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Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Posted October 15, 2017 By Curiosity Inc.

Wonder Woman has never been more popular. Now more than ever, there has been overwhelming demand for a cinematic superhero to serve as a role model and inspiration for girls the world over. Feminism is huge right now, and those values were represented in a big way when Wonder Woman finally came out to booming success earlier this year.

But with all of this going on, it’s easy to forget a time just a year or two ago when pop culture at large knew virtually nothing about Wonder Woman. Sure, everyone knew her name, her image, the bullet-deflecting bracelets, and the Lasso of Truth; but relatively few in the mainstream knew much about her origin, her rogues gallery, or who Diana Prince was as a person.

Nobody liked to admit it, but the most common image of Wonder Woman in the popular mindset probably involved her tying someone up with her lasso, or getting tied up herself. And there’s a reason for that.

In point of fact, many early Wonder Woman comics showed clear depictions of bondage, sapphism, and so on. If you think that’s racy stuff now, just imagine how it was back in the 1940s. It was a far less enlightened and forgiving time, back when homosexuality was considered a crime against God and man. Comic books were under heavy suspicion for their influence on children, even ten or twenty years before “Seduction of the Innocent”.

(Side note: If you have no idea what I’m talking about, I wrote about it here some time ago.)

So here’s Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, which dramatizes the life of Dr. William Moulton Marston. In the process, the film depicts Marston’s two most famous inventions: The lie detector and Wonder Woman. More importantly, the film depicts the heavy influence of the women in Marston’s life and the fragile, taboo, crazy thing they all shared.

It perhaps bears mentioning that due to the nature of the story and everybody’s attempts at suppressing it, some details about this true story have been fudged. That said, Marston and his wife Elizabeth (respectively played by Luke Evans and Rebecca Hall) were absolutely pioneers in the newborn science of psychology. Alas, Bill is a full professor and Elizabeth is only technically an assistant. She can’t get a Ph.D. because she’s a woman, you see, though her papers are incredible and her applications practically glow.

Enter Olive Byrne, played by Bella Heathcote. She’s a student in Bill’s class who agrees to serve as an assistant and help with some of the Marstons’ work. More specifically, Bill is trying out this theory that all emotions and interpersonal connections are centered on dominance, inducement, submission, and compliance (he calls it “DISC theory”). Oh, and there’s a prototype lie detector sitting around, so maybe she can help make that work as well.

Over time, it becomes obvious that Bill and Olive are in love with each other. And while Elizabeth denies it strongly, she and Olive have clear feelings for each other as well. What the three of them have together is beautiful and based on heartfelt love, but it’s still something greatly removed from the heterosexual monogamous family unit of the conservative era between the two World Wars. So the three of them are basically trying to invent the modern polyamorous marriage, figuring out how to make it work in spite of a society determined to brand them and their children as perverted freaks.

Things start going even faster when Bill discovers pornographic material that serves as a crude yet expedient demonstration of his own psychological theories on feminism, dominance, and submission. Visual material that he adapts into a comic book to convey his concepts into a less dully academic and more easily saleable medium.

Let’s try and recap what we’ve got going on here.

As individuals, we have three people trying to build a loving and cohesive family unit. Even if it means giving into impulses that they know are beautiful, pleasurable, harmless, irresistible, and totally against any common standard of decency. As professionals, they have an obligation to learn more about the emotions and thought processes of human psychology, publishing their discoveries for the betterment of science. Which means that their methods and personal reputations must be beyond reproach. Though to be fair, Elizabeth and Olive have little to no reason to play the game if they’ll never be treated as equals no matter what they do.

Everything in this movie always comes back to how it affects these people individually, how it affects them romantically, how it affects their scientific work, and how it affects the creation of Wonder Woman. Sometimes these different purposes work together and sometimes they conflict, and it always gives us exquisite dramatic tension.

To wit: This movie involves the invention of the lie detector test. Which means that we have three characters asking each other direct questions about their love for one another. And we have a clear audio/visual cue for when they’re lying to themselves or each other. That makes for scenes that are incredibly powerful.

What I’m trying to say is that there is A LOT going on in this movie. The dialogue, the performances, the editing, the music… everything works together to express so much more than what’s merely being said. Every shot, every cut, every gesture, even the slightest twitch of an eyebrow conveys several volumes’ worth of actions, statements, and events. This is an impossibly huge reason why the film develops such a powerful and fully-developed romance in only 100 minutes: Because so overwhelmingly much is packed into every frame.

And of course all of this leads to such timely and relevant themes as free love, sexuality, feminism, etc. And this movie does not fuck around with those sentiments, either. Because these characters and their relationships are so perfectly realized, all of these themes land with a bold, erotic, heart-pounding, thought-provoking punch.

And what of the more risque material concerning bondage, BDSM, etc.? Well, it’s used in one scene as an elegant metaphor for the painful nature of love and the restraints put upon us by society at large. Even better, the concept of dominance is expanded into more universal concepts, such as arrogance, pride, authority, and other ways in which we impose our will on others for good or ill. Likewise, submission is expanded to include humility, compassion, contrition, and other ways that we make allowances for others out of love or weakness. Thus the movie shows how we can only find peace and well-being through finding some balance between the two.

What further helps to establish all of this is a framing device in which Marston has to defend Wonder Woman and his creative choices to a government bureaucrat played by Connie Britton. By reaffirming his values for a more loving and open world, in which truth and compassion conquer all and women are held as equals to their male counterparts, Marston reaffirms why the world needs Wonder Woman. As such, the film serves as a reminder of why the character had been so grossly misunderstood and poorly utilized for so many years, and why she matters now more than ever.

Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, and Bella Heathcote all turn in career-best performances. There is truly no substitute for seeing how much the three of them can express to each other and the camera with barely a word spoken. Likewise, the editing is loaded with brilliant touches throughout, and the score does so much to express the characters’ emotions without getting maudlin or lewd.

