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Luca

Posted June 24, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

I’m somewhat concerned by the fact that the latest from Pixar is only available on Disney+. I’m troubled by the fact that this may never get a physical media release, and audiences won’t be able to see this without paying the monthly subscription fee.

On the other hand, the film industry is playing a lot of catch-up right now. Everyone’s trying to cram two years’ worth of movies into one year, and it’s highly doubtful that there will be enough multiplex screens to go around. So if the multimedia conglomerates are using their online streaming platforms to ease up the bottleneck, I suppose that’s not the worst thing ever. And anyway, at least Disney had the good sense not to charge an additional $30 premium.

Luca sets its stage in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Italy. Our premise concerns Luca and Alberto (respectively voiced by Jacob Tremblay and Jack Dylan Grazer), two young boys in a species of amphibious creatures who turn into humans on land, but turn to fish monsters when exposed to water. Naturally, they’re feared and hated by the local fishermen who’ve seen or heard of them.

Luca spends his days underwater, shepherding fish for his family, though he secretly dreams of adventure and excitement outside his boring provincial life under the sea. His mother (Daniela, voiced by Maya Rudolph) is overprotective and overbearing because she’s so afraid of the “land monsters” and does her best to quash her son’s curiosity to keep him safe… Look, you’ve seen a movie before, right? You know where this is going.

By contrast, Alberto spends most of his time on land, enjoying his time walking around and breathing fresh air while gathering man-made scrap and indulging in all manner of idiotic stunts. His parents, incidentally, are nowhere to be seen. Oh, and Alberto is completely full of shit, nowhere near as intelligent or experienced as he says he is. In short order, Luca and Alberto cross paths and hijinks ensue.

Inevitably, Luca’s parents find out about his day trips to the surface, and his mother responds in the only way she knows how. Luca naturally responds to her strangling hold by fighting back that much harder, so he and Alberto run away to the one place where nobody of their kind will go looking for them: The nearby human city of Portorosso. This is where we meet our spunky misfit female lead (Giulia, voiced by Emma Berman) and our blowhard bully antagonist (Ercole, voiced by Saverio Raimondo).

(Side note: The town was apparently named in deliberate homage to Porco Rosso, and the influences of Hayao Miyazaki are undeniable here.)

Thus we have a literal fish-out-of-water story in which our leads come of age while trying to blend in and keep their identities secret. And predictably, three becomes a crowd as Alberto gets to be jealous of how close Luca and Giulia are becoming. But then a funny thing happens: Alberto starts trying to control Luca, insisting that he knows what’s best for his friend, exactly as Luca’s parents tried to do previously. Neat touch.

Still, the story is woefully thin without much in the way of anything particularly novel or compelling. The filmmakers attempt to make up for this in style, with gorgeous animation, charming character designs, lush dream sequences, and a heavily Italian soundtrack. Director Enrico Casarosa (here making his feature debut) has stated that the film was a “deeply personal story” inspired by his own childhood, and that comes through loud and clear. Every single frame of this film is drenched with nostalgia — it really does feel like the entire movie was written and produced by some young kid growing up in a small Italian town.

To wit: It speaks volumes that the main antagonist of the film is the preening local bully. Though our characters are constantly in danger of being found out and hunted down, the film is primarily concerned with winning a local triathlon. (It’s a long story that I won’t get into here.) For better or worse, this was deliberately made to be a relaxed and low-key movie. And anyway, these are exactly the kind of petty stakes that seem so much bigger when you’re a kid.

Speaking of which, a lot of ink has already been spilled about how this is low-key an LGBTQ-themed movie, with tongue-in-cheek comparisons to Call Me By Your Name. And of course it couldn’t possibly be a coincidence that the film involves merpeople, long an iconic symbol of the trans community. Sorry, but I’m not seeing it. Maybe I’m just speaking from my own experience, but if anyone didn’t have a closely platonic friendship like Luca and Alberto do here, I have to wonder what kind of childhood they had.

I know this is going to be a short review, but there’s really nothing more to this 100-minute movie but charm and heart. And for a Pixar film, that’s somehow enough. In fact, the bare-bones, stone-simple nature of the story leaves a lot more room for the raw emotion of these sympathetic characters and the endearing nostalgia of the filmmakers. Sincerity goes a long way, and though the themes here may be hackneyed and threadbare, there’s no doubt whatsoever that the filmmakers mean every word. Additionally, because the premise is so easy to pick up, the rules and mythology of this particular world are dispensed with economical speed, which helps the pacing considerably.

Luca is a feel-good movie, nothing more and nothing less. There’s more than enough heart and charm in here to make this more than hollow and empty spectacle, though the spectacle is admittedly gorgeous. Even so, and as unreasonable as it may be to expect that Pixar keep raising the bar with every film, I still expect more from them. I want to see some brains to go with the heart, and maybe some new themes or ideas explored in a fresh way.

All told, I think Luca ended up exactly where it should’ve been: On streaming with no premium sounds like exactly the right price and the right way to enjoy this.

The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard

Posted June 19, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

I have no memory of The Hitman’s Bodyguard. I know nothing about it, I never saw it, and I never heard a thing about it since the film released in September of 2017. Hell, it was a September release — those are practically made to be forgettable post-summer palate cleansers.

Wikipedia tells me that the film came out to a lukewarm critical reception, and it had the good fortune to come out at the lowest-grossing holiday weekend since 1998. That was enough for the film to hit #1 on its opening weekend, on its way to making $75.5 million domestic ($176.6 million worldwide). Those would be pretty sad numbers for a huge franchise vehicle starring Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson, but they’re actually pretty good numbers for a September release with an estimated $69 million budget.

So here we are with The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard, a sequel nobody asked for, that was in no way marketed as a sequel, for a movie that nobody remembers.

Our premise begins in Greece, which has been subject to crippling economic EU sanctions for reasons that are never explained. Enter Aristotle Papadopoulos (Antonio Banderas playing a Greek. Freaking seriously.), who’s a… terrorist? Politician? Deranged billionaire? Hell if I know. Point is, he’s a bad guy who wants to restore Greece to its former place at the center of Western civilization. He plans to do this with a devastating cyber-attack that will leave Greece untouched while destroying power plants through all the rest of Europe.

Meanwhile, Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) is a disgraced bodyguard whose license is under review after a high-profile client got killed on his watch. In preparation for his upcoming hearing, Bryce goes to the world’s worst therapist (played by Rebecca Front), who counsels him to go on sabbatical in Italy just to get him out of her office.

Long story short, Bryce is once again unwittingly entangled with the hitman Darius Kincaid and his con-artist wife, Sonia (Samuel L. Jackson and Salma Hayek, reprising their roles). A few more convoluted shenanigans later, and the three of them are intercepted by put-upon Interpol Agent Bobby O’Neill (Frank Grillo) and pressganged into helping stop Aristotle.

Oh, and Morgan Freeman is in the movie. No, I’m not telling you anything about who he’s playing.

The first and last thing to know about this movie is that everyone’s an asshole. This is 90 solid minutes of people screaming and cursing and laughing at each other’s suffering as they try to kill each other with guns and high explosives. These characters are all defiantly one-dimensional and aggressively unlikeable, on top of the fact that they all clearly hate each other, and that makes it very difficult to enjoy spending time with any of them.

Granted, the film does make a token effort at making the characters sympathetic. There’s an emphasis on themes of parenting and family, as Darius and Sonia are heavily preoccupied with their efforts at having a child, and Michael has some parental issues to sort through as well. But even then, it doesn’t connect because Darius and Sonia’s longing for a child is mostly expressed through a cavalcade of tasteless sex jokes. As for Michael, his family trauma is presented with cartoonish glee, played for laughs in a way that directly undercuts the pathos.

Ultimately, the film only has one setting: Eleven. The filmmakers cranked up every knob as far as it could go before tearing it off. In theory, that’s not necessarily a bad approach to an action comedy, as “over-the-top” is a time-honored approach to both action and comedy. And it certainly helps that the film is anchored by such talents as Ryan Reynolds, Salma Hayek, Samuel L. Jackson, and Antonio Banderas, all of whom are well-practiced at mugging for the camera and playing to the cheap seats. In particular, Reynolds, Jackson, and Hayek go through the whole damn movie like they’re fighting each other for the last scrap of undigested scenery.

