Category Archives: Reviews

Movie Review: Bloodshot

The very first feature-length film based on a Valiant property was released on digital this weekend after spending a short time in theaters; Sony PicturesBloodshot starring Vin Diesel as the title character. I was able to get to the cinema a few days ago to check out the film, and have been thinking about it on and off for a few days. I wanted the film to sit with me so that I could really mull my thoughts about the movie.

Before we get anywhere, there won’t be any plot specific spoilers in the below review assuming you’ve watched the trailers released.

The character originated in the 90’s, created by Kevin Van Hook, Don Perlin and Bob Layton, is a recently deceased man brought back by a shady weapons tech corporation for their own use by the use of billions of tiny robots in his bloodstream. it’s these little machines that give him an ability to heal from pretty much anything, enhanced physical attributes, the ability to “talk” to other machines and ghost-white skin with a never healing open wound on his chest.

Bloodshot takes the core concept of the character and throws in an equal blend of Vin Diesel, an A to B plot with a twist that’s revealed in the international trailers (or, you know, is in the comics), of well-paced action. And humor – most intentional, some not. But that’s as far as the movie uses its comic book inspiration. For the most part, this is a straight action movie that just happens to be based on a comic book. It’s a break from the MCU movies we’ve seen over the last few years and their somewhat formulaic (but no less enjoyable) superhero stories. Bloodshot is more Terminator and Pitch Black that it is Iron Man.

Bloodshot movie poster

It’s refreshing in its simplicity, and while I saw the twist coming long before my arse was in the chair, there’s a chance that those who aren’t readers will be taken by surprise. It’s a very well-orchestrated film.

It feels disingenuous to say that this movie is a pretty straight forward action film, but it really is. Despite the potential to really explore the themes of a man being manipulated by technology and corporations to do things he’s barely aware of, the film requires less of your grey matter than it could have. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that Bloodshot needs to stand on its own as a competent action movie, and it does just that. There’s no real Easter Eggs in the movie that’ll alienate moviegoers, and there’s absolutely nothing here other than Bloodshot. The film doesn’t try to introduce characters for the next movie in a potential Valiant Cinematic Universe. I get the sense that if that happens, then this was a good starting point. If it doesn’t, then we still get a solid action flick.

The only issue I had with the comic book adaptation part of the movie was honestly an aesthetic choice. Bloodshot’s two most defining aspects are his white skin and the bloody circle on his chest. Neither of which are present for any great length of time in the movie and certainly not long enough to make a lasting impression. Other than that, though, I’ve no real complaints about the movie. It took a comic book I enjoyed, honored the core concept of the character and touched on a couple of themes that could have been explored further. Which brings me to this; letting go of the past to embrace the future and the manipulation of humanity by technology and corporations are great backdrops to this film and fit the source material very well.

Bloodshot isn’t on par with Endgame, but then to compare the two is like comparing a tomato with Stonehenge. They’re just two totally different things. What Bloodshot does incredibly well is telling a story that translates very well as a comic book adaptation to the big screen (or to a streaming service near you now that the movie has been released digitally already). It never strays too far from an action movie formula, which isn’t a bad thing. I enjoyed the hell out of this movie as a fan of the comics and the character when I saw it in theaters, and I’m enjoying it again now.

Bloodshot isn’t a perfect movie, but it’s damn fun. And that’s what matters.

Movie Review: Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

Birds of Prey

If you go into Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) thinking it’s fanfic brought to life along with subpar cosplay costumes, cheesy dialogue, and gross misinterpretation of some of DC”s most iconic characters, then yes, the movie was good. If you go into the movie, thinking it should ONLY be called “The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn” or simply “Harley Quinn” instead of “Birds of Prey,” then yes, this was a good movie. If you are able to divorce the fact that you have been a fan of this particular comic series since 1998…if you are able to ignore the fact that there is no freakin’ Barbara Gordon as Oracle (you may remember her as the original pre-“New 52” Batgirl)…then yes, it was a good movie.

But let’s not call it “Birds of Prey”.

Sure, sure. I am aware of how they restructured the fan-favorite comic. I recall vaguely Harley Quinn is a member of the “New 52” version of the Suicide Squad. To be honest, I’m not sure how she ended up associated with Birds of Prey. Maybe when Poison Ivy, her bestie, joined the team? IDK. Even more reason for this movie to have its own title to focus solely on Harley Quinn. Because let’s face it: it was all about her emancipation and a motley crew of DC’s anti-heroines who were just along for the ride. And with all the said, I really enjoyed this movie more than I thought I would!

I don’t know what it was, but Margot Robbie seemed cooler as Harley Quinn than she did in Suicide Squad (which incidentally does not come anywhere close to how entertaining Birds of Prey was). She literally had me laughing out loud within the first few minutes especially when she was like “I’m telling the story the way I effin’ want to!” The more obvious attempts at humor like the Cheez Whiz and her getting super drunk or buying a hyena named Bruce was cute, but that didn’t tickle my funny bone. The more subtle humorous scenes made me bray like a donkey. Liiiike Harley jumping onto the driver’s legs, breaking them, then sitting on his lap and correcting him, telling him she has a Ph.D. (okay so maybe that was not meant to be subtle) or when she held the water with the huge cucumber in the bottle. But honestly, it was the egg sandwich with the possibly expired cheese that did it for me. Real tears. Y’all, she had real tears. And can I just say I literally exclaimed “yasss” EVERY TIME Harley was tearing up those kneecaps with aluminum baseball pats and sledgehammers? She was poetry in motion; violent gory poetry. And the lighter…! We got a chance to see her vulnerable side that finally sold me on Margot Robbie’s take on this hilarious epic character. The “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” scene had me hype. So well done.