I cannot possibly recommend this movie enough. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is intelligent, provocative, erotic, heartwrenching, and tear-jerking in all the best ways. It’s masterfully acted, superbly shot and edited, and beautifully scored, all of which helps convey two decades’ worth of plot and character development into a breezy hundred minutes. It’s a bold affirmation of feminism and LGBT equality in general, and why we need to keep building a more compassionate society through science, entertainment, politics, and whatever other means are at our disposal.

This is absolutely not a film to be missed. Seek it out immediately.

Happy Death Day

Posted October 14, 2017 By Curiosity Inc.

Do you remember Edge of Tomorrow? I do. The film got buried by Warner Bros.’ incompetence, but I remember it fondly. The basic premise involved a man who kept reliving the same day over and over each time he got killed in some new way. The premise opened itself to all sorts of comical, terrifying, action-packed possibilities, and so the movie worked beautifully on multiple levels.

With this in mind, I was perhaps overly hyped for Happy Death Day, in which a young woman inexplicably named Tree (Jessica Rothe) has to keep reliving her birthday until she figures out who keeps killing her and why. The trailer looked genuinely solid, and I was interested to see where the filmmakers were going with this.

Such a shame the movie turned out to be less than good.

The most obvious problem hits us in the opening scene (the first time Tree wakes up hung over in some stranger’s dorm room) and keeps on going through the very last second (the obvious lampshade reference to Groundhog Day). From literally start to finish, every single character is obnoxious as fuck. Carter (Israel Broussard) is the generic socially awkward everyman, Lori (Ruby Modine) is the best friend who inexplicably puts up with the worst abuse possible, Danielle (Rachel Matthews) is like a sick parody of Mean Girls, and so on. Even in the background, we see fraternity pledges killing themselves for initiation hazing, sorority sisters who proudly starve themselves, and my own personal favorite: A professor who has an extramarital affair with his student. Everything about these characters and their dialogue reads like something out of The Hopeless Screenwriting Hack’s Guide to Writing A College Movie.

Tree herself is probably the worst case in point, as she’s the absolute worst bitch alive at the start of the film. But this, at least, is understandable. It makes sense that our protagonist should start out as awful so that she learns from her mistakes and grows into a more mature person with each repeating day. Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow each did something similar, after all, but those films both did it better. Because, again, the filmmakers here show a comical inability to deliver convincing dialogue or interesting characters.

Moreover, it bears remembering that this is a horror film. In this genre, it’s not always easy to tell whether unlikeable characters is a bug or a feature. God knows it was so much more satisfying when Tree finally got killed for the first time or two. That said, Tree is the only character who dies on a constant basis, and her development arc never really goes anywhere new or compelling. The other characters only die maybe once if that, and because their development arcs constantly reset (by nature of the premise), they never grow into anything past their two-dimensional starting points.

The tone-deaf treatment of college life doesn’t stop with the characters, either. You may already know from the posters and trailers that our slasher wears a smiling baby mask that admittedly looks pretty creepy. However, a crucial plot point is that the masks are highly commonplace, as that particular baby is the college mascot. To repeat: A baby is a college mascot. What the fuck is up with that?

With all of that said, I want to stress that there was definitely potential here. Using the “time loop” premise to explore themes of introspection and getting the most out of every second allowed to us isn’t necessarily anything new, but I think it might actually have been better explored here than in Groundhog Day. Additionally, the big surprise reveal at the end might have been genuinely clever if — again — it wasn’t ruined by the lousy character development.

Something else that sucks is that eventually, the stakes drop by a considerable margin. There’s one fight sequence at the halfway point that holds zero tension because we know that Tree will just start the day over if she dies. Edge of Tomorrow compensated for a similar problem by pivoting toward comedy, and this film makes a similar effort, but the rushed montage of Tree getting repeatedly killed is nowhere near as funny as I had hoped.

Instead, the movie compensates by introducing a genuinely clever idea: Implying that Tree may not actually have infinite lives. As the movie progresses, we start to see evidence that Tree’s various deaths somehow leave behind residual damage, such that she’s progressively weaker with more internal damage at the start of every go-round. It makes the subsequent deaths that much more awful to watch, knowing that there’s a cost to each killing against some indeterminate time limit. The concept is underutilized, but it’s still better than nothing.

But the real cherry on top of all this is the score by Bear McCreary. To be clear, I love Bear McCreary’s work. I’ve been a fan since “Battlestar Galactica” and his contribution was a huge reason of why I was so hyped for this film. What a disappointment. McCreary has always shown a remarkable talent for composing unique and iconic themes for his works, often blending disparate instruments together in new and exotic ways to give each franchise its own distinct sound. And McCreary’s score here could seriously have been copy-pasted from any other film in the oeuvre of producer Jason Blum. Hell, there’s nothing to this movie aside from the premise that looks or feels the least bit unique.

Happy Death Day is a brilliant premise wasted on lackluster execution. There’s no reason this couldn’t have been done without a cast full of obnoxious paper-thin characters or wretched dialogue. The horror and comedy are both uneven at best, when they could have been so much more. And it damn well definitely could’ve been done with an ounce of creativity in the visuals or the music. I want to say that the movie is harmless enough, but the sorority stereotypes are so outdated and misogynist that I can’t even give it that much.

Ultimately, the film is just another brainless and disposable Jason Blum horror film. That doesn’t make it the worst thing in the world, but it sure as hell doesn’t make it worth a recommendation either.

Battle of the Sexes

Posted October 12, 2017 By Curiosity Inc.

Battle of the Sexes dramatizes the world-famous 1973 tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King (respectively played here by Steve Carell and Emma Stone). At the time, Riggs was a U.S. champion player with a Wimbledon triple victory under his belt. Meanwhile, Billie Jean King had earned multiple Grand Slam titles and worked as a founding member of the Women’s Tennis Association. Additionally, Riggs had built up a reputation as a womanizing showboat while King racked up headlines as a feminist demanding equal pay and treatment for female athletes.