In practice, however, it gets exhausting very quickly. In fact, huge stretches of the film were nothing short of painful. The only reason why the joke works at all is because the characters are so paper-thin and unsympathetic that we don’t mind watching them cuss each other out. But the joke gets old very quickly. A moviegoer can only take so much cussing and screaming packed into 90 minutes.

Likewise, the over-the-top action can only be appreciated because nobody would mind watching these characters getting beaten to a pulp. Trouble is, the action is only funny if the characters all walk away from their physical abuse without a scratch. And after Bryce walks away from his third high-velocity automobile impact — to say nothing of the point-blank minigun shot to the chest that he survives because of magic Kevlar — the action loses all impact. And again, it certainly doesn’t help that the story is treated as an afterthought at best.

Also, the climax has got some problems. I was disappointed to see Bryce and Darius get fight scenes with high-level antagonists while Sonia was tasked with taking out a nameless female sub-boss. Also, there are some pretty glaring cuts made in a pathetically obvious attempt at hiding the stunt doubles.

(Side note: It took me a while to recognize one of the lead henchmen as Tom Hopper, late of “Black Sails”. He did a good job in this one, and I’m genuinely glad to see that he’s still getting work.)

The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard is loud, flashy, crass, profane, obnoxious, outlandish, hollow, brain-dead, and utterly pointless. I’ll happily grant that there’s a place in the world for action comedies that are so aggressively crude, and I have to grant the film some measure of respect for knowing exactly what it wants to be and achieving that goal with no fucks given. And yes, a lot of the film’s appeal comes from Reynolds, Jackson, and Hayek all playing to their respective wheelhouses.

Even so, there are so many better movies out there that scratch the same itch just fine. Reynolds isn’t doing anything here that he didn’t already do a hundred times better as Deadpool. Jackson has made has made roughly umpteen million action films and/or comedies in this vein. If you want to see Hayek mug for the camera, try any of the other comedies she’s made in recent years.

If all you’re looking for is a disposable 90-minute film to pass the time, this one will admittedly do the job just fine, but there are so many better options out there to choose from. And anyway, if this is how far the filmmakers had to stretch the joke for a second movie, I don’t want to know how far they’d have to go to try and keep this fresh for a third one.

Bottom line: Quit trying to make this into a bankable franchise. It ain’t happening.

Reckoning with the late ’00s

Posted June 17, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

Recently, Lindsay Ellis released a video essay re-examining The Little Mermaid. More specifically, she spent over half the video commenting on the kind of pseudo-feminist bad-faith critiques against Ariel and the rest of her fellow Disney Princesses that cropped up all over the place during the late ’00s. But of course this is only one facet of something far more prevalent than Ellis could discuss within the scope of her video essay. Consider the following partial list.

  • Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, and other such socialites who were famous for simply being famous (also, for having reality shows and sex tapes).
  • Britney Spears and her mental breakdown.
  • Lindsay Lohan and her rampant drug abuse.
  • Megan Fox, the Michael Bay starlet whose minimal acting talent was in her ample T&A.
  • Courtney Stodden, who got married at 16 to Doug Hutchinson, then a 51-year-old actor.
  • Lisa Nowak, the astronaut who attacked the girlfriend of her ex-boyfriend.

Back in the late ’00s, these were only a few of the women considered fair and acceptable targets for the most hateful of mockery and derision, even among self-professed feminists. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Apple iPhone made its debut in 2007.

With the rise of the commercial smartphone, the phrase “at your fingertips” has never been more literal. The internet in all its form and splendor, the sum total of human knowledge and communication, now available in a palm-sized tablet and reliable enough for instant wireless access anywhere in the world. This naturally meant a prolific growth in clickbait articles, hot takes, memes, and other means of dominating attention to generate ad revenue. An all-encompassing multimedia onslaught unlike anything ever seen in human history, relentlessly ongoing through the present day and into the distant future.

Only now, almost fifteen years later, do we have enough experience with all of this that we can learn how to live with it. And only now, almost fifteen years later, do we have the hindsight to realize how wrong we were in the late ’00s.

It’s easy to draw a straight line from “1 Night in Paris” — the sex tape released without Paris Hilton’s knowledge or consent in 2004 — to the infamous iCloud nude leaks of 2014. Even now in 2021, we’re still grappling with the scourge of “revenge porn”, recognizing it for a horrific breach of privacy and a form of sexual violence, struggling to pass laws against it. If we knew then what we know now, would we have kept on laughing at Paris Hilton and her sex tape, or might we have had those discussions a lot sooner?

Kim Kardashian has admittedly done a lot in the intervening years to keep her infamy going. But look at where she is in 2021. “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” is finally going off the air after 20 goddamn seasons, and she’s finally divorced Kanye West, so that’s a whole lot of baggage sloughed off. Kardashian has also made steps toward securing a law degree, with the stated goal of working as an advocate for prison reform, and she’s been working against a miasma of scornful laughter the whole way. Laughable as this would’ve sounded ten years ago, maybe it’s worth giving Kim Kardashian a second chance if it means she can make a sincere good-faith effort at a worthy cause.

As for Britney Spears, she was the subject of the recent #FreeBritney online campaign and the “Framing Britney Spears” documentary that aired on FX earlier this year. This proved to be a flashpoint, renewing discussion about conservatorship, mental illness, and of course Britney Spears herself.

Lindsay Lohan has made a couple of splashes here and there, but nothing that came anywhere close to reviving her career. I’m not saying that the rampant media coverage and ridicule led directly to her drug addictions and fall from grace, but I’m sure as hell we didn’t make things any better for her. Considering how much talent she had as a child actor, it’s saddening to think of the career she might have had. Mark my words — when Lindsay Lohan dies, the world will be awash with crocodile tears about how it’s such a waste and she deserved so much better.

Megan Fox’s career has undergone a fascinating re-evaluation of late. In particular, Jennifer’s Body is now widely regarded as an underrated cult classic far ahead of its time. It’s easy to see in hindsight that her early career was both made and broken by Michael Bay, but she’s got a couple of movies coming up this year and the reception for last year’s Rogue was all right. I’ll be eager to see where Fox goes now that she’s older and wiser.

Courtney Stodden came out as non-binary a couple of months ago, and their divorce from Hutchinson was finally completed last year. Apparently, they’ve spent the past year running an OnlyFans account, recording an album, writing a memoir… basically, it sounds like they’re trying to figure out who they are and what they want to do with the rest of their life. Like a lot of us did during the pandemic.

Then there’s Lisa Nowak. She was of course a direct inspiration for Lucy in the Sky, that godawful Natalie Portman movie from 2019. Wretched as the movie was, it nevertheless made a convincing argument that Nowak needed professional help far more than she needed nationwide mockery. For all her faults, she was one of the rare few who got to be an astronaut, and we must remember to give her credit for that much. And anyway, the viral #FloridaMan meme has rendered her own Florida misadventure almost quaint by comparison.

To be clear, I don’t mean to blame anyone for joining in the laughing and shaming back in the day. If I wanted to go pointing fingers and throwing stones, I’d start with myself. It’s hard to describe to someone who wasn’t there, but the peer pressure and the mob mentality were intoxicating. This was groupthink on a level that had never been seen before in human history, certainly not in this way. If you think the online social media landscape is disorienting and addictive now, just try to imagine how enthralled and lost and panicked and confused we all were when this was new.

The important thing is that now we can move on. We can learn from these past mistakes to be better feminists and more ethical media consumers. We can never undo the damage done to the lives and careers of so many women back in the day, but we can hopefully find it in ourselves to give them a second chance.

Which brings me back to the Disney live-action remake trend that prompted Lindsay Ellis’ video essay and this whole rant in turn. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: All of these Disney live-action remakes are being produced by some poor stupid exec who still thinks we’re all living in 2010. And that’s not enough anymore.

In her video essay, Ellis posited that the Disney Princess backlash was borne of frustration over how Disney is effectively raising and indoctrinating our children. I submit a second possibility: The classic Disney animated films had simply gotten old.

A decade after the Disney Renaissance, the style and tropes of Disney Animation had grown stale and predictable. We wanted something new, something that reflected modern sensibilities. Cut to 2021, and Cruella made it perfectly clear that Disney is still clinging to the memes and hot takes of the late ’00s. Thus the films are dated and tired out of the box.

We need better than this and we can do better than this. We’re making so many mistakes and learning so many lessons at such a constant rate, it’s that much more important for all of us to try and keep one step ahead. It’s hard, but it’s worth it. That’s what Disney should aspire to do, and it’s what we all should aspire to do.

