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Posted May 26, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

It’s common knowledge that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster introduced the world to Superman with Action Comics #1 in April of 1938. What’s considerably less known is that Siegel and Shuster had spent the previous five years trying to earn their big break, and their iconic creation had gone through all manner of revisions and iterations in that time. The earliest was “The Reign of the Superman”, a short story published in January 1933, in which hapless vagrant Bill Dunn is given psychic abilities by a mad scientist and goes on to become a supervillain until the superpowers wear off.

Siegel and Shuster made the character a superhero in later revisions, as comic strips with heroic protagonists tended to sell better. They figured out early on that people want and need superheroes, not only to serve as power fantasies but to teach us about power and the responsibility to use it well. Yet even before that, Siegel and Shuster apparently figured out that while superheroes are more satisfying, supervillains make more narrative sense. Anyone can fight crime if they’re invincible, but an antagonist with powers that no one could defeat without considerable effort makes for a far more compelling conflict.

However, that comes with a huge drawback: The possibility that the villain may be so overpowered that there’s no viable path to victory without some deus ex machina (like the superpowers simply wearing off, as in the initial “Reign of the Supermen” example).

Speaking of which, it perhaps bears mentioning that The Ultra-Humanite — the very first supervillain in Superman’s history — didn’t appear until June of 1939. Lex Luthor didn’t make his debut until April of 1940. Which means that it took Siegel and Shuster over a year (or six, depending on how you count) to figure out that supervillains and superheroes need each other. You can’t have a truly entertaining conflict worthy of such larger-than-life figures without the both of them to balance each other out.

Of course, Siegel and Shuster were more or less inventing the modern superhero, so it would’ve taken some trial and error for them to figure these things out. After eighty years, what excuse could Brightburn have?

Brightburn is set in the eponymous backwoods Kansas town and wastes no time in establishing itself as a riff on the classic Superman origin story. You’ve got the crashed alien vessel carrying what appears to be an infant boy, you’ve got the loving and devoted parents (Tori and Kyle Breyer, respectively played by Elizabeth Banks and David Denman), and you’ve got the preteen boy (Brandon Breyer, played by Jackson Dunn) who suddenly manifests a familiar set of superpowers.

In the Superman tale, this is where the boy would choose to live as a beacon of hope, using his powers to help humanity and inspire them to be more than they are. In this case, however, it’s heavily implied that Brandon was sent by an alien race for the purpose of wiping out humanity and colonizing the planet. But mostly, Brandon lashes out in typical pubescent temper tantrums, with fatal and catastrophic results.

Because the movie doesn’t have the “superhero messiah” angle to provide any kind of emotional or thematic hook, the filmmakers shift the focus to Brendan’s parents. It’s hard enough to raise a child, much less an adopted child. How do you discipline a kid, love a kid, teach him right from wrong, or have the standard “Your body will be going through some changes soon.” talk when the kid is an entirely different species?

Far more importantly, against everyone’s best efforts at denial, it becomes increasingly obvious that something is very seriously wrong with Brandon. All the warning signs are there that he’s entirely capable of cold-blooded murder, he’s probably done it before, and he could very well do it again. So how much of this is just standard adolescent hormonal bullshit and how much of this is homicidal psychopathic mania? At what point do the cops and/or psychiatrists have to get involved?

Most painful of all, what do you do when faced with the knowledge that your child is a monster? After so many years of treating a child with loving care, giving him everything and teaching him right, what can you do when he does something so horrific that he’s not even recognizable as a human being anymore? How do you turn your back on your child, even when the kid is indisputably beyond salvation? How can you cope with the knowledge that worse than anything else you could’ve possibly ever failed at, you’ve failed as a parent?

Put simply, what we’ve got here is We Need to Talk About Kevin, but with superpowers. Not a bad idea. It’s a timely and powerful subject, with a lot of material for deeply moving drama. Heaven knows Elizabeth Banks makes a meal out of it. And the superhero twist could have augmented the whole movie in a huge way, if only the filmmakers had thought it through for more than ten minutes.

First of all, the movie opens with close-up shots of books about infertility and pregnancy while Tori and Kyle are in the background, trying to conceive. The movie closes with “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish playing over the end credits. The camerawork is loaded with excessive handheld shaky-cam. The first few shots of the Breyer farm could have been lifted directly from Man of Steel, and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if the production team actually used the exact same shooting location. And everything — the props, costumes, set design, EVERYTHING — in this movie is colored blue, so that Brandon’s distinct red hue pops brightly enough to be seen from goddamn outer space. From literally the very first frame to the last, it’s made abundantly clear that subtlety is neither wanted nor needed here. If the debut director didn’t have to live every day with a name like “David Yarovesky”, I’d doubt that he could even spell “nuance”.

(Side note: No, I’m not counting The Hive. That movie got a couple of festival screenings and a one-night-only Fathom Events screening, that’s it. To call that Yarovesky’s debut would be a disservice to the man.)

More importantly, this is a movie about a supervillain in which there are no superheroes. This is a Superman riff in which… well, there is technically a kryptonite equivalent, but it’s so trivial and ineffectual that it doesn’t really count. So basically, if Brandon wants someone gone, they’re gone. If he wants someone dead, they’re dead. There is nothing anyone could possibly do to stop him, and no reason why he would ever stop. As a direct result, the conflict is pathetically one-sided. There’s no horror, no tension, no suspense, no reason to get invested in the conflict of the story when there’s only ever one way this could possibly end.

To be fair, that doesn’t make the parents and their predicament any less sympathetic. Indeed, the inevitability makes their story all the more tragic. And anyway, this whole movie is ultimately an origin story, which means that by definition, this movie cannot be an end in itself. It’s right there in the label: This is an origin story, built to be the beginning of something, so of course the ending is a foregone conclusion and the entire movie serves primarily to set up the next story (even if we never get to see the next story).

But here we run into another problem, because Brandon is actually a rather weak antagonist. Peel away the unsettling mask, the creepy VFX, and Jackson Dunn’s disturbing performance, and what you’re left with is a villain motivated pretty much entirely by teenage angst. Oh, and let’s not forget that he might be a kind of drone, programmed and sent by some alien race to wipe out humanity and colonize Earth. Whichever one you go with, that’s not a very strong motivation. Especially after Brandon’s entire town inevitably gets wiped off the map, and then who will he have a grudge to enact his petty vengeance on?

The entire thematic and emotional hook for this movie, pretty much the only reason this movie could ever possibly have for existing, is in the allegory for troubled kids who go on to become violent psychopaths at an early age. The problem is that (while I’m admittedly no expert) most of the troubled kids that make the news get arrested and/or killed. Indeed, that’s kind of the point for many such cases. So many teenaged and college-aged mass shooters are fed up with living for whatever reason, so they want to die like “soldiers”, slaughtering people in the hope that they’ll go out in a hail of gunfire, heroes and martyrs for some backwards-thinking cause. And indeed, many of them are.

That’s a rather crucial aspect of the discussion here, and it becomes a moot point in a movie about a kid who literally cannot be killed or arrested. As a direct result, this movie asks the bold question of what to do when your kid turns out to be a headline-worthy homicidal psychopath, and has jack shit to offer in terms of answers. I’m not saying the answers have to be easy, but this is a very real problem that very real parents have to deal with, and there are very real lives on the line here. Bringing up such a dynamite issue without suggesting any solutions or even the hope that solutions may be forthcoming seems lazy at best and irresponsible at worst.

(Side note: Consider the aforementioned We Need to Talk About Kevin, in which it’s shown early on that the eponymous Kevin has been locked up and the rest of the story is told in flashback. The implicit message being, “Be thankful that the problem child has been locked up, then find a way to live with this new emotional baggage as you pick up the pieces and get on with your life.” That may not be much of an answer and it’s certainly not an easy one, but it’s more than this movie can offer.)

Oh, and on a final note, I should mention that Michael Rooker appears in a mid-credits stinger. (James Gunn produced this, so of course Rooker had to show up somewhere.) Rooker’s purpose here is to hint at other superpowered beings who may or may not exist in this continuity. Right now, I don’t give a shit. If this is some attempt at sequel-baiting, or hinting at whatever this movie is supposed to be an origin story for, this half-assed attempt doesn’t come anywhere close to good enough.

Brightburn tries to blend family drama, body horror, and superhero satire into something harrowing and heartbreaking, but it’s all undone by the filmmakers’ unrepentant lack of subtlety. While Elizabeth Banks and Jackson Dunn were both able to turn in solid performances, nobody else had any idea what to do with this premise. The filmmakers certainly didn’t know how to make a coherent message or a compelling central conflict out of it.