The film also takes a bit of time to portray Riggs’ gambling addiction and marital difficulties, but far more attention is given to King and her struggles. In addition to being a feminist struggling for respect in a man’s world and building up a women’s tennis league from nothing, she’s also a closet lesbian in a straight marriage. Naturally, such secrets could potentially destroy her reputation and everything she’s worked so hard to build, to say nothing of her marriage and whatever personal relationships she might have.

In theory, all of this could make for a compelling awards drama with fertile themes of sexual equality and identity. Sure enough, that’s exactly what the filmmakers did. And the whole movie was weaker for it.

Don’t get me wrong, this is hardly a bad movie. The retro visuals are good, the cast is solid, and it’s not like the film’s feminist LGBT-friendly statements aren’t timely or relevant. But something about it felt strangely off, and I could feel it most keenly with the relationship between King and her lesbian mistress (Marilyn, played by Andrea Riseborough). Emma Stone has always shown the preternatural ability to instantly generate chemistry with any onscreen partner in even the shittiest of movies (*coughAlohacough*), and she was giving a perfectly serviceable performance here opposite a genuinely talented actress, but this romance simply didn’t have the necessary spark.

So, what went wrong here? Well, I think I’ve got a good idea about that.

See, this is a movie from Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the husband/wife directing team behind Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks. What’s more, the cast is comprised of such talents as Steve Carell, Emma Stone, Sarah Silverman, Alan Cumming, Fred Armisen, and John C. McGinley. What do these talents all have in common? They’re comedians. Every single one of them got to be famous through breezy and comical works. Compare that to screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, who previously wrote such light-hearted fare as Slumdog MillionaireEverest127 Hours, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. This is clearly a case of the wrong script getting handed to the wrong filmmakers.

To be clear, all of these are wonderfully talented actors and filmmakers with proven dramatic chops, and none of them are anywhere near bad enough to humiliate themselves. They can all do good work in drama, but it’s not where they do their best work. This is not their comfort zone, and the whole movie feels hamstrung as a direct result. Hell, you can even see it in the performances from Andrea Riseborough and Bill Pullman, the way they seem floundering for want of direction.

What’s more, the story itself might have been better served as a comedy. After all, we’re talking about a movie centered around the premise of a tennis match as a decisive battleground for women’s liberation. Couple that with Riggs’ shamelessly outlandish publicity stunts, and this had all the makings of a powerful satire about sports, the media, gender politics, and everything in between. Especially with such filmmakers who were more than talented and clever enough to make it work.

Instead, what we get are statements about feminism and LGBT equality delivered with all the subtlety of your average political campaign ad. To repeat, it’s not like those statements aren’t timely or important. But they’re not exactly bold or innovative, either. Delivering these same points in a more comical manner could have given this film the novelty and creativity needed to make these points stick. Because as it is, the movie’s statements don’t come off as new, clever, intelligent, or compelling in any way. It’s just more of the same, which is nothing particularly memorable or compelling.

What makes this especially bad, we’re talking about a movie based on such a wildly famous true story that we already know exactly how this ends. As such, this movie desperately needed all the dramatic tension it could get. But the filmmakers didn’t seem to know that. Between the aggressively blunt messages and the abject failure at staging the tennis matches with any kind of suspense, we’re left with a movie that plays out exactly the way we all know it will.

It seems fitting that Battle of the Sexes should be released opposite American Made, because I’d put them both in the same class: Movies that aren’t entertaining enough for summer blockbusters, but aren’t intelligent or memorable enough to be awards contenders. It’s not that either movie is bad, but they’re not as good as they could’ve been.

In the case of Battle of the Sexes, this movie had everything in place to be a biting and whip-smart satire, but the film was made into an awards-bait melodrama instead. It’s still a fascinating story and the filmmakers were more than talented enough to make the film watchable, but these same talents were better suited to a film that erred on the side of comedy rather than drama.

The film is absolutely worth a rental, but I fail to see any reason why this demands a big-screen viewing.

Blade Runner 2049

Posted October 7, 2017 By Curiosity Inc.

Blade Runner is perhaps the greatest unfinished movie of our time. That might sound like a strange statement to make, considering that it was released and seen and adored by millions of people. But was it ever really finished? Think about it.

The Blade Runner released in 1982 was actually the third version of the film, following the workprint shown to preview audiences in Dallas and Denver, and another workprint shown to preview audiences in San Diego. These were followed by the international release and of course the version for TV broadcast. Then came the Director’s Cut in 1992 (not to be confused with the “10th Anniversary Edition”, actually the repackaged international release) and the “Final Cut” in 2007.

Seven different versions, all with different scenes (and voice-over narrations) added and deleted. Which one is the true definitive cut? That question has been subject to so much blazing debate over so many years and still nobody has a definitive answer. And of course, that isn’t even getting started on the famously ambiguous ending. It’s almost like a geek rite of passage to watch the film, carefully looking for clues, researching how the clues differ from one version to another, trying to answer the question of whether or not Deckard is a Replicant. Hell, debating that subject is half the fun of watching the film.

As such, a sequel seemed like an iffy prospect, even if it hadn’t come out over 30 years after the original. Awesome as it may sound to revisit that world, the beginning of one chapter implies the closing of another. And I don’t think we really needed or wanted any definitive answers to a film so deliberately and beautifully open-ended.

Mercifully, Blade Runner 2049 works perfectly fine as a standalone movie and as a sequel. On the off chance that somebody somehow walked into this without ever having seen the first movie, they’ll be able to appreciate this just fine, but not as much as those who know the first movie top-to-bottom. Even better, while the sequel quite clearly takes place in the same universe and continuity, enough time has passed in-universe that the sequel has the room to tell its own story without any regard to which cut you think is the definitive one. And perhaps most importantly, while Harrison Ford does reprise his iconic role as Rick Deckard, the plot would unfold in exactly the same way whether he’s a human or a Replicant and the question is barely even broached, much less answered.

