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Onward

Posted March 8, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

Back in 2009, Bob Peterson and Peter Sohn came up with the idea of an alternate history in which the dinosaurs never went extinct. The film was set for release in 2012, and interviews from the time show that the filmmakers had a keen interest in exploring stereotypes through dinosaurs, asking what dinosaurs represent in the 21st century. Long story short, the film went through a myriad of revisions and delays until The Good Dinosaur finally saw release in November 2015. It is the only undisputed box office bomb in the otherwise legendary canon of Pixar, an uninspired snoozefest with barely a hint of the modern alternate history premise.

So here’s Onward, in which Pixar takes another crack at the “alternate history” conceit to more successful — though still shaky — results.

Our film is set on a world with two moons and no humans, so it’s immediately obvious that we’re not dealing with Earth. Though it is a world populated by elves, manticores, pixies, ogres, centaurs, and other creatures recognizable in European fairy tales. More importantly, it’s a world of magic, in which wizards were on hand to help with everyone’s problems.

Until somebody discovered electricity. And that turned out to be so much easier. Thus technology advanced and the world became more recognizably modern, while obsolete magic faded into history.

Our plot begins with the elven Lightfoot family, with the younger son (Ian, voiced by Tom Holland) serving as our protagonist. He’s hopelessly awkward and endlessly paranoid, as capably demonstrated in a sequence in which he tries and fails to not be so awkward and paranoid. It’s really quite endearing in execution.

His older brother is Barley, voiced by Chris Pratt. This is the kind of guy who rushes into everything, all heart without much of the way of brainpower. Moreover, he’s a fanboy for the olden days, with a strong passion for a “historically accurate” tabletop game called “Quests of Yore”.

As their mother (Laurel, voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) says at one point, Ian is afraid of everything and Barley is afraid of nothing. The perfect recipe for a buddy road comedy.

Anyway, the boys’ father died a long time ago of the dreaded Disney Parent Flu. Barley only has three or four distant half-forgotten memories of his father, and Ian’s got nothing but a metric ton of daddy issues. Then Ian’s 16th birthday rolls around, and Laurel brings out a package that the elder Lightfoot left behind for his two sons.

The package turns out to be a wizard’s staff, an extremely rare Phoenix Gem, and a spell of the Lightfoot patriarch’s invention. What does the spell do? It brings Papa Lightfoot back to life for 24 hours. Yes, seriously.

Long story short, the spell goes awry and the Lightfoot father has only materialized from the waist down. Thus Ian and Barley have 24 hours to find another Phoenix Gem and fix the spell before their dad fades back to the afterlife for good.

I have so many questions.

First of all, it’s clearly and plainly established that the elder Lightfoot was not a wizard, but merely an accountant who dabbled in magic. It’s likewise established that magic has been obsolete for centuries at least. So how the hell did he get a functioning wizard’s staff? How did he ever get something so impossibly rare and fragile as a Phoenix Gem? How the high holy fuck did he invent a spell that brings someone back to freaking life?! None of this is ever explained.

It’s established that every quest has to begin at the Manticore’s Tavern, and the Manticore herself (voiced with aplomb by Octavia Spencer) is the would-be oracle who tells our heroes where to find the thing they’re questing for. Who or what put the Manticore in charge of this is anyone’s guess. And then of course we get to the back half of the film, in which Ian and Barley have to survive an elaborate gauntlet on their way to the terrible curse that guards the Phoenix Gem. Who built this gauntlet? Who put the curse there? Why was any of this put in place? Never explained.

It’s clearly established that magic is difficult to master, yet Ian is somehow such a natural that he’s able to go from novice to professional in 24 hours. Moreover, it’s established that all of this monsters and magic stuff is settled history in this universe, yet for whatever reason, none of it is apparently taught in school. Thus it’s the board game fanatic who’s the expert on all this lore, while the withdrawn studious bookworm knows none of it.

To be entirely fair, the movie is such a love letter to high fantasy that of course the filmmakers had to find some way for the D&D fan to save the day. And of course high fantasy has always been full of arbitrary rules and contrived shortcuts, going all the way back to goddamn Greek mythology at least. But it’s frustrating that the plot and premise are full of so many holes when Pixar is otherwise phenomenal at world-building. So much love and attention has been packed into every last detail of the setting, it’s disappointing to see the plot held together with limp hand-waving.

This brings me to the central conceit of the past clashing with the present. Old temples getting cleared away to make room for new homes. Pixies and manticores who don’t need to fly, because cars and airplanes will serve just fine. This is genuinely fascinating stuff, and virtually nothing is done with it after the halfway point.

Instead, Pixar falls back on their tried-and-true family themes. Loss, grief, cooperation, forgiveness… these and other related themes are well-worn ground for Pixar. But hey, they do it like nobody else and it works beautifully.

Likewise, all the voice actors here are playing well within their respective wheelhouses, and they all turn in solid work. The central relationship between Ian and Barley is rock-solid, with fantastic chemistry between Holland and Pratt. Of course, it helps to have a disembodied pair of legs as a moderating influence between them, and the work done to make a pair of legs into such an expressive character is deeply inspired.

(Side note: To address the cyclops voiced by Lena Waithe, she’s only really present in one scene and her sexuality is only referred to in a throwaway line. Hollywood really needs to cut that shit out — either go for accurate representation or don’t, but quit begging for praise over half-measures.)

The animation and the comedy are all of Pixar’s typical high standard. The action is entertaining enough. But more than all of that, I was impressed with how the filmmakers employed setups and payoffs in genuinely clever ways. For every predictable plot turn, there were at least two or three remarkable curveballs. For a film that leans so heavily on standard fantasy conventions and follows the Monomyth to a T, that means a lot.

(Side note: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the short film that precedes this one. Taking full advantage of Disney’s recent acquisition, “Playdate with Destiny” is a romance parody starring Maggie Simpson. A convenient way to produce a Simpsons cartoon without paying any of the voice actors. Romantic parodies have been done to death and “The Simpsons” is far more iconic for its dialogue than its visual humor, so the short is definitely more forgettable than bad.)

Onward averages out to an okay film, though an “okay” film by Pixar standards is something else entirely. It’s certainly enjoyable enough, considering that everyone involved is doing what they do best. That said, it’s depressing how the basic fantasy-versus-modernity clash is all but completely abandoned halfway through, and the basic foundations of the plot are riddled with holes. The fine strokes are all so beautiful, it’s frustrating how the broader strokes got botched like this.

The movie doesn’t live up to its promises of delivering anything new, but it does the old stuff really well. It’s worth a look.

The Invisible Man (2020)

Posted March 2, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

I’ve already spilled a lot of ink on the subject of the Dark Universe fiasco. And I’m probably going to say a lot more about it, because it can’t possibly be overstated what a costly and embarrassing self-inflicted black eye that superfranchise investment was. Especially since it happened when the execs at Universal still hadn’t completely lived down the disaster of Van Helsing.

The execs at Universal have been pathetically desperate in trying to make their Movie Monster lineup relevant again, ever since Stephen Sommers found improbable success with the two Mummy films made twenty freaking years ago. And right from the jump, The Invisible Man (2020) shows conspicuous signals that the PTB may have finally — FINALLY — learned some valuable lessons.

To start with, they took Johnny Depp off the project. Yeah, for those who don’t remember, Universal was extremely proud of the fact that they had hired one of the most expensive, controversial, and increasingly unstable movie stars in Hollywood to play the goddamn Invisible Man. A character that — by definition! — meant that Depp would’ve collected a massive payday with top billing while barely spending any time onscreen or on set. This is the kind of sensible thinking that made the Dark Universe such an industry laughingstock.

Second, Universal co-produced the film with Blumhouse. That sends all sorts of messages, because billion-dollar tentpole blockbusters are not in the Blumhouse business model. This is the company that built an empire on horror movies that don’t typically gross much, but turn a profit because they’re made for even less.

Add all that to the fact that this is an R-rated movie with a release date right on the cusp of March — a month increasingly reserved for more experimental releases. All of this sends the clear message that Universal is done trying to make their movie monsters into four-quadrant crowd pleasers. No way is Universal trying to position this as the start of another MCU knockoff — hell, it’s an open question as to whether this movie can even sustain its own franchise, much less a superfranchise.

But perhaps most importantly of all, Universal apparently (read: hopefully) decided to take the bold step of making their Movie Monsters relevant by liberally adapting them to reflect modern fears. I know. What a concept.

In this latest iteration, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is a wealthy scientific genius who might charitably be called “eccentric”, though perhaps “narcissistic sociopath” would be more accurate. But here’s the kicker: He’s not the protagonist. That would be his wife (Cecilia, played by Elizabeth Moss), who finally takes the step of leaving her abusive marriage, sneaking out in the dead of night for fear of what her asshole husband might do to her. He smashes a car window with his bare hands while chasing after her, by the way.

Cut to two weeks later. The good news is, Cecilia has found a temporary home with a police officer and his daughter (James and Sydney, respectively played by Aldis Hodge and Storm Reid). They might’ve been old friends, or maybe Cecilia met them through her sister — it’s unclear, I’m disappointed to say. Anyway, the bad news is that Cecilia is a paranoid wreck. She won’t leave the house, she’s terrified of any online technology, and she visibly jumps when anyone comes to the door. She doesn’t even want any friends or family coming by, for fear that Adrian could follow them to find her.

Then the news comes in that Adrian is dead.

The details are unclear, but we’re told for a certainty that Adrian Griffin is dead and cremated, and he’s left Cecilia $5 million in his will. On the condition that she can’t be charged with any crime, she can’t be ruled to be mentally incompetent, and so on. This is roughly the point when weird shit starts happening, and Cecilia has to convince everyone that Adrian’s still alive and messing with her and no she’s not just being paranoid.