The rest of the cast was a mixed bag of nuts. And not the good kind.

I’ll start off with this: I am NOT a fan of when they change the ethnicity of a particular character. Especially ones you’ve grown up knowing and loving. With that said, I was not a fan of Jurnee Smollett-Bell being cast as Dinah Lance a.k.a. Black effin’ Canary. But what can you do, right? Also, I was not a fan of the changed origin. But I will give credit where it is due. Jurnee did a good job and the way she kicked some ass was reminiscent of the Black Canary I know and love. I mean, who else can fight like that while wearing stylish tight as hell pants? And she really can sing!

“They call me…Ramona Flowers”. Let me stop, haha. Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Huntress gave me mixed feelings. On one hand, Helena Bertinelli has been a fave of my since my teens so seeing her on the screen was nice. It would have been nicer if she actually, I dunno,  resembled her comic book counterpart? How are you going to go around assassinating people while wearing a Missy Elliot garbage bag poncho and no mask? She was like a lazy cosplayer. I’m sure the comic book version would have used the crossbow on the movie version. I must admit, she does redeem herself. Just a little too late.

Rosie Perez’s Renee Montoya actually surprised me. She was gritty, oddly funny, and true to character. She put me in the mind of Renee’s journey of redemption in 2006’s much-lauded “52” series. I actually sighed with relief when the movie touched on one major part of her character growth. And yes, that tied to the “52” book. I won’t say what it was. I won’t spoil. I’m not a savage. And may I add that Rosie Perez still looks amazing? She was certainly “fighting the power” in this movie. But there was no dancing like in Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing”.

And then there’s Cassandra Cain played by Ella Jay Basco. Cute kid. She was your average Forever 21 shopper specializing in early 90’s fashion. Like I said: cute kid. Only the Cassandra Cain we know used to run around in a featureless snitched Batgirl mask and kick some serious ass. We got none of that in this movie! She was a liability throughout the entire movie. If she was not so integral to the plot (stay with me) I would have dragged her by her arm cast to No Man’s Land myself.

Now for the “Big Bad”: Roman Sionis/Black Mask portrayed by the truly versatile Ewan McGregor. He was actually a delight to watch on screen. He was funnier than Jared Leto’s Joker without even trying. I loved his sense of style and his BDSM-esque art involving the black mask was appropriate. Also, I’m positive Chris Messina’s Victor Zsasz was secretly in love with him. He kept saying “eww” and “kay” which was hilarious. But honestly, McGregor has always had the singular talent of becoming whomever he played in a movie. This experience was no different. Birds of Prey is the better for it.

The film didn’t deserve the measly $33 million it grossed opening weekend. As stated before, I so thoroughly enjoyed the insane hijinks of this wildly unpredictable, satisfying, but fanfic-y take on Birds of Prey. I was prepared to go into this movie hating it, but it had the opposite effect. The non-linear storytelling, overall fun and engaging characters, and the fantastic fight scenes (especially when Harley was fighting solo) was something right up my alley. The camaraderie and sense of sisterhood and women empowerment was unmistakable and I’m totally here for that! I would love to see a sequel or spin-off movies. It’s deserving of that. Also, is there a post-credits scene? Yes and no. Go check it out. And let me know what you thought, puddin’.

Movie Review: The Gentlemen – Pure Guy Ritchie Fun, Problematic Takes Included

Guy Ritchie's The Gentlemen movie poster

Somehow in the last decade, noted British scumbum auteur Guy Ritchie pivoted from gritty, street-level crime dramas with accents so heavy you need to turn the subtitles on to being one of the most bankable journeymen who brought us the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes movies, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and last year’s Aladdin remake. But with The Gentlemen, he goes back to the same well that brought us Snatch and Rock n Rolla. Ritchie’s fans will be very happy, as you can’t imagine two films more diametrically opposed than this and Aladdin.

Our story centers around American-born Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) who parlays his Rhodes Scholarship into an empire of dealing marijuana to Britain’s hoi polloi. But as he reaches middle age and considers getting out of the business, selling to fellow American Matthew (Jeremy Strong) but is beset by competition from rival Chinese syndicates, who mostly control the heroin and cocaine trade, led by up and coming lieutenant Dry Eyes (Henry Golding) and also ends up crossing an MMA-training street gang trained by “Coach” (Colin Farrell) who like to post videos of their crimes on Youtube cut into their rap videos. Seriously. It’s very Guy Ritchie.

Perhaps the most Guy Ritchie thing about it is that the entire film is framed as a conversation where glorified paparazzo Fletcher (Hugh Grant) is trying to shake down Ray (Charlie Hunnam), who is Mickey’s majordomo in this weed empire. Fletcher lays out the story of the film as… a spec screenplay– it’s a movie in the movie! How Ritchie and Grant managed to not to die from exhaustion from incessantly winking at the audience will perhaps never be explained. It’s cute, and it would be unforgivable if it wasn’t so fun. Grant continues his recent run of amazing supporting performances and he’s so effortlessly charming as he runs through his schtick– and spends most of the movie flirting with Charlie Hunnam. There’s an ad campaign to be built just around a bearded Hunnam and all the ways Hugh Grant flirts with him. It’s a nice stretch for Ritchie, who also punctuates this a lot of his other trademark moves.