While Ridley Scott stayed on as an exec producer, he was gracious enough to hand the reins off to someone else. (Fans of the Alien franchise will surely appreciate what a crucial step this was.) Likewise, while original Blade Runner co-writer Hampton Fancher devised the story and had a hand in writing the screenplay, the script was handed off to Michael Green. The latter is something of a wild card, with a hand in projects ranging from Green Lantern to Logan, from “American Gods” to Alien: Covenant. And directing all of this is Denis Villeneuve, turning in his seventh goddamn feature in eight years. Villeneuve seemed unnaturally perfect for the job, given his proclivity for dark and brooding crime drama (PrisonersSicario, etc.) and his recent knack for visually stunning and deeply intellectual sci-fi (Arrival).

(Side note: Did I mention that Villeneuve has directed seven feature films in the past eight years? Because I think that bears repeating. Seven feature films in eight years. Who knew that was even possible?!)

The stakes for this one were incredibly high, and the critical reception was sterling before the film had even been released. Luckily for everyone involved, this did indeed turn out to be a really good movie.

A text crawl at the opening helpfully refreshes us on the events of the previous film while getting us up to speed on what happened in the interrim. Long story short, the death of Eldon Tyrell — compounded by the Replicant ban for fear of synthetic humans going rogue and killing everyone — led to the bankruptcy of the Tyrell Corporation. In turn, this led to a shortage of cheap labor which led to the atrophy of the off-world colonies.

Enter Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), a genius scientist who was able to revitalize agriculture on the off-world colonies. He then purchased what was left of the Tyrell Corporation to revamp the manufacture of Replicants, making them more reliable and obedient. However, we still have older models of Replicants out there who’ve somehow been able to stay off the radar for all these years. Thus we still have the Blade Runners.

Oh, and I should also mention The Blackout. Later in the movie, we learn that some freak incident took down power throughout the city and wiped out virtually every form of electronic data storage. It’s basically a plot device so that certain events in the last movie and in subsequent years could be kept secret until the appropriate time.

Anyway, our protagonist for this movie is “K”, a Blade Runner in the LAPD. In case the name wasn’t enough to tip you off, there’s no mystery this time about whether or not our protagonist is a Replicant — we’re very explicitly told in the first few minutes that he is absolutely a Replicant. And suddenly, casting Ryan Gosling for the role makes a lot more sense. Gosling’s greatest strength and biggest drawback as an actor has always been that “uncanny valley” sort of screen persona, like he’s too boringly perfect to be human. Not only is he a natural choice for the role, but making the character a Replicant helps us suspend disbelief when our hero does something no human should be capable of. And of course it opens up a lot of the philosophical questions we’d expect from the franchise, but for now, let’s get back to the premise.

The catalyst is Sapper Morton, an older Replicant played by Dave Bautista. After Morton is… *ahem* “retired”, K finds a crate full of bones that Morton buried. Analysis of these remains shows that the skeleton belonged to a woman who died in childbirth about thirty years ago. And here’s the kicker: This woman was a Replicant.

To the Wallace Corporation (that’s the new Tyrell Corporation, if you’re keeping track), this discovery means a new and cheaper means of producing Replicants. To the Replicants themselves, this means one more crucial reason why they are humans in all but name and social equality. And to the LAPD, this is an impossibility that has to be covered up before the status quo is destroyed and war breaks out between humans and Replicants.

So everyone is after this Replicant child for their own reasons. Of course, there’s a good chance that you’ve already guessed by now who the parents are, and the movie wastes virtually no time in confirming the obvious guess. There’s also an obvious guess as to who this child is, but the film takes a lot longer in entertaining that possibility and the big reveal comes with a welcome curveball.

Anyway, the main thrust of the plot is K’s search for this child, partly as a pawn in everyone else’s schemes and partly for his own reasons. Things get even further complicated when K’s memories start acting up. You’ll recall that K is a Replicant, so any of his memories before adulthood are merely fictional implants. But because this is the Blade Runner universe, there’s a chance that at least some of his memories may have been adapted from actual memories lived out through someone else.

All of this leads to a fascinating philosophical crisis when some of K’s memories yield vital clues in unexpected ways. Could it be that his memories are real and he actually did some of these things? Who (if anyone) made these memories, who (if anyone) lived them out, who (if anyone) put them in K’s head, and (if so) why? These are all such fascinating questions that I’m kind of sad the movie provided such concrete answers for all of them. Though I guess the plot would kinda fall apart without those answers, so whatever.

Right off the bat, I was fascinated by the look of the movie. It’s Grandmaster Roger Deakins on the camera, so of course every frame is utterly immaculate. But the production design was something else. It’s not an easy thing to describe in words, how the tech of Blade Runner and its sequel progressed in a way that was analogous to the tech of 1982 and 2017. Everything’s sleeker and more streamlined, but it all very clearly takes place in the same world. It’s really quite remarkable.

Kudos are also due to Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer, both of whom created a moody and atmospheric score of electronic music, worthy of standing next to the iconic work by Vangelis in the original film. Nicely done.

Then we have the supporting cast. Ana de Armas is my personal favorite of the bunch, here playing K’s girlfriend. The kicker is that Joi is actually an artificially intelligent hologram, specially designed and advertised to be a perfect female companion. So she’s basically a pleasure-model Replicant, but even less real. We’re never allowed to forget for even an instant that Joi is a mass-produced construct who isn’t even physically there, but de Armas’ performance makes it perfectly clear that Joi’s love for K is somehow no less real. The two of them even have sex through a surrogate (a Replicant prostitute played by Mackenzie Davis, and goddamn is it always such a pleasure to see her onscreen), and the concept is actually done way better here than it was in Her.