I mean, it’s right there in the title. Even if we don’t know exactly how Adrian faked his death or turned himself invisible, we know what’s going on here. The question is whether Cecilia can figure it out in time and convince everyone else that it’s not just her trauma playing head games.

This movie comes to us from writer/director Leigh Wannell. That’s the same guy who made his name as a co-creator of the Saw franchise before making his directorial debut on the excellent and sadly underappreciated Upgrade. (A $16 million worldwide gross against a reported $3 million budget. Welcome to Blumhouse.) Having seen both of his movies so far, I’m here to tell you that for a horror filmmaker, he’s a hell of an action filmmaker.

Consider that we’re talking about fight scenes with an invisible man. I can’t begin to imagine how hard it must be to stage that without coming off as some hokey bullshit that looks like the characters swiping at thin air or fighting with themselves. But then, thank God I’m not Leigh Whannell, because the fight scenes are phenomenal across the board. The effects are flawless, the camera moves are inspired, and the unseen assailant adds a superb layer of suspense. Of course it also helps that Whannell leans hard into the R-rating, delivering palpable blows and shots that really fucking hurt.

But then there’s the horror aspect. I don’t want to say it’s bad, necessarily — there are a lot of good scares and shocks in here, most especially when the film lulls us into a false sense of security and the Invisible Man strikes out of nowhere. But those all come later in the movie.

Early on, when the audience is still waiting for the Invisible Man to arrive already, the filmmakers use musical cues to let us know that he’s there. In theory, not a bad idea. In practice, the score is laughably overblown in the mix. The whole score is so aggressive and so simple that it badly damages all efforts at horror.

What compensates for all of that is the very nature of the beast. For all his faults, Adrian is way, way smarter than everybody else in the movie. He’s cunning, he’s patient, and he has zero conscience. There’s no telling what he’ll do, when he’ll do it, or who will get hurt along the way. Moreover, it’s not always easy to tell when Cecilia is genuinely making progress, or when she’s playing directly into her husband’s plans.

Then again, the Invisible Man is still just a man. He’s not super-strong, he’s not bulletproof, he can’t fly or walk through walls. For all his gadgets and intelligence, he’s still the same small and insecure egomaniac he always was, fallible and mortal like anyone else. That glimmer of hope is a central component of what powers the film, and it’s a strong implicit message about abusive partners in general.

Which brings me to another potential problem: Whannell is a male filmmaker taking on the story of a woman badly damaged by her abusive marriage. Moreover, it’s the story of a woman whom nobody believes, even when she’s accused of striking somebody who wasn’t even in arm’s reach at the time. (Seriously, what the fuck?)

To counter this, the filmmakers brought on Elizabeth Moss, whose leading role in “The Handmaid’s Tale” has made her a kind of unofficial mascot for the modern feminist movement. Between that and her recent cinematic output (Us is perhaps the most high-profile example), Moss has overtly made socially conscious media her brand for the past few years. Bringing her on gives the film a lot of credibility, in addition to a rock-solid leading performance that brings strength and vulnerability exactly where each are needed.

It’s a good thing that Moss’ performance is so strong, because the rest of the cast is pretty weak. Yes, the Invisible Man himself is a fantastic villain, but he’s also (obviously) a mostly offscreen presence. Though Oliver Jackson-Cohen is remarkable in the title role, he’s only really got one scene to work with. Likewise, Storm Reid is a wonderful young talent with charisma to burn, and she’s wasted on what’s basically the comic relief role. Aldis Hodge is another rock-solid supporting player, but the character doesn’t have much depth — it upset me that the James/Cecilia friendship is such a central plot point, yet we never learn the first thing about how they know each other. The weakest in the supporting cast is easily Harriet Dyer in the role of Cecilia’s sister. Dyer might be trying her best, but the character totally fails to register as anything more than a plot device. It certainly doesn’t help that the filmmakers go to all manner of contrived lengths in getting Emily where she needs to be, regardless of whether or not it makes sense.

The MVP of the supporting cast is unquestionably Michael Dorman, in the role of Tom Griffin, Adrian’s younger brother/lawyer/estate manager. On the one hand, Tom only ever thought that Cecilia was just another woman who only wanted Adrian for his money. On the other hand, he’s literally spent his entire life subjected to the kind of physical torment and emotional abuse that Cecilia had to endure throughout her marriage. He’s a true wild card, so capably played by Dorman that there’s no telling where his loyalty really lies or which way he’s going to go.

The Invisible Man (2020) is enjoyable overall, but it comes with some major caveats. Most of the supporting cast is pretty weak, you’ll have to swerve around some gaping logic holes, and god damn did Benjamin Wallfisch turn in a wretched score. Still, the action is amazing, Elizabeth Moss’ central performance is wonderful, and the choice to make the Invisible Man an allegory for an abusive husband was an inspired use of a monster that embodies the primal fear of being watched by some unseen force.

It’s not a perfect film, but it’s great where it counts. Definitely check it out.

The Lodge

Posted March 1, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

In my last entry a week ago, I wrote a lengthy opening statement about the industry shakeups that led to upstarts like Lionsgate, STX, Netflix, and Amazon stepping up as worthy rivals to Paramount, Viacom, AT&T Time Warner, and Sony. I listed Neon as one of the upstart studios in question, though it seemed a bit presumptuous at the time. Flash forward to this weekend, when The Lodge hit my local multiplex while Portrait of a Lady on Fire is still playing and Parasite is still on its Best Picture victory lap.

A year ago, nobody knew who Neon was. Now they have three — count ’em, THREE — movies running on the big screen at once. And all three of them have found critical success. Now there can be no doubt, Neon is a studio to watch.

The Lodge comes to us from Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, the aunt/nephew filmmaking team who previously gave us the creepy-as-fuck Goodnight Mommy. Last time, we got a psychological horror film stuck in a house with twin boys and a woman who may or may not be their actual mother. This time, we’ve got a psychological horror film in which two siblings are snowed into a house with their new stepmom.

Let’s get into details, shall we?

The premise begins with Richard, played by Richard Armitage. He’s left his wife for a younger woman (Grace, played by Riley Keough) and he wants the divorce finalized so he can marry Grace. The wife in question (Laura, played by Alicia Silverstone) responds to this by killing herself.

And we’re not even ten minutes into the movie.

Cut to six months later. Grace and Richard are still planning on getting married, and Richard’s kids (Aidan and Mia, respectively played by Jaeden Martell nee Lieberher and Lia McHugh) are still in mourning. Also, the kids still hate their prospective stepmom, labeling her a psychopath.

See, Aidan and Mia were raised to be good Christians with a strong abiding love for their lord and savior. Grace grew up in a religious cult, and was (inexplicably) the sole survivor after everyone else in the cult killed themselves. So while the kids see God the loving and redeeming father figure, Grace sees God the hellfire and brimstone destroyer of unrepentant sinners. It’s a difference of interpretation that of course the kidswere never raised to understand, and they have no idea just how far deep those scars go.

Anyway, Richard comes up with the brilliant idea of leaving Grace and the kids alone to hash out their differences in a remote mountain cabin. What starts out as a bad idea gets even worse when the snow piles up and the power cuts out, so now all the cell phones are out of juice, the heating is gone, and the lights are all dark. And then things inexplicably start to go missing. Including Grace’s psychiatric meds.

Things get increasingly weird, and our characters get increasingly desperate to find an explanation. Much as Grace genuinely wants to be on good terms with her would-be stepkids, she knows they don’t like her and thus she has little reason to trust them. Then again, given Grace’s history of trauma and her sudden lack of medication, nobody — not even Grace herself, alas — is entirely sure of what she’s doing or why. It’s a situation in which there are no bad guys, only unwilling victims and unwitting perpetrators.

Until the big reveal comes. Of course I won’t spoil what’s really going on, but that was the moment in which I completely lost all sympathy for the characters involved. It was also the moment in which the themes came into sharp focus and the movie finally crystallizes.

This is very much a movie about sins and repentance. For Grace, that means making amends for whatever damage she may have caused to this family. For the kids, that means atoning for whatever they’ve put their parents and Grace through. But how many of these perceived sins are simply the complaints of hormonal teenagers in mourning for their dead (by suicide, no less) mother? How many of these slights are the grievances of a woman off her meds, stuck in a house that isn’t hers with two kids that aren’t her own?

On the flip side, there’s the matter of redemption. Is any amount of pain and suffering truly necessary to make amends? At what point has that debt been paid? What does it take? Well, here’s a hint: To the best of my recollection, not a single character ever says “I’m sorry” at any point in the movie. If any of the characters ever directly acknowledged wrongdoing, expressed sympathy for each others’ pain, or offered even a token apology, this might have been a very different film.

Speaking of which, let’s circle back around to the religious angle. It cannot possibly be overstated that Grace and the kids see the same God in two very different ways. For Aidan and Mia, redemption means accepting Jesus Christ as one’s personal lord and savior, living a happy life knowing that all sins are forgiven. For Grace, that same acceptance means horrible self-inflicted suffering, and faith that happiness will only come until after death (if then). Two conflicting viewpoints on what is ostensibly the same deity, and both are fundamentally incapable of understanding the other.

These are all bold and fascinating ideas, made far more compelling in execution. If I wasn’t dancing around spoilers, I could keep on dissecting and examining this stuff for several more pages. But it’s still not enough to make for a good movie.

The recurring musical motif of “Nearer My God to Thee” got tiresome rather quickly. Even worse was the emphasis on dolls and dollhouses, a threadbare horror cliche that added nothing. The camerawork and editing were sadly unimpressive, with so many shots done in extreme close-up for no discernible reason.

