his student Rey (Daisy Ridley) that he and everything he once stood for deserve to die. This is a real “there are no heroes” movie, although not in a nihilistic way. I was amused to see that Luke, all these years later, is excoriating himself for the hubris — the smugness, really — he showed in Return of the Jedi. Hero myths of the sort that fed Star Wars in the first place, we are informed, are lies. There are only flawed people (or aliens, whatever) trying to resist tyranny. Luke says to us, in effect, “You grew up looking up to me. You were wrong, but I was more wrong to accept that reverence. The fact is that I am a failure.” He’s wrong there, too — one of the movie’s gentler points is that someone who fails (meaning all of us) is not a failure. A failure is a failure, and victory proceeds by small and not always satisfying degrees.

The plot has what’s left of the Resistance, led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher in a moving swan song), running from the relentless forces of the First Order, led by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his soul-divided apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), son of Leia and Han Solo, one-time student of Luke. There’s an awful lot of back and forth, people hopping into ships and revving off for here and there, a good amount of pew pew and lightsaber hum, but the meat of the movie is a young man torn between good and evil, a young woman who feels he can turn to the good side, and an old man who has been there, done that, and takes a lot of convincing that any of it means anything. Johnson and his team (cinematographer Steve Yedlin, editor Bob Ducsay) stage the action cleanly and sometimes with a cathartic swoop of exhilaration, but a good deal of it is the same pew pew and hum we’ve been seeing for forty years.

The currency here is the people. Hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) taunting First Order General Hux (“Hi, I’m holding for a General Hugs”) is a risky but gratifying way to open the movie; returning stormtrooper-turned-rebel Finn (John Boyega) and newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), zipping around trying to crack into a tracking device, make a fun team in perpetual motion. The Vietnamese-American Tran is one of many women and/or people of color taking their places at the foreground of these new Star Wars movies, upsetting racist fanboys but pleasing everyone else. A most welcome addition is Laura Dern as purple-haired Vice Admiral Holdo, whose command is gentle but firm — she bats away the indignation of hothead Poe without raising her voice. Whoever decided to bring the warmhearted, levelheaded Dern into the Star Wars universe deserves a good cigar.

Ultimately, The Last Jedi speaks for the strength of a united front against imperial aggression, and forget about elevating a few people to godhood — and that includes the villains, too. The final image leaves us with the assurance that young people tired of injustice will pick up the ball their elders dropped; the movie was filmed and released before the Parkland shooting and its subsequent students’ movement, but seems to anticipate it. The Star Wars universe is starting to mirror our own in that it is re-evaluating its holy trinity of heroes — Luke, Leia and Han — and advising their worshipers to look to themselves for rescue, redemption, and faith. The Force (whose power no longer seems to depend on the “midichlorians” of George Lucas’ doofus prequels) shares with Zen Buddhism a cleansing disregard for icons (foreshadowed when Rey hands Luke his father’s lightsaber and he tosses it over his shoulder): If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.