It’s also very Guy Ritchie in the fact that his schtick which may have worked two decades ago now sticks out as, at best, problematic, and, at worst, racist. Yes, Henry Golding is a bad guy– all of these guys are bad guys– and so it’s expected that they’re going to do bad things. But that doesn’t absolve the film of Orientalist tropes that otherize and homogenize people of Asian origin, such as the fact that the Malaysian Golding is referred to over and over as a “Chinaman.” Please, dude– even The Big Lebowski knew that term was inappropriate two decades ago. One of the characters is even named “Phuc.” Get it? It’s so subtle, let me explain it to you the way the film does over and over in the hope that the joke will become funnier. Hint: it doesn’t. And a scene where Coach calls one of his students “a black cunt” and then explains to him that it’s a term of endearment doesn’t remove some of the racial stigmas. Sigh. Double sigh for the weird anti-Semitic tropes and gay stereotypes layered on Jeremy Strong’s character.

But we don’t come to Guy Ritchie expecting him to be politically correct. He is what he is, and these are the films that he makes. I firmly believe in the philosophy of judging a movie by what it is and what it’s trying to be rather than what it’s not and never could have been. There’s no way to make Guy Ritchie make a movie that conforms to these expectations, the same way I expect Sam Mendes to make exactly the movie he made with 1917.

What IS unfortunate is that Ritchie walks away from a few concepts in the film that needed to be explored more. He is by no means a feminist, so it’s not surprising that his film doesn’t pass the Bechdel test when. . . *checks notes* no, wait. . . it does? An early scene where Rosalind (Michelle Dockery), Mickey’s wife, pulls up to her personal place of business– an all-female car repair shop that seemingly caters to posh British women with high-end sports cars– gets run over so quickly in order to continue to the main storyline and I just wanted to pause the movie right there and live in it.

Stop drilling– you struck oil. I want more Dockery, more sports cars, now, please. That scene was so vivacious and fun and I want an entire movie about it.

Ultimately, the film is what it is: it’s fun, it’s violent, it’s pure Guy Ritchie. And that means you take the good with the bad. But for anyone who is a fan of Ritchie’s schtick and has wanted the old Guy Ritchie back, you’re in for a treat. All others? Your mileage may vary.

3.75 stars out of 5

1917 – Movie Review: Visual Tricks Overshadow War’s Human Story

1917

1917 definitely has a very specific energy, and that is tension built on top of tension on top of tension. But like a meal whose flavor profile is just based on one flavor, the final effect feels a little flat, even if it’s so technically stunning. Director Sam Mendes has always been an arresting visual director, from his award-winning work on American Beauty two decades ago to the comic-adapted Road to Perdition to (the best Bond film) Skyfall. And here he’s aided by (one of the greatest living cinematographers) Roger Deakins (who also teamed with Mendes on Skyfall) and editor Lee Smith, who help him achieve the illusion of a single, uninterrupted shot for the entire length of this gorgeous and arresting movie. The film’s strength and weakness are that the gimmick works incredibly effectively. But the story and characters take a backseat to the narrative and technical constraints, which somewhat hamstrings a technically amazing film.

Said story and characters are simple enough: in the waning days of World War I in the trenches of the Western Front, two English doughboys are dispatched to warn a battalion to call off an attack scheduled for dawn. To make the matter more personal, one of the infantrymen’s brother serves in that battalion, so they’re not only saving the war effort, but a family member. The camera follows the action in what appears to be one interrupted take (although it’s fairly clear where they used specific transitions to hide their cuts) and the results are intense.

Much like in Hitchcock’s classic film Rope, (and used in a somewhat more gimmicky way in Birdman) the lack of cuts helps elevate the dramatic tension. You never quite notice how much we depend on a simple cut to alleviate that anxiety that simply comes from letting a take run long. Especially in our quick-cut, quick edit world, we are simply not used to a filmmaker using a single shot for an extended period of time and it becomes incredibly unnerving. The way the camera moves, and what it chooses to linger on (including disturbing images of the horrors of war) also double and triple down on the dramatic tension.

The downside is that our characters and actors take a backseat to all of this, as a veritable who’s who of acclaimed British actors show up all too briefly. Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch bookend the film as British generals in their strongest stiff upper lip personas, and along the way we also run across Andrew Scott (Hot Priest sighting!) and Mark Strong. But where the film actually works best is in some of its quieter moments, such as encountering a young French mother trying to protect her infant while under siege/occupation by German forces.

1917 surely deserves the awards nominations and attention it has been receiving. As a technical achievement, it is breathtaking. But, then again, so is Avengers: Endgame. And in a year where we’re once again discussing the overwhelming whiteness and maleness of awards nominees, it’s hard to not take a second look at 1917 for what it is: a technical masterpiece which puts all of the talents of Roger Deakins and Mendes on full display, but which is choosing to tell a very traditional story centered around the heroics of white men. I had similar problems with Dunkirk. (However, it should be noted that Mendes does take time to at least cameo the contributions of non-white British soldiers) But this is very clearly a passion project and one where Mendes is cashing in a lot of favors to make the movie he wants to make. And it’s time to stop for one moment and think about exactly what kind of film comes out of that process and why, and how that compares to the barriers faced by some of 2019’s other top films and filmmakers. And is there a reason why Sam Mendes might get a Best Director nomination but Lulu Wang won’t? Which, again, isn’t a reason why Mendes shouldn’t be nominated. But maybe Todd Phillips shouldn’t?

All of that is to say that you should most certainly see 1917 and revel in its technical prowess, but also interrogate it a little. If not one of 2019’s absolutely best films, it’s one of its most technically audacious and certainly deserving of the awards hype it’s getting. My personal recommendations would be to not only watch this but then also delve back into Deakins’ back catalog, from his work with the Coen Brothers to Dennis Villanueve, to understand how much visual sauce he’s able to bring to most films.