Most importantly of all, the scares just aren’t there until the third act. The basic conceit of “shit gets weird in an isolated cabin” has been done to death, and there’s not much of anything outside the established formula until the big reveal. Up until that point, I simply took it for granted that everything was fake and waited with growing impatience for the explanation behind everything. At which point, I hated the characters all the more and got a kind of sick satisfaction in watching their comeuppance unfold.

How does The Lodge stack up against Goodnight Mommy? I’d say that Lodge had better ideas and more compelling themes, but Mommy had better scares and more enthralling atmosphere. It’s definitely a slow burn, but your mileage will vary wildly with regards to whether the payoff is worth it. Lodge is still decent enough as a work of prestige horror, but there’s an unavoidable sense of wasted potential. Check it out on video if you’re curious.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Posted February 23, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

Disney is on top of the world right now. Yes, that has a lot to do with their own savvy business decisions and rock-solid franchises, though it certainly helps that their competition has been flagging in a huge way. WB still hasn’t fully recovered from the one-two punch of Batman v Superman and Justice League, though at least they’re still doing better than the post-Mummy Universal. Sony put so much money and effort into keeping some hold of their Spider-Man licenses that the studio might as well be owned by Disney/Marvel at this point. I’ve already written at great length about Paramount and their woes. MGM has long since been sold off for parts, and of course 20th Century Fox went bankrupt.

Even a decade ago, it seemed that this corporate oligopoly was unassailable. But after so many big studios lost so much money on so many failed billion-dollar franchise gambles, a surprising thing happened: Slowly but surely, many smaller studios found room to grow. And by now, some have grown big enough to rival even the likes of Disney and Viacom.

The obvious examples are Netflix and Amazon, each of whom now has a war chest and brand recognition to stand among the biggest media conglomerates on the planet. Hell, the both of them were such pioneers in the field of online streaming, it sent the other studios scrambling to make their own streaming platforms to try and catch up!

Then we have Lionsgate, a company that’s been around for decades, quietly building themselves up into a major Hollywood player. There aren’t many studios outside of the Big Five who could sink so much money into such a massive box office failure as Power Rangers (2017) without going bankrupt or losing face, but Lionsgate did it. And they’ve still got the John Wick franchise, the upcoming Knives Out sequel, and their Roadside Attractions indie empire to fall back on.

Another one to look out for is STX Films, the studio that brought us… well, The Happytime Murders. Also Peppermint, I Feel Pretty, The Playmobil Movie… Ooh, they made Hustlers, that was a good one!

Fitting for a Chinese-owned company, STX is clearly more concerned with quantity than quality. They had eight movies released last year, they’ve already released two movies in the past couple of months, at least three more are on the way for release this year, and their advertising is quite notably aggressive. They’re building up to something big, just wait for it.

And then we have the new kids on the block: Neon. This studio has only been in business since 2017, but sweet mercy, what a great few years they’ve had, releasing some of the best, boldest, and highest-profile arthouse films in recent memory. Colossal. Ingrid Goes West. I, Tonya. Three Identical Strangers. Assassination Nation. Vox Lux. The Beach Bum. Little Woods. Honeyland. And of course the crown jewel: Parasite, a film that came out to such massive critical and commercial acclaim that it went on to win four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.

And now, while Parasite is still on its victory lap through theaters nationwide, Neon has come back with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a female-driven period drama out of France.

The eponymous lady is Heloise, played by Adele Haenel. She’s been studying in a convent for the past few years, released home after her sister died of an apparent suicide. In a couple of weeks, she’ll be sent off to Milan for an arranged marriage to a man she’s never met. While it is of course customary for an aristocratic man to be presented with a portrait of his betrothed, Heloise (for obvious reasons) is in a painfully melancholy mood and will not tolerate sitting for a portrait session with anyone. Just getting her to smile is hard enough.

Enter Marianne, played by Noemie Merlant. She has been hired by Heloise’s mother (the anonymous Countess, played by Valeria Golino) to accompany Heloise for long outdoor walks, the better to help cheer the girl up and keep her from self-harm. In addition, Marianne is a talented young painter secretly hired to study Heloise’s face and paint the portrait from memory, without Heloise herself ever sitting to pose or even knowing that the painting is underway.

Things heat up when the Countess goes away on business for a week or so. Thus Heloise and Marianne are left alone in the house, with only the housemaid (Sophie, played by Luana Bajrami) for company.

I’ll be honest, this one had me stumped for a while.

To be clear, I was perfectly impressed with the cast. The chemistry between Merlant and Haenel was more than powerful enough to hold my attention, and Bajrami is no slouch, either. It certainly helps that the filmmakers aren’t afraid to take their time in developing the central relationship, letting Heloise and Marianne get to know and trust each other as friends before they commit to each other as lovers. They don’t even make any firm romantic moves until well over halfway in, and I was rooting for them hard by that point.

I should add that though we do get a fair share of nudity (tame by French standards, I expect), all the actual sex is kept offscreen. (Blue is the Warmest Color, this ain’t.) But what we do get is a close-up shot so extreme that we can see the threads of saliva hanging between their lips. And somehow, that’s even more intimate.

I must tip my hat to writer/director Celine Sciamma for crafting some of the most striking shots and gut-punching close-ups I’ve seen in recent memory. A favorite example comes early on, when Marianne is freshly arrived and dries herself off from the boat ride. There’s a shot of her sitting on the floor, nude in profile, silhouetted against the fireplace, smoking a pipe. It’s a deeply striking visual.

Then we have the very last shot of the movie: Two solid minutes of an unbroken shot in extreme close-up, watching a character react to an orchestra performance. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but everything we know about this particular character, this particular symphony, and everything else about the context brings layers and layers of meaning to every last microscopic reaction in that close-up. It’s spellbinding and heartbreaking all at once.

Still, all of this speaks to the presentation. What’s there under the surface? Well… that takes a while to get to.

Through most of the movie, there isn’t much here in the way of stakes. There’s nothing here more imperative than the completion of a portrait, and no greater question than whether Heloise or Marianne will get together. Most of the film is preoccupied with Heloise moving past her ennui, as she and Marianne get to know each other so well that they can more or less communicate nonverbally.

Also, there’s an abortion subplot. Yes, seriously.

But then the third act comes, and a strange thing happens. See, pretty much the entire cast in this show is female. From the prologue onwards, everyone in the film down to the last background player is a woman. It’s just something I got used to, without even knowing it.

Then the climax comes, and we see a man sitting at the dinner table. Like nothing’s wrong. It feels like an invasion of some kind. And just like that, something’s changed, because we’ve been forcibly reminded that this was always a temporary arrangement.

There’s a moment earlier on, when Marianne equates liberty with isolation. It’s a throwaway line in the moment, but it comes into sharp focus with the realization that our three primary women were free to do whatever they wanted while the outside world and all its rules were somewhere else. This was always a movie about class disparity and the patriarchy of the status quo, and it made those artistic statements by forcing their absence through most of the screen time. Remarkably done.

From start to finish, the antagonist was always time. It was never about completing the portrait within the week, it was always about whether Marianne, Heloise, and Sophie could make the most of the week before it inevitably ends and they all go their separate ways. More than anything else, this is ultimately a movie about nostalgia, the old friends we miss without even knowing it, and the good times we might’ve appreciated so much more if we remembered they wouldn’t last.

For those who’ve seen Y tu Mama Tabien, the ending to that movie hit me in much the same way.

Last but not least, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention everything in here about the redemptive power of art. There’s painting, obviously, but the characters eventually find all sorts of new meanings and applications for painting, other than just portraits. Stories play a role, most especially as the characters find a deeply moving interpretation of the “Orpheus and Eurydice” myth. Music and dancing are indispensable in Heloise’s rediscovery of life. And while games as an art form is rather debatable, there’s a card game that turns out to be deceptively important in bringing our three main characters together.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is very, very French. It’s slow, it’s contemplative, and it takes a long time for the film to make its point clear. That said, the slower burn means that the characters develop in a more natural way, and the artistic statements hit so much harder when they finally come. I loved spending time with these characters, their chemistry was sizzling from start to finish, and did I mention that the camerawork is stunning?

I have no problem giving this one a full recommendation, especially since — let’s be honest — the new wide releases have been kinda shit these past couple of weeks. This is a fine time to pay a visit to your local arthouse, and this is definitely one to look out for. If you’ve got the patience for it, you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful, sweet, intimate little romantic drama.

Sonic the Hedgehog

Posted February 17, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

In case you didn’t read my previous blog entry, let me sum up what we’ve got here.

  • Paramount has had a rough decade, steadily imploding since they lost out on buying Marvel back in 2009.
  • Sonic the Hedgehog has had a rough couple of decades, with a steady string of godawful games going back (at least) to his ill-fated 15th anniversary relaunch in 2006.
  • Jim Carrey hasn’t been relevant since Robert Zemeckis’ take on A Christmas Carol back in 2009. (And even that’s being generous.)
  • James Marsden and Ben Schwartz have never been relevant.
  • Screenwriters Patrick Casey and Josh Miller have written nothing that anyone would want to be associated with. (Fucking Dorm Daze? Seriously?)
  • Jeff Fowler has never directed a film before.
  • Game-to-film adaptations have never resulted in anything positive, even after twenty goddamn years of trial and error.
  • Movies about cartoon animals who escape to the real world, engaging in comical hijinks with a live-action “straight man” (see also: Alvin and the Chipmunks, The Smurfs, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Looney Tunes: Back in Action, etc.) have never resulted in anything positive.