Points for creativity and ambition. Plus, even if the movie fell apart in a big way, it still worked better than the basic “Superman origin story, but he’s evil” pitch should have. Even so, the follow-through on this one was so terribly botched that I can’t recommend it. Even for a home viewing, there are a hundred Blumhouse horror pictures I would recommend over this one. Hell, I think I would rather give Man of Steel a rewatch before sitting through this one again.


Posted May 25, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

Booksmart stems from an old familiar premise: A couple of straightlaced overachieving teenagers go out to an epic party fueled by sex and drugs. Thus our main characters achieve meteoric highs and catastrophic lows like they’ve never known through their neatly ordered life. Moreover, they learn that there is no change within their comfort zones and any kind of significant growth requires doing something that scares them and may possibly even hurt them.

All of this is standard material for any coming-of-age story. But this one differs in many crucial ways.

To start with, there’s the nature of our protagonists, two inseparable best friends. Kaitlyn Dever plays Amy, who’s very outspoken about gender politics and sexual equality, but otherwise shy and socially awkward by nature. Moreover, Amy is openly gay, and the filmmakers are clear in treating this as a simple matter of fact without making a huge deal or journey of discovery about it. Sure, there’s a running subplot about Amy’s attempts at losing her virginity to an unrequited crush (Ryan, played by Victoria Ruesga), but that’s standard teenager coming-of-age material very tastefully portrayed through a homosexual lens. Impressive.

Our other main character is Molly, played by Beanie Feldstein. Molly is the class president, a raging Social Justice Warrior with wildly ambitious political dreams. She’s got a massive chip on her shoulder and her vocal commitment to feminist ideals is absolute. Molly is by far the most arrogant and forceful of our two protagonists, so she and her fragile pride are typically what drive the plot forward.

Comparing this movie with the countless coming-of-age movies we’ve seen in recent memory, I’d put this one somewhere in between Love, Simon and Blockers. From the former, we have heightened characters grounded by an authentic and heartfelt portrayal of growing up queer in our modern, online, more enlightened time. From the latter, we have a tale of lifelong girlfriends on a wild pre-graduation spree, grounded by sex-positive feminist leanings (but without any parents present, mercifully). So really, we get the best of both worlds here.

The filmmakers are good enough and subtle enough to send the message that kids today have to grow up so much faster, with greater understanding and compassion for others, because of internet access, cell phone usage, etc. To say nothing of growing social acceptance toward recreational marijuana and casual sex. The standard ’80s/’90s stereotypes have fallen out of favor, now that the jock is going to Marvel movies, the bookworm is on his way to making millions in the tech business, and so on.

As an unexpected result, the old standards for success don’t necessarily apply anymore. A college degree doesn’t automatically mean success, any more than a 2.0 GPA necessarily means failure. Extracurriculars can potentially be far more important, especially if it leads to an athletic scholarship, a job straight out of high school, or connections toward some other college or career path.

Amy and Molly focused 100 percent of their energy into their schoolwork, and it got them prestigious college placements awaiting after graduation. Yet their classmates only dedicated a fraction of that effort, and their post-graduation prospects are just as great. How did that happen, and why does it piss off Molly so much? Well, a huge part of it is that even though teenagers today grew up at this pace, the world is still changing faster than they can keep up with.

These kids may be so much more enlightened and open-minded than their forebears, but they are still teenagers. They still think they know better than everybody else, especially when they’re right at the cusp of adulthood, riding high on graduation day with no idea what changes and challenges await them. So we’re still going to get cliques and petty drama. We’re still going to get snap judgments and jealous feuds and superficial insults. Early on in the film, Molly — who prides herself on being such a militant sex-positive feminist! — slut-shames a female classmate. Try and wrap your head around that hypocrisy.

The previous generation had jocks, cheerleaders, nerds, punks, bookworms, and so on. This generation has gays, stoners, douchebags, wealthy spoiled assholes, sex addicts, and so on. The labels may be different, but they are nonetheless labels. They are shallow stereotypes that everyone at school must fit neatly into, with no regard for whatever else the person may be.

Even as Amy and Molly and their SJW ilk fight for minorities and the marginalized to be recognized as humans, they only see their fellow classmates as racial and sexual identities without recognizing them as humans. Of course, that’s in large part because Amy and Molly bury themselves so deeply in their schoolwork and their social media memes that they’ve never found the time to really connect with their classmates.

Thus the filmmakers submit that partying is important to teenagers because it helps them learn more about each other and themselves. Furthermore, it teaches them to overcome the fears and prejudices that keep them from becoming wiser and more courageous in the pursuit of a better world. Those are important lessons for open-minded people of all ages, and portraying them through a coming-of-age story was frankly genius.

This is all great stuff. Trouble is, it’s all limited to the first and last thirds of the film. Aside from a couple of laughs and a show-stopping animated sequence, the second act is pure filler. Our main characters are stuck running on a hamster wheel for something like half an hour until they finally make it to the big party, and pretty much everything they do within that half-hour ceases to matter when they finally get to the party.

This causes problems with the character development in a big way. A huge case in point is Hope (Diana Silvers), a counter-culture loner who plays such a pivotal role in the third act that the filmmakers could have and should have done a better job of defining her in the hour previous. Another example is Jared (Skyler Gisondo), one of the movie’s most central examples of how people are so much more than first impressions and superficial stereotypes. And it doesn’t work because the entire movie leans so hard into his hopeless douchebag image, playing it for one laugh after another, so any deeper revelations about the character come off as wildly inconsistent and it doesn’t work.

Instead of using the second act to develop these crucial supporting characters and smooth out their development arcs, we’ve got a hammy, useless, overdone sequence establishing Alan and George (respectively played by Austin Crute and Noah Galvin) as a couple of flamboyantly homosexual drama queens. That’s not even getting started on Gigi (Billie Lourd), who appears absolutely everywhere for no reason at all, consistently high off her ass. That’s the joke. She’s a completely useless comic relief character in a movie that was already funny enough without her.

Olivia Wilde makes her directorial debut here, with a script from Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman. All four of those writers are seasoned comedy veterans, and Wilde shows a preternatural knack for comic timing. It certainly helps that Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein have extraordinary chemistry and they carry the movie beautifully. Then of course we have prominent appearances by Will Forte, Lisa Kudrow, Jessica Williams, and Jason Sudeikis (Olivia Wilde’s longtime fiance himself), all appearing just long enough to do what they do best and elevate the picture. I was also very fond of Diana Silvers, which makes it all the more frustrating that the picture couldn’t find more to do with her.

Wilde and her cast are more than capable of making the film an effective comedy. Unfortunately, Wilde clearly likes close-up shots. She really, really likes close-up shots. This gets to be a royal pain in the ass during conversation scenes, in which the editor has to ping-pong between the characters with a cut every three seconds. Even during the dance sequence, shot with an admittedly impressive long take, the characters are only shot from the waist up. It gets very repetitive, and the editing can get distracting.

Ultimately, Booksmart is a promising start from director Olivia Wilde and her cast of young actors. Supported by a crew of solid female comedy writers and the occasional appearance from battle-tested comedy actors, the movie succeeds at getting laughs. And even if many of those laughs come from characters and situations exaggerated to an outrageous degree, the film is still grounded enough to make authentic and important statements about growing up in a modern, more inclusive world.

It’s a movie about how people are deeper than stereotypes, while milking those same stereotypes for comedy, without coming off as hypocritical. That’s the best compliment I can give this picture. Check this one out.

John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum

Posted May 19, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

“Si vis pacem, para bellum.” –De Re Militari, by Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus

At this point, I’m pretty sure the John Wick franchise has attained critic-proof status. You should already know by now exactly what you’re getting and whether or not you’re on board, regardless of whatever comes out in the reviews or promos. The filmmakers are certainly sure of what the audience came to see: Not even twenty minutes into John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum, Keanu Reeves’ eponymous assassin has already engaged in the greatest knife fight in cinema history, shortly after using a common hardback book to beat a giant to death.

The action is exactly the same high caliber of visceral, creative, and abundant you’d come to expect. Bonus points are due for bringing in Cecep Arif Rahman and Yayan Ruhian for an extended fight sequence — it’s about damn time someone in Hollywood made effective use of the martial arts talent behind The Raid. Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the use of live animals in certain action sequences, though you’d think the horses would have been considerably more scared and upset by all the gunfire going off around them.

We also get an extended shootout with attack dogs, utilized in brilliant ways. The inclusion of attack dogs is doubly brilliant because it serves as a neat callback to John Wick’s own notorious soft spot for canines. The movie never lets us forget (because the characters have a nasty habit of recapping the plot every ten minutes) that all of this death and destruction only happened because of one entitled asshole who killed the wrong guy’s puppy for no reason at all. Seriously, look back at these three movies and think about how many more people would be alive and happy if that Iosef Tarasov prick had decided to mind his own business and take someone else’s car.