In the Heights

Posted June 12, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

I went into this one completely blind. I feel the need to state that up front, given my personal history with live theatre — particularly live musical theatre — documented in previous blog entries. Prior to watching this film, I was only vaguely aware that “In the Heights” was the Tony-winning smash that made Lin-Manuel Miranda a prominent Broadway name before “Hamilton” took his fame international. And I knew the play was greatly inspired by Manuel’s own upbringing in Washington Heights. Beyond that, I had no clue what I was in for with In the Heights.

So I’d like to start by addressing those like me, whose knowledge of Miranda’s work begins with “Hamilton” and no earlier. First of all, Miranda himself was obligingly given a small supporting role (and a musical number, and a post-credits scene) as a piragua vendor. A notable cameo role was given to Christopher Jackson, the erstwhile George Washington himself, also an alumnus of the original “In the Heights” Broadway cast. (He was Benny, by the way.) And of course “Hamilton” fans will have no trouble recognizing Anthony Ramos in the leading role originally played by Miranda. (Though it seems that Ramos had previously played Usnavi on Broadway at some point.)

Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a certain “Hamilton” song used as a cheeky background gag.

Speaking of which, the songs make it abundantly clear that this was written by the same guy. The attitude, the energy, the uncompromising emotional edge, the intricate lyrical wordplay and inspired rhymes… everything that made the “Hamilton” soundtrack a world-conquering smash is here in abundance. Coupled with dazzling cinematography, colorful production design, and phenomenal choreography, the musical numbers are more than worth the cost of admission.

That said, there were quite a few times when the editing was a little too quick for its own good. I didn’t appreciate all the split-second shots in addition to so much else going on. Also, I have no idea if the “96,000” number originally took place at a water park, but the placement here in the film simply doesn’t work. The setting and the song don’t match at all, especially at the point where everyone gets out their thin, disposable, PAPER lottery tickets in the middle of a freaking pool. WTF?

Conversely, we have “Sunrise”, sung to a dance number that could only be possible in the medium of film. It’s easily the most inventive, energetic, visually stunning, breathlessly romantic number I’ve seen in a film since La La Land. And it’s sharing a film with “Champagne”, a whiplash number that’s dynamic and heartbreaking and totally ruthless precisely because of its stripped-down no-frills delivery. Incredible.

But what’s the film about? Well, let’s meet our cast of characters in Washington Heights.

  • Usnavi (Ramos) is a young man running the corner bodega he inherited from his parents. His dream is to move back to his ancestral homeland in the Dominican Republic, so he can purchase and fix up his father’s old bar (since destroyed in some hurricane).
  • Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) is a childhood friend and surrogate little sister to the orphaned Usnavi. She’s the overachieving student who got out of Washington Heights and went to college at Stanford. Trouble is, her father (Kevin, played by Jimmy Smits) is having trouble paying the exorbitant Stanford tuition fees, and Nina has serious doubts that Stanford is the right place for her at any rate.
  • Benny (Corey Hawkins) works for Kevin as a cab dispatcher. He’s also Nina’s love interest and a friend to Usnavi.
  • Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) is Usnavi’s love interest. She works as a stylist at the local salon, but she has dreams of getting her own space downtown and working her way into the fashion industry.
  • Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) is the kindly old woman who’s pretty much adopted everyone on the block as her surrogate family. In particular, she basically raised Usnavi.
  • Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) is Usnavi’s teenage cousin, and also an employee who helps at the bodega. Though his father (played by an unrecognizable Marc Anthony) is still technically in the picture, Sonny doesn’t really have a positive role model aside from Usnavi, and the undocumented teenage immigrant is still young enough that the future secretly terrifies him.
  • Daniela, Carla, and Cuca (respectively played by Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz, and Dascha Polanco) are perhaps better known as “the Salon Ladies”. Daniela runs the salon where they and Vanessa all work. The three of them are incessant gossips, and one is rarely seen without the other two. In a few short days, they’ll be moving their business to the Bronx.

With so many different characters and plotlines running around, it should come as little surprise that the film is two and a half hours long. And even with so much screen time to work with, most of the characters still come off as thin and cliched, with saccharine and predictable character arcs.

Yet the film still works. And it works beautifully.

Part of that is the pacing. One benefit of an overstuffed film is that there’s always something going on. The film demands your attention through every second from start to finish, because you’re guaranteed to miss something no matter when or how quickly you step out for a bathroom break.

More importantly, while each character isn’t really all that interesting individually, they’re rarely ever seen in a vacuum. This is very much an ensemble-driven movie, and the characters are deeply compelling in their interactions with each other. Yes, a lot of that has to do with the fact that their more emotional exchanges are done to magnificent musical numbers. But even when there’s no music at all, the silence between characters speaks volumes.

The filmmakers never let us forget that these characters all grew up together. They all know each other inside and out. Therefore, when the characters help each other out, talk through their problems, or even — especially! — when they fight, the situation is so much more escalated. It also helps that the actors are all so rock-solid, all playing their roles with such unrestricted gusto, it serves to remind us about all those decades of shared history and make the characters seem deeper than they really are.

But easily the single most important factor about this movie is in all the allegories and metaphors at play. It isn’t all flashy songs and bright colors, this is quite certainly a movie with something to say.

The characters tell us early and often that this is a story about dreams. It’s a story about goals and ambitions and the sacrifices to make them possible. But that takes on a whole new dimension in a story about immigrants in their adoptive country. Most especially this country.

(Side note: In one particular scene, everyone in Washington Heights lifts up a torch in memory of a deceased neighbor. It’s meant as a show of grief, but the image is eerily similar to the Statue of Liberty, possibly the most iconic symbol of immigration in the USA. I could spend a whole separate blog entry trying to unpack the symbolism in that one shot — damn shame the filmmakers didn’t make more and better use of it.)

For so many of these characters, their ambitions and dreams will take them out of Washington Heights. They’ll have to leave the home and the people that they love to try and carve out a niche in some unfamiliar place that isn’t as kind to strangers. For immigrants, this is certainly not a new dilemma. But the dilemma takes on a whole new dimension when the “homeland” is a barrio in NYC, itself a place carved out by immigrants and their families as recently as the 1960s. The characters’ parents sacrificed so much to make the Heights into a loving and supportive home for them, so will those sacrifices be in vain if they have to move out? Or if gentrification eventually forces them out?

This is a movie very intently focused on the present. A central tenet of the film is that the present never lasts and tomorrow always comes. On the one hand, that means keeping an eye toward the future and putting together some kind of attainable life goals while we still have time to plan. On the other hand, that also means appreciating what we have, where we are, and who’s around us before time inevitably erodes all that. Yet it also means paying some means of tribute to the past, for that’s where our sturdiest roots come from. And in the final analysis, it’s the past that ultimately made our present and future possible.

In the Heights has heart. It’s got heart bursting out of every frame. Every character, every line, every cut, every song of every musical number was delivered with an abundance of passion. That’s what makes the film heartfelt, that’s what makes the themes credible, and perhaps most importantly, that’s what makes the whole damn movie so much fun. Even when the plot thins, it’s the overwhelming and infectious passion of the cast and crew that makes this such an excellent movie.

On account of the extensive runtime, I’d say that HBO Max would be the way to watch this one. But if that’s not an option for whatever reason, then by all means, get to your local multiplex. This is absolutely not a film to be missed.

Wrath of Man

Posted June 11, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

Jason Statham is a joke. And I mean that with the utmost respect.

I mean that in the same way that Dwayne Johnson is a joke. Vin Diesel is a joke. John Cena built his whole career from the ground up on the fact that he’s a joke.

Jason Momoa… no, I don’t think he’s there quite yet, but he’s been flirting with that line for a while now. Dave Bautista was there for quite some time, but he’s been pushing back hard recently with some savvy career moves (Army of the Dead, the upcoming Dune, etc.). But I digress.

In the case of Statham and his ilk, the joke is that they’re invulnerable. Even when they’re playing characters who supposedly don’t have any superpowers, they’re still inherently better than everyone else to the point where they can shrug off the most fatal of injuries. They’re not people or even demigods so much as they’re male power fantasies, that’s what they’ve built their whole personas around. They walk into an explosion or a gunfight, they walk out unscathed, we cheer and laugh because that’s what we paid to see.

This is not necessarily a bad thing by any stretch. Hell, the last five Fast and Furious movies were built on this sort of thing. Sometimes you need an action hero with meter-thick plot armor who can walk away from wildly implausible stunts without flinching. And sometimes you’ve got an action/comedy or an action parody in which you need an absurdly overpowered slab of meat with a sense of humor.