(Side note: No, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? doesn’t count — even the “real world” in that movie wasn’t the real world.)

  • The trailer to this one was so radioactive that Paramount pulled it from their social media profiles, dumped the film in February, and literally broke a VFX studio trying to fix it.

Gentle readers… this is it. This is what rock bottom looks like. When the bar has been set this impossibly low, I honestly can’t tell if Sonic the Hedgehog is destined to fail or if it could only succeed. In either case — Heaven help me — I just had to see how this trainwreck turned out.

The plot begins on the planet… well, the planet is never actually named in the film, but longtime franchise fans will immediately recognize it as Mobius. Here, we see an orphan Baby Sonic, adopted by a character who was invented for the movie and she immediately dies protecting him, so let’s not pretend it matters. The bottom line is, Sonic is in perpetual mortal danger because everyone is after his powers of super speed. Now that he’s no longer safe on Mobius, he has to be sent away to another planet entirely.

To arrange this, Sonic is given a bag of golden rings that expand into portals. Apparently, in this continuity, such portals are a commonplace method of interplanetary travel among the more advanced alien races. In any case, Sonic lands on Earth and proceeds to spend the next several years as the local urban legend of Green Hills (ha ha ha), a small Montana town.

Inevitably, Sonic’s cover is blown when he accidentally causes a power surge that blacks out the entire Pacific Northwest.

(Side note: Imagine my surprise to find that of all the many, MANY pop culture references made by Sonic in this picture, he misses the obvious shout-out to his original and definitive voice actor. “Did I do that?” would’ve fit perfectly in that moment.)

Unsure of what they’re dealing with, the Pentagon sends in Dr. Ivo Robotnik (Jim Carrey), an independent consultant and a genius at building robotic drones. Naturally, as the plot unfolds and Robotnik starts to learn what he’s dealing with, he becomes obsessed with chasing after Sonic to discover and harness whatever incredible superpowers the hedgehog possesses.

Meanwhile, Sonic realizes he’s in trouble and preps a portal ring to get offworld. Long story short (Too late!), a local police sheriff (Tom “Donut Lord” Wachowski, played by James Marsden) interferes and the rings are accidentally sent to the Transatlantic Pyramid in San Francisco. Thus Sonic and his new reluctant friend are off on a road trip to retrieve the rings and get Sonic off Earth.

Also, Tom is labelled a fugitive and a domestic terrorist. This is never resolved.

Let’s start with the obvious: Everything to do with the humans is shit. In fact, there isn’t a single human in this cast that’s even slightly recognizable as an actual person. When they’re not bland ciphers like Tom and his wife (Maddie, played by Tika Sumpter), they’re cartoonish clods with impossibly stupid dialogue (the Green Hills cop played by Adam Pally, the government toady played by Lee Majdoub, everyone in the U.S. government, everyone at the roadside bar, don’t even get me started on Maddie’s sister…).

Every joke is wretched. Every line of dialogue tanks. I haven’t seen product placement this obnoxious since Power Rangers (2017). From start to finish, I wanted nothing more than for every single human in this cast to just shut the hell up already.

With one minor exception.

It should come as no surprise that Jim Carrey is mugging to the camera full-throttle with this one. If it’s true that comedy is borne of suffering, his desperation here would make this the funniest performance of the past ten years. And yet, as hopelessly overblown as this performance is, I honestly didn’t hate it.

Part of that is because it’s Jim Carrey’s schtick and nobody else does it like him. But more importantly, it’s in the service of an egomaniacal mad scientist who’s constantly angry because he’s always the smartest person in the room. A man who prefers cold, hard, reliable, subservient machines to idiotic and fallible humans.

Put simply, we’re talking about a live-action take on Doctor freaking Robotnik. What else could we have possibly expected? This is a valid interpretation, let’s be honest.

Which brings me to Sonic, the one thing this movie gets 100 percent right. The new redesign looks amazing, Ben Schwartz’ voice suits the character perfectly, the character’s attitude and sense of humor are intact… I had no problem immediately recognizing the Sonic I grew up with.

Yes, he can get annoying and obnoxious at times, but that’s the character. And anyway, this iteration has been isolated for so long, stuck in this small town and doing his best to hide from everyone for all his life, of course he’s excited to meet new people and try new things. To say nothing of the caregiver who died to keep him safe all those years ago. All of this gives the character a sympathetic anchor to make his big mouth and reckless behavior more relatable. Plus, Sonic of the greater franchise has been surrounded by so many wretched furry supporting characters over the past several years, it wasn’t a bad idea to put the character in a vacuum and figure out who he is without his friends.

From start to finish, there’s a palpable love for the franchise. The movie is loaded with Easter Eggs and subtle nods for the fans to pick up on, and several franchise mainstays are cleverly adapted. We’ve even got a few fascinating bridges to potential sequels, the most obvious being a certain brief appearance in the mid-credits. But then we have the aforementioned Echidna tribe, and a mushroom world that strongly resembles the first level of “Sonic and Knuckles”, thereby setting the stage for Knuckles’ appearance and straight on through to the Chaos Emeralds. And then of course we have Sonic’s quill, a superpowered MacGuffin that puts us on a straight shot to Metal Sonic, or possibly Shadow. Maybe even both.

All of this would be fascinating material for a sequel. But then again, why save it for a sequel at all?

Imagine a movie in which Sonic is navigating the real world with Tails instead of Donut Lord. Imagine a supercharged climax with the Chaos Emeralds instead of the portal rings. All this stuff the filmmakers are setting up is so much more fascinating than the movie we actually got, so why save it for the sequel that may not happen? Why replace it with the Tom Wachowski shit that had fuck-all to do with the games and made a vastly inferior movie?

Perhaps the main reason is the source material, funny enough. Back in the day, we never needed a reason for why Robotnik was the only human being in a world full of animals. Even in the cartoon series of the ’90s, it never came up. But then the 3D era of gaming happened. Games got to be more elaborate, stories and worlds got to be more complex, and Sega repeatedly failed at trying to incorporate more humans into Sonic’s world in a way that made sense. The filmmakers may have tried a different approach, but the results are the same: Putting Sonic into a world where he doesn’t belong, to try and overexplain who Robotnik is and where he comes from.

On a final note, I should mention that the action sucks. We get a few action sequences made in obvious imitation of the Quicksilver scenes from the last few X-Men movies, but it doesn’t work as well here because Sonic doesn’t interact with his world to the extent that Quicksilver did. (Case in point: All the people who don’t move an inch, even after Sonic bounces off their faces.) There’s a globe-spanning chase sequence in the climax that somehow falls entirely flat. There’s a car chase sequence nowhere near as exciting as it should be. The final showdown with Robotnik is pure empty spectacle.

I want to say that this problem may stem from the CG nature of our main character and the lack of any care in creating the illusion of physical contact between the real world and an imaginary blue hedgehog. But I think the bigger problem is how the movie puts so much effort into hyping up Sonic’s incalculable powers and his overwhelming speed. It also doesn’t help that the character is briefly “killed” at about the halfway point and revived without any difficulty or consequence. Never once did I seriously believe that Sonic was in any mortal peril or danger of losing, and that’s enough to ruin any action scene.

The best I can say about Sonic the Hedgehog is that the movie is as exactly as awful as it deserved to be. It sucks that the real world crap with Donut Lord takes up so very much of the movie, because it’s a torturous cavalcade of fuckery that had nothing to do with any of the source material and it should’ve been shot down immediately in development.

The film is so desperate to please, so painfully misguided and slapdash, that I honestly feel sorry for it. There’s an undeniable love for the source material here, and it’s obvious that the filmmakers put a ton of time and effort into salvaging what they could. It wasn’t enough.

Let’s chalk this up as yet another failed game-to-film experiment and move on.

Fantasy Island (2020)

Posted February 15, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

A couple months ago, cineplexes were treated to a big-screen remake of “Charlie’s Angels”. This didn’t last long, as it was one of the year’s biggest commercial and critical flops, quickly dispensed to make room for a slew of more lucrative films. But at least it made sense on paper. While the original TV show occupies a controversial place in feminist history, revisiting the property by way of a female-driven action flick — written and directed by a woman! — sounds like a perfectly fine idea.

Compare that to Fantasy Island (2020), a remake of an even goofier TV show from the same era. What the hell kind of logic got us here?

Well, the basic theme of the show was always “be careful what you wish for.” Not exactly a new or timely concept, but certainly a timeless one. Hell, this theme has already been the center of countless paranormal horror stories — just last summer, we got a remake of Pet Sematary, so why not “Fantasy Island”?

Moreover, the original show never explained precisely what the island was or how it worked. If the filmmakers want to explore that question as the central mystery at the heart of a paranormal horror plot… well, that’s certainly not the worst idea I’ve ever heard. Not by a long shot.

So what have we got here? Well, the movie opens with a chase sequence in near darkness, shot in extreme close-up with a shaky handheld camera. It’s an action sequence that’s incomprehensible. Yes, gentle readers, we’re in trouble.

Shortly after, we’re introduced to Mr. Roarke, played by Michael Pena. In the role made famous by Ricardo Montalban. I hope it goes without saying, but that is not an upgrade. What, was Esai Morales not available? Jimmy Smits wouldn’t pick up the phone? Did you even try getting Lin-Manuel Miranda? Of course he’s insanely busy, but maybe he’d like a working vacation in Fiji, you never know.

His assistant is Julia, played by Parisa Fitz-Henley. And yes, she is the one who gets to utter a new interpretation of the famous “The plane! The plane!” catchphrase. What about Tattoo, you may ask? Um… well, they set him up for the sequel (that’s probably never coming), that’s all I can say at the moment. For now, let’s move on to the unfortunate victims who won a trip to this island.