Oh, and getting back to the visuals for a moment: The effects in bringing Joi to the screen are positively kickass. It’s astounding how much effort and creativity went into showing de Arma as an immaterial being made of pure light. Similarly, a whole ton of praise is due to the VFX work for Carla Juri’s character, whom we meet while she’s creating memories for Replicants.

Another prominent supporting actress is Sylvia Hoecks in the role of Luv. She’s basically the muscle for Wallace — and a Replicant, of course — out to track down and/or kill people so her boss doesn’t have to. Hoecks is more than sufficiently beautiful, imposing, and creepy-as-fuck to sell the character. Compare that to Leto, who plays our main villain by chewing scenery while also somehow looking stoned out of his mind at the same time. It makes for an interesting contrast between the two characters, I’ll grant them that.

Dave Bautista only appears for a brief period of time, but it’s more than enough to show that he can do way more as an actor than just beat people up. Barkhad Abdi also shows up in a cameo role, and there’s another actor who deserves way more work. Can we please get him a role in an upcoming Star Wars movie or something?

Speaking of which, Harrison Ford. Put simply, he’s Harrison Ford in this picture. He came to this movie to punch faces and give fucks, and he’s all out of fucks to give. He’s a grumpy old man and bless him for it. Likewise, Robin Wright appears in the thankless role of K’s police lieutenant, which means that she really doesn’t have to do much except to show up and be the living legend that she is.

Oh, and Ford isn’t the only actor from the original film to put in an appearance. I won’t go into details, but the sequel is loaded with wonderful callbacks to the first movie, and a couple of favorite characters make delightful cameo appearances. One of them even uses the CGI youthing technology that’s so in vogue right now, and I’ve never seen it done so perfectly before.

So, nitpicks? Well, at two hours and 45 minutes, there’s no denying that this movie is quite long in the tooth. There are a lot of wonderful scenes and introspective moments that develop the characters and build the world of this franchise, but that comes at the expense of the “find the Replicant child” plot grinding to a dead halt for minutes at a time. Additionally, the denouement is admittedly pretty weak, though I actually kinda like how the climactic fight was a cleverly small and intimate affair despite the global stakes.

But for me, the big overarching problem is the lack of subtlety. While the film is certainly a work of intelligent sci-fi, it’s frustrating how it raises so many existential and ethical questions only to wrap them all up in a tidy little bow. A huge part of what made the first movie such an enduring classic was in the subtle way it raised questions so compelling that they kept fans coming back again and again, writing and refining brilliant philosophical theses in search of a decent answer. By contrast, there’s nothing in this sequel on par with the question of Deckard’s natural-born status, and that’s a deep disappointment.

That said, while Blade Runner 2049 may resolve everything a little too neatly, it does absolutely nothing to ruin or change the original film in all its brilliance. And the sequel itself is a great time, with a solid cast delivering compelling characters and jaw-dropping production design shot beautifully. This isn’t the first time we’ve gotten a sequel to a movie that didn’t need a sequel, but we’ve sure seen cases that were a hell of a lot worse than this.

Give it a watch and have fun picking through it for yourself.

American Made

Posted October 7, 2017 By Curiosity Inc.

I’m calling it the “Dirty Stinking Rich” subgenre.

In the wake of the Iraq War, the Great Recession, and a growing distaste for how the wealthy and powerful keep getting away with fucking us over, we’ve had a lot of “Dirty Stinking Rich” movies. I’m specifically referring to films that depict the rise (and fall) of sleazy protagonists who get to be obscenely wealthy through illegal and/or unethical means. More specifically, these are films made to be deliberately crude and/or provocative, serving as a darkly comical satire of the immoral One Percent and how the American Dream has become a tasteless joke. Quite often, they’re (loosely) based on a true story. Perhaps most importantly, there has to be at least one montage of the protagonists pressed against gorgeous women, high on mass amounts of drugs and alcohol, partying in opulent cars and houses, etc., so that we can vicariously live through them even as we hate their guts.

The Wolf of Wall Street is easily the most definitive example. But we’ve also got Pain and Gain, War Dogs, and The Big Short as other notable entries. And here’s another one.

American Made is loosely based on a true story, set against the backdrop of 1979 and the early ’80s. To set the stage, this is when the Soviets were supporting insurgencies in Central America. This naturally caught the interest of the States up north, prompting a proxy war between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. Problem: The notion of sending troops down there sounded uncomfortably similar to the Vietnam fiasco, and Congress was dead-set against another war. Thusly, the CIA was tasked with figuring out how to keep the Commies off our doorstep without anyone knowing about it. Enter Barry Seal.

It’s not entirely clear when TWA pilot Barry Seal started working with the CIA (Go figure, right?), but in the movie, he’s caught smuggling contraband cigars out of Cuba. So he’s more or less blackmailed into quitting his job with the CIA and flying with an independent shell company to take recon photos of insurgents in Central America. Incidentally, this puts him in direct contact with the nascent Manuel Noriega.

Long story short (too late!), a young up-and-coming businessman named Pablo Escobar catches wind of Seal’s operations and, uh… *ahem* convinces him to smuggle cocaine into the U.S.A. And things get crazier from there.

As the plot unfolds, Seal is flying around drugs, guns, top-secret intel, you name it. For a huge stretch of time, he’s even flying huge groups of Contra soldiers up to the States for training. And all the while, he’s simultaneously taking money from the CIA, the White House, and all the most dangerous drug lords in the Western Hemisphere. He seriously ends up with more money than he can spend, with cash literally bursting out of his walls.

This naturally catches the attention of law enforcement, who has no idea about all the covert stuff Seal is doing for his nation (and others). Which means that he has to fend off the DEA, the FBI, ATF, FAA, DMV, FCC and every other acronym out there. Not to mention the CIA and Seal’s drug lord friends, any one of which could hang him out to dry at any time for any reason.

It’s a life story so crazy, only Tom Cruise could star in it.