Oh, and if you’re curious, CinemaBlend counts 84 kills in the first movie and 118 in the second. It’s obviously too early to get a count for the third movie, but there had to be at least 85 headshots alone. Even when the nameless thugs are clad in the latest impenetrable bulletproof helmets and armor, the filmmakers still find ways to make a motherfucker’s head blow up. So… very… many… headshots.

Back to the point, what I personally associate most strongly with the John Wick franchise is the constant recurring theme of escalation. “Rules and consequences”, as the characters in the third movie keep putting it. Actions beget reactions, trespasses bring reprisals, and bodies keep piling up higher because virtually every last character in the whole damn franchise is too proud to get hit without hitting back twice as hard. You’d think that after John Wick went and killed over 80 people because of a dead dog, everyone else in this criminal underworld would’ve gotten the message that the best way to deal with John Wick is to leave him the high holy fuck ALONE.

For the latest case in point, John Wick killed a new member of the High Table, some nebulous governing body in the world of this franchise. Of course the High Table wants him dead, but they just can’t stop with that. No, they have to go after anyone who ever helped out John Wick along the way. Even after all of John Wick’s allies publicly disowned him, the High Table has to have their pound of flesh and they’re going to take it out of anyone with even the slightest connection to John Wick’s transgression.

Thus we have the Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon), who works on behalf of the High Table to hunt down John Wick’s allies. Naturally, this results in the High Table making many powerful enemies, destroying central pillars of the system they’ve built, and making a whole ton of unnecessary headaches for themselves because making an example out of John Wick wasn’t enough. No, the High Table simply must take any excuse to kill people, or demand their subjects brutally maim themselves in a show of fealty.

Given that assassins need peak physical performance to do their job, I question the wisdom of forcing them to mutilate themselves for no reason. Furthermore, I question the High Table’s wisdom in burning bridges and killing off potential allies. Between their own harsh brand of justice and John Wick’s ongoing murder spree, how many loyal assassins could they possibly have left?!

And what of John Wick himself? Well, we’re treated to a few fleeting glimpses at his early origins (I’m still waiting on that prequel, by the way), courtesy of Anjelica Huston’s character. We’re also introduced to an old friend (Sofia, played by Halle Berry), now the manager of the Continental branch in Casablanca, and she still grudgingly owes John a favor. But more than that, the movie answers two very important questions left over from the cliffhanger of the second film: Where does John think he’s running to, and why does he still want to live? I’m not going to spoil the answers to both questions, but they’re both so beautifully perfect that I kinda hate myself for not thinking of them sooner.

Yes, this movie has everything the fans could have possibly expected from it, with one glaring exception: A conclusion. There was always the implicit promise that this would be the capstone of a trilogy, but that turned out to be dead wrong and we’re treated to yet another cliffhanger in the final scene. The filmmakers seem intent on extending the series indefinitely, in addition to the video game, the television series, the spinoff film franchise, and who knows what else in various phases of development.

The drawback to all this breathing room is that the filmmakers apparently felt less pressure to go into the world-building. Why drop any major developments now when they could space out the exposition across so many films and TV episodes? Thus we get a film in which the High Table is constantly name-dropped, but we don’t learn anything new about precisely what it is and how it works. We’ve got a new Continental location and there’s a neat glimpse of the place where the gold coins are manufactured, but that’s not really anything huge. We do at least get a couple of great new characters, though — Anjelica Huston’s character introduces a whole new avenue of world-building possibilities to be explored in the spinoff movies, and Halle Berry took to this franchise like a penguin to snow.

Overall, unfortunately, it feels like the movie takes a step back for every step forward. I was especially disappointed to see a huge decision halfway through that might have had far-reaching implications for the franchise, if only the filmmakers hadn’t chickened out and reversed it at the last minute. In the end, while some developments happened, a few characters were introduced, and a whole lotta people got killed, I’m at a loss for any reason as to why the opening of Chapter 3 couldn’t have been its first scene and gone from there. Couple this with all the godawful exposition getting flung every which way, incessantly recapping the plot at every opportunity and I’m struggling for an explanation as to how this script could possibly have been the work of four credited writers.

Come to think of it, who are the four writers? *checks IMDb*. Well, one of them is series co-creator Derek Kolstad, obviously. Then we’ve got Shay Hatten, who’s also writing… the upcoming Ballerina spinoff. Another writer is Chris Collins, the writer and showrunner of the upcoming The Continental TV show. I can’t find confirmation that Marc Abrams is involved with The Continental, but given his extensive history in writing television, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Moving on to the cast, of course Keanu Reeves is outstanding. Ian McShane and Laurence Fishburne look like they’re having a great deal of fun. That goes double for Halle Berry, Lance Reddick, and Mark Dacascos, all of whom get extended action sequences to go with their larger-than-life characters. Alas, Anjelica Huston is stuck with a mediocre performance (by her standards, anyway) for want of better direction or anything interesting to do.

As for Asia Kate Dillon… God, what a waste. A nonbinary actor playing a nonbinary character might have given the Adjudicator a kind of off-putting edge if anything was done with that angle, but no such luck. Moreover, while Dillon is clearly giving it their all and they do have a nicely unique screen presence, they simply do not have anywhere near the gravitas to hold the screen against Reeves, McShane, Fishburne, or Reddick; much less pose a legitimate threat to any of them.

I’ll say this about John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum — you certainly won’t be bored watching it. Between the larger-than-life characters and the mind-blowing action sequences, this latest entry delivers more of the adrenaline-fueled fun you know and love from the previous two. That said, the plot and world-building still feel half-baked, most likely because this was built as a primer for all the Extended Universe stuff in development and not as the end of a trilogy. Seriously, just look at how many “writers” were credited with this limp script and how many of them are going off to other projects in this franchise.

But as I said before, none of this ultimately matters. If you’ve seen the first two movies, you’ll want to see the third one and I’m sure you’ll have fun with it. And if you haven’t seen the first two movies, you should get on that because they’re fucking awesome.

Shadow (2018)

Posted May 18, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

Okay, folks. Today’s blog entry is about a war movie/revenge thriller with political subplots, and it’s a foreign film from China. Strap in and pay attention, because shit’s about to get convoluted.

The premise to Shadow (2018) begins with three warring kingdoms, one of which we’ll never see. The other two joined in a tenuous alliance against their mutual adversary, the third kingdom. Peace between the two reluctant allies has been quite stable, aside from the contentious border town of Jing City. One kingdom has it, the other kingdom wants it, and the kingdom that wants it is led by a spineless git (King Peiliang, played by Zheng Kai) who will happily let the other kingdom take whatever they want if it means keeping the peace.

Got all that? Good, because this is where things get complicated.

Our protagonist is Commander Ziyu (Deng Chao), a fabled war hero who famously survived a seemingly fatal injury in Peiliang’s service. Except that our protagonist isn’t actually the commander, but a strong and healthy lookalike named Jingzhou. The real commander (also played by Chao) is hiding away somewhere, slowly dying of his war injuries, secretly coaching the impostor who’s taking his place. As you might imagine, this leads to an awkward kind of love triangle, as Madam Xiao Ai (Sun Li) publicly presents herself as the wife of the fake Ziyu while she’s still married to the real Ziyu.

The commander and his proxy are both native to Jing City and want to see it reclaimed by its proper kingdom. Thus the fake Ziyu challenges the other kingdom’s commander to a duel, with the fate of Jing City at stake. As punishment for acting so brashly and without authorization, the king strips Ziyu of rank and sends him off as a simple commoner. The king then proceeds to try and marry off his sister (Princess Qingping, played by Guan Xiaotong) to mend bridges with the other kingdom. And all of this is part of the real Ziyu’s (possibly suicidal) plot to overthrow the kingdom and restore Jing City to its former glory.

If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is. Yet the filmmakers keep all of the plotting and politics crystal clear. It’s really quite impressive how the filmmakers can tell such a multifaceted and multilayered story with only two hours’ runtime, and make it all comprehensive enough that even a foreign-language audience can understand it.

A huge part of that is in the visuals, and that’s where this movie proves itself to be something truly groundbreaking.

From start to finish, the movie has an obsessively monochrome color palette. Yes, we’ve got some color from the actors’ skin, as well as the ground and greenery in some shots, yet even those earthy colors are all aggressively muted. Everything else in this movie — the sets, the props, the costumes, everything — is in black and white and various shades of grey. I know that sounds terribly boring, but it’s nothing short of magical how much the filmmakers can do with all the numerous shades of black and white. There’s no possible way I could describe the textures, patterns, and movements involved in the visual style of this picture, but the effect is spellbinding in its meticulous presentation.