Gwen (Maggie Q) is a cynic who turned down a marriage proposal five years ago. It left her paralyzed with regret, believing she’s not worthy of love or a family of her own. So now she wants a do-over, to see what might have been.

Melanie (Lucy Hale) is a vindictive and vapid little bitch who was bullied relentlessly back in high school. Thus she dreams of revenge against the high school classmate (Sloane, played by Portia Doubleday) who made her life hell. This storyline is all about living with grudges and learning to let them go.

Patrick (Austin Stowell) is a disgraced cop who always wanted to join the military. His reasons are kind of a long story, but suffice to say he’s got a ton of daddy issues to sort out.

Then we have JD and Brax (respectively played by Ryan Hansen and Jimmy O. Yang), a pair of stepbrothers and lifelong BFFs. To try and get over JD’s recent breakup, the two of them are out for a typical weekend of debauchery — sex, drugs, alcohol, and so on. What could go wrong?

Last but not least is Michael Rooker, playing… well, he’s not exactly a guest. I’m loathe to get too deep into spoilers, but suffice to say his character is one of many interesting yet mishandled ways in which the film considers the greater possibilities and ramifications of the island and how it works.

From start to finish, the characters and the plot are heavily preoccupied with figuring out the island and how it works. What’s real and what isn’t? Are the other people involved all actors? Everything from holograms to freaking time travel is put on the table. One character even raises the possibility that they’re ALL guests, all playing a part in each other’s fantasies.

This is where we start running into problems.

On a fundamental level, the premise is all about what the characters want. In storytelling terms, that’s called a “motivation”, the foundation of any character in any plot. If the motivations aren’t clear, the characters and the plot won’t be clear, that’s all there is to it.

That’s a problem when the characters go in wanting one scenario, only to decide partway through that they want or need something else. That’s an even bigger problem when the island itself is this unknowable sentient being that takes an active role in the plot for its own mysterious reasons. This is compounded by the standing question of what’s real, what isn’t, and what limits (if any) the island has in reshaping reality.

Now multiply all of those questions by four or five storylines. All affecting each other in different ways. Compounded by the revelations and double-crosses made as the film unfolds.

The end result: The film dissolves into a convoluted and incomprehensible mess by that wreck of a third act.

What’s more, this is inherently a movie about characters confronting their own flaws. The plot is all about characters who work through what they think they want on the way to discovering what they truly need. Trouble is, that only works if the characters are worth a damn.

There’s certainly the potential to develop the characters into something more fully realized, but the writing just isn’t there. The performances sure as hell aren’t there. At the top of the bill, we’ve got Michael Pena playing a Ricardo Montalban character with maybe a tenth of the late actor’s charisma, and the cast only gets weaker from there. The characters all start out thin, they all end up thin, and there’s not an actor in this cast who can make any of them the least bit compelling. (Though Maggie Q puts in a Sisyphean effort, bless her heart.)

But is it scary, at least? Hell no. The jump scares are frankly pathetic, and the filmmakers do fuck-all with the multitude of creepy ideas on display. I’ve already mentioned the incomprehensible action sequences. It’s clear that the filmmakers were depending on the mysteries of the island to power the suspense, but that only goes so far when most of the setups take the laziest and least satisfying payoff. Either that or they straight-up break their own rules to get the plot where it needs to go.

But on a positive note, I’m happy to praise the work of Bear McCreary, still one of my favorite composers in the business. While his score is loaded with sinister strings like you’d find anywhere else in the genre, he mixes it up with tropical flutes and drums. It’s a distinctive spin on the established Blumhouse sound, giving the score a Polynesian flavor of paradise without making it sound less creepy. Nicely done.

Fantasy Island (2020) is the boring kind of bad. It’s not aggressively awful, as there are a lot of genuinely good ideas in here and so much raw potential on display. Alas, it would take a better filmmaker than Jeff Wadlow to see that potential realized.

The cast is flat, the action is a mess, the horror is boring, and the script is maybe a draft or two short of where it needed to be. It’s genuinely disappointing to see a plot start out with such promise, only to collapse under the weight of its own bullshit in the third act.

Sorry, Wadlow, but you’re not as clever as you think you are. Not recommended.

Sonic the Hedgehog (prelude)

Posted February 12, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

First, Paramount was the studio that (except for The Incredible Hulk) helped to produce and release every film in the Phase I lineup of the MCU. They were perfectly situated to buy up Marvel, and then somehow, they still lost it to Disney. It was all downhill for Paramount from there.

At around the same time as Iron Man, Paramount had partnered with Bad Robot, house of a certain up-and-coming multihyphenate named J.J. Abrams. Paramount handed him their Star Trek franchise, leaving him to clean up the mess as they continued their decades-long mission of pissing on Gene Roddenberry’s legacy and shaking down the fanbase for every penny it was worth.

Then Abrams hopped over to play with Star Wars at Disney, apparently switching sides in one of the oldest and most useless pissing matches in geek history. Or maybe the folks at Paramount were still bitter about losing Marvel to The Mouse. In any case, Paramount retaliated by scuttling Overlord with a bad release date and worse marketing. Little wonder that Abrams soon cut ties with Paramount and took Bad Robot over to Warner Bros.

Yes, Paramount still technically has the Abrams-produced Mission: Impossible series, with two additional movies currently in back-to-back production. But the departure of Bad Robot (in addition to the encroaching age of Tom Cruise) has long-term prospects looking grim.

Then there’s Hasbro. Paramount and the toy empire had a billion-dollar partnership by way of the Transformers franchise. Everything else — Battleship, Jem and the Holograms, both G.I. Joe films, etc. — was a laughingstock and an immediate failure. And that’s not even counting all the rumored films in development (Monopoly, Candy Land, View-Master, etc., ) that never materialized.

All of this came to a head when Transformers: The Last Knight tanked, costing the studio an estimated net loss of over $100 million. If Bumblebee hadn’t been so far in development at the time, it might have been cancelled then and there. And even after the spinoff made back twice its budget (still the lowest grossing entry in the series), Paramount has been unable or unwilling to capitalize on that film’s success. It’s a safe bet that the “Transformers Shared Universe” has been put on indefinite hold.

Could Nickelodeon be the studio’s savior? Not since Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles crashed and burned. Dora and the Lost City of Gold made back $120 million against a reported $49 million budget — respectable numbers for a stand-alone film, but not enough to build a franchise on. You want to make a four-quadrant billion-dollar film series out of SpongeBob? Good luck.

Paranormal Activity has long since flamed out. The studio has been mangling the Terminator franchise almost as badly as they’ve been sabotaging Star Trek. And of course we can’t forget how they lost DreamWorks Animation to Universal back in 2016.

But even after all of that, the final nail in the coffin didn’t come until April 30th of 2019.

If it’s true that a trailer shows you the movie that the studio wishes they had, what the high holy blue-blazing fuck did Paramount want with Sonic the Hedgehog?! The trailer is so impossibly godawful, I don’t even know where to start. The reaction to it was so swiftly and universally toxic, I don’t know what more I could possibly say.

I mean… just look at the fucking thing! The bewildering choice of music. The painful attempts at juvenile humor. And that’s not even getting started on the umpteen million things that are so disturbingly and disgustingly WRONG with the design and animation of the title character. Saturday Night Live could’ve made this as a Hollywood parody and it would’ve been cut for time.

In this one trailer, we see a textbook example of what I like to call a “malicious disappointment”. This was a trailer that could only have failed on purpose. With a mere three minutes of footage, Paramount declared to all the world what any fan of Star Trek and/or Terminator should’ve already known: Paramount hates you.

To repeat, Paramount hates you. Fuck everyone in general, fuck you specifically, fuck Sonic and all his fans, and fuck the whole medium of cinema. Paramount wouldn’t know how to make a million dollars if they had a winning lottery ticket in their goddamn hands. They wouldn’t know a great movie if it was handed to them on a plate.

(Side note: No, literally — Paramount had The Irishman and they sold it to Netflix. That happened.)

If any of that sounds like an exaggeration… just look at the trailer again. Sweet Christ almighty, look at that abomination again.

But then I guess somebody got fired, because a rare thing happened, and it happened almost immediately: The filmmakers listened. The good news was, Sonic would get a redesign, and the film would get pushed back to allow more time for adjustment. The bad news was, the movie got dumped in a godawful Valentine’s Day release date, and the VFX studio responsible for the design overhaul shut their doors eight months later.

Cut to November of 2019, right about the time when the movie was first supposed to come out. We got a new trailer, and… well, it was objectively better than the first one. Not that it could’ve been much worse. “Supersonic” by J.J. Fad was a far better choice of song, and the jokes weren’t aggressively painful. And of course, the new Sonic design was more cartoonish and cute, more in keeping with the iconic video game hedgehog we all know and love.

Overall, the second trailer is faster, more colorful, more fun… all comparisons aside, I might even dare say it’s… good?

Then we’ve got “Speed Me Up”, a song made specially for the film by Wiz Khalifa, Ty Dolla $ign, Lil Yachty, and Sueco the Child. That’s gotta be a mess, right? Just look at that hodgepodge of mumbling goofuses all slammed together. Well, the video dropped a few weeks ago, and… um… wow.

I mean, it’s not exactly the next big #1 single or anything. But compared to the mumblecore rap shit on the radio nowadays, it just might be. The lyrics are halfway intelligible, the flow is pretty solid in places, it’s upbeat, it’s catchy, the Sonic tie-in nicely enhances the overall product… yeah, this is way better than it had any right to be.

I mean, Eminem is a better rapper than all of these artists put together, and his “Venom” tie-in song was magnitudes worse. Just saying.