This is seriously a unique brand of crazy that fits perfectly into Cruise’s wheelhouse. Too perfectly, in fact. I don’t know if or when we’re ever going to see Cruise dissolve into a role again, such that we can focus on the character instead of the nutjob with one of the most bankable faces in modern cinema, but that day is not today. He’s entertaining, to be sure — a whole lot of fun to watch. But the simple fact is that we’re watching yet another Tom Cruise vehicle and not a Tom Cruise performance. Still, he at least holds the film together, which is more than I can say for the rest of the cast.

Domhnall Gleeson plays Seal’s contact with the CIA, and I’m sorry to say that he was pitifully miscast. I mean, I get the idea of casting someone inconspicuous as the covert operative, but the face of the CIA should be someone who could potentially pose a serious threat if the occasion called for it. There’s an edge to this job that Gleeson — for all his talent and charm — simply doesn’t have.

A similar case is Seal’s wife, played by Sarah Wright as our latest winner of the “Relatively Unknown Beautiful Actress Gets to Play a Female Lead Opposite Tom Cruise” sweepstakes. I love that this is a thing and it’s great that Cruise insists on putting so much effort into finding strong female talent instead of casting the 20-something du jour to play his romantic lead. Unfortunately, on the scale of Cruise’s other recent female costars, Wright is a lot closer to Annabelle Wallis than Rebecca Ferguson. While Wright certainly looks the part, she doesn’t have the material or the talent to hold the screen against Cruise. She only registers as a placeholder when the potential was there for so much more.

We’ve also got Caleb Landry Jones playing firmly within type as the scumbag brother-in-law who threatens to ruin everything, and Jesse Plemons as the local sheriff who does just short of fuck-all. And nobody else in the supporting cast is even worth a mention. For better or worse, this is all Tom Cruise’s show. Well, him and Doug Liman.

It’s little wonder that Liman and Cruise work well together (see: Edge of Tomorrow. No, seriously, watch it.) But of course Liman is probably still best known for his work on the Jason Bourne series and its trademark use of handheld photography. And sadly, it’s a little shaky here (so to speak). For every gorgeous panoramic shot of some Central American city, there’s a shot in which the actors are barely visible in the frame. Even so, Liman deserves a ton of credit for helping us to straighten out the complicated geopolitical events and Seal’s convoluted trafficking schemes. That is seriously no mean feat.

But all of this comes secondary to my single biggest gripe with this film, and it’s a problem sadly too common with other “Dirty Stinking Rich” movies: Stakes and consequences. Yes, the movie focuses tightly on our main character, with the massive amounts of money and the life-or-death stakes he faces through every second of every day. But sadly, the movie keeps such a heavy focus on its main character that the greater stakes and consequences for the world at large are completely overlooked.

Barry talks about how he helped build the largest drug cartel in the hemisphere, but he talks about it in the context of “Isn’t it a crazy story?”, and never in the context of “How many lives did I destroy?” In fact, never once does anybody hold him responsible for all the innocent people who lost their lives and their livelihoods as a direct result of the wars he perpetuated and the drugs he smuggled in. So many law enforcement agencies are after Seal, but there’s no voice given to precisely why he may need to be stopped. It’s presented as comical how Barry has more cash than he can possibly hope to hide or smuggle, and it’s never mentioned even once that every last dollar bill is soaked in blood.

As presented in the film, Barry is simply a man who gets in over his head because he never says no. Because he literally can’t say no. He spends so much time trying to stay one step ahead and enjoy his life while he can that there’s really no time to even dwell on his conscience. Yes, that makes for a fast-paced movie that’s great fun to sit through, but it doesn’t make for a particularly insightful or relevant movie. The best we get is a shot of Nancy Reagan telling us “Just Say No” juxtaposed with Americans backing Contras with drug money. Amusing and darkly ironic, but that’s not exactly going for the jugular.

I want to be clear that American Made is a perfectly enjoyable film. It’s funny, it’s fast-paced, the action is good, and Tom Cruise is a blast to watch. But it could have been so much more. There was definitely room here for a stronger supporting cast and a deeper examination of the story, with more intelligent insights regarding the consequences of Seal’s actions and how this story is relevant today.

As it is, this is an ideal movie for early October: Not quite fun enough to be a summer blockbuster and not quite smart enough to be an awards contender.

The Lego Ninjago Movie

Posted October 1, 2017 By Curiosity Inc.

Some family business and other circumstances beyond my control demanded that I take a rather lengthy hiatus. A lot has happened and I’ve got a ton to catch up on, so it’s time for another fun round of Grab Bag Cinema, when I go to my local theater and pick a movie at random. Today’s winner: The Lego Ninjago Movie.

To be honest, I was not looking forward to this one. Much as I loved The Lego Movie as everyone else did, it’s time for us all to accept that it was a beautiful fluke that should never have worked anywhere near as well as it did. Especially since studios would later take that success as a license to churn out other branded movies with minimal effort and virtually no understanding of why The Lego Movie succeeded. (Looking at you, The Emoji Movie.)

That said, we did get The Lego Batman Movie, which was pretty good. Not nearly as good as its predecessor, but still pretty good. It still had that tongue-in-cheek sense of humor that neatly spoke to the kid in all of us who wanted to mash up all our favorite things together in a brilliantly creative no-holds-barred kind of way.

But the trailers for The Lego Ninjago Movie had me worried that this was a bridge too far. I was seriously concerned that this was the point when the franchise would be content to simply use the same style of humor over and over again without any of the wit or enthusiasm we had seen from the franchise to date. Nothing kills humor like repetition, and nothing kills a film about creativity like sticking to a rote formula.

Alas, it turns out that the movie was something much worse than I had expected.

The film is bookended with live-action segments in which a misfit boy (Kaan Guldur) stumbles into a shop run by a character played by Jackie Chan. The shopkeeper begins telling the story of Ninjago, and we’re immediately hit with a cavalcade of Good Morning America references, complete with Robin Roberts and Michael Strahan playing Lego versions of themselves.