4.25 out of 5 stars

Cats Zooms Past So Bad it’s Good Territory

Cats

Look, Cats was always going to be a disaster. There’s simply no way you could take the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and turn it into a coherent film because Cats is and always has been nonsensical garbage dolled up with amazing costumes, dancing, and setpieces. Notice I didn’t say music, because Cats has exactly one great song, “Memory,” and the rest is more ridiculous garbage.

Imagine the amount of cocaine that was ingested in the writing, conception, production design and staging of Cats beginning with TS Elliot’s poetry to the 1981 musical to every production of the musical since then to this film. Every bit of celluloid screams “WE ARE ON DRUGS” up to and including the way the cats’ CGI animated ears and tails WON’T STOP MOVING. Yes, cats can and do move like that, but apparently “Jellicle” cats can and do EVERY 2 SECONDS.

One way the film does improve on the play is its attempts to actually convey some sort of plot: every year on a special night, our band of jellicle cats meet and their matriarch (played by Maggie Smith) chooses one to go up to kitty cat heaven and be reborn. So the cats put on a series of elaborate song and dance numbers to compete for that honor, like you do. Except one of the bad cats (played by Idris Elba) is trying to rig the competition in his favor by kidnapping other top kitties. It is not a plot-forward movie.

Instead, you basically get a dozen little vignettes each devoted to introducing one cat or another and there’s singing and dancing. Ok, the dancing is pretty great. Francesca Hayward plays Victoria, our audience surrogate cat, who is new to the junkyard and this band of jellicles, so we learn through her eyes. She is an amazing dancer. There is no way to oversell how great she is. It’s just such a shame she isn’t in a better film, especially one that doesn’t weirdly sexualize her so much.

What do I mean by weirdly sexualize? Well, you come away from the film with a weird feeling like. . . maybe director Tom Hooper has a cat fetish? If you are a cat furry and love the Cats musical, then this movie is 100% for you. Everyone else? Ehhhhhh. . .

Is it so bad it’s good? Like a cult classic sort of way, like a sneak in some edibles and enjoy it way? No. It zooms past so bad it’s good territory that it’s so bad it’s bad again. I pity anyone who goes to this movie high on drugs. It’s going to be a bad trip.

Cat Meow GIF by Cats Movie - Find & Share on GIPHY

This film has such an amazing cast and they are all wasted here. I have no idea what Idris Elba is doing in this movie. I have no idea what Judi Dench is doing in this movie. I have no idea what Ian McKellan is doing in this movie. I have no idea what Jennifer Hudson is doing in this movie. Ok, I sort of know what James Corden, Jason Derullo, and Rebel Wilson are doing in this movie and that is hamming it up as much as possible. I have no idea what Taylor Swift is doing in this movie.

And speaking of Taylor, she has a new song she co-wrote with Andrew Lloyd Webber and it is exactly the unholy abomination a combination of those two would be. Meanwhile, Jennifer Hudson seems determined to make “Memory” hers as much as possible, full-on ugly-crying under the weight of all that makeup and CGI as if to say, “Remember when Anne Hathaway ugly-cried in Les Mes and you all ate it up? Well here’s THIS.” When she finally lets loose and belts as hard as she can, it’s actually pretty good for a few seconds. But it can in no way redeem the rest of this thoroughly inexplicable movie.

Cats will have a fanbase. There will be people who love this. I’m glad they’ll find what they like. And I will say this for it: between this and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, one of these two movies took a big audacious swing. And there’s something to be said for that. Yes, it’s still a giant festering garbage fire, but at least they were thinking big enough to ask, “What if Cats, but with CGI ear and tail twitching and more like humans and sexier?”

1 out of 5 stars

The Rise of Skywalker: An Imperfect Ending, But Provides Populist Hope in Dark Times

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

A lot of digital ink has been spilled already discussing the failures of The Rise of Skywalker. It’s not a bad movie, but it has the weight of literally four decades of expectations and fandom riding on it. It was going to be impossible to deliver something that satisfied everyone.

And yet, it is incredibly clear that this film tried to do exactly that. Unfortunately, in trying to do and be everything to everyone, it ends up doing none of those things particularly well. Its plot twists are predictable enough that they’ve been guessed already by a thousand angry Reddit fanboys. I hope they are pleased with what they got.

Because what this movie feel like is “safe.” It’s the cinematic equivalent of gluing in the firing rocket from Boba Fett’s jetpack because you’re worried someone will hurt themselves with it. Yeah, it’s still a Boba Fett figure and therefore pretty damn cool. But when you create something for mass consumption based on the idea that we have to please an (angry) lowest common denominator, you end up serving up something that is blander than it needs to be.

The Force Awakens worked because despite its reliance on nostalgia and creating a new hero’s journey for our new characters, it was a reinvention of the original Star Wars for a new, diverse, and female-led generation of fans. People got angry. All the right people got angry. Good art should do that. Then The Last Jedi took that and turned it to 11. It subverted expectations and tropes, delivering something that was divisive in all the right ways. The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker could not be more polar opposite of movies in that way– as JJ Abrams described it in The New York Times, a “pendulum swing.” It didn’t need to swing that far, JJ.

It’s as if, after making the 8th highest-grossing movie of all time, “But there’s all these people who are Mad Online about it. Maybe we should make the next movie to try to please them.” And that is exactly how we end up with things like the abomination of a car Homer designs, built for the “average” person:

But great art isn’t built like this. Compare and contrast this with three of the best wide-release films of 2019, starting with Ford v. Ferrari. Shelby and the team at Ford didn’t set out to create a car for the average person. Far from it: they wanted a race car and delivered something that was, in fact, hard to drive. Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is a crowd-pleaser in all the right ways and delivers in all the ways fans of the detective mystery will enjoy. But it has some sharp corners that you can poke your eye out with. But it also has Chris Evans in a sweater in a scene with Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown” playing in the background and him telling basically every other member of the cast to “Eat $#!t.” Sharp edges.