With all of that said, of course I don’t want to get my hopes up. At this point, all the VFX work and selective editing in the world can’t change the fact that this is still a movie about a cartoon character escaping his own dimension to go on a buddy comedy here in our world. An idea that’s been attempted multiple times and has never resulted in anything positive, ever.

(No, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? doesn’t count. Even in that movie, the “real” world was a period noir parody built around human/’toon interaction as an ordinary everyday occurrence.)

But then I remember something: This is Paramount. They’ve been going downhill for the past ten years, and I just spent half a blog entry talking about what a joke they are. Why the hell would I expect anything of quality from them at this point?

For that matter, this is Sonic the freaking Hedgehog. I’d have to write a whole ‘nother blog entry about Sonic’s abysmal decline — the character has been a video gaming punchline since goddamn 2006. Sega keeps making video games for Sonic, swearing up and down that this will be the time they finally get it right, and only the most delusional of fans still hold out hope. Sega can’t even make a good Sonic video game in 2020, why should we expect a good Sonic movie out of them?!

Jim Carrey is a washed-up has-been, still mugging for the camera like it’s just as funny now as it was in goddamn 1994. James Marsden has been in the public eye for the past 20 years, and he’s still a C-lister at best. Nobody knows who Ben Schwartz is, and nobody has to know he’s even in this movie. The director and screenwriters are all newcomers, so they’re likely in place as studio puppets — they might have more to worry about, but it’s no great loss if their careers are stillborn.

So, yeah. At this point, what does anybody have to lose? The bar has been set so impossibly low, it could only succeed. Certainly, that second trailer and the tie-in single have been pleasant surprises. There’s no way this could possibly be as bad as we all think. Could it?

I guess we’ll see when Sonic the Hedgehog opens this weekend.

Birds of Prey

Posted February 9, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

Let’s check back in with the state of DC/WB, shall we?

At the moment, the DC film apparatus is split in twain. On one side are films like Joker, the… *ahem* controversial standalone billion-dollar earner that (*rrrggh*) managed to rack up a number of Oscar nominations on par with Titanic. (And probably a couple of wins, by the time you read this.) Elsewhere, his opposite number has a film in active production, and The Batman has a cast so wildly inconsistent with the Snyder Era that there’s no way it could be set in the same continuity.

At this point, it’s obvious that DC/WB would rightfully love nothing more than to sweep the entire failed DCEU experiment under the rug and move on. But alas, the Snyder Era had too much money and passion poured into it to be a total loss. Thus we have a few characters and actors who continue to be viable franchise leads, and a rabid fanbase that continues to insist on the existence and release of the mythical Snyder Cut (read: a Justice League movie that doesn’t suck). Thus we have the second half of DC/WB.

This is the half in which Shazam sits down to lunch with a stand-in for Henry Cavill’s Superman. Jason Momoa and Amber Heard make an offhand reference to the climactic battle of a film that otherwise has fuck-all to do with the movie they’re presently in. The upcoming Wonder Woman ’84 shows a Gal Godot portrayal of the title character that appears to be in keeping with the DCEU, except that her arsenal has clearly gone through some dramatic changes between movies.

So is the Snyder Era still canon? Is Darkseid still coming? Is Lex Luthor still putting together his supervillain team-up? Are these movies still connected in any meaningful way?

The answer to all these questions appears to be a resounding “Who knows and who cares?!” I don’t know what DC/WB is doing with regard to continuity, and I don’t even think they know either. But so long as they keep turning out legitimately good movies, does it really matter?

The latest example is… *deep breath* Birds of Prey and The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, with Exec Producer Margot Robbie returning as the namesake Harley Quinn. Also on board are Christina Hodson — the same screenwriter who recently knocked Bumblebee out of the park — and Cathy Yan, here making her sophomore feature. A couple of throwaway gags and flashback scenes are enough to show that this one is very clearly in continuity with Suicide Squad, but not in any consequential way. For all relevant intents and purposes, this movie is very much its own thing. And it’s awesome.

Notably flawed, but awesome.

The premise starts… well, by Harley’s own admission, the plot to this is all over the map, but I’ll do my best to sort it all into sequential order. Let’s start with the Bertinelli crime family of Gotham, all of whom were slaughtered in a vicious coup. However, the keys to their domain — bank account numbers, codes and passwords, contact info to crime lords all over the world, etc. — were engraved in microscopic detail onto a lost diamond.

Yes, the MacGuffin for this female-centric action movie is a diamond. This is not lost on Harley Quinn, who jokes about it more than a few times. We even get a brief yet thoroughly useless and out-of-place Marilyn Monroe parody about the concept. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Anyway, it’s a couple of decades later and the diamond has been recovered by Ronan “Black Mask” Sionis (Ewan McGregor), the disgraced psychotic scion of yet another wealthy Gotham family. He plans on using the diamond to take over the lost Bertinelli fortune and consolidate his own criminal enterprise. Long story short (Too late!), the diamond is intercepted by a teenage delinquent pickpocket played by newcomer Ella Jay Basco. Young Cassandra Cain (Oh, you can be damn sure we’ll come back to that later.) then swallows the diamond to keep it secure, and thus she becomes the film’s MacGuffin.

Elsewhere, Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) has been building up a case against Sionis for the past several months. Trouble is, he’s too well-connected and her entire precinct at the GCPD is staffed with chauvinistic knuckle-draggers who keep taking all the credit for her hard work. Damn shame, too — Montoya may have a nasty habit of talking in hard-boiled cop cliches, but she’s good at what she does.

(Side note: Yes, Montoya is a lesbian in this portrayal, and it’s handled in a very direct yet tasteful way. It’s also unobtrusive enough to be censored out for the Chinese homophobes who won’t let us have Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy on the screen together. FUCK.)

Then we have Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a singer at Sionis’ nightclub and also his personal driver. In a neat adaptation of the comics’ multigenerational Black Canary, Dinah’s mother was also a metahuman who helped the police catch bad guys. Until she got killed and the cops weren’t there to help. Thus Dinah has gone through life without trusting anyone (especially cops), sticking her neck out for nobody. Yet Dinah is still clearly a woman of conscience and she simply can’t stop herself from helping people in whatever subtle way she can. Additionally, while she’s a badass martial artist, she never uses her metahuman abilities until the last possible moment.

Don’t worry, the Canary Cry is awesome when it finally happens.

Next up is Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the self-styled moniker of the sole surviving Bertinelli daughter. After the past couple of decades training with the finest assassins in Italy, she’s returned to claim her vengeance on those who killed her family. The character is a brooding super-dark loner that nobody takes seriously because she’s so melodramatic all the time and her weapon of choice is a goddamn crossbow. It’s a comic sensibility that plays perfectly into Winstead’s wheelhouse and of course she plays the badass superbly.

But what about Harley Quinn?

Well, the movie opens with Harley getting dumped by the Joker (who never actually appears onscreen, even in the Suicide Squad flashbacks). The thing of it is, neither she nor Joker ever bothered to tell anyone else about the breakup. On the one hand, this means that Harley can do whatever she wants and everyone is too afraid to cross the Joker by seeking retribution against his girl. On the other hand, this also means that everybody still thinks Harley is a needy little bitch, hopelessly dependent on an abusive relationship with the Big Bad Joker, incapable of making her own choices or doing anything on her own.

Finally, in a drunken self-righteous rage, Harley blows up the Ace Chemical factory. Thus the entire city gets the message that Harley and Joker are no longer an item. So now it’s open season on Harley Quinn, and everyone she and Mister J ever pissed off is out to kill her.

Naturally, this means Sionis. So, to save her own skin, Harley agrees to help Sionis track down his missing diamond. And we’re off to the races.

Without exaggeration, every frame of this movie is seen through Harley’s perspective. She’s our narrator, protagonist, and ringleader throughout. So perhaps not surprisingly, the film is littered with onscreen graphics, meta humor that breaks the fourth wall, smartass voiceovers, irreverent jokes built on raunchy humor and ultraviolence…. It’s Deadpool. The trailers should have made this immediately obvious, but this was very clearly intended as DC/WB’s answer to Deadpool.

Then again, this actually makes a kind of sense. After all, Deadpool’s irreverent and chaotic brand of violent comedy really isn’t too far removed from that of the Joker — the primary difference is that Joker is an outright villain while Deadpool is more of an anti-hero. Meanwhile, Harley Quinn is a character built to fit with the Joker’s MO, and this movie is all about pivoting her toward an anti-hero position, so it surprisingly fits really well.

It also helps that given the character’s opposite gender, her lack of invincibility, and the greater movie’s ensemble focus, there’s enough in here for the filmmakers to put their own distinctive spin on the Deadpool flavor without coming off as too derivative. Even better, I’m relieved and overjoyed to report that the filmmakers bothered to remember that Harley is a freaking doctor! She got her Ph.D, she was a trained and licensed psychiatrist! She’s smarter than everyone gives her credit for, though she mostly uses that to be an even bigger smartass, pulling rank to psychoanalyze herself and everyone around her in a snarky way that not even Deadpool could effectively pull off. Outstanding work.

Perhaps more importantly, the Deadpool movies (most especially that second one) are all about the title character learning how to redefine himself and build new emotional connections after a hugely traumatic event. Compare that to this movie, in which Harley has to learn how to stand up for herself, find her own moral code, and build new friendships outside the overbearing shadow of Mister J. It’s a neat twist on female empowerment that fits with the character, getting the point across without any of the preachiness and with all the fist-pumping fun.

Margot Robbie deserves no shortage of credit for carrying the film so brilliantly, and all the ladies of the cast turn in fine work. The filmmakers make a lot of smart choices in adapting these characters to the screen, and I was impressed by most of the choices made. Which only makes the failures so much more disappointing.