Moreover, the movie has a very distinct yin-yang motif, playing into the recurring theme of balance. Of course we also see this in the two opposing kingdoms, but we also see it in the movie’s ingenious clashes of male/female and water/fire. What makes it even more compelling is when the characters’ true motives are made known, the film’s binary morality starts to break down, and the characters have to make some painfully difficult choices.

This brings me to the other noteworthy color in this movie’s palette: Red.

Somewhere around the halfway point, the movie gets bloody in a big way. The introduction of blazing red into the carefully controlled black/white color scheme makes it all the more shocking and palpable when it happens. And of course it also helps that we’ve got all the political intrigue, guerilla tactics, and sudden betrayals to keep everything unpredictable and exciting.

Far more importantly, the action sequences are beautifully creative and utterly bonkers in a way that only Chinese action cinema could deliver. The gimmick du jour is a kind of weaponized umbrella that basically serves as a shield on the end of a stick, and it can also shoot shurikens. I promise, it’s way more elegant, inventive, and stupidly impractically awesome than I’m making it sound here.

Then we have the actors. On the one hand, everyone turns in a solid performance and the actors deserve no shortage of credit for helping us keep everything clear. In particular, Deng Chao is astounding in his double roles, aided by seamless effects work. On the other hand, a fair amount of this simplicity comes from the hammy kind of cartoonish acting so often found in Asian films. Zheng Kai is probably the most obvious case in point, though Wang Jingchun as the major domo and Deng Chao as the real Ziyu are both played quite broad as well.

All told, I have no problem giving Shadow (2018) a full recommendation. The action is bloody fun, the characters are engaging, and the plot is multifaceted without ever becoming incomprehensible. I just wish all the various themes about war, revenge, and balance had congealed into something more inventive or thought-provoking. Though at least these motifs were translated into breathtaking visuals, and that’s worth a lot.

If this one ever comes your way, definitely give it a look.

Detective Pikachu

Posted May 11, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

I don’t know what’s harder to believe: That Pokemon is still a worldwide money-making phenomenon nearly 25 years after its inception, or that it took this long for Hollywood to come out with a big-budget film adaptation. I mean, no way the studios weren’t crawling over each other to cash in on this, right?

Well, to think about it further, of course it would’ve taken a while to get the VFX technology where it needed to be. To say nothing of Nintendo and its notorious reluctance to authorize any kind of cinematic or television adaptation. Yes, I know that Super Mario Bros. movie in 1993 was godawful, but I swear the people at Nintendo are the only ones who haven’t moved on from it yet. Bob Hoskins and Dennis Hopper are both dead by now, for God’s sake. I digress.

Even more than all of that, I think the biggest factor was the anime. To date, there are no less than nineteen Japanese animated movies set in the mainstream Pokemon continuity of Ash Ketchum and friends, plus another two set in an alternate continuity and an upcoming CG-animated remake of Mewtwo Strikes Back. There’s literally no reason for a live-action Pokemon movie when it would be more cost-effective to simply dub the existing movies and release those.

Yet here we are with Detective Pikachu, first announced in July of 2016 at almost the exact time when Pokemon Go went live. Here we have a very loose live-action film adaptation of a short Japanese game released in February of 2016. (The full version was released two years later.) I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this massive overhaul of the brand came at the exact same year when the last original-continuity anime film was released on both sides of the Pacific.

The whole thing reeked of a joke trailer that got taken way too seriously. As if we didn’t already have enough fan-generated renderings and short films, we’ve also got a talking Pikachu — voiced by Ryan Reynolds, of all people — who’s a detective. And he’s in a buddy comedy with a “straight man” with forgotten dreams of being a Pokemon master, and he’s looking for his missing father, and there’s Ken Watanabe delivering the most ridiculous dialogue in an over-the-top way as only he could do… It’s all so ridiculous and goofy, there’s no way anyone could possibly take any of this seriously. But then, it’s a live-action adaptation of Pokemon — it was always going to be silly no matter what they did.

Anyway, Detective Pikachu is set in Ryme City, founded by the eccentric billionaire Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy). The bustling modern metropolis was built as a utopia where humans and Pokemon could live side-by-side without fear of being hunted. Alas, things go sideways with the spread of a strange drug that drives Pokemon wild with homicidal rage.

What year was Zootopia released again? Oh, yeah — 2016. And it somehow took six writers to come up with this script. Sweet Jesus…

The plot is kicked off when Detective Harry Goodman is apparently killed in a car accident under unclear circumstances. His estranged son (Tim Goodman, played by Justice Smith) comes by the apartment to pack up his dad’s belongings, only to find Harry’s Pokemon partner. This particular Pikachu was stricken with amnesia and only found his way to the apartment by way of a hat with his address on it. Also, he talks with Ryan Reynolds’ voice, which only Tim can hear for reasons unknown to both of them.

Tim is a loner from the boondocks who’s been very insistent keeping his boring insurance job and living without a Pokemon partner. Yet here he is with a talking Pikachu out to solve his father’s possible murder. Oh, and the Pikachu is amnesiac, so he can’t remember any of his attacks. Hilarity ensues.

Right off the bat, Tim needed an actor with way more screen presence to really stick. Justice Smith is clearly giving it his best shot and he gets pretty close at times, but he’s still not ready to carry a movie, much less a potential franchise. It’s still a step up from his godawful turn in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, I’ll give him that.

Luckily, we’ve got Ryan Reynolds to do pretty much all the heavy lifting here. If anyone out there was curious about what a PG Deadpool might look like, here’s your answer. This is Reynolds making every possible use of his loud-mouthed wisecracking persona, and the contrast of that voice coming out of that body is a huge part of what makes the film and the comedy work.

Then we have our female lead. Kathryn Newton plays Lucy Stevens, an unpaid intern with the local news conglomerate harboring big dreams of breaking this huge news story so she can be a true journalist. While the character is endearing for her sky-high ambitions and her sincere drive to do good, she’s also shrill, reckless, hopelessly stupid, and pathetically out of her league. So if the goal was to make a character who could’ve walked right out of the cartoon, then mission accomplished.

Oh, and Lucy’s Pokemon is a Psyduck, a Pokemon prone to cause massive psychic explosions when overcome with stress. I’m reminding you because the characters do. Roughly once every ten minutes. At every opportunity. Like you don’t already know exactly where the movie’s going with this.

Otherwise, the cast includes such talents as Bill Nighy, Ken Watanabe, Chris Geere, Suki Waterhouse, and others who gobble scenery like it’s the only thing between them and their paycheck. Also, it’s worth pointing out that we never actually see Tim’s dad and the filmmakers go to great pains in making sure we never see his face. So if you’re expecting some surprise cameo appearance to be the one playing him… well, yeah, that’s pretty much what happens.

Of course the real stars here are the Pokemon. The one thing this movie absolutely had to get right, and they crushed it.

I truly appreciate how the filmmakers pulled from the whole spectrum of 800+ Pokemon in the franchise history. Of course some fan favorites didn’t make the cut (I didn’t see Lucario anywhere, for instance), but so many details are packed into every corner, I’m sure fans will have a blast poring through the movie frame by frame. The character designs and animations are all gleaming with polish, and the production design looks remarkable from start to finish.

The movie gets by pretty much entirely on passion and creativity. Pokemon are lovingly used in beautifully inventive ways, ranging from comedy bits (the Mister Mime sequence) to action sequences (the Torterra garden). Perhaps more importantly, the film makes heavy thematic use out of friendship and personal growth, both cornerstone themes of the franchise as a whole. Also, the way the climax blended these two themes together was diabolically clever.

(Side note: The filmmakers even added a throwaway line to put this movie in continuity with Pokemon: The First Movie. They didn’t have to do that, and only longtime franchise fans would’ve caught it, but it’s a  welcome addition nonetheless.)

With all of that said, there’s one rather crucial aspect of the franchise that the movie completely overlooked: The obsessive need to capture every single Pokemon out there. That’s what powers the gameplay and the merchandise sales. It was the primary motivation of Ash Ketchum. Hell, it’s right there in the franchise tagline, “Gotta Catch ‘Em All!”

But in this movie, it’s like every human character gets exactly one (1) Pokemon partner. There’s no mention at all of discovering new species, catching rare and/or legendary Pokemon, swapping out Pokemon to get a type advantage in battle, or trading with friends. It’s disappointing that none of this plays any part in the plot, especially when the franchise’s most iconic antagonists are a syndicate of freaking Pokemon poachers!