Alas, this poses a significant problem for Wrath of Man, produced/co-written/directed by Guy Ritchie with Statham in the starring role. This is at once a role that demands Statham to play an unstoppable killing machine while also playing an intensely vulnerable person on an inherently self-destructive mission. The role needed someone who could switch from one to the other on a dime, and Jason Fucking Statham simply isn’t that guy. No audience is going to buy vulnerability from Jason Statham, and we’re not going to believe that his character is at any serious risk of dying, that’s not what we came for.

Let’s take it from the top. Our plot concerns Fortico, an armored truck company operating in Los Angeles. The film opens with a robbery in which an armored truck gets knocked over, a couple of guards get killed, and the culprits get away with the money. Five months later, the culprits still haven’t been caught and there are no leads as to who they were. Thus Fortico decides to take on new workers and beef up security.

Enter Patrick Hill (Statham), quickly dubbed “H” by his new coworkers at Fortico. Patrick doesn’t talk much and makes a point of keeping to himself. He’s got a chip on his shoulder and he’s clearly an imposing man, but he barely got a passing grade on his training exams. Until a Fortico truck gets held up and Hill takes out six armed robbers with lethal precision, all without taking a scratch himself.

(Side note: One of those robbers is played by Post Malone, and he gets shot in the face. To repeat, this movie features Post Malone getting shot in the face. Make of that what you will.)

In case it wasn’t immediately obvious, Hill’s coworkers and higher-ups at Fortico quickly realize that there’s more to Hill than meets the eye. Even weirder, there are signs that certain powerful individuals outside and/or above the law are running scared from Hill. I won’t go into details about the long story here, but as the title suggests, suffice to say this is a revenge thriller.

Among other things.

See, the plot is split into four chapters, and they’re placed in non-sequential order. As the film continues, we learn more about the run-up to that first lethal Fortico robbery and the five months between then and Patrick Hill coming on board. Thus the script plays with time in a way that leads to genuinely clever setups and payoffs.

Even better, each new revelation comes with a new mystery. For instance, right when we learn exactly who robbed the Fortico truck and why, we learn that they had the help of an inside man. Thus the back half is heavily concerned with the question of who our traitor could be and whether Hill can find his backstabbing colleague in time.

Like it wasn’t enough for each chapter to have its own time period, each one also has its own genre. The first part is more or less a straightforward “training day” cop flick. The second one is a textbook revenge thriller. The third one is a heist movie. And the fourth is where they all mesh together into a cohesive whole. Theoretically.

A huge part of why the mesh works as well as it does is because all three genres share a common denominator: Testosterone. And when you’ve got actors like Jason Statham, Holt McCallany, Josh Hartnett, Jeffrey Donovan, Scott Eastwood, and Andy Garcia on deck, all under the direction of freaking Guy Ritchie, you’ve got enough testosterone to float a goddamn armored truck. Even Dana (Niamh Algar), the de facto female lead, is portrayed as tough and masculine enough to carry her weight as the only female employee in the whole company.

Alas, this is a movie with five credited writers, and it shows in the jumbled nature of the plot. The “chapter” layout and genre switches mean that huge chunks of screen time can elapse between action scenes. For that matter, crucial players in one chapter will be wholly absent from another. Bottom line: The pacing is fucked.

But the ending is where the attempted genre mash-up really falls apart. Without getting too deep into spoilers, the “revenge thriller” genre demands our lead character to die, or at least to suffer for his bloody quest in some irreparably traumatic way. Yet it’s also a Jason Statham movie, so we expect Jason Statham to live long enough to kill the bad guy. And it’s a “heist thriller”, which demands that our thieves get away victorious, or at least see their plan through to completion. While the “cop movie” genre demands that our criminals be killed, or at least apprehended.

There are so many different and conflicting objectives with regard to how this movie has to end, given all the different genres the filmmakers attempt to juggle. And their attempt at threading the needle is… well, it’s a joke. In the same way that Jason Statham is a joke. And it’s not a good fit for this particular movie.

In the end, I respect Wrath of Man more than I like it. There’s no denying that the filmmakers had serious guts to take on a film of such ambition and scope, and they’ve got undeniable skill for coming as close as they did. It’s a damn shame they couldn’t quite stick the landing, and the crew of five different screenwriters meant there were way too many cooks in the kitchen. Still, when the film settles into its groove and starts laying out the various twists and reveals and red herrings, it’s deeply satisfying.

I’m glad I didn’t see the film on its first few weekends, because this definitely wasn’t worth an opening day ticket. But for a second-run or a home video viewing, that would be worth the cost of admission.

Cliff Walkers

Posted June 5, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

This wasn’t supposed to happen.

At the beginning of the 2021 summer movie season, when everyone is desperate to unload all the big-money offerings that have been collecting dust since the pandemic… we have a slow weekend at the movies.

The only big release this weekend is the latest Conjuring movie, and I gave up on that franchise ever since the big Annabelle Comes Home crossover exposed how lazy and creatively bankrupt that whole enterprise always was. I’ve already reviewed last week’s big releases, and I was deliberately keeping Wrath of Man in reserve for such an occasion… except that it’s now more or less out of theaters. Damn.

So I did some digging and I came up with Cliff Walkers, directed by Zhang Yimou, best known to American audiences for House of Flying Daggers. This one is a Chinese espionage thriller set in the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, just prior to WWII. Sounds interesting enough. As heavily documented as WWII is, that’s a particular aspect of the war we don’t often see in movies. Not since The Last Emperor all the way back in 1987, to my knowledge. So let’s see what we’ve got.

For those who need a historical refresher, there was a time in the 1930s when the Japanese empire made aggressive moves to expand their holdings in the Far East. Naturally, this meant that they invaded neighboring China, making significant inroads through Manchuria in northeastern China all the way down to part of Mongolia. Thus began the State of Manchuria — also known as Manchukuo — which was technically an independent monarchy even though it operated under Japanese rule.

Incidentally, it should come as little surprise that native ethnic groups faced barbaric cruelty during the Japanese occupation, and the state was dissolved with the Japanese surrender in 1945. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We begin with the infamous Unit 731 of the Imperial Japanese Army, responsible for using Manchurian prisoners as unwitting test subjects for unspeakable experiments in biological and chemical warfare. (And remember, this was a solid decade before Josef Mengele did something similar for the Nazis.) The premise concerns a prisoner who somehow escaped from Unit 731, with proof of the war crimes happening on Japan’s watch. Thus the USSR enacts a plot to extract this vital witness, hopefully bringing Unit 731 to international attention.

The Russians turn to four Manchurian refugees (played by Zhang Yi, Qin Hailu, Zhu Yawen, and Liu Haocun) who’ve been extensively trained by the CCP and air-dropped into the woods of Manchukuo. The plan is for the four of them to split into pairs and then meet up with their separate contacts, then go from there to extract the informant.

The kicker: The contacts are Manchukuo operatives.

Yes, it turns out that the prison camps of Manchukuo turned up a CCP agent (played by Lei Jiayin) who was desperate enough to save his own skin that he was willing to talk. The turncoat doesn’t know exactly who got sent over, but he does know roughly where they’ll be and he’s familiar with the secret codes used by the CCP, so that’s enough for Manchukuo to work with.

One CCP team figures out that their contacts are frauds and they’re able to escape the trap. The other team is none the wiser (yet), so now they’re unknowingly operating under the supervision of the enemy. And the two CCP teams have no way of contacting each other. So now it’s a matter of figuring out how the two teams can coordinate without blowing their cover, how to complete the mission in spite of the turncoat working against them, and figuring out who to trust. Complicating matters even further is the possibility of a higher-up in the Manchukuo enforcers who’s covertly working against their own government.

The action is tragically bland, mostly because 1930s automobiles don’t exactly make for the most satisfying car chases and the sequences are edited like the production couldn’t afford to actually destroy the cars. The close-quarters fight scenes are okay, but nowhere near the standards most would expect from Asian filmmaking. Likewise, the shootouts are passable when they could’ve been so much more.

Even the character development feels undercooked. There’s a bit about how two of our CCP operatives have young children left behind in Manchukuo, and that might have done a lot more to humanize two of our main characters if more had been done with the angle. Then again, the film makes a strong implicit point that we’re talking about spies here, not the military. With soldiers, the obligation is to never leave a man behind. With spies, anyone caught or injured gets left behind, with the expectation that they’ll have the good sense to kill themselves or at least die with their mouths shut.