Victor Zsasz comes immediately to mind, here played by Chris Messina. At one point late in the movie, Zsasz shows off all his scars, saying that he’s got one for each soul he set free from this miserable world. He then tells the intended victim that he’s got a special place for the mark of his latest victim. THAT is the Victor Zsasz I know. And it’s nothing like the character’s portrayal in the rest of the film up to that point. He should be a deranged psycho serial killer with a Messiah complex, but instead he’s an obedient lapdog serving as a generic mob enforcer. Pathetic.

Which brings us to Black Mask himself. Alas, the character is a third-tier Batman villain, little more than a glorified mob boss with a fancy mask and a penchant for torture. There’s not much to be done with this, the villainous psychopath role is quite far removed from Ewan McGregor’s comfort zone, and the character doesn’t even really get his own hands dirty all that much. Hell, he barely ever wears the mask. Even in the climax, the character is effectively useless without his army of hired goons.

Something had to be done to compensate for all of this, and the answer was apparently for McGregor to chew scenery and mug for the camera. Yes, it’s entertaining to watch, and McGregor is clearly having a blast, but it doesn’t exactly make for a compelling villain.

But then we have Cassandra Cain. Dear sweet God in heaven, Cassandra, what did they do to you?

For those who aren’t up on your DC Comics, Cassandra Cain is the daughter of David Cain and Lady Shiva, two of the foremost assassins of the DCU. Cass was brought up in a deeply abusive childhood, trained in total silence to be a top-notch killer. As a direct result, she’s mute and illiterate, with a crippling inability to connect with others. Yet she’s one of the greatest martial artists in the DCU, so perfectly adept at reading body language that she can predict someone else’s moves with uncanny accuracy. All of which made her a valued part of the Bat-Family, learning how to connect with others while bearing the mantle of Batgirl.

(Side note: For everything you could ever want or need to know about Cassandra Cain, check out this exhaustive six-part retrospective about the character, courtesy of Lewis “Linkara” Lovhaug.)

In the movie? Cass is perfectly literate and she speaks fluently. She has no martial arts training or weaponry skills whatsoever. She’s an orphan living with crappy foster parents. And right up until her last masterstroke against Sionis, she has virtually no agency in the plot. This is Cassandra Cain in name only, such a fascinating character replaced with a pitiful downgrade. Nothing against Ella Jay Basco, she did a solid job with what she had, but the character is a profound disappointment.

All of that said, the real star here is Cathy Yan, who directs this movie with style in abundance. The speed-ramping is beautifully utilized, the stunts and choreography are incredible, and the set pieces are all beautifully inventive. In particular, whomever thought of staging an action scene in a police evidence lock-up had better get a raise. The slower and more personal moments are heartfelt without ever entirely losing the demented Harley Quinn edge, the exposition is all conveyed in dynamic and inventive ways, and the action is a great big barrel of fun throughout.

(Side note: There’s a cheap joke in the post-credits, but it’s nothing I’d recommend waiting around for.)

Ultimately, Birds of Prey, and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is worthy of a solid recommendation. The humor is irreverent but never grating, the feminist empowering themes are cleverly presented, the action is tremendously satisfying, and even the weakest performances are still a treat to watch. The lamest jokes are here and gone without too much damage done, and my biggest complaints probably won’t matter much to anyone who doesn’t care about the comics.

It’s colorful, it’s energetic, it’s nonstop fun. Definitely go see it.

Gretel and Hansel / The Turning (2020)

Posted February 4, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

We’ve got a double feature tonight, folks! Two films, each about a young brother/sister pairing, each one adapted from a well-worn story in the public domain, and each made in a transparent effort at chasing a prominent trend in modern horror cinema.

The story of Gretel and Hansel needs no introduction. Respectively played by Sophia Lillis and Sam Leakey, the two kids are forced out of their home by a destitute mother who can no longer afford to keep housing and feeding them. Thus they head out into the forest, they get taken in by a kindly old woman (played by Alice Krige) who turns out to be a witch, shit gets weird, and the rest you know.

The Turning may need a bit more introduction, though the premise is quite simple. “The Turn of the Screw” — the greatly influential novella written by Henry James — tells the story of an unnamed governness (named Kate in the film adaptation, played by Mackenzie Davis) hired to look after two young children (Flora and her big brother Miles, played respectively by Brooklynn Prince and Finn Wolfhard). Then our governess starts seeing things that may or may not be actual ghosts, and the kids are very likely in huge trouble. Shit gets freaky and we’re off to the races.

By virtue of its basis in an old-fashioned children’s morality fable, Gretel and Hansel comes with some obvious themes right off the jump. This has always been a story about how looks can be deceiving, how nothing ever comes for free, beware of anything too good to be true — especially coming from strangers — and so on. Yet there are a lot of questions on the flip side: How to know when something that appears dangerous might actually be safe, when to refuse help even when fatally desperate for it, when caution veers into paranoia, and so on. And of course, there’s the distinct possibility that anyone of means might seek to help an attractive teenage girl (or even a naive young boy) for more sexually perverted reasons. All of these concepts are explored in the film, and they all mesh beautifully with the source material.

By contrast, The Turning and its source material have themes that are much more subtle. There’s a fair bit in here about finding a family — the movie goes even further with this, as Kate’s father ran off when she was very young and her mother (played by Joely Richardson) went insane years ago. What’s more prominent, the book and the movie are both heavily preoccupied with “corruption of the innocent”, and the perpetual question of how the children might have been affected and are still being affected by the deceased groundskeeper (Quint, played by Niall Greig Fulton) and their late former nanny (Ms. Jessell, played by Denna Thomsen). To say nothing of how Kate may possibly be damaging her charges, or maybe even the other way around.

With the book as with the movie, the primary focus is in the governess’ slow descent into madness. Obviously, Mackenzie Davis’ performance is a strong point here, and it’s fascinating to watch her grip on sanity grow steadily more threadbare. The filmmakers even threw in a new genetic wrinkle, with the suggestion that Kate may be going crazy as her mother did. Yet the filmmakers are good enough to preserve the open-ended nature of the source material, leaving Kate an unreliable narrator incapable of confirming or denying for a certainty that any malicious spirits are actually real.

This brings me to an intriguing bit of connective tissue between our two movies: Both Kate and Gretel suffer greatly from insomnia, suddenly waking up from any number of horrific dreams that may or may not be real. Though the device is admittedly cheap, it does the job of forcing everyone to question what’s real, what’s the product of an overactive and paranoid imagination, and whether the distinction really matters. That said, Gretel does a much better job of maintaining some illusion of a coherent baseline. They don’t go into dreams-within-dreams like Turning does. Nor does Gretel blow everything up in the last five minutes and end with a stiff middle finger toward the audience.

From start to finish, The Turning suffers because it was clearly made in imitation of Blumhouse horror films (The Conjuring and its sequels/spinoffs, the Insidious series, and so on). Thus we have a great many obnoxious jump scares set to overblown music stings, set in rooms that are totally dark for no reason. It follows that the filmmakers try to maintain the nuanced psychological horror of the book while aping an aggressive horror style worn down by oversaturation. Moreover, the filmmakers are taking a story in which the paranormal threat may or may not even be real, and they’re adapting it into a style built for films in which the paranormal threat is undeniably real. It doesn’t work.

By contrast, Gretel and Hansel was very clearly made in imitation of the “prestige horror” trend, spearheaded by such filmmakers as Ari Aster and Robert Eggers. As a reminder, we’re talking about a dark and foreboding, old-fashioned, “Brothers Grimm” fairy tale here. What’s more, it’s a story in which our two characters are defenseless young children wandering through a terrifying and dangerous forest. Plus, it’s a story that involves at least one villainous witch; and the Wiccan, sacred feminine, nature-worshipping brand of witchcraft is certainly having a moment right now (see also: The Love Witch, “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”, Color Out of Space, Midsommar, etc.).

Given all of these influences, it makes a lot of sense that the filmmakers would use movies like The Witch and Hereditary as touchstones. Yes, this does come with some unfortunate drawbacks, like a couple of egregious shaky-cam shots and a metric ton of useless voice-over narration. And yes, the presentation isn’t quite desolate or immersive enough to pass for anything more than an imitation of the real thing. Still, it’s good enough to impart a creepy sense of foreboding, with the added bonus that the filmmakers don’t resort to any jump scares.

And what of the characters? Well, there’s a reason why Gretel gets top billing here. She gets the lion’s share of development and does pretty much everything worth doing in the plot. Compare that to Hansel, whose ceaseless appetite and constant desire to prove his own masculinity render him in perpetual need of rescuing.

Meanwhile, Flora and Miles are caught up in the collateral damage between the competing influences of Henry James and Jason Blum. In the book, both children are so perfectly sweet and innocent that audience and governess alike have to wonder how anything could possibly be wrong with them. In Blumhouse horror, a kid can either be a screaming would-be victim or a creepy demon child, without much of anything in between. So the filmmakers try to have it both ways and the results are all over the place.

Flora seems to be a decent kid, but she’s nowhere near the flawless cherub of the book. Though she has a crippling phobia of leaving the grounds, for reasons that are never explained. (No, to the best of my memory, that wasn’t in the book.)

As for Miles, the source material was extremely cryptic about whether he had ever been subjected to any kind of trauma. In the film, there is no doubt. This is very clearly a broken kid, and his scars manifest in ways that cause all manner of friction with Kate. On the one hand, I appreciate that this brings some dramatic conflict to the story, and yet another stress fraying on Kate’s sanity. On the other hand, it doesn’t make for a more interesting character, nor does it faithfully adapt the suspense or horror of the book.