Even so, the plot that we do get is nicely satisfying. I was suitably entertained by the various twists and turns, in addition to the father/son parallels at play. I also appreciate how the setups and payoffs are simple enough for a child to follow, but just complex enough to keep adults engaged. Alas, the exposition dumps tend to be pretty crowded, which messes with the pacing considerably.

Detective Pikachu is a video game movie, and the basic premise reads like a fictional work of pop culture satire, plus it got stuck with a post-Avengers release date. So mostly, the movie succeeds by virtue of low expectations. Indeed, there are some pacing issues throughout, the live-action performances are weak, and the script (most especially that first act) can be dolefully derivative. Even so, the movie is a great deal of fun when it really gets going, due in no small part to Ryan Reynolds’ spirited performance and the amazing production design.

If you are a Pokemon fan — or if you’ve ever been a Pokemon fan — you will almost certainly respond to the level of effort and passion that’s been put into every last corner of this film and I totally recommend seeing it immediately. I can also give this one a recommendation for anyone with kids — if you want a true family picture that will entertain the younger set without boring, insulting, or actively harming older viewers, you could do a lot worse.

For everyone else, I’d suggest a second-run or a rental viewing.

Long Shot

Posted May 7, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

Let’s start with a moviegoing pro-tip: While most people typically go to the movies during the weekend, theaters have a difficult time bringing in the crowds at the start of the week. As a direct result, many theaters — especially the huge multiplex chains — offer steep, steep discounts for tickets sold on the first few weekdays. So, for example, if you wanted to check out a movie that got virtually zero promotion and dumped in a transparently godawful release window, you can buy a Tuesday night ticket at half-price and hedge your bets.

Long Shot comes to us from the producing team of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who previously worked with director Jonathan Levine on 50/50 and exec-producer Dan Sterling on The Interview. Sterling (also late of “The Daily Show”, “The Sarah Silverman Program”, and “Girls”) co-wrote the script for this, alongside Liz Hannah, who previously made her feature writing debut on The Post, of all movies.

To repeat: Imagine if a former “Daily Show” producer co-wrote a political satire/romantic comedy with the writer of a Steven Spielberg prestige picture, starring Seth Rogen. That in itself should give you a pretty clear idea of what to expect here.

Rogen stars as Fred Flarsky, an investigative journalist known for going to outrageous lengths in researching and writing powerfully incisive articles, motivated by deep-seated progressive liberal social justice values. He’s honest and outspoken to a fault, so much so that he quits in protest when his company is bought out by crooked billionaire Parker Wembley (imagine Andy Serkis playing Roger Ailes under a metric ton of makeup and you’re getting close).

Enter Charlotte Field, played by producer Charlize Theron. Presently, she’s the youngest Secretary of State in history, setting out on a worldwide tour to promote a new global environmental initiative as a springboard for her presidential campaign. But about thirty years ago, Charlotte and Fred were teenage neighbors, complete with Fred’s unrequited crush on his babysitter.

To make a long and convoluted story short (Too late!), Charlotte and Fred cross paths right when Charlotte is in need of a smart and comedic speechwriter and Fred is in need of a job. They get to know each other better on the worldwide initiative tour, our two leads affect each other in complementary ways, and we have our romantic romp.

First of all, there’s the obvious fact that this is a movie in which the dumpy white guy gets a gorgeous female romantic partner who’s way out of his league. Have we ever seen this dynamic play out with the gender roles reversed? With a gay couple? With an interracial couple? Call it politically correct or whatever, but I’ll take anything to shake up the exact same formula we’ve seen over and over and over again. From Woody Allen to Adam Sandler to pretty much every movie Rogen made in the mid-to-late aughts, we’ve seen the schlumpy Jewish white guy charm the A-list starlet to bed a million times already. Hell, even Sandler himself pointed this out a few days ago!

It also doesn’t help that Rogen can’t act. At all. That’s an established fact by now. He’s got the one schtick and that’s it. No matter what script he’s given, no matter what genre of movie he’s in, no matter what character he’s supposed to be playing, no matter who else is in the cast or crew, the results are not going to change. In every single one of his 95 IMDb credits to date, he looks and sounds and acts exactly the same.

(Though to be fair, it’s really quite impressive that Rogen could star in a Katherine Heigl picture and come out with his career intact. Just ask Ashton Kutcher and Gerard Butler. The woman is cinematic poison and everything she touches is doomed. But I digress.)

So if you go into this movie expecting some high-brow political satire with anything halfway intelligent to say, take a step back and remember that this is a movie starring Seth Rogen and produced by the same. You’re getting pratfalls, drug humor, sex jokes, bodily humor, and that’s it. The humor gets very juvenile very quickly, and you won’t see very many jokes more complex than a guy jizzing into his own face.

That said, the secret to Rogen’s success is that even if his performances are all the same and his movies are functionally brain-dead, he has an uncanny knack for eliciting audience sympathy. The man is clearly very passionate about what he does, and his movies are at their best when they speak from the heart. And that’s the saving grace of this film.

Fred may have the best of intentions, but he’s still a hyperactive loudmouth who refuses to compromise who he is and what he believes in. Compare that to Charlotte, who has to maintain her image like she’s on camera at all times and make policy adjustments if she wants to get anything done. Learning how to compromise is an integral part of both politics and relationships, and dovetailing the two together in this way was a frankly ingenious touch. What’s more, it’s a neat way of making statements about integrity, honesty, and cooperation that are universal and personal, thus making political statements with a light-hearted and approachable way. Very clever.

This brings me to the other saving grace: Charlize Theron, who is positively on fire here. This role needed a head of state who could plausibly fall in love with a loser like Seth Rogen, and not lose an ounce of dignity. A woman who could plausibly talk world leaders out of a military crisis while high on ecstasy. Charlotte is a poised and polished politician whose public persona has been micromanaged to the last fraction of an inch, yet there’s a whole side to her that nobody — even Charlotte herself — never saw until Fred brought it out.

Running the emotional gamut like that needed an actress of unfathomable skill. Lucky, then, that the filmmakers were able to land an actor whose demonstrated range is somewhere between mammoth and infinite. Plus, even if Rogen can’t match her in terms of acting talent, he’s entirely capable of matching her in terms of passion and comic timing. That’s more than enough to generate the kind of chemistry this movie needed.

The rest of the cast is pretty damn solid, too. Bob Odenkirk is always a pleasure to see onscreen, ditto for Andy Serkis, and I really wish the filmmakers had found a way to keep Randall Park around for more than just the one scene. We’ve also got O’Shea Jackson Jr., Alexander Skarsgard, June Diane Raphael, and Ravi Patel, all dependable supporting players far better than their respective roles deserved.

That said, I was a little peeved by all the aggressively positive shout-outs to Lil Yachty and Boyz II Men, for no better reason than because those are the musicians the filmmakers could get for a cameo. Though at least the Boyz II Men cameo made a kind of sense — the whole soundtrack is flooded in turn-of-the-’90s nostalgia. Given how the central romance has its roots in the teenage years of our main characters, that actually works really well.

Oh, and on a final miscellaneous note, that aurora borealis moment was really fucking awkward. Rogen could have slipped and broken his nose and it would’ve made a better segue.

Long Shot is undeniably a rom-com, and hits every expected plot beat like clockwork. Yet it’s a rom-com that’s genuinely both romantic and comical, and that’s gotta be worth something. While Seth Rogen’s pathetic lack of range and pervasive brand of low-brow humor both drag the movie down somewhat, there’s no avoiding the fact that this was made by a beautifully talented cast and crew, and Charlize Theron alone is worth the cost of admission.

Bottom line: This is a stupid movie made by intelligent people. Definitely worth a look.

Avengers: Endgame

Posted April 28, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

You realize how goddamn ridiculous this is, right? Just take a moment to think about it: We as a civilization are being asked to cram the multiplexes 24/7, paying premium ticket prices and three precious hours for a movie we know literally nothing about, and we can’t share a single iota of information about it with anyone who hasn’t seen it. No other franchise could get away with this. I don’t even think Star Wars or James Bond could get away with a three-hour movie. Even when Lord of the Rings put us through so many three-hour films, at least we knew they would follow the books.

Try to imagine literally anything else that hundreds of millions of people would line up to put so much of their time and money into sitting through, totally blind and without any remote semblance of an informed opinion. Then again, it’s Marvel — who needs an informed opinion at this point? After eleven years and over 20 movies, you’re either on board or you’re not and there’s nothing anyone could say or do to convince anyone to switch sides.