Time of war makes everyone expendable, and it forces individuals to make terrible choices for the greater good. While the movie certainly could’ve gone farther with this theme, it’s nonetheless an elegant statement made in a compelling way.

Most baffling of all, it feels like the survival of our CCP spies is an end in itself. All that stuff about Unit 731 and getting the informant out of the country feels like a distant afterthought, and the informant himself doesn’t even show up until the last fifteen minutes. It felt like an entire reel of film was missing from the third act, that’s how quickly the whole matter is resolved and how little it had to do with the actual plot.

With all of that being said, the film looks beautiful. While I have my issues with the editing (most especially during the action sequences), the whole movie is beautifully designed and shot. The 1930s period setting is immaculately detailed and it all looks sufficiently lived-in. The costumes are the real stars of this show, with deep blacks, crisp lines, and so many wonderful hats.

The color scheme took me a while to get used to, because EVERY SINGLE ONE of the spies and operatives are dressed from head-to-toe in black. Yes, it quickly caught my eye and I knew immediately who I should pay attention to, but the monochromatic costumes did little to help me keep track of who was on which side. Then again, that was probably the point.

Put simply, Cliff Walkers is an espionage thriller. It’s a cut-and-dried espionage thriller, which paradoxically means that it’s complex and intricate and you’d need a goddamn flowchart to keep track of all the twists and reveals and betrayals, and that’s the whole appeal of the genre. If that’s what you like, then you’ll like this movie. And if you’re not up for that, then you won’t find much of anything else here.

Cruella

Posted May 31, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

Well, I’ve got egg on my face.

I wrote a blog entry a while back to jot down my preliminary thoughts regarding Cruella in particular and the current state of Disney live-action remakes as a whole. At the time, I speculated that Cruella was apparently made and marketed to ride on the coattails of Joker (2019) and Birds of Prey. Then a correspondent helpfully pointed out that Cruella wrapped production in November 2019, only a month after Joker came out. And of course Birds of Prey didn’t get released until 2020. As for the Harley Quinn animated TV show, that would’ve premiered right as Cruella wrapped.

Therefore, it’s more likely that Cruella the film is its own entity, while the trailer was selectively edited to ride the aforementioned coattails after the fact. However, considering that Margot Robbie made her debut turn as Harley Quinn in 2016 with Suicide Squad, I maintain that as a possible influence. In more ways than one.

See, the single greatest (not necessarily the best, mind you, but certainly the biggest) thing that Suicide Squad ever did was to rebrand Harley Quinn. In the immediate aftermath of that movie, right on through to the present day, freaking EVERYONE has seen at least one cosplayer or costume partier dressed up in red-and-blue pigtails and a “Daddy’s Lil Monster” shirt, swinging a baseball bat. For better or worse, the film effectively relaunched Harley Quinn as a marketable icon.

Which is exactly what the Disney live-action remakes have always ultimately been about. In hindsight, it’s blindingly obvious that Cruella was made for the specific purpose of inspiring a whole new generation of cosplayers to dress up like Emma Stone, consuming and imitating her image in all those glamorous outfits. If the movie does for Cruella de Vil what Suicide Squad did for Harley Quinn — and even if it accomplishes literally nothing else — that alone would be enough for Disney to recoup its production costs a hundred times over.

So now we have the movie, in which Estella (because of course “Cruella” wasn’t her given name) was born with her signature bicolor black-and-white hair scheme through some freak genetic quirk. We also witness the death of her mother (Catherine, played by Emily Beecham), contrived in such a way that the villainous Baroness (Emma Thompson), our protagonist herself, and a pack of dalmatians are all simultaneously responsible for the death of Cruella’s mother.

To repeat: That black-and-white hairstyle is revealed to be her natural hair color. And a pack of dalmatians killed Cruella’s mother. And Cruella herself is partially responsible. Literally ten minutes into this picture and we’ve already hit rock bottom. But if you really are that curious about where the film goes from here, read on.

Estella (played primarily by Emma Stone) ran away to London following the death of her mother. Shortly afterward, she fell in with a pair of homeless young pickpockets named Jasper and Horace (respectively played through most of the film by Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser). The three of them — along with their two dogs, Buddy and Wink — proceed to a life of petty crime, with the help of various disguises designed and manufactured by Estella.

Let’s pause again here. First of all, this is an origin story for Cruella de Vil — you know, the woman whose whole deal is that she hates puppies to the point where she’ll kill them all just to dress herself in furs — and she’s assisted from start to finish by two loving canine companions. And she never turns on them or threatens them in any way at any point in the movie. Are we sure this is really the same character?

Secondly, this movie wants to establish Jasper and Horace as a pair of surrogate siblings to Cruella, a happy and supportive de facto family because they’ve only had each other to depend on for their entire lives. Even though it’s been firmly established in all prior media that Cruella berates and abuses Jasper and Horace as if they’re nothing more to her than a couple of expendable henchmen. Yes, the film tries to pivot from one to the other, in demonstration of Estella’s slide into cartoonish villainy, but the film never earns that pathos. Even worse, the film forces a half-baked redemption arc, struggling to maintain the theme of family even as Cruella continues to treat her surrogate brothers as incompetent minions. It doesn’t work.

Anyway, as a treat for Estella’s birthday, Jasper pulls some illegal shenanigans and gets her a job at the prestigious Liberty department store. The downside: She’s a janitor. As much as Estella wants a job designing clothes and curating the window displays, the elitist chauvinists running the place won’t even deign to speak with the cleaning lady. And in a further bit of ham-fisted symbolism, Estella has spent the past several years dyeing her naturally conspicuous hair in an effort to blend in.

Luckily, things change when Estella takes matters into her own hands and catches the attention of the Baroness herself. Estella finally has her dream job designing fashion for a leading force in the industry. Alas, the Baroness herself is a raging psychotic narcissist who — important reminder! — was at least partially responsible for the death of Estella’s mother. Thus Estella swears vengeance, promising to take everything the Baroness ever had and valued.

Because the Baroness is such an egomaniacal control freak, Estella knows that the one thing her boss can’t stand is to be upstaged at her own events. Trouble is, Estella can’t be the one to do that while also keeping her cover as a mild-mannered fashion designer. Thus Estella takes up her flamboyant alter-ego, trolling the Baroness and dominating gossip headlines as the devious and enigmatic Cruella.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Anita Darling (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), here established as Estella’s childhood friend and a journalist who keeps Cruella’s name in the headlines. We’ve also got Roger Dearly (Kayvan Novak), here established as an aspiring songwriter who works as a put-upon lawyer for the Baroness. Alas, the filmmakers’ efforts to keep the two involved fall totally limp, and the mid-credits stinger leading into the events of “101 Dalmations” doesn’t make a lick of sense.

(Side note: If you’re waiting for the iconic “Cruella De Vil” song by George Bruns and Mel Leven, you’ll have to wait until that mid-credits stinger.)

There’s also the matter of Artie (Jon McCrea), a flamboyant fashionista who serves as another accomplice to Cruella even though he might as well not even be in the movie at all. As for Mark Strong, the man plays a transparent plot device. Totally wasted.

But then we have Emma Stone and Emma Thompson, the two most imperative reasons to see this movie. The both of them are vamping it up like no tomorrow, both of them in a ruthless competition to see who can chew the most scenery. Personally, I give the edge to Thompson. The thing is, while both of these actors are clearly having fun and they’re both playing to the cheap seats for all it’s worth, Stone is inherently likeable. Emma Stone has always had an innate charm about her that no director could beat out of her with a tire iron. And that makes a huge difference between two actors who are ostensibly playing villains.

This was always going to be a huge problem with the movie, and there’s simply no getting around it. And it’s exactly the same problem that Joker (2019) had: The filmmakers want us to sympathize with this earlier version of a notorious villain while implicitly asking us to forget literally everything we know and love to hate about the selfsame villain. Cruella is a woman who will one day grow up to be a heartless maniac who kidnaps and murders puppies for the sake of her own vanity. Any attempt at making her sympathetic in spite of that comes off as tone-deaf, and any punches pulled only looks like cowardice.

And to be clear, it’s not like putting a new sympathetic spin on a famous villain can’t be done. Maleficent did it. “Wicked” did it. And the reason why those both worked is because they put in the time and effort to not only redefine the central villain, but the entire established story and the villain’s place within it. Compare that to Joker and Cruella, both of which only begin and end with the namesake character’s origin story, before all the nastiness we know by heart. That’s not enough.

So the filmmakers try their best to deflect from the puppy-killing angle, even though Cruella is best known for “101 Dalmations”, the story named after the very puppies she stole and tried to murder! Instead, the filmmakers want us to focus on the entrepreneurial angle. They want us to sympathize with a woman who had to lie and steal and cheat her way to the top because there’s no other way for a woman to get ahead in the patriarchy. Cruella — as with the Baroness before her — had to be a ruthless backstabbing bitch because it’s a ruthless backstabbing world and any male CEO who did the same thing would be lauded.

Except that’s utter bullcrap.

There’s a reason why Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark are considered heroes while Lex Luthor and Norman Osborn are not. If a century of superhero media has taught us anything, it should be that wealth and power are nowhere near as important as what one chooses to do with it.

For another thing, as much as the film wants to come off as this huge feminist statement, it really isn’t. A central part of feminism is about celebrating all women, empowering and encouraging them to succeed. If this was a movie about women helping each other overcome an oppressive and ignorant patriarchy, that would indeed be a powerful feminist statement. But because this is a film about two women locking horns and attempting to destroy each other out of sheer vanity and greed, it’s exactly the opposite.

Oh, but Estella isn’t just trying to bring down the Baroness to advance her own station, she’s also doing it to avenge her fallen mother. Well, that only serves to dilute the earlier point about how Estella was transformed into something as cruel and deranged as the system she’s working in. Moreover, a central tenet of any decent revenge thriller is the notion of revenge as a self-destructive endeavor. It’s the risk of becoming a monster, the risk of dying or potentially worse, in the pursuit of monsters. Walt Disney Pictures cannot do a revenge thriller. The multinational conglomerate jealously protective of its own family-friendly image cannot possibly go as dark as any halfway decent revenge thriller demands, certainly not in one of their billion-dollar live-action remakes.

The film doesn’t work as a depiction of Cruella de Vil, because it jettisons or outright contradicts everything that ever made the character such a deeply satisfying hate sink. It doesn’t work as a sympathetic origin story, because that depends on cowardly cop-outs and melodramatic reveals that are laughable in the extreme. It wants to be a movie about family, but can’t put together a coherent statement on the topic. It wants to be a revenge movie, but the filmmakers weren’t willing to go anywhere near that dark.

With all of that being said, the movie does at least work as a kind of heist movie. It was genuinely satisfying to watch Cruella and company put together and carry out some intricate plan to rob and/or humiliate the Baroness, and quite a few of Cruella’s stunts are genuinely creative. But of course the real star here is in the costume and production design. There can be little doubt that most of the money and effort went into making sure this movie looked good, and it does indeed look phenomenal.

I was also nicely surprised to hear some neat little needle-drops in here, taking full advantage of the 1970s period setting. Though of course, some musical choices were far more overt than others — I doubt anyone would be surprised to hear that “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones is prominently featured. I might add that another prime spot was given to… “Smile” by Jimmy Durante.

Seriously, are we all 100 percent confident that Joker (2019) wasn’t a huge influence on this movie? Even in post? Because that seems to me like a clear giveaway.

Cruella doesn’t work as a cohesive story and it doesn’t earn the right to exist. Though it does at least have the nerve to try telling its own story instead of rehashing a prior one, it still falls into the recurring live-action Disney remake trap of trying to accomplish everything (read: pander to everyone) and succeed at nothing. The entire plot collapses because the filmmakers can’t commit to any one direction.

But then, this movie was doomed for obvious reasons from the get-go. It’s perfectly obvious that the film was made for purely superficial reasons and it was made to be enjoyed superficially. So if you want something brainless and beautiful, every bit as shallow as your typical CGI blockbuster but not as loud or as violent, here’s your ticket.

A Quiet Place, Part II

Posted May 29, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

I don’t like John Krasinski.

I know I’m in the minority on this, but the man lost a lot of points with me for his “Some Good News” side project in 2020. He made a YouTube series with celebrity cameos and inoffensive fluff, raising millions of dollars for charity in the process. All well and good. But then he sold the series to Viacom after a heated bidding war, adding onto the millions he already had because the series “wasn’t sustainable.” With no plan for any further involvement with the show.

Yeah, tell that to the umpteen million YouTubers who’ve spent literal years editing and uploading videos. The ones who’ve spent their entire adult lives honing their craft, vigilantly adapting to the ever-changing whims of the YouTube algorithms. The ones who have to beg for sponsors and Patreon backers because they don’t have representation with a huge Hollywood agency, much less millions of dollars and celebrity connections. These social media filmmakers have the work ethic, the ingenuity, and/or the desperation to keep a show going on for longer than two freaking months, while Krasinski simply threw up his hands and sold the show off to a global conglomerate because he couldn’t find any other way of making it profitable.

I’ll grant that Krasinski raised $2 million for various charities, and I’m sure that money did a lot of good. But I have to wonder how much money a famous Hollywood A-lister (and his wife, who’s arguably even more successful and famous) might have directly donated out of his own pocket, rather than asking their viewers (many of whom were probably unemployed or put deeper in debt by the pandemic) to pass the hat around.

Furthermore, I realize that SGN was specifically meant to be light and inoffensive by nature, and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who found any kind of enjoyment from his show in a godawful year when enjoyment was very badly needed. But it’s worth asking how Krasinski might have used his platform to talk about the Brooklyn bus driver who refused to help the police transport protesters to jail. Or the police reforms prompted by the summer of “Black Lives Matter” protests. Or the news that for the first time in 130 years, U.S. consumption of renewable energy surpassed coal. You know, something that was both uplifting and constructive, to show that our efforts toward a better world actually mean something despite all depressing evidence to the contrary.

With all that being said, and despite all my misgivings about SGN and the subsequent impression that Krasinski is a fraud more interested in his own bottom line than in making a tangible difference, I still can’t bring myself to hate the guy. For that matter, I’ve been a fan of Emily Blunt since Edge of Tomorrow. They’re both wonderful actors, they seem like a perfectly lovely couple, and there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that either one of them are overt assholes.

It also helps that I really liked A Quiet Place, an immersive, innovative, and heartfelt work of sci-fi/action/horror. And I’d say it deserves bonus points simply by virtue of being a horror franchise with not a single goddamn thing to do with that fucker Jason Blum. That in itself makes it a novelty unlike anything else in the marketplace right now.

So here’s A Quiet Place Part II, which takes place immediately after the first entry, following a prologue that chronicles the first arrival of the invading aliens. The prologue serves as a convenient excuse to get John Krasinski in front of the camera, as his character is too dead to appear after the events of Part I. The prologue also retcons in a friend of the family (Emmett, played by Cillian Murphy) whom we’ll meet later on.

Though it’s worth mentioning that even after the events of Part I, none of the characters will ever shut up about Krasinski’s character. I get that these kids lost their father and they need time to grieve. I get that he was a prominent character in the first movie and it’s only right that he should be a prominent off-screen presence in the sequel. That’s all totally fair. But when he’s mentioned this many times in such glowing terms, and the characters will take so many thinly-contrived excuses to circle every discussion and argument back around to him, it becomes a matter of the writer/director’s ego.

Then again, it’s not like the script is any great shakes. So much of the dialogue falls flat, and it’s tragic how many people act like total idiots. In particular, Marcus (played by Noah Jupe) must have taken a couple dozen blows to the head with an Idiot Stick for all the boneheaded plays he makes here. More importantly, for all the experience that humans have had with these aliens by now, it’s depressing how many of them get to screaming and frantically running from the monsters who depend solely on their hyper-developed hearing.

I might add that Djimon Hounsou is wasted to the point of outrage here, and Scoot McNairy’s character didn’t even get a name or a line! As for Cillian Murphy, his prior history with our main cast doesn’t amount to much and the character himself is sadly unremarkable. However, it’s worth noting that Emmett has lost his wife and children, which gives him some pathos for our main characters to connect with. Also — unlike our main family — Emmett doesn’t know ESL, and that language barrier makes for a neat new dynamic between the characters.

Which brings us to our returning characters. I’m happy to report that Emily Blunt’s character is just as badass as she ever was, and I was genuinely thrilled to see Millicent Simmonds take center stage. She’s a bright young up-and-comer and this movie thoroughly proves why she needs more work ASAP, hearing disability be damned. Alas, while Noah Jupe does the best he can with what he’s got, his character is sidelined due to an early injury and he’s brought down by the aforementioned litany of bad calls.

It’s noteworthy that the sequel takes the step of splitting up our family, with Regan (that would be Simmonds’ character) doing everything that advances the plot while the other characters more or less sit around and watch the baby, mind the homestead, etc. The family dynamic is such a crucial part of this franchise that I don’t know if I agree with the choice to send them on different paths. But on the other hand, the editing is loaded with some fantastic cuts that keep the plotlines on parallel tracks, especially during that crackerjack third act. Perhaps more importantly, if the last film was about parents stepping up to take care of their kids, this film is about kids stepping up to return the favor, and that’s made abundantly clear in the satisfactory arcs given to Regan and Marcus.

Otherwise, everything that was great about the first movie is still great here. The film is 97 minutes long, and it moves at a breathtaking pace. The sound design and score are astounding, and the film sets a whole new bar for visual storytelling. The horror and action are bolstered by the premise, such that even the cheapest jump scare raises the tension in a way that couldn’t be done in any other horror franchise. And the cherry on top is that this time, we see a lot more of the aliens, and they look fantastic. We still need a decent in-canon name for them, though.

The bottom line with A Quiet Place Part II is that Krasinski is far more talented as a director than as a writer. Much as I appreciate Simmonds’ character given such a central role (and Simmonds herself knocks it out of the park), that didn’t mean half the cast had to sit around with nothing constructive to do. And while most of the dialogue is either ESL or nonexistent, the brief lines of spoken dialogue pretty much all land flat on the floor.

Yet the actors all deliver phenomenal performances when they only have expressions and gestures to work with, and the visual filmmaking as a whole is sublime. Hell, the film is a technical marvel in pretty much every regard, and the film works impeccably well as a work of horror unlike anything else in the industry.

For all its faults, the film is absolutely a worthy sequel and anyone who liked the first film would do well to check this out. I’m on board with where the franchise goes from here, on condition that Krasinski checks his ego at the door. If he tries to shoehorn his character into the third movie somehow, I’m out.

Army of the Dead

Posted May 23, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

Back in 2007, Zack and Deborah Snyder signed a first-look deal with Warner Bros through their Cruel and Unusual Films production shingle (now called “The Stone Quarry”). The deal was reportedly for two years at the time, but apparently went on for quite a bit longer. Ten years later, following the heartbreaking news of Autumn Snyder’s passing, WB promptly extended their first-look deal, allowing Zack Snyder more time to work on developing projects when he finally decided to return to filmmaking. I don’t know what happened to that first-look deal, but I can only assume the extension didn’t last long.

Ever since the infamous Snyder Cut of Justice League finally dropped, HBO Max and Netflix have been in a highly contentious bidding war, both of them vying for an exclusivity deal with Snyder. As of May 13th, it appears that no deal has been made yet. But given Snyder’s vocal displeasure with WB in recent months, spilling all sorts of tea with regards to their previous dealings — to say nothing of WarnerMedia’s humiliating merge with Discovery, only three years after the catastrophic AT&T buyout — I’d personally be very surprised if Snyder signed back on with HBO Max.

So here’s Army of the Dead, a Netflix release in which Zack Snyder presents a zombie heist thriller. It’s worth noting that while Snyder once again presents zombies that are mobile and animated — more like primal beasts than shambling ghouls — there’s otherwise no connection to his breakout 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake.

I might add that Netflix is apparently so desperate to appease Snyder that they already have an anime spin-off series in the works, and a prequel movie that wrapped production in December 2020. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Our premise begins with a military convoy, carrying highly volatile cargo out of Area 51. I won’t go into details about what goes wrong with the convoy, except to say that a fleet of heavily armored trucks was somehow blown to smithereens by an errant Oldsmobile. (Your tax dollars at work.) Anyway, the payload turns out to be an alpha zombie (named “Zeus” in the credits, played by Richard Cetrone) who kills or infects the remaining soldiers and turns his attentions to the nearest city: Las Vegas.

An opening credits montage later, and all of Vegas has been overrun by zombies. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the entire city of Vegas has been walled off, and the zombies have apparently been contained within the city limits. (One supposes that quarantine is that much easier in a city surrounded by so many hundreds of miles of desert.)

Though of course the walls haven’t been enough to keep certain idiots out of the city. For one thing, there are too many adrenaline junkies who want to go out and shoot some zombies for fun and social media glory. More importantly, it’s still freaking Las Vegas. There are still slot machines and cash registers and God knows how much money left for foolhardy looters.

Enter Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), the multibillionaire owner of the fictional Bly’s hotel on the Vegas Strip. Tanaka left $200 million in his deserted hotel, and insurance has already paid that money back, but the cash is still waiting there and ready for the taking. All he needs is a team that’s ready and willing to go in there, get through the security countermeasures, and get out with the money.

(Side note: We’re explicitly told that Tanaka’s hotel has a pair of towers inexplicably named “Sodom” and “Gomorrah”. WTF?)

He goes to Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), a man who had the good fortune of rescuing the Secretary of Defense at some point in the zombie outbreak. Alas, Scott also had to personally kill his wife after she turned, and he’s on the outs with his daughter (Kate, played by Ella Purnell), who’s now a volunteer offering humanitarian aid to the refugees. Thus we meet Scott while he’s flipping burgers for a living, and of course he’s all too happy to put a team together for a few million dollars.

  • Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick) is another soldier like Scott, but he’s an artist with a buzzsaw and explosives.
  • Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera) is a mechanic who fancies herself a love interest for Scott.
  • Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer) is the wimpy safecracker.
  • Lilly (Nora Arnezeder) is the guide who shows our team how to breach and safely navigate the quarantine zone.
  • Martin (Garrett Dillahunt) is Tanaka’s dickish head of security, tagging along to help our team through the security measures of the hotel.
  • Peters (Tig Notaro, stepping in for the disgraced Chris D’Elia) is the getaway helicopter pilot.
  • Guzman (Raul Castillo) is a social media star known for killing zombies.
  • Theo Rossi and Samantha Win play disposable zombie fodder.

We have our team in place, but there’s a time limit. Congress just authorized the president to take the extraordinary measure of dropping a nuclear bomb onto Las Vegas, wiping the city off the map while eradicating the zombie plague. The nukes are set to fly within three days.

Matters are further complicated by Geeta (Huma Qureshi), a friend of Kate’s and a Vegas refugee. Geeta was last seen entering the Vegas city limits in a desperate attempt at getting money to support her two young children. Thus Kate insists on joining the team to look for Geeta, which means that now Scott has to look after the safety of his untrained, unequipped, estranged daughter.

The heist gimmick and the nuclear ticking clock both make for a solidly creative zombie movie premise. And it goes sour pretty much immediately.

First of all, Zack Snyder served as his own DoP here, and the resulting movie serves to prove why this is a bad idea. Between the aggressive shaky-cam, the impenetrable shadows, and the numerous shots that are obscured by shooting out of focus, huge stretches of this movie are borderline unwatchable. Within the very first minutes of the film, I was literally straining my eyes to get any idea of what I was looking at. Even worse, the visuals are so wretched that it’s often hard to keep the geography straight, something very important to action scenes in particular and any heist movie in general.

(Side note: I was amused to see a background joke in tribute to Larry Fong, a marvelous cinematographer who’s also an accomplished stage magician and a frequent collaborator with Zack Snyder. Where the hell was he when this film was in production, I wonder?!)

That said, the far bigger problem is that as soon as our team successfully breaks into the Vegas city limits, the film loses whatever novelty it had. There may still be a heist going on, but when the characters become more concerned with getting out of the city alive, the heist itself is almost an afterthought. It also doesn’t help that the characters are reduced to boilerplate zombie movie tropes in no time flat, and we’re barely given any indication of why these characters want or need to make it out alive with the money.

And no, I don’t care that these zombies are athletic. That doesn’t win Snyder any points for creativity when he and his legion of imitators drove that idea into the ground nearly twenty freaking years ago. And when one character raises the point that zombies might actually be better than humans because at least zombies aren’t covetous or treacherous… seriously, do I even need to explain why that’s bullshit logic?

With all of that said, it’s not like the entire movie is a wash. Though Anna and the Apocalypse (yes, I’m still reeling from how much I loved that movie, shut up) had a couple of novel gags involving disembodied zombie heads, this one takes the concept to a whole new level. I would also submit that any movie featuring a man getting mauled to death by a zombie tiger can’t be a complete waste of time. Ditto for a film with a climactic battle between a man and a zombie in a helicopter. Best of all, we’ve got a primary antagonist zombie (that would be the aforementioned Zeus) who wears a bulletproof helmet into battle. That’s the kind of stupidly awesome that I’m here for.

Even so, it’s hard to give the movie too much credit for those bright spots when it’s been so painfully bloated to two and a half hours. Any movie that leans this heavily on established zombie tropes and cliches (ie: cinematic shorthand) should’ve capped off at two hours, tops.

Furthermore, the pacing is laughably bad in spots. A colleague of mine introduced me to the concept of “coffee breaks”, in which the characters take a breather and talk candidly, letting each other (and the audience) know about what they’re going through and who they are. These moments are important, but there’s a time and place for them. With all due respect, maybe it’s not the best time for these characters to talk about their feelings while they’re scrambling to move $200 million in cash and they’re minutes away from dying in a goddamn nuclear blast.

Dave Bautista is the standout of the cast, here crushing every last opportunity to prove himself a far better actor than he’s ever been given credit for. And I had never even heard of Nora Arnezeder before this picture, but she can play a badass like nobody’s business. Sadly, nobody else in the cast registers as much more than featureless zombie bait.

Don’t get me wrong, as much as I like Ella Purnell and Garrett Dillahunt, the both of them were actively fighting against the script, struggling to make something new and memorable out of such tired archetypes and boilerplate dialogue. Moreover, while I genuinely like Tig Notaro and Hiroyuki Sanada (Though seriously, who doesn’t like Hiroyuki Sanada?), the both of them were kept so far removed from the heist that they barely got any screen time.

(Side note: Given the time, money, and effort that got put into erasing an alleged sexual predator from the movie, perhaps it’s a mercy that Peters’ screentime was so brief and the part went to a much better actor.)

As a rule, any movie that feels like a chore to sit through isn’t looking forward to a good write-up. And when I say that Army of the Dead was painful to sit through, I mean that it literally hurt my eyes. The shaky, darkly-lit, out-of-focus shots were such an eyesore that the simple act of trying to figure out what’s on the screen was often more trouble than it was worth. And honest to God, I wouldn’t have minded the predictable plot or the threadbare characters if the filmmakers had capitalized on that established audience shorthand to keep the film under two hours. As it is, the movie’s better points have been so thoroughly diluted that it’s nowhere near enough to justify sitting through this 150-minute flick.

Sorry, but there’s no way I can recommend this one. And if this is the big original IP that Zack Snyder wants to hang his hat on, then he’s in bigger trouble than we thought.

Spiral

Posted May 22, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

Gentle readers, this review is dedicated to new beginnings.

As of this typing, the CDC reports that 61.1 percent of American adults have one or both COVID vaccination shots. Though new COVID-related cases and deaths are still coming in, they are on the decline.

Yes, the pandemic continues, and COVID will continue to be a worldwide problem for the foreseeable future. Moreover, we’re living in a world where countless businesses have been shuttered permanently, and over 3.4 million people are no longer with us. Those who survived a COVID diagnosis may have to deal with long-term health effects, those who’ve lost loved ones will have to carry on with their grief, and all of us will have to keep on living with the collective trauma of 2020.

We will spend the rest of our lives in a post-COVID world. But as the vaccine becomes more widespread, businesses open back up, and mask mandates gradually loosen, we’re starting to see what that post-COVID world will look like.

For my part, I went to a house party — an honest-to-God house party, with shared food and no masks! — just a couple days ago. Earlier today, I went shopping at a mall, I hung out with some friends, and I went back to a restaurant that was boarded up through all of 2020. And right now, I’m typing this intro in the main auditorium of the Regal Lloyd Center 10 — long one of my favorite multiplexes — which just reopened yesterday.

And in the spirit of new beginnings, today’s review will be for a soft reboot of a franchise I have zero familiarity with. Of course I know about the Saw franchise from pop culture osmosis, but I’ve never seen any of the films for myself. So let’s see what we’ve got, shall we?

Well, first of all, Spiral takes place in a world where the events of the Saw franchise very clearly happened, but the killer is merely a Jigsaw copycat and absolutely none of the characters are connected with the prior entries in any way. In fact, for better or worse, this really does feel like someone took a totally unrelated crime thriller Se7en knockoff script, then filed off the serial numbers and slapped the Saw franchise brand name onto it. Make of that what you will.

The kicker here is that this particular serial killer has a pig motif, complete with a pig mask and a little pig marionette puppet. And fittingly, his targets are crooked police officers. So here we have a vigilante trying to affect systemic change by brutally murdering corrupt law enforcement officers, potentially saving innocent civilians by killing and/or scaring to death the cops who tend to shoot first and ask questions never. It’s a timely and genuinely interesting moral conundrum we’ve got here.

Our sleuth is Detective Zeke Banks, played by Chris Rock, of all people. Zeke is the son of a retired yet still highly respected police chief (Marcus Banks, played by Samuel L. Jackson), so Zeke has to deal with accusations of nepotism on top of his own crippling daddy issues. More importantly, Zeke turned in a crooked cop early in his career, which has since made him persona non grata among his colleagues in the force. So Zeke is a hopelessly jaded cop who’s resigned himself to the fact that he’s going to die alone (very likely at the hands of his fellow cops), yet he keeps on trying to be a good police officer in spite of himself.

Incidentally, it hasn’t escaped my attention that this is a movie about police brutality, and our main characters are black police officers. The movie never thinks to comment on this, and indeed, there’s no shred of racial commentary anywhere in the film. Probably for the best, as the filmmakers likely weren’t equipped to go there, but I digress.

Anyway, our first murder victim was conveniently one of Zeke’s few remaining friends on the force, so he has a personal stake in finding the killer. And those personal stakes get even deeper as the victims turn out to be crooked cops that Zeke has taken issue with in the past, and so Zeke himself turns out to be a surprisingly viable suspect.

To address the cast, there are only two actors worth addressing. We’ve seen Chris Rock try to act as a leading man while pretending that he isn’t a comedian (the Fargo TV series, Two Days in New York, and The Witches all come immediately to mind), and this is pretty much more of the same, except a lot grumpier. Though his comedic talents give Zeke’s bitter outlook an especially venomous edge, so there’s that. And as for Samuel L. Jackson… well, it’s Samuel L. Jackson. You know what you’re getting.

But does the film work as a horror? Well, the big problem with the traps is that while they make a clever kind of symbolic sense, there’s absolutely no plausible way anyone could survive them. Even the best case scenario would result in so much blood loss that survival would be impossible. Thus the death of each victim is basically a fait accompli — in fact, a couple of traps are presented in flashback after the victim has already died — rendering the horror and suspense entirely void.

What’s even worse for the horror aspect is how freaking loud this movie is. Every single jump scare is accentuated by a painfully loud music sting that’s more obnoxious than terrifying. It’s the horror equivalent of a laugh track, an artificial means of telling the audience that this is where we’re supposed to be scared. I don’t know if that’s how the franchise operated twenty freaking years ago, but it sure as hell isn’t scary now. Speaking of which, all the speed ramping and quick cuts and varying color saturation only further attempt to make the traps look scarier and more exciting than they really are.

This is one of the fundamental problems with the Saw franchise and its legion of imitators. “Torture horror” was apparently built on the assumption that the kill itself is the most terrifying moment. In truth, the most terrifying moment is in those precious few seconds immediately before the scare, when we know that something is coming, but we don’t know when or what or from where. Alas, I never got that kind of dread anywhere in this movie.

So does it work as a murder mystery? I’d actually say that it does… right up until the big reveal. It’s a painfully narrow miss, but the reveal unfortunately depends on some key pieces of information that were needlessly withheld from the audience up to that point. More importantly, there are certain witnesses whose presence (or lack thereof) would’ve immediately tipped off Zeke and the audience if anyone had ever even attempted to reach out to them at the proper time.

The premise to Spiral deserved so much better than to be part of a franchise primarily known for spitting out low-budget sequels once a year. The basic notion of an honest police detective hunting down a vigilante who’s murdering crooked cops is a genuinely fascinating premise, and the film is at its best when it plays into that. Unfortunately, the surrounding film was very clearly made by people who wanted a fast and cheap production, and not necessarily a scary movie or a well-told story. There’s blood and gore aplenty, but no suspense and not enough attention paid to the mystery’s big reveal.

Still, Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson are always entertaining to watch. I can recommend a home video rental for their sake.