And then we have Avengers: Endgame, which was set up with much the same expectations and weight. But somehow they managed to stick the landing. Why giving us a film that both felt nostalgic and literally traveled through the past of the MCU, but ultimately all of that was done in service a furthering the characterization of our characters, especially Tony and Steve. So when the final “I am Iron Man” snap happens, it’s earned, it’s organic, and it’s beautiful. Yes, the giant Avengers Assemble moment at the end is a bit contrived and designed to please, but it’s so fun we don’t mind that we’re being pandered to.

The Rise of Skywalker differs in that its pandering doesn’t feel earned. It feels focus-group-tested and, frankly, boring.

If The Rise of Skywalker fails to perform at the box office, Disney is going to need to do some serious self-reflection. The first step is admitting that you have a problem with an abusive, toxic fanbase. And maybe you need to break up with them. Because they’re not letting you be your best, true self. And you’ll never be able to please your abuser enough to make the abuse stop. So stop trying to appease the unappeasable.

Now, all that being said, I actually still mostly like this movie. Because Star Wars is like ice cream. Even if it’s not your favorite flavor, it’s still ice cream, dammit. Even if it’s insipid and bland, it’s still pretty damn cool.

The film is a little basic. Most of the first two acts are a giant MacGuffin hunt, culminating in a final showdown between good and evil with a massive space battle raging overhead. It is very on brand for Star Wars. But what exactly were we expecting?

Keri Russell is Zorii, my new favorite character. She’s badass. She puts Poe in his place on several occasions. And their angry/flirty banter is like straight out of Moonlighting. She also offers the film’s populist message (not these exact words, but this sentiment): the powerful divide us and make us feel like we’re alone. But if we remember that there are more of us than of them, we can unite and overthrow them.

Of course, Poe does his same move that he does in The Last Jedi, and take the words of a smart, successful woman and repeat them back to everyone in a rousing speech– and everyone listens to him. But in this case, unlike his foil Admiral Holdo in TLJ, Zorii is sexually available to Poe (her last name is BLISS like she’s a goddamn Bond Girl. . . yikes), so her putting him in his place and explaining the meaning of the movie isn’t going to ruffle anyone’s feathers. I say this more out of a sense of awareness of the sexism at the base of criticism about TLJ than as a complaint about this movie, because I really like all the business between Zorii and Poe, and Russell and Oscar Isaacs have a definite chemistry, even when she is acting underneath that helmet. But that also says more about me as a heterosexual middle-aged white male who has had a crush on Keri Russell since she was on The Mickey Mouse Club than it does about The Rise of Skywalker, except, again, that it feels the film was built to be almost aggressively pleasing to me.

The same is true of the conflict between our two main characters, Rey and Kylo Ren. There is conflict, there is that strange romantic tension that ReyLo shippers pick up on. Oh, ReyLo shippers. . . there is so much in here for you to enjoy. Everyone else? Well, there is at least one thing in the movie that is likely going to be divisive. But the fights between the two of them are a lot of fun.

But some of the best payoff in The Rise of Skywalker comes in its opening moments where (I hope this isn’t a spoiler for anyone) there are scenes of Leia training Rey as her new Jedi Master. This film sends off Carrie Fisher in some amazing ways. While some of it seems maybe a little forced, it’s mostly just great.

There are some big hero moments near the end. They’re a lot of fun, but they punctuate a final act that feels a little messy. But we get to see Lando fly The Millenium Falcon again and team up with old friends. Billy Dee Williams has never been better. It almost forgives a lot of the messiness and contrivances that get us there.

My biggest complaint is how so many of the side characters get sidelined, especially my precious Rose Tico. She is given almost nothing to do, and in the final act heroics, Finn is paired up instead with new character Jannah. Don’t get me wrong, Jannah is great and presents some great foil moments for Finn because of her backstory (no spoilers on that), but the problem with this is it feels like in the first movie they tried to pair Finn with Rey, then in the second with Rose, and certain segments of the audience rejected that. So they give him, as with Poe, a foil who is sexually available and also black as though we’re sort of subtly saying “Oh, these two characters should be together.” That gives me oogey feelings because, again, it feels like playing to the lowest common denominator: “Here’s a ship no one can get upset about.”

But then on the other end of the spectrum, there’s C-3PO and Chewbacca. Both play integral roles to this story, and Threepio specifically steals every scene he’s in. If you would have told me C-3PO was the breakout performance of the movie months ago, I would’ve laughed in your face. It is, nonetheless, true, and he’s absolutely amazing. New droid D-O is also a lot of fun. There are also some cameos, especially near the end, that made me squeee with delight. Specifically, one character who I’ve waited the entire new trilogy to show up makes it on screen, if only briefly.

But that beautiful populist message ends up ringing loud and true through that final act. It feels in so many places like a very direct middle finger to Donald Trump, to Boris Johnson and Brexit, to all the other forces in the universe who stand with the dark side. Just don’t tell Xi Jinping, or else Star Wars will get banned from China. And no way will Disney be willing to take that.