Furthermore, while this level of loyalty would be completely absurd for any other movie, the Marvel films haven’t really been “any other movie” for quite some time. Marvel films — most especially the Avengers films — have become a strange fusion between cinema and television, in which every film is like its own season. So, thinking about Avengers: Endgame as a new television season — in which everyone who’s seen the previous season cliffhanger will be running to see what happens next, and only a bastard would spoil anything for those who aren’t caught up — this kind of fervor makes a lot more sense.

What’s more, basic film discussion etiquette dictates that the third act of any movie should be off-limits for any spoiler-free talk. The characters involved, the plot, the premise, the central conflict, the genre… everything essential that the audience would need to know going in can easily be covered within the first act, and maybe parts of the second. There’s no need to discuss the third act, and that’s where Marvel is at now. This entire three-hour movie is the climax and denouement of the Infinity Saga.

This is not at all a typical movie, any more than this whole Infinity Saga is a typical franchise. Hell, it’s more than a franchise — it’s a superfranchise (a franchise comprised of smaller franchises, and yes, I’m still trying to make this a thing instead of the “shared universe” phrase) the size, scale, and success of which has never been seen in film history. So much has already been said and done about this, and it’s already been so deeply ingrained in pop culture, what the hell are you still reading this review for?

You’re not going to read anything new here. I’m not going to tell you anything you don’t already know or anything you don’t want to know. I’m not going to change your mind one way or the other about seeing this movie. Hell, I could post my review now with nothing but “It’s great, go see it”, and call it a day. I wouldn’t even have to see the movie to write the review, I could post it right now and you wouldn’t even notice or care.

The critical praise and hype for this one is so huge and all-encompassing that I can only confirm everything and contribute nothing. You want the most epic battle in all of cinematic history? It’s here. You want cameos and callbacks from every corner of the MCU, going all the way back to Iron Man? You got it. You want knee-slappers, heartbreakers, tearjerkers, and fist-pumping fuck-yeah moments? Done, done, done, and done. Innovative plot twists, fantastic performances, mind-blowing effects, a satisfying payoff for so many years of obsessively following these movies in a way that sets up the next saga… It’s all here.

I know it seems impossible to include all of this in one movie. I know it sounds like the movie is overhyped to high heaven. But the screen time is long, the budget is “yes”, and everyone involved in this production has had a lot of practice at this. Believe the hype and go see the movie now.

…I notice you’re still here.

…I don’t know what else I can tell you, go see it.

…Really? You really want me to go on reviewing this in my typical style?

…Even if it means going into teensy tiny little plot details in the most vague and broad terms I can manage, as I usually do?

…You’re not going to complain to me about spoilers? Seriously? Because if you’re still reading at this point, I don’t want to hear it.

…Okay, I guess we’re doing this. Let’s get to the nitpicks.

The big one for me is Thanos. Specifically, it irked me that never once did he learn the error of his ways. A rather crucial and iconic part of his character in the comics is that Thanos’ nihilistic philosophy is self-defeating, Thanos himself is unworthy to possess any power, and because he knows all of this deep down, anything he does is guaranteed to fail in the long run. Alas, it appears the nihilism that was always Thanos’ central defining trait in the comics will never be explored in the movies. What’s far worse is that after all the time and effort Infinity War put into giving Thanos layers and nuance, this movie chucks all of that into a dumpster roughly half an hour in. After that, he’s no more interesting or well-defined than he was when we first met the character.

In fact, I thought the whole movie was thematically underwhelming, especially when compared to the previous film. Infinity War was all about the dilemma between the needs of the many and the needs of the few, while this one is more about finding the strength to get back up and keep on fighting after getting knocked back down. Both are typical superhero themes, here blown up to the most psychotically cosmic scale imaginable. The difference is that the first one drove the plot forward, forcing the characters between two decisive actions; while the second one prompts a lot of navel-gazing and soul-searching before the characters actively decide to get the plot going.

That said, it’s certainly not a total loss. Right in the middle of the climax, there’s one jaw-dropping shot that perfectly and beautifully depicts the strength and courage of one hero standing alone against impossible odds. Far more importantly, it means that the Avengers have to spend the first half of the movie without an adversary they can defeat with punches and laser blasts. They are a team of superheroes without a single supervillain between them, unable and/or unwilling to accept they’ve well and truly lost with no chance of success.

We’ve never really seen that in a superhero movie before, certainly not to this degree. Thus we have so many deeply human and vulnerable scenes with our cast, which in turn leads to plenty of fuck-yeah redemptive moments. This also leads to new perspectives on these characters — no mean feat, considering how much time we’ve already spent with them.

That said, the results are hit-and-miss. Captain America and Iron Man probably get the best of it, respectively playing the hero who most refuses to move on and the hero most eager to move on. Thor breaks down into a gelatinous mass of self-pity, which nicely plays into Chris Hemsworth’s natural strength as a comedian, but all the fat jokes were more than a bit problematic. Hulk was all well and good, but his character here was built from a huge watershed moment that should have been portrayed onscreen. Scarlett Johansson’s performance is more of the same, but it was great to see Hawkeye take charge and make a huge impression outside the other heroes’ shadows.

The supporting cast all make huge impressions, which is certainly a benefit to a cast half as big as the previous outing. It was so great to see Rhodey finally get the time and space to come into his own, without coming off as Iron Man’s underappreciated sidekick. I was also thrilled to see Karen Gillan turn in such incredible work, and Paul Rudd brought some fantastic comic relief. Then of course we have Rocket, whose snarky brand of humor brought some much-needed tough love and straight talk to the characters who most needed it.

Alas, the biggest disappointment had to be Captain Marvel. For all the effort that went into hyping her up for this movie, she actually doesn’t do very much. I mean, I know Brie Larson shot this movie before her own, so she didn’t really know all that much about her character. But then, Tom Holland also shot a huge crossover before his own movie, and he got way more screen time in Civil War to figure that out!

Then of course we have the time travel element. On the one hand, this opens up the scope of the movie in a huge way, directly leading to some of the best callbacks, cameos, and payoffs in the whole picture. It was genuinely exciting to see the return of so many characters who’d been long since written out of the MCU. Even if one of them (I’ll let you guess who) only appeared through a combination of archival footage, body doubles, and creative editing.

That said, while I was sincerely thrilled to see one particular Marvel TV show get so much love, it was disappointing to see every other TV show get neglected. The Netflix shows and everything to do with the Inhumans are all but officially non-canon at this point; a pitiful waste of all the time, money, talent, effort, and fan goodwill put into those shows.

Getting back to the time travel, there’s no getting around how inherently messy it is. While the filmmakers put in a noble try at hand-waving everything away, a few niggling plot threads continue to linger. Like, for example, the tiny little issue that the Avengers have a freaking time machine and there’s nothing to keep them from using it ever again for any reason! It’s deeply frustrating how so many plot holes and paradoxes could have been fixed with just a few simple tweaks. But instead, I’m pretty sure the entire Guardians of the Galaxy franchise has been thoroughly fucked beyond all hope of repair at this point.

On a similar subject, there’s the matter of who lives, who dies, who gets brought back, etc. My favorite example concerns two characters who get into this huge debate over which of them should be the one to sacrifice their life in some heroic fashion. While the scene itself is utterly marvelous and gripping from start to finish, it ends with the wrong one dying. Sorry, but it’s true — there’s every reason why it should’ve gone the other way.

That said, there are quite a few deaths in this movie we’re explicitly told are for keeps. They’re perma-dead this time. For realsies. No takebacks. Even though we know for a certainty that some of them have movies or TV shows in active development. And also, again, we’re dealing with time travel here — no matter how many times the characters continue to swear there’s no chance at all of taking it back, we can plainly see for ourselves that’s bullshit.

Last but not least, this movie is dogged by the unavoidable fact that… well, it’s a Marvel crossover. So much of what makes this movie so impossibly good is in how it builds on and pays off so many years of established history. So if you’re not completely up to date on all of this history, if you haven’t seen every Marvel film and sat through every end-credits stinger, then why the hell would you even buy a ticket for this one? You should already know it’s not for you.

What all of this adds up to is that Avengers: Endgame — for better and for worse — is the ultimate Marvel crossover. Never in the recorded past or foreseeable future will anyone ever find a film of such impossibly huge scale, so perfectly and specifically crafted to thrill and amaze franchise fans. So if you’re not a franchise fan, and if you’re not willing to forgive a few glaring plot holes about time travel, this movie was never built for you.

Even so, you should absolutely give it a chance. If only because nobody — not even Marvel themselves, in all probability — could possibly deliver spectacle on this scale again. This is a cinematic experience unlike any other in history, and that should be enough reason to go see this ASAP.