Elsewhere, Mrs. Grose (here played by Barbara Marten) deserves some mention. In the book, she consistently turned a blind eye toward anything strange or harmful (assuming any of it actually happened, of course), all while serving as a stalwart emotional support for the governess. The film resolves this contradiction by setting the film in the 1990s, when the “emotional support” role can be played over the phone by Kate’s best friend (Rose, played by Kim Adis). Thus Mrs. Grose can be played in a more straightforward manner, as the imposing family caretaker who obviously knows more than she’s letting on. And again, because there’s nobody on the grounds that Kate can trust or confide in, she goes crazy that much faster.

Which brings us back to Gretel‘s witch. Obviously, Alice Krige is well within her comfort zone here, and my hat’s off to the makeup artist who made the character look just unsettling enough. Of course there isn’t much more I can say without getting into spoilers, but suffice to say that this character sets the tone for the movie as a whole. She sets the pace for the plot, she determines how and when the movie introduces real witchcraft, and she does it all with aplomb.

And seriously, when’s the last time you saw a witch onscreen who was legitimately scary?

Both The Turning (2020) and Gretel and Hansel are visibly padded, with source materials too scant to support even the minimal 90-minute feature length runtime. Still, Gretel and Hansel makes better use of its time, with far greater commitment to crafting a faithfully adapted tale told in a creepy and unsettling way that’s scary without too much gore, and messing with reality without becoming completely incoherent. By contrast, while The Turning clearly shows that someone behind the scenes really loved and understood the source material, trying to force it into the mainstream horror mold defined by Blumhouse sends the film tearing itself in half, collapsing into a bland and formless mess.

Yes, Gretel and Hansel is still a pale imitation of so many other, better films in the style (The Witch and Midsommar come immediately to mind), but it’s still good enough that I can recommend giving it a look. The Turning isn’t even worth that much, alas.

The Rhythm Section

Posted February 1, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

James Bond is obsolete. This becomes increasingly obvious with every week that passes between us and the Cold War, and every subsequent Bond movie’s repeated efforts at trying to prove why the franchise is still relevant. Pop culture has become saturated with parodies and send-ups, from Austin Powers to last month’s Spies in Disguise. We have a host of globetrotting blockbuster action franchises, from Mission: Impossible to Fast and Furious to John Wick. Oh, and there’s also the teeny little detail that we’ve long since run out of Ian Fleming novels to adapt.

While Spectre is tied for 20th on the list of the most expensive films ever made, it ranks 521st among the highest-grossing movies ever made. To be exact, it grossed $880 million worldwide, falling well short of the $1.1 billion grossed by Skyfall. And now, four years later, Daniel Craig’s departing turn as Bond is finally limping its way across the finish line later this year.

Little wonder that Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli of EON Productions — the longtime cinema stewards of 007 — are looking to hedge their bets with a new franchise. So here’s The Rhythm Section, in which producers Wilson and Broccoli adapt the first in a series of novels by Mark Burnell. Which makes sense, given how the Bond juggernaut started out as an adaptation. Oh, and Burnell is adapting his own work into the screenplay? Not a bad idea.

Perhaps more importantly, this movie feels like a direct answer to so many critiques that have been eating away at the Bond franchise for several years. James Bond is built on an antiquated Cold War ethos, so here’s a spy thriller franchise set in the geopolitical tensions of today. Bond is a rampant womanizer and he’s more or less proven to be completely invulnerable? Here’s a female protagonist with no combat training whatsoever. You want a woman to direct a Bond movie? Well, how about a woman directing this one instead?

Wilson and Broccoli made a lot of smart moves in starting a 21st-century Bond franchise replacement. Then they went and gave it to Paramount. True to form, Paramount strangled this franchise in the crib, mismanaging it to such a woeful degree that the film got dumped at the tail-end of January. Then again, I’m not entirely sure this one would’ve stood a chance in any less awful release frame. Let’s take it from the top.

Blake Lively stars as… well, the character goes through a lot of names and aliases, but we’ll call her Stephanie Patrick. She was on top of the world, happy as could be, until her parents and all her siblings died in a plane crash. Three years later, she’s still going through the guilt by way of cigarettes, alcohol, and whatever illicit substances she can consume. She’s a hollowed-out scab-encrusted shell of a human being, working as a prostitute in the alleys of London.

Yeah, the filmmakers are laying it on pretty thick. To put it bluntly, the character isn’t tragic, she’s a cliche. In point of fact, there’s a character who says that directly to her face, word for word.

Long story short, Stephanie finds out that her parents — and the other 230-odd passengers on that plane — were collateral damage as part of a cover-up. The culprit was a bomber named… *ahem* Mohammed Reza (played by Tawfeek Barhom) with connections to some unnamed militant group in the Middle East. So Stephanie goes on a half-assed revenge mission, shit goes sideways, and she ends up in the grudging care of Jude Law, here playing a retired MI6 agent who forces our protagonist through detox and trains her to be an assassin.

Did I mention that the movie is cliched as all fuck? Because it’s cliched as all fuck.

Easily the film’s most prominent gimmick is that Stephanie Patrick is no James Bond, much less a Jason Bourne or a John Wick. She has no formal training or experience in combat or espionage, she’s not a hardened killer, and calm under pressure doesn’t come naturally to her. And yet, however cloying her motivation may be, she still has a powerful motivation and her life is such a wreck that she has literally nothing to lose. Thus she pits herself against hardened killers with basically nothing but her wits and tenacity.

In a specific sense, this kind of sympathetic and vulnerable protagonist is an extreme rarity in the genre. In a broader sense, this development arc is a textbook Hero’s Journey story, the like of which can be seen literally everywhere. What’s worse, because this was transparently made as a franchise starter, this is a development arc without any defined endpoint.

It’s a revenge thriller with no sign of what if anything Stephanie plans to do when the revenge is complete. So by the end of the movie, our protagonist has gone from a drug-addicted prostitute with one foot in the grave, to a halfway decent assassin with multiple confirmed kills, to… what exactly? What does she intend to do with her new skills as a mercenary cutthroat? How does she plan to rebuild her life? How are we supposed to feel about all of this? What kind of theme are we supposed to take away from it? Hell if I know.

Another unfortunate drawback of the premise is that our main character kinda sucks at fighting. In theory, this doesn’t necessarily have to be a problem. There is absolutely a niche for fights that feel clumsier, more primal, and more authentic overall. Fights in which the characters visibly get tired, they feel more pain, and there’s no elaborate choreography. From start to finish, it’s perfectly obvious that the filmmakers badly wanted all of this to feel authentic and immersive, in keeping with a protagonist who’s easier for the audience to connect with.

In practice… look, I wish the best to Reed Morano. God bless and love her. I appreciate the producers for giving this bright young up-and-comer a chance, especially when that female perspective took the edge off the prostitution angle in a huge way. Heaven knows there are so few opportunities like this for female directors, so I don’t want to hold Morano’s lack of experience against her.

But I’m sorry, the action scenes in this movie SUCK.

I could point to the chase sequences, or any of the other scenes made incomprehensible by the shaky-cam. I could point to the aforementioned primal and clumsy fist-fights, all of which were shot and cut in a way that didn’t look the least bit dynamic or enjoyable. (Though that fight between Blake Lively and Jude Law wasn’t too bad.) But honestly, my favorite example has to be the car chase presented as one continuous long take, shot entirely from the passenger seat of Stephanie’s car. I know the filmmakers were trying to emulate the feel of being there in the car with our main character, but it felt like all the best shots and stunts were happening around me and I was in the absolute worst place to see it all.

(Side note: Compare this to the similar, far superior, fabled and storied sequence from Children of Men. In that pseudo-long take, there’s far more character development and interaction, and we actually leave the car when the characters do. It also helps that there isn’t very much vehicular action, so it doesn’t feel like we’re missing out on any stunts.)

I want to give all due praise to Blake Lively for her performance in this. Aside from her complete and total lack of a British accent, she went to bat in a huge way for this character. Her transformation into a dead-eyed, half-eaten ghoul left her borderline unrecognizable at the film’s outset, and her portrayal of the character’s development is astonishing. Alas, nobody else in the cast puts in even a tenth of this much effort.

From the look of it, it appears that Stephanie Patrick regularly interacts with hot guys, as James Bond is regularly surrounded by gorgeous women. Again, not a bad idea in theory. In practice, it doesn’t work because Jude Law, Sterling K. Brown, and Raza Jaffrey are all so completely checked out. With very few exceptions (again, that fight scene between Lively and Law), everyone in the supporting cast looks like they’re putting in the bare minimum. Naturally, this renders any kind of romantic chemistry completely void.

Last but not least, there’s one classic aspect of the Bond franchise that this movie has absolutely no answer for: The villain. While the film is admittedly far more focused on the origins of Stephanie Patrick and her development into a world-class assassin, the film suffers dearly for lack of a strong antagonist. Of course, it certainly doesn’t help that the villains are so shrouded in mystery that nobody even knows who they are through most of the screen time. But even when we do get those answers, the identity and motivation of our antagonist are so thin and so flat that they barely even register. And of course the whole “Middle Eastern” angle is so rushed and so lazy that it comes off as unintentionally Islamophobic.

The Rhythm Section is a failed experiment. Blake Lively’s performance deserves a far better movie, and I love the idea of a more sympathetic and vulnerable spy thriller protagonist. I’m always up for a female-driven franchise led by a female director, and of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with an action film that feels immersive and authentic. Alas, Morano was not equal to the task of directing this, the entire supporting cast seems to be phoning it in, and the screenplay is a mass of wretched cliches.

To all those involved, better luck next time.