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Joker (2019)

There has been a lot of discussion over Joker, a new dark R-rated spinoff unrelated to other comic book movies and directed by the man who gave the world The Hangover films. Director/co-writer Todd Phillips desired to tell a character-driven drama that explored how Batman’s most notorious villain, and perhaps the most widely known villain of all pop culture, became exactly the clown he is. Some people said the Joker didn’t need a back-story, others said that Phillips had no place dabbling into the realm of superhero cinema, and there were plenty of others who expressed unease that the movie might inadvertently serve as an inspiration for disaffected loners looking for encouragement to make others feel their pain and suffering. After all those think pieces and cultural hand-wringing, Joker, as the actual movie, isn’t quite the transgressive experience that others feared and that the movie very much wants you to believe.

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a quiet, pathetic man who is being ground down by the forces in his life. He has a unique medical condition that causes him to break out in hysterical laughter when he’s nervous or upset, which only makes others feel nervous and upset. It’s hard for him to keep his job as a for-hire clown and his therapy and medicine are being eliminated thanks to budget cuts. He cares for his elderly mother (Frances Conroy), crushes on an attractive neighbor (Zazie Beetz), and dreams of being a stand-up comic who will one day grace the set of his favorite late-night talk show host, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Arthur’s life changes from one night of extreme violence and how it shapes his concept of himself and society. He’s tired of feeling bad for who he is and he’s going to realize his true potential on the biggest stage.

There’s something, excuse the modern parlance, quite “edgelord” about the film and its artistic approach. It’s very eager to be dangerous, edgy, disturbing, and there are certainly extended moments where it achieves these goals, notably thanks to Phoenix’s performance. However, I was cognizant of how eager the film was to be gritty, and dark, and different, to the point that it felt like the whole enterprise wasn’t just trying too hard to be different but wanted you to know it was trying. After a while, you just have to shrug and say, “Hey, movie, I get it.” This guy’s life ain’t too hot. The first 45 minutes could probably be condensed in half. The first two acts feel redundant as they establish the many trials and tribulations of this man on the edge of a broken society that has abandoned him. Because of this, Joker can be an entertaining experiment in solo superhero stories but there is a critical absence of depth that keeps the film from going beyond a stellar lead performance. It’s a Martin Scorsese hodgepodge, a cