Category Archives: Film

A Quiet Place (2018)

I saw A Quiet Place more than a week ago now, but I’ve been distracted by too many other things (work, D&D, personal stuff, probably more) to remember to write a review. The short version is, it was good!

The longer version is that it was a very spare, quiet movie that indicates John Krasinski[1] has a future as a director. I mean, haha, quiet, but the truth is, it may be some of the most effective uses of sound and lack of sound that I’ve ever, um, seen. See, there are these monsters[2] who move incredibly fast and hunt by sound. So, if you make much noise anywhere, they’ll get to you in seconds rather than minutes, and if you make noise when they’re close, they’ll just get to you. Also they’re powerful and indestructible. So, life in this modern world kind of sucks.

Perfect setting for a family drama, right? This particular family has one deaf child, which made them uniquely suited for quiet communication, and they’ve done a good job of sound-proofing their pretty much everything. But there are conflicts that it would be spoilers to describe further, and there’s a new baby on the way, and they are about to have a very, very bad day.

So: yes, this is a horror movie. But I’m not sure that is the primary classification, because the interrelationships are a lot more important than the body count. Even if it wouldn’t normally be your thing, I say give it a chance.

[1] If you know him, you know him as Jim from The Office.
[2] Where did they come from? Why are they hunting? (They don’t seem to eat, only destroy.) We won’t ever know, the monsters are setting rather than plot.

Red Sparrow

I want to talk about the fact that the last three movies I’ve seen theatrically[1] have touched on the action genre and had female leads, but I’m not certain Red Sparrow is the movie best suited as a capstone to that rare achievement. Because Jennifer Lawrence’s dancer[2] turned honeypot spy is explicitly free of any kind of agency. I mean, that is what the film is about, start to finish.

Please don’t take that as spoilers; it’s theme. (It’s not even revealed theme, it has been hammered home before the end of the first act.) Within that framework is a taut spy thriller full of head fakes and direction changes that could as easily be set in 1988 as 2018, save only some pieces of technology that indicate one direction over another.

So if you like that kind of movie, it’s a fine example of the genre, and I enjoyed the roller coaster; plus it’s nice that it doesn’t feel too modern, considering Russian spycraft and its effect on modernity. If you don’t like this kind of movie, it does not rise above its type. But that’s okay! It fills a niche I hadn’t visited in quite a while, and fills it well.

Also: if you want to pretend that the character’s name is Natasha Romanov, I do not believe that hurts the film one whit, so go to town. But it is guaranteed that Marvel could never have made this movie.

[1] without going out of my way to make it happen, is a key aspect of why that matters.
[2] A thing that impressed me is, they took an entire other take on the psychological thriller genre and compressed it down into ten minutes when it would easily have supported an entire move all on its own. This is a dense one!

Tomb Raider

The single biggest problem with Tomb Raider as a movie is that it’s based on a video game. I mean, it’s based on the truly outstanding reboot of the original series, and that helps a lot. But it’s a really solid modern take on the 1930s pulp adventures serials, in much the same way that Raiders of the Lost Ark was a really solid modern take on those same serials when it came out in 1981, but this is nearly two generations later and so the modernism is taken up a few notches, is all. (Also, it’s not set in the 1930s, which, good call.) And to the extent that it was rushed and messy, that extent is because it was following the broad script of a game that you play for twenty plus hours, and yet was given only two hours to tell that story.

The story is this: Lara Croft is a wealthy young heiress to a fortune about which she cares nothing; her only interest is in finding her missing father, who she refuses to accept is dead even though his estate is about to dry up from underneath her since nobody is in charge of it due to his years’ long absence. And she goes looking for him, but it’s one of those “goes looking for” kinds of stories where the person you really find is yourself. Will Lara Croft, rebellious twenty-something who spends her time kickboxing and racing bicycles become Lara Croft, globe-trotting, er, tomb raider? I mean, duh, but not in this movie. This movie is how she finds out those things about herself, while in the midst of drive-in movie mayhem. I wish I’d realized soon enough to keep up the drive-in totals, Joe Bob style, but I can assure you that there is a body count, faces melt, dicks get punched, the whole shebang.

But since she starts off as a novice and ends up far from that space, two hours is maybe not enough time to really buy into her ability to survive on her own, take down an army of mercenaries, and solve archaeological and literal puzzles along the way. To be fair, that’s not entirely what the movie is about the way the game was, but it’s a little close for comfort. My prediction is that the sequel I’m hoping for will do better, since it won’t have to spend any time establishing her credentials, and since it maybe won’t be based on a different game (that I have yet to play, but maybe this year?).

My point is, there’s a great series here, and if they realize it, it will be better than the pretty good movie I watched last night.

Annihilation

Thanks, random invite to a sneak preview from Alamo Drafthouse! The last one of these I got was for Mother!, which I liked quite a lot. This time, Annihilation. Which, like the last one, is pretty hard to describe, but unlike the last one, doesn’t hold together quite as well on reflection. That’s not a big criticism, mind you. I really liked Mother! a lot. Just not in a rewatch it kind of way, whereas this one I think I could.

See, Natalie Portman, because reasons, is going on a mission into a weird area of land called the Shimmer, in which (per the sentence long description on IMDB) the laws of nature don’t apply; and also previous missions have not ever returned. From there, a movie length mind trip[1][2] ensues, in which Natalie is accompanied by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jane the Virgin, and the Valkyrie on a quest to solve the mystery of the Shimmer.

That’s quite enough to say, I suppose. It’s nice to see a movie with very few men just a few days after seeing a movie with only one white person. It would be I guess nicer if it didn’t also have the feeling of being bread and circuses while I ignore the shitshow outside.

[1] As you can tell from the poster’s color palette alone
[2] One reason for a rewatch, besides that I’m not afflicted with underlying disturbed feelings from this movie, is that I know I missed a lot of things and would find the second time rewarding towards deciding if I think they stuck the landing or not.

Black Panther

It took me until Monday night to see Black Panther, which was in a way annoying but in another way heartening. Tickets all Sunday afternoon and evening were sold out down to the front couple of rows, you see. This pleases me, both for the studio and the character. And not having seen it on Thursday night, it’s not like my review was going to factor into much of anything at all, so.

The thing is, T’Challa is a compelling character and Wakanda is a compelling nation. There is a book that I have not read called Guns, Germs, and Steel that lays out an (as I understand it) compelling case for the idea that European dominance of the colonial and modern world has a lot more to do with geography and resources than with any innate superiority of its peoples. Enter Wakanda, a small African nation whose technology is far ahead of any part of the world not personally owned by Tony Stark, because that happens to be where a huge chunk of vibranium[1] landed lo these thousands or millions of years ago, and the Wakandans happened to get there first. And you can say that this is so much wish fulfillment. Probably that’s true? But it’s awfully comfortable saying that if you happen to be the person whose wish was fulfilled by reality instead of the person whose wish was not.

And to a large extent, that’s where my review ends, because as cool as the Black Panther is, and as fun as it was to see him rushing around the world fighting some of his biggest name enemies from the comics, and as well realized as his fellow Wakandans each were, and as socially and historically relevant as Killmonger’s origin story is, the real star of this movie was Wakanda. And they did that country up right, every bit as well as Asgard or Ego have been presented in previous MCU flicks.

[1] It’s what Captain America’s shield is made out of. More to the point, it’s virtually indestructible and has a number of rather intriguing properties in addition to this that make it a boon to scientific and military advancements over time. It’s, y’know, handwavium.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Did you know that they are still making Harry Potter movies? It’s true! But I got distracted and never actually saw Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them until now. (Not Black Panther like you’d think. I tried, but all the theaters with assigned seating were sold out down to the front rows today, so I still don’t get to go until Monday. That’s like five days of avoiding spoilers, you guys. Then again, I managed to go more than a year with functionally no spoilers on this Harry Potter thing I’m nominally reviewing, and that includes steadfastly ignoring the newest third of the Harry Potter exhibit on the Warner Bros. studio tour.)

So, a thing worth mentioning is that this technically was not a Harry Potter movie, seeing as how it was set in 1927, some 50 odd years before the boy who lived was even born. There’s this guy Newt Scamander, who wrote a book called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and this is a story of him hanging out in America with a suitcase full of fantastic beasts, back when nobody really liked them (the beasts, not suitcases) and they were illegal to have instead of worthy of being studied and written about, and also there was a pre-Voldemort wizard bad guy that everyone is nervous about.

So if you care about cool magical creatures (you should) or how American wizardry differs from British wizardry in time as well as space (maybe you should?) or about characters who all share a sense of wonder about this whole magic thing even though they were born to it instead of being thrust into it as a cipher stand-in for the reader, and also they all care about each other and have genuine undeniable chemistry, both as actors and as characters (you definitely should, as this kind of thing honestly doesn’t happen that often), this is the movie for you. In a way, it’s better than its source material.

Not that I don’t like Harry Potter, but chosen ones who learn about the universe as the reader or watcher does with constantly ratcheting stakes are kind of a dime a dozen these days, whereas successful post facto world-building is a rare gem indeed.

Hush (2016)

I’m excited by the Olympics, because it apparently means nobody is airing any opposing television, which means I have time to watch movies! Hence Hush, the random horror movie on Netflix I picked to watch a few nights ago when Mary had already fallen asleep but it was very early.

Premise: deaf-mute lady author in the woods. Later, a guy in a creepy mask shows up and stalks her, because sometimes shitty dudes with crossbows gonna be shitty. Then, seventy minutes of ratcheting cat and mouse tension. Tiny cast, ironically great sound editing, and otherwise, either you like this kind of thing or you don’t, y’know? Obviously I do, and this was an excellent example of the genre with basically nothing to disrecommend it.

 

Bright

When I was in LA in mid-December, I saw posters everywhere for a Netflix movie called Bright, starring Will Smith. It was to be released in like a week, but I had never heard of it before that weekend. No idea why, really. I mean, I suppose the fact that 90% of LA billboards are advertising for the screen instead of like 20% here in Dallas could account for part of the reason?

Anyway, it looked interesting. See, it’s the modern world as we know it, except orcs are the stand-in for the downtrodden classes, elves are the stand-in for the wealthy and powerful classes who don’t want to be bothered with having to acknowledge that there even is an underclass who got a raw deal, and humans are the stand-in for, y’know, whoever fits in between the two extremes I just detailed. Oh, also, there was a Dark Lord a long time ago, and people hate orcs because they were on his side then. Institutionalized racism at its finest, folks!

And, frankly, that’s the problem with the movie in a nutshell. Someone decided that, oh, cool, we can highlight the massive race and class problems in America by using fantasy race stand-ins! …and then they didn’t really do anything else with the idea except point at it over and over again. For example: at one point, cop Will Smith and his orc partner (who is the first ever orc policeman, and if you guessed that both every orc and every cop hates him, then you already see my point here) are interviewing some hispanic folks in a house, and they’re speaking Spanish, which Will Smith knows and the orc does not. But it’s okay, because Will Smith doesn’t speak orcish when they’re in the orc gang hideout, and, oh, wait, why do elves speak elvish and orcs speak orcish, but humans have all the same languages we’re already used to since it’s regular earth? It’s possible this shouldn’t bother me as much as it does, but it’s just so damned shoddy!

Anyway, yeah. Buddy cop movie with high tension between the nominal buddies, and there’s a lot of magic floating around via all-powerful wands that most people can’t touch without just exploding to death, and of the people who can, mostly they’re only elves, but also the world is so shitty that people would go ahead and grab a wand anyway if they were just laying around because hey, if you don’t explode, cosmic power is yours for the wishing. And I’m pretty okay with that as a setting, but man, the clumsily (and, worse) lazily-handled race stuff ruins the whole thing for me.

But I hear it did well and there’s a sequel, so maybe they can focus on Dark Lords and magic next time, or at least have someone set them straight on how to not build ridiculous caricatures that we’ve all seen before. (I should say: the opening credits of the movie highlight the tensions and problems of both their world and ours extremely well, so much better than the plot or dialogue ever came close to.)

Minty: The Assassin

While at my folks’ for the weekend, I ended up diving into the free streaming service Dish Network has to offer, in search of the Maze Runner movies. Unsuccessfully, as it happened, but while plumbing the depths of the “action movies from 2010s” section (since they don’t seem to have a search function), I stumbled across Minty: The Assassin, which probably was a mistake.

Minty (and the other characters) are comic book characters who exist in real life in the world that writes comics about them. This is not really a new idea; it pretty much lines up exactly with how Marvel has always run its comics division, for example. Anyway, after a series of really inexplicable vignettes in which we are introduced to Minty (her power is like Popeye, except she eats chocolate), her vampire potential girlfriend, and her mentor Big Boss, the meat of the movie begins when Big Boss is kidnapped by a psychic surgeon and used as bait to lure Minty to his tower. She fights her way up the tower past various colorful level bosses, losing bits of clothing as she goes, only to discover (okay, spoiler alert I guess, but seriously, don’t watch this) that it was all a set-up. The point of the kidnapping was to get her naked to the top of the tower, because Dr. Brain Bender is actually a creepazoid fan of her comic, and he wanted to see her with her clothes off.

Leaving aside the inherent contradiction of stripping her down in pursuit of an anti-sexism plot, the movie nevertheless had the germ of a good idea there. He’s clearly a bad guy, and he’s clearly a crazy loser, and you can at least imagine someone taking the message to heart. ….except that the final 15 minutes is exploitative in the extreme, of the characters and the audience alike. The fact that the bad guy gets assassined in the end really doesn’t make up for how sleazy the path to his death was.

Avoid.

Get Out

A year late, right? Summary, in case you’re as far behind the curve as I am: A mixed race 20-somethings couple visits the lady’s white family’s estate out in the boondocks (or, as you call it when you’re rich, “by the lake”), and the dude feels less comfortable / more out of place with every passing hour.  Especially once the annual reunion gathering thingy kicks into gear. I wish I could say that the year of knowledge that Get Out existed and of the largely untouched niche it occupied was the reason I found it so predictable, but that’s not it. The truth is, the plot developments I guessed as the movie progressed, I would have been able to guess last February if I’d seen it then at the drive-in, as God intended.

The good news is, that’s not really a flaw of the movie. When you are writing a horror movie[1] as social commentary, it is understood that you amplify the fear you are exploring. And (he said, without meaning to appropriate anyone’s experience so much as simply to agree with the portrayal here) the black man’s fear of being the outsider / his fear of the white man broadly in general is not a genre that has been explored particularly thoroughly. Anger, displacement, revenge fantasies? Sure, since the heady blaxploitation days of the 1970s. But actual fear? Not so much.

What makes me sad is that the kind of people who see nothing wrong with being afraid of walking through the so-called ‘hood will probably not ever have seen this, and would probably roll their eyes at how over the top ridiculous the movie is, if they did see it. Like I said: over the top is the point, and it doesn’t detract from very real fear. It just casts a light upon it, to make it easier to see.

Also, though, the scene with the flashing cop car lights was by far the most frightening-to-me thing that happened, and there’s nothing exaggerative in that scene at all.

[1] I’m not sure this properly is a horror movie, and my tag reflects this, but it’s certainly close enough to go on with.