For all the complaining about The Rise of Skywalker, it isn’t really a bad movie. It just isn’t the great movie it could’ve been. I shouldn’t be arrogant enough to expect that Star Wars is always going to cater to my tastes and be my wish fulfillment (in this case for more complex, subversive material). But, it’s incredibly important to let people like what they like. I’m sure there will be millions of Star Wars fans who love this, and I’m determined to let them have their fun. It’s doubtful the toxic parts of the fanbase will be so kind or will even like this. Maybe Lucasfilm can learn a thing or two from their corporate cousins at Marvel.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil poster

Maleficent in 2014 made a killing at the box office. It was a critical success, and (along with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland) set off Disney’s current craze of remaking all of their IP as live action blockbusters. So the sequel Maleficent: Mistress of Evil was a sure bet, right? Yes and no.

Angelina Jolie returns as the eponymous and misunderstood queen of the fey. Elle Fanning is back as her adopted daughter, the Princess Aurora. Prince Phillip has proposed to her, so now it’s time to meet the parents! Michelle Pfieffer sinks her teeth into the juicy role of Queen Ingrith, who bears a giant grudge against the magical moor lands and all magic users. This great feud breaks out between her and Maleficent. It’s like if Joan Crawford and Bette Davis’s squabbles were also all a pretense for war. There are certain elements in this film that seem to condemn the military-industrial complex. . . or at least its equivalent in a pre-industrial medieval setting.

Maleficent also discovers her heritage as she discovers a near-extinct species of dark fey that once lived all throughout the land but who have hunted by humans and driven into hiding. Their tribes are divided between wanting to pursue war or peace with the humans, with the peace faction being led by Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the war faction led by Borra (Ed Skrein).

The giant action sequences and production design of this film are phenomenal. The only problem is that it’s the personal interactions between Pfieffer and Jolie that are the best parts here. The giant action scenes where they are literally fighting one another are altogether less interesting.

While visually stunning, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is missing some of its edge. I loved the first Maleficent. It’s an amazing film that dared to turn the essence of a classic Disney tale on its head. It features a strong feminist message about not pitting women against each other. This sequel feels like nothing but pitting powerful women against each other.

Still, the aesthetics of the film are amazing. Maleficent’s costumes and makeup/CG-enhancements make her absolutely stunning to look at. Maybe it’s the wings, maybe it’s those cheekbones, maybe it’s the CG-coloring that makes the green magic swirl in her eyes, but it’s gorgeous.

While maybe not as good as the first, like most modern sequels this film does it bigger and brashier. That’s not necessarily a good thing. If you’re a fan it’s a good enough reason to go ahead and make sure you see this on the big screen.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Joker

Joker

Send in the clowns…

So honestly I did not know what to expect when I purchased my Joker ticket. I had heard that it was great and earth-shattering. I had also heard it was pretty terrible. So you see why I had to go see it for myself, right?

The first thing that made me nervous was pulling up to the theater and seeing parked police cars. And when you think of why they had to be there, it made the whole experience even more surreal. My safety, as well as other moviegoers, were at risk. Because not everyone going to this movie would be sound of mind. And when you think about the public shootings…well… you can appreciate my growing concern.

Did I find this movie to be amazing? A masterpiece? No. Joaquin Phoenix did an AMAZING job in portraying arguably the most iconic comic book villain ever. Soooo creepy with those glassy, intense eyes set underneath those dark eyebrows, and he was so painfully skinny. His ribcage was a sight. He clearly lost weight for the role and it showed! Now, there were times when you sympathized with him. Clearly suffering from mental illness, and bullied by an unforgiving world, would certainly mess you up. That is not in question. It is what he does later on that doesn’t quite have you cheering him on. Deep down, you were glad he, I dunno, found himself?

I can’t and won’t pretend to know what if feels like to have one’s mind brimming and seething like a cauldron of negative thoughts. I can’t. And won’t allow myself to sink that low when it would be so easy to reach the bottom as Joker did. He had a mind of eels, a basket of drowned kittens. And all of what I said would have made him laugh. And can we talk about his laugh? Maybe we shouldn’t. I would hate to have nightmares….

He disturbed me. I would flinch and gasp with each outburst, as they increasingly grew more and more violent. The children’s hospital scene made me gasp then laugh then I had to cover my mouth. I wanted to hug him, but then he would have slit my throat… so no. He NEEDED to be institutionalized.

I felt uneasy whenever he had to interact with people but especially the black women in this movie. Example such as his social worker and the effervescent Sophie Dumond played by Zazie Beetz. I didn’t want the love story to blossom. I didn’t want her to even look at him and catch his crazy eye. But every good story needs conflict, right? Especially when you already know the horrible ending… I just wasn’t here for this poor unfortunate black women dealing with the white tears of a clown.

There’s a scene, in particular, that gave me chills. The Joker is standing on the curb and a car drives by with a man wearing a clown mask. They make eye contact. And Joker widens his eyes with the most disturbing smile on his face. I don’t know if I can look at Phoenix in the same way again.

Seeing Robert DeNiro was a treat. I loved him as the late night talk show host role as Murray Franklin. There’s something about the outro song that reminded me of SNL. It’s very jazzy and bluesy. And one of my other personal faves, Frances Conroy as Joker’s mom Penny, was a treat. She has such range as an actress. I’ve seen her as mortician’s widow, the angel of death, and now as the mother of the most insane criminal in the literary world. 

Anyway, I am not going to make this into a thinkpiece. As always, I wanted to share how I felt when seeing this. It was visceral, intense, and a proper origin story to one of my favorite characters. To borrow a phrase from a song:

“Everybody loves a winner so nobody loved me”

I can’t help but feel that is applicable to the sad, twisted, loveless tale of the Joker. He said life was a comedy. But most comedies are tragic. He needed help and no one cared enough to do so. He snapped while still smiling so hard his muscles ached and strained until his eyes watered. Still he smiled. This is not the tale of an underdog. This a tale of a man who laughed last.