What the hell is this?

On one hand, we’ve got a very basic and timeless setup in which a wise old storyteller imparts a tale full of wisdom to a young protagonist (see also: The Neverending Story, The Princess Bride, etc.). On the other hand, we’ve got the fast-paced and reference-heavy premise of a young boy given unlimited time and Lego pieces to build a story (the foundation of the first movie, and heavily implied in the presentation of Lego Batman). But these two approaches are not the least bit compatible. The way everything unfolds, there’s no way to know who’s telling the story and this inconsistency sinks the film right out of the gate.

But wait, it gets worse.

In one corner is Garmadon (Justin Theroux), who lives in his volcano lair just offshore from the city of Ninjago. On a regular basis, he employs an army of millions all armed with top-of-the-line mechs to invade and destroy Ninjago. Why? Because he’s evil. That’s pretty much all we ever get. He’s evil and petty and full of himself, and that’s supposed to be funny. Even after the millionth goddamn time it gets pounded into our head that he’s evil just for the sake of it. He does get a redemptive arc eventually, but the film is halfway over by then and I was long past the point of giving a fuck.

In the other corner is the Secret Ninja Force, a group of six teenagers with colorful costumes, hiding their identities as they fight off Garmadon’s forces with their giant robots. As a former Power Rangers kid, I have to admit that this stuff hit my childhood hard in a really satisfying way. Too bad the mechs are destroyed in the second big action scene and never used again in the whole movie.

I could talk about the individual group members, but there’s really nothing to discuss. Abbi Jacobson plays the resident girl of the group, showing an awareness from the filmmakers that female empowerment is a positive thing, but without the slightest understanding of what made Wyldstyle or Lego Batman’s Barbara Gordon such solid characters. We’ve also got Zach Woods as a robot whom everybody treats as an ordinary kid, no matter how blindingly obvious it is that he’s actually a robot. I hope you consider that to be funny, because the filmmakers obviously thought it was the peak of hilarity for how hard they push that one joke.

The roster is rounded out by Fred Armisen, Kumail Nanjiani, and Michael Pena, all of whom play characters not even remotely worth discussing. We’ve also got Jackie Chan (again) sleepwalking through a paycheck as the group’s mentor. The only other character you really need to know about is Lloyd (Dave Franco), the team’s field leader.

Lloyd is Garmadon’s son. That is seriously all you need to know about him. That’s pretty much all we’re ever told about him. I’m not exaggerating when I say that every single line of dialogue either from, to, or about Lloyd somehow comes back to his unfortunate parentage. Everybody hates him because he’s Garmadon’s son. He only feels alive when he’s the Green Ninja and nobody knows who he really is. He hates that Garmadon barely seems to know who he is. WE FUCKING GET IT.

Daddy issues are so cliche by now, and it wasn’t even welcome the first time it was done in a superhero movie. Hell, the “villain is my father” story point isn’t even a Star Wars parody so much as it’s a rut worn twenty feet deep into the floor. There is absolutely nothing to be gained from devoting so much time and dialogue to such an overdone concept, especially when they don’t do anything new or interesting with it. It’s annoying and obnoxious how the film tries to wring humor and heartfelt moments out of this like nobody’s ever even thought of the concept before. Shit, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 did this way more effectively and with far more intelligence, and that was just eight months ago!

Oh, and lest we forget, this is a story about magical ninjas fighting evil with giant mechs. In a world where literally anything can be made out of anything. So why in the big blue fuck are we spending the whole movie on daddy issues?!

Really, the whole world of the film is pathetically built. It’s not just that the characters are reduced to one joke each (that really wasn’t funny to begin with), and it’s not just that the basic theme of creativity is barely addressed, or that we have two wildly different storytellers with no idea of what their dynamic is like, but those are all factors. But more than that, it all feels like the filmmakers just threw together pop songs and talking sharks and butt jokes and whatever else came to mind. It’s jarring and incoherent and so… random.

To be clear, this isn’t like how the other movies were random. The previous two movies felt like anything and everything could be strategically pulled together into something greater than the sum of its parts. Every reference felt perfectly and deliberately timed to make the biggest possible story impact and get the biggest possible laugh. Here, it just feels like whatever was thrown together for no reason at all. What’s more, while the movies always had a childlike sense of humor, they never got to be so juvenile as the jokes here. The other movies had some pretty outlandish plot turns, but none of them were so heavily dependent on the characters acting like total morons.

Put more simply, the other movies had a clear intelligence that this one clearly does not.

Even the animation is below the usual standard. Granted, a lot of that has to do with how Legos barely factor into this Lego movie, and seriously, how screwed up is that? We don’t get nearly as many huge Lego creations and sets, and too much of the animation is just made of speed lines. Such a disappointment.

With The Lego Ninjago Movie, this franchise has become a lazy cash-grab imitation of itself. The character development, the comedy, and the heartfelt dramatic moments all completely fail because this movie is so proudly and inescapably stupid. It’s so loud and obnoxious, so incoherent and void of creativity, that it could only have been the product of six writers — six writers! — with another three getting story credit. Even the action scenes don’t provide much of any respite, since they’re shoved aside in favor of repeating the same jokes a million times and forcing more daddy issues down our collective throats.

There is absolutely no reason to see this movie, especially when we’ve got the previous two on DVD. Definitely not recommended.

mother!

Posted September 17, 2017 By Curiosity Inc.

About seven years ago, auteur Darren Aronofsky made a movie called Black Swan. It kicked ass. It was a phenomenal movie about the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual sacrifices involved in the constant journey for perfection. Even better, it walked a very fine line between reality and hallucination, with any number of possible interpretations as to what really happened and what that means for the greater gestalt of the movie.