Little Woods

Posted April 21, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

I can’t believe I nearly missed out on this one.

The feature debut of writer/director Nia DaCosta, Little Woods sets its stage in the eponymous backwoods town of North Dakota. Naturally, it’s a town where money is scarce and health care is even harder to come by. The good news is that quality healthcare and premium medication are available just over the border in Canada, for anyone willing to pay the money and take the risk for it.

Our protagonist is Ollie (short for Oleander, played by exec producer Tessa Thompson), who started running drugs to get the Canadian medication her ailing mother so desperately needed. And it turns out she was a natural at the game, but she always made it a point to sell to those with a genuine medical need, and not recreational drug users. Inevitably, Ollie gets caught and we flash forward to ten days before her probation is over. Her mother is now dead, which means that now she has to find some money to pay the overdue mortgage even as she’s still looking for steady legitimate work.

Meanwhile, there’s the matter of Ollie’s adoptive sister. Deb (played by Lily James, formerly Tessa Thompson’s White Voice in Sorry to Bother You) is a recovering drug addict. She’s also a struggling single mother to a son born of a drunken absentee father (Ian, played by James Badge Dale). And we meet Deb right when she finds out that she’s pregnant again. So regardless of whether she has the baby (costing thousands of dollars just to deliver it without insurance), or decides to abort (costing considerably less, though safe and reputable abortion clinics are few and far between here), she’s going to need that Canadian medicine.

So what we’ve got here is a modern take on the classic question of how to survive in a legitimate way when the whole system is rigged against you. Hell or High Water and A Most Violent Year immediately come to mind as two other films in recent memory that dealt with a similar theme. But this one goes several steps further by virtue of our two lead characters. Ollie is a woman of color and an ex-con; while Deb is a single mother, a former stripper, a recovering drug addict, and a woman seeking an abortion. And the both of them are poor single women living in some rural speck of land unknown to civilization. All we need is a third character who’s a disabled gay Muslim immigrant and we’d have the whole checklist!

If I sound like I’m treating the characters as flimsy tokens in any way, please be assured that the filmmakers (led by a black female writer/director, I should add) treat them as anything but. It really is astonishing how much character development is packed into these 100 minutes. I learned so much about these characters and I loved every moment. Even the stuff that had nothing to do with the main plot was compelling to watch. I can’t even begin to list all the fantastic setups and payoffs that elevate the movie in creative and unexpected little ways, even when they could’ve been cut from the movie with no harm done. For example, there’s one moment involving a cardboard box in a closet — it could’ve been easily cut, but the movie’s so much better for its inclusion. Even an ambiguous glance across a medical waiting room counter can raise the tension in fantastic ways.

Everything in the movie feels beautifully authentic, and all the characters (with a couple of rare exceptions, like the ID forgers in the third act) are elegantly nuanced. For instance, it would’ve been so easy to cast Lance Reddick as a hardass parole officer, but instead he plays the part as the kind of stern yet loving father figure you’d feel genuinely sorry for letting down. And it works perfectly.

But of course, it’s Tessa Thomson and Lily James who carry the film, and they do an incredible job. As sisters, as strong and determined women, and as occasional fuckups struggling upstream to make better lives for themselves, these two lead performances fire on all cylinders. These two run the emotional gamut through the entire running time, and the range they get to show off is positively staggering.

Then we have the presentation. Handheld camerawork is used in all the right ways, making everything feel more immersive without ever getting too distracting. I was also very fond of the score and soundtrack, plus a few utterly gorgeous still shots. Additional kudos for all the night shots that are crystal clear without looking like cheap day-for-night — I’ve seen too many indie films fail at that. Even the shots at daybreak look fantastic — the dawn hours are so few and far between, and it’s a whole day of shooting lost if that narrow window is missed. It’s deceptively and extremely difficult to get those shots, so I’m genuinely impressed the filmmakers nailed it that hard.

I have no problem giving Little Woods a full recommendation. As a character drama, a crime thriller, a film that’s pro-choice (yeah, fair warning about that third rail) without getting preachy, and as a damning depiction of all the ways our system is built to fail, it works superbly. The cast is wonderful across the board, all of the performances — the two leads most especially — are marvelous, and it’s frankly astounding how a first-time director was able to put together a movie this well-crafted.

It’s a heartfelt and thoughtful movie that doesn’t skimp on the dramatic tension. Definitely not one to miss.

High Life

Posted April 21, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

I’ve been saying for weeks now that the pre-Avengers: Endgame release window was a dumping ground, but the week immediately before A-Day… sweet Jesus. Our new releases for this frame are a cinematic sermon made to scrape up some Easter box-office dollars; and a Mexican folk tale adapted by white filmmakers into an uninspired jump scare flick.

I’m pretty sure that this is exactly the kind of weekend in mainstream cinema that A24 was built for.

High Life opens with Monte (Robert Pattinson) attempting repairs on a spaceship that’s falling apart despite his efforts. He’s completely alone on the ship, save only for an infant girl (Willow, played as a baby by Scarlett Lindsey and later by the teenaged newcomer Jessie Ross). We see a day in Monte’s life on the ship, capped off with Monte going to a cryogenics chamber where a whole bunch of people are lying dead. He then proceeds to stuff all the corpses into spacesuits and send them out an airlock.

Cue the title card. Ten minutes in. This is a movie that very deliberately takes its time. Lucky, then, that things pick up in a great goddamn hurry when they finally do pick up.

By and by, we eventually learn that lifetime convicts and death row inmates were given the choice to voluntarily submit themselves as test subjects for science (a practice that’s ethically dubious at best). In this case, the volunteers signed up for a voyage to the nearest black hole, to see if its gravity can be harnessed into a new and unlimited power source. It’s never explained how this energy is supposed to be sent back to Earth, but it does become immediately obvious that this was always meant to be a one-way trip and the experiment was fully expected to be lethal.

In the meantime, there’s a secondary experiment. The de facto leader of our intrepid crew is Dr. Dibs, a mad scientist played by Juliette Binoche. She’s taken an interest in the question of whether human reproduction is possible in the harsh conditions of space, and she’s therefore set up a battery of tests regarding the physical and sexual wellness of each crew member aboard.

With all of this in mind, let’s backtrack. We already know there’s an infant on board the ship, which means that the experiments must have been at least partially successful. But we don’t know what it took to conceive or deliver the child, we don’t know who the mother is, and we don’t even know for sure if Monte is the father. And then of course, there’s the question of how everyone except for Monte and the newborn ended up dead, and why there are one or two characters who seem to be missing from the cryogenics chamber. Also, we’ve got the first child ever born in space, raised in a tin can with only a (surrogate?) father for company — what’s she going to grow up like?

The beginning is so fucked-up and the ending is so bleak, how could you not be interested to stick around and see what happens?

As might be expected from a movie that clearly owes so much of its existence to 2001: A Space Odyssey, this movie is trippy as fuck. The plot isn’t presented in any kind of linear or logical fashion, but tends to jump between settings and time periods in an impressionistic kind of way. It’s not always easy to keep track of, especially in the first third or so, when the filmmakers are still taking their merry time toward explaining the plot. And of course that’s not even getting started on all the mindfuck visuals that come in when we finally get to play around with the black hole.

It’s not even easy to make out any kind of a coherent theme, the whole movie is such an ephemeral ink blot. But if I had to take a stab at it, I’d say the most prominent theme is the absurdly futile state of floating out in space with nothing to do but reproduce and die. It’s about the desperate need for attention while alone in a void, the need to feel like we have a purpose in spite of all evidence to the contrary, and faith that we are at least loved and appreciated by someone we’ll never get to see or hear from. So basically, this crew is a microcosm of the entire human race.

It’s not easy to describe why this movie works as well as it does, since… well, frankly, it shouldn’t work as well as it does. But mostly, it’s because the strength of this movie is in its presentation. The stream-of-consciousness pacing and editing work far more effectively in the moment than I could describe here, and the visuals are nicely compelling throughout. If nothing else, it’s refreshing to have a movie that focuses so much on visual storytelling, giving the audience enough clues to keep everything straight without the need for hand-holding.

And then of course we have the cast. Robert Pattinson turns in yet another fearless arthouse performance. Ditto for Juliette Binoche, who gets two of the most bizarre sex scenes I’ve ever witnessed. And one of them is a straight-up sexual assault. Yes, the movie goes there.

I could also give shout-outs to Mia Goth, Andre Benjamin, and all the other superlative performers in this amazing cast. But for me personally, it was Jessie Ross and Scarlett Lindsey who ended up stealing the show. Ross is a charming young newcomer who kicks the whole movie into a new gear when she finally shows up. As for Lindsey, I’m genuinely impressed with the uncanny performance the filmmakers were able to coax out of this infant.