Movie Review: Joker

Joker poster

Joker is a schizophrenic film. I’m loathe to use that term because it’s both a bit too on the nose (because of mental health issues explored in the film) and the term schizophrenia is largely misunderstood. However, it’s the best description (literally “split head”) of what is a gripping and gritty but at the same time somehow both banal, disturbing and irresponsible film.

In that way it is very much like its protagonist and the comics character he is based on. But the film also tries to draw from such a deep well of other films (better films) that it’s really hard to fully recommend to people when they’re probably better off just going back to the original source material.

Let’s start with the good. Joker is trying to present a complex character of someone who has been largely marginalized by society and essentially indicts the system that led to his emergence as a supervillain. I get that, and I really respect it, but I also wish it had just been done better. It’s also hard to feel bad for someone who is at their core a sociopath as we see someone falling down into that rabbit hole through escalating acts of violence. Some of them are warranted but most of them not.

Joaquin Phoenix does a great job here in presenting the multiple different layers of this character. The physicality alone he brings here is astounding and part of what makes this film so visceral and so (intentionally) unpleasant. The film also makes him a great classic unreliable narrator, so you’re left wondering how much of the film is real and how much might be delusional. However, you have to ask yourself, how much sympathy do we really need to give to a psychopath? This film doesn’t offer any good conclusions to that question.

To the extent this film inspires conversations about mental health care and the systemic ways in which we fail people on the margins of society, that is a good thing. To the extent that it inspires us to discuss growing income inequality and the marginalization of the poor and the true class warfare — the 1% beating down the disadvantaged — then those are good conversations.

The problem is that the film will also inspire other conversations that will be far less nuanced and will take all of the wrong messages from this film. These messages will inspire violence, creating more heat than light. That is ultimately this film’s downfall is that it has no sense of responsibility for what it is unleashing into the culture.

WARNING: The following contains very minor SPOILERS. They are not major plot points but includes a single line of dialogue, a discussion of songs used in the film, and how Joker draws from other films. If you’re familiar with those films, knowing their plots may be considered “spoilers” for how this film lays out its plot. However, I maintain none of these will actually spoil your enjoyment of the film. If anything, hopefully, it inspires some critical conversations. BUT if you don’t want to know these, skip to the final 2 paragraphs. Ok, minor “spoilers”:

In this same way, Joker as a character tries to absolve himself of all responsibility for the effects his actions have on society, eg, that he has inspired others to engage in violence. He doesn’t see himself as the leader of any sort of movement, even going so far as to say “I’m not political.” That statement is the Rosetta Stone for understanding why this film is flawed. In its heart of hearts, it probably believes this.

Furthermore, this is likely writer and director Todd Phillips giving himself an out and abrogating any personal responsibility for how others might interpret his film– in essence re-enacting the final act of the film where Joker goes on tv and uses the power of the media to spread his gospel of violence and nihilism.

Joker doesn’t care whether he’s inspiring people in the streets or not. He’s not a savior or a leader. But angry, disaffected people will listen to his message and go out and commit atrocities.

So, no, you don’t get to just say, “This isn’t political.” That is the mantra of privilege because you know that the effects of what you are putting out there into the culture is never going to personally affect you.

This film is political in the same way all the best art is political. Its best pieces and moments indict entire systems and ways of thinking. It exposes the corruption and indifference of a society who turns its back on the people who most need help. So saying it’s not political is both a cop-out and completely negates all the positive you’ve created.

Needless to say, this very specific moment in October of 2019, this film feels wholly irresponsible to put into the cultural zeitgeist. I have never worried about widespread mass shootings happening at screenings of any other film, even given the crowds Star Wars and Avengers were always going to attract. But I really worry about this weekend. Todd Phillips would have been far better to simply crank out another tired Hangover sequel and give us all a few laughs, even if they weren’t politically correct ones.

Which brings us to Phillips saying he stopped making comedy because he’s tired of “woke” culture. Bad news, Todd, there’s plenty of woke takes on dramas and comic book movies as well. Joker deserves all of the woke takes it can get, and I’m especially interested in hearing from black female critics about the treatment of Zazie Beetz‘s character in the film. By the way, Beetz’s performance is astounding, and every bit as good and layered as Phoenix’s, even though she gets 1/15th the screen time and 1/20th of the lines and character development.

The treatments and marginalization of other women of color in this film is also a great topic for discussion. We also see 0 representation and therefore a complete erasure of Latinx and Asian characters of any kind.

And because one good woke take deserves another, much ado has also been made about the inclusion of a song by Gary Glitter in a scene later in the film where Joker is dancing on a stairway, which can be seen in the trailer.

In so many ways, the inclusion of Gary Glitter on the soundtrack is incredibly on-brand for the film. It represents either complete ignorance of the fact that Glitter has been a known pedophile for decades, or a complete apathy to that fact.

Perhaps this is an attempt to be knowingly edgy and push people’s buttons in an attempt to troll “cancel culture.” But most likely it is that Phillips is just totally indifferent.

The entire film reeks of a practiced indifference and air of privilege that, ironically, the subject of the film is trying to skewer. Joker falls all over itself in its subtext and talking about how it doesn’t care too much. It, therefore, can’t possibly have the edge and satire it needs to actually say something coherent about an indifferent society that steps over and marginalizes people who have been hurt by the system or forgotten. You literally can’t be both.

The film also begs, borrows and steals from so many other films it becomes tiresome. This is a bad bar band covering hits from the 70s, but instead of singing Journey and Fleetwood Mac, it’s a remake of Scorsese’s King of Comedy and Taxi Driver. Both of those films would fit in many critics’ and organizations’ top 25 list of the greatest films of all time. It’s doubtful Joker will even make it into my top 25 of this year.