While the film did win a Best Actress statuette for Natalie Portman, it narrowly lost Best Director and Best Picture in a white-hot Oscars race with The Social Network. It was nonetheless a rousing success, which Aronofsky followed up with Noah. It was really not that good. Yes, it was a box office hit at the time and the critical reception was good, but it never had anywhere near the cultural impact (or awards success) that Black Swan did. Possibly because the movie was way too caught up in its own epic aspirations to realize that it had turned Noah into a raging dickbag.

With that in mind, I was relieved to hear about mother!, Aronofsky’s latest offering. A psychological thriller starring an ingenue in her prime? Clearly, Aronofsky is going back to his comfort zone, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Unfortunately, I was mistaken. Yes, the movie does benefit from the Black Swan touch, focusing on an obsessive female lead (played by Jennifer Lawrence) to deconstruct her various mental and psychological issues through visions and mental breakdowns. Unfortunately, the movie also suffers from The Fountain touch, in that the movie is deliberately opaque and throws all sorts of batshit imagery at us without any obligation to make any kind of sense.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s take it from the top, shall we?

First, it’s worth noting that none of the characters are given names. So instead of my usual reviewing format — ie. using the characters’ names in reference to the characters and the actors’ names in reference to the actors — I’m just going to refer to the characters and actors by the same name.

The premise begins with Javier Bardem, a poet whose house burned down some unspecified amount of time ago. In the time since, his wife (Jennifer Lawrence) has been rebuilding the entire house from top to bottom, all on her own. She’s hard at work rebuilding the house while he’s busy trying to write, and then Ed Harris comes along.

Harris and his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) come into the house, bringing their multilayered personal drama with them. What follows… well, you know when houseguests come over and you’re stuck with the stress of cleaning up after them? The rest of the film is like that, on a scale that is quite literally apocalyptic.

I’ve heard it said that the film is overly misogynistic, and I can understand where that perspective is coming from. From start to finish, Lawrence is the subservient wife whose only duty is to tend to the house and eventually make babies while her husband goes on with his writing uninterrupted. She’s deeply underappreciated, to the point where everyone else takes her for granted. Everyone — including and especially her husband — simply offers suggestions or leaves things to do, certain in the knowledge that she’ll handle everything.

To be clear, it’s not like Bardem is an abusive husband, just negligent. He seems to think of everything and everyone else — himself, his guests, his written works, his career and his devoted fans, etc. — before he thinks of his wife. However, that perspective should be taken with a grain of salt, as we can clearly see that Lawrence is a horribly unreliable narrator.

This brings me to the biggest counterpoint for the misogyny argument: How the movie puts a clear and constant emphasis on the damage being done to Lawrence’s psyche. The way the movie is put together — with ubiquitous use of extreme close-up shots, handheld camerawork, and aggressive sound design — we’re never allowed to ignore the constant stress and growing deterioration of Lawrence’s mental state. There’s gaslighting, there are hallucinations, there are events so huge and people so outlandishly awful that there’s no way any of this could actually be happening. Ironically, all of this leads to the moment when everything falls apart.

I was with this movie up until the one-hour mark or so, when the baseline of reality got thoroughly nuked. Things fly so far off the rails in such impossibly catastrophic fashion that there is no conceivable way any of this could really be happening outside of Lawrence’s head. There’s no plot and no logic, just a solid hour of bloodshed, grotesque imagery, unspeakable acts, and ear-splitting noise. Goddamn Dunkirk — in 70mm projection! — was easier on the senses than the back half of this movie, and that movie actually had a plot!

I had absolutely no idea what to make of this movie. I had no answer as to why there were two such distinctly different halves, or why we even needed the back half at all. Yes, the movie had a few things to say about wanting to be loved and the concept of giving until there’s nothing left to give; but it was so hard taking any of these messages seriously, coming from a character so dangerously unstable and a movie that’s lost all grip on any kind of subjective reality.

But then I found this.

“It depicts the rape and torment of Mother Earth,” [Jennifer Lawrence] said. “It’s not for everybody. It’s a hard film to watch. But it’s important for people to understand the allegory we intended. That they know I represent Mother Earth, Javier, whose character is a poet, represents a form of God, a creator; Michelle Pfeiffer is an Eve to Ed Harris’s Adam, there’s Cain and Abel and the setting sometimes resembles the Garden of Eden.”

…Oh. Well, why didn’t you say so?!

Yeah, that checks out in so many ways. And maybe it’s just me, but that totally went over my head. I never would’ve figured that out on my own, but the movie doesn’t make a damn bit of sense any other way. And even then, there are certain aspects of the story — the antipsychotic medication, Lawrence’s relationship with Pfeiffer, Lawrence’s habit of hallucinating, etc. — that still don’t make a lot of sense.

Before wrapping up, the cast certainly deserves mention. Jennifer Lawrence plays a woman with tremendous inner strength waiting to be pushed to the tipping point, Javier Bardem plays a loving husband of uncertain morality and intentions, Michelle Pfeiffer plays an assertive and self-absorbed beauty, Ed Harris plays a guy who’s easily liked if not entirely trustworthy… basically, all of the leads play to their strengths beautifully. Incidentally, Harris and Pfeiffer have two sons played by actual brothers Brian and Domhnall Gleeson. Stephen McHattie and Kristen Wiig are also among the powerful cameo players.

Taken as a work of narrative storytelling, mother! doesn’t make a lick of sense. The characters are all over the place, it’s impossible to establish any baseline of reality, and nothing is developed into anything coherent. But taken as a biblical metaphor for humanity’s relationship with God and our planet, it makes a lot of sense. Such a damn shame the film had to be so opaque about such an outlandish concept, though. If you’re lucky enough to see this movie armed with that knowledge, or if you’re clever enough to pick up on it for yourself, you’ll find a lot here to go over.

Overall, I’d say that this is definitely rental material. I absolutely recommend seeing it just to try something so beautifully unique and see if it’s your thing, but I’m sure all the extreme close-ups — not to mention that second half — would be easier to see on the small screen. Also, you’d have the option of stopping the movie partway through to pop in Dunkirk for the last half.