The world-building is another huge part of why this movie works so well. It’s genuinely impressive how the camerawork, editing, and production design all draw the audience in, very nicely demonstrating all the different facets of life on this ship and how the ship works. Speaking of production design, I honestly kind of like how the ship itself is this giant block — given the premise, I doubt a ton of time or effort would be put into the aesthetics of a one-way shuttle manned by death-row convicts. Likewise, the space suits are nicely spartan in design, though we can plainly see the helmets are not airtight in the back.

High Life is another one of those bizarre arthouse movies that simply exists on its own terms. It’s beautifully crafted and superbly acted, but it also has an unorthodox presentation and a premise that’s varying shades of fucked-up. It’s certainly a good movie, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy or pleasant to watch. I have absolutely no idea how you’ll react to this one, but I can guaran-goddamn-tee that at least you won’t be bored.

Also, did I mention that there are graphic depictions of sexual assault? Because I think that bears repeating.

The Conjuring Universe

Posted April 19, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

Mid-July of 2013 was not an especially good time for cinema. Fruitvale Station was tearing up the arthouses and Pacific Rim had been released to a small yet mighty fanbase; but otherwise, it was the time of Grown-Ups 2, R.I.P.D., Turbo, and… oof, The Lone Ranger. So it was that The Conjuring came out and became an overnight smash, racking up massive critical acclaim and a worldwide $319 million box office take against a reported $20 million budget.

Of course a sequel was inevitable. But the brain trust at Warner Bros. simply couldn’t leave it at that.

No, this happened a year after The Avengers came out, and the “shared universe” model was all the rage. Over the next several years, we saw so many studios try and copy Marvel’s success. DC Comics, Universal Monsters, Jack Ryan, Transformers, Godzilla, Star Wars, and even freaking Hasbro board games were all either rumored or confirmed to have their own cinematic superfranchises in development. Some of them never materialized, some of them spectacularly crashed and burned, and none of them came anywhere near the success of Marvel.

(Side note: Yes, I am still using the word “superfranchise” to describe a franchise comprised of multiple franchises. I will continue to insist on making a thing of this.)

That said, it hasn’t been a complete wash. DC Comics picked up the pieces of their failed Justice League experiment, pushing their shared cinematic universe so far into the background that it’s only barely visible for the occasional inside joke or throwaway reference. The Kaijuverse is still kicking, mostly because they’ve been happy to put all of their efforts into one movie every couple of years instead of Marvel’s head-spinning three-per-annum pace. And of course Star Wars is keeping on just fine, but that’s always been a multimedia host unto itself.

And then there’s The Conjuring Universe.

Every year, we see so many trailers and posters proudly announcing some new chapter in “The Conjuring Universe”. By which the filmmakers mean a set of franchises spun out from The Conjuring, itself loosely based on the supposedly true case files of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. Thus the main franchise went out of its way to introduce Annabelle, The Nun, and other plot elements that could potentially grow into their own respective franchises.

So… who cares?

Seriously, where’s the fanbase for this shared universe? Who is obsessively following these movies, carefully tracking all the connections between them? Where are the fans and reporters hounding Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, and James Wan for spoilers? Who can describe a single character, a single iconic scene, or anything remotely memorable about this superfranchise without looking it up online?

The Curse of La Llorona this weekend brings us six movies and six years into this superfranchise, with a seventh installment coming out in a couple of short months. After all this time, all these movies, all the money and effort spent putting the Conjuring Universe into the zeitgeist, it’s resulted in nothing anywhere close to the iconic status of its summer blockbuster franchise peers. So what is it that keeps this superfranchise going? Well, let’s look at the numbers.

  • The Conjuring: $20 million budget, $319 million worldwide gross
  • Annabelle: $6.5 million budget, $257 million worldwide gross
  • The Conjuring 2: $40 million budget, $320 million worldwide gross
  • Annabelle: Creation — $15 million budget, $306 million worldwide gross
  • The Nun: $22 million budget, $365 million gross

For comparison’s sake, Justice League grossed a worldwide total of $657 million and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 took in a $708 million worldwide total. The Conjuring films routinely take in less than half those totals and that superfranchise is still trucking along, while JL and TASM2 are both notorious flops, even after Sony and DC moved Heaven and Earth trying to get their respective superfranchises off the ground. And paradoxically, as you may have guessed, that’s probably part of the problem.

So many times, we’ve seen studios throw hundreds of millions of dollars at superfranchise ideas, inflating the budgets of tentpole franchises while throwing in some half-assed sequel teases and in-jokes between them, making everything as PG-13 and four-quandrant as possible. Compare that to Marvel, which combined the spectacle and fan service with genuine passion and creativity, to say nothing of the ambition and strategic planning necessary to pull off something so inconceivably huge. All this time, there was the perception that everybody failed where Marvel succeeded because all the other studios wanted to skip the hard work and setup, going directly to the part where they make billions of dollars. This whole time, we thought that the secret to a successful superfranchise was trying harder, but The Conjuring Universe took a surprisingly different approach: Trying less.

The Conjuring movies are made for next to nothing (by Hollywood tentpole standards, anyway), they’re quick and easy to make, and it’s clear that virtually no time or effort went into the slapdash mythology. Thus a Conjuring movie could make only $100 million worldwide in its entire run (what most tentpole flicks make in an opening weekend nowadays), and still be a booming box office success. Sure, it won’t be a world-conquering success like the MCU, but if the goal is to make money, it’s hard to beat this particular business model.

So how long can this keep going on? Well, it’s tough to say. On the one hand, low-risk/low-reward is what all of modern horror is built on nowadays, making it absurdly easy for horror movies to justify sequels. For instance, this is how we ended up with four Insidious movies and a fifth in development. And of course we also have the Saw franchise, which may or may not be gearing up for a ninth (!!!) movie as of this typing.

On the other hand, these are the exceptions, rather than the rule. The Paranormal Activity franchise sputtered out after six movies, even after the last entry made back nearly eight times its reported budget. We still don’t have sequels for Don’t Breathe or Oculus. Ouija: Origin of Evil was even more critically and commercially well-received than its improbably successful prequel, and there’s still no third movie on the horizon. Does anyone even remember Deliver Us from Evil? That one made back three times its reported budget, and no word of any sequel. And before you mention that some of these movies are only a few years old, I’ll remind you that we’re talking about small-budget horror films that Hollywood studios routinely fart out in a year or two.

All of this is a far cry from the long-running horror franchises of yesteryear. Do you remember horror franchises like Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Hellraiser, Child’s Play, Halloween, and all those others that would grow to something like a dozen movies apiece? We don’t really have those anymore. Hell, those franchises aren’t even around in their original incarnations anymore, all of them retconned and rebooted. And even some of the reboots (as in Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th) have been abandoned!

I think a huge part of that is in the nature of horror itself. Consider: of the franchises I listed above, which entries are commonly described as the most genuinely scary in their respective series? The first one, sure. Maybe the first two or three. But after that? The longer the franchise goes on, the harder and faster it becomes more about the world-building and the piss-taking, neither of which are particularly scary.

Longer franchises breed familiarity, which is anathema to horror. This is especially true of the Conjuring Universe films, which use the same house style and the same tricks across multiple franchises. It’s getting very old very fast, and the filmmakers have not demonstrated the willpower or the creativity to shake up the established formula. So the horror will stop being effective and then what are we left with? How many filmgoers will sit through so many tedious movies of jump scares just to see Annabelle vs. The Nun or some shit?

The MCU was made by and for die-hard comics fans who meticulously catalogue every detail and follow every news story. The Conjuring Universe was just as clearly made by and for moviegoers who want nothing more complex or enduring from their horror cinema than an occasional jump scare. Say what you will about frothing fanboys, but they’re far more loyal than their whining and complaining might have you think, especially towards media made with a modicum of good-faith effort toward meeting their high standards. Casual moviegoers who don’t demand nearly so much of their movies won’t stick around as long. They’ll eventually find something else.

We’ve seen countless studios try and imitate the MCU, trying to build their own perpetual money-making machine without any of the time or effort that Marvel put into theirs. We’ve already seen so many studios and superfranchises fail because they were only trying to get rich quick, taking the audience’s money and offering little if anything in return. Thus they made movies that would only last as long as opening weekend, not movies that fans would (pay to) revisit and pore over for years to come.

It sank The Amazing Spider-Man. It sank the Justice League. It sank the Dark Universe. And it will sink The Conjuring Universe. It’ll just take a bit longer, that’s all.