You know how most of the Die Hard sequels weren’t actually originally written to be Die Hard? They were just action scripts floating around Hollywood and then someone said, “Take that script for WW3.com, and put John McClane in it. Now it’s Die Hard with a Vengeance.” This movie feels like someone’s script that tried to remake King of Comedy and then someone came along and said: “Let’s make this main character the Joker.”

The other film that gets most name-checked in Joker but has been perhaps the least discussed (the parallels to Scorsese were apparent from the trailers alone, so much so that it’s almost too easy a comparison) is the parallels to Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. Joker uses both a scene from the film at a pivotal point in the movie, and also uses its signature song “Smile” as a sort of theme song– so much so that it’s in the trailer.

On the surface, there are some real similarities. Both films are about the marginalization of regular people due to growing inequality. Both films deal with mental health and police brutality as well as crackdowns on organizing/protest movements. The main difference is their endings.

In Modern Times, after 90 minutes of factory work, abuse, a mental breakdown, being arrested, beaten up by the police, losing more jobs, having their dreams taken away from them by the rich and powerful on a couple of different occasions, Chaplain and his gamin girlfriend literally walk into the sunset after saying they can’t give up and never should no matter how many times they’ve been beaten down. They still need to work hard and will eventually come out on top.

Joker conveys the exact opposite message of that, so it feels like such a disservice to such classic a film as Modern Times to so explicitly reference it. It feels more like if Todd Phillips were standing in a movie line talking about Modern Times and Joker, Woody Allen would pull Charlie Chaplin out from behind a sign to say “I heard what you were saying. You know nothing of my work.” (That’s an Annie Hall reference, folks, since we’re talking 1970’s movies. And yes I’m still talking about Woody Allen even though he’s #cancelled.)

Given the ersatz quality of the filmmaking here, would you rather hear the classics played by the crappy bar band, or just pull out your records and listen to the originals? Don’t go see Joker if you haven’t seen King of Comedy. Or Taxi Driver. Or Modern Times. Your time will be better spent on the originals and classics rather than these pale imitations.

END “SPOILERS”

All of this is to say that Joker is a complicated and often contradictory mess. But it isn’t wholly bad. The tragedy of it all is that there are moments of sheer brilliance. Despite all my problems with it, I hope the film does incredibly well at the box office to send the signal that DC can/should abandon–for now– the pretext of a shared universe and simply churn out character-driven individual films. And sometimes they can be R-rated and gritty and complex.

And sometimes they can be whatever it is they’re doing in that new Birds of Prey trailer, which is everywhere I want to be. And sometimes it can be James Gunn making a Suicide Squad movie. But my hope is that next time they try to swing for the fences like this with something like Joker, they’ll bring someone more talented than Todd Phillips on to make sure we don’t get a self-contradicting warmed-over-King of Comedy remake with the clown prince of crime somehow shoehorned in.

3 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Abominable

Abominable

Abominable is a movie we’ve seen dozens of times before, so even though it runs on rails it isn’t altogether bad. The one thing that switches it up even a little bit is its Chinese setting. In the dozen of other iterations of this film, this would have always been set in America. Likely the most interesting thing about Abominable is what it says about the future of Sino-American relations and global culture as even American animation studios with American creative teams try to go after the Chinese market more explicitly.

But otherwise, this is just an animated E.T. with a Yeti.

Our main story revolves around Yi, a teenage girl played by Chloe Bennet (Marvel’s Agents of Shield), herself a Chinese-American, who finds this runaway creature, befriends it and decides she needs to take it back to Mount Everest where it came from. This trip ends up mirroring a planned trip that she and her recently deceased father had always meant to go on. The trip ends up healing her and her grief as they discover more and more of the yeti, who she names Everest, and his magical powers.

But also this seems like a tourist travel video promoting the beautiful and varied landscapes of China. If this movie had been set in America, they would have stopped at the iconic places we all would think of– Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, etc. They do the same with the Gobi Desert and the Yangtze River as it seems Everest’s most powerful magic is to completely distort space and time so that each of these things are within walking distance of one another. But hey, it’s a kids movie.

The animation is crisp and beautiful. It’s everything we expect DreamWorks to do. Everest’s playful design is quite reminiscent of another Dreamworks Animation main creature– Toothless from the How to Train Your Dragon films. Kids will absolutely love him.

It’s also worth noting that writer and director Jill Culton is a veteran of Pixar who worked on not only the Monsters, Inc. films but also several of the Toy Storys. Everest is essentially Sully mixed with Toothless, and that’s not a bad combination. But as I said, we’ve seen this movie before. And frankly, it’s been done better. Monsters, Inc IS this movie, except the human Boo is the magical monster. But if you’re going to steal, then stealing from that and ET isn’t a bad place to start.

One of the most interesting choices of the film is that its antagonists, played by Eddie Izzard and Sarah Paulson read as English and American. That can’t be accidental, as it’s their greed, pride, etc that leads them to want to capture the yeti for their own nefarious purposes. It’s hard not to read something into that, although perhaps it’s completely earned.

Or perhaps we shouldn’t read anything more into it oh, the same way we don’t particularly read Maleficent or Cruella Deville as being “English” in an American context. Maybe it’s just a cute movie about a teenage girl and her friends who go on a magical adventure with a yeti.

Regardless, while you can do far better then this by-the-numbers animated film, you can also do much worse. If your kids drag you to Abominable, you won’t hate it, and you might even enjoy aspects of it. It’s not Pixar or How to Train Your Dragon, but it’s trying to be. And that’s not so terrible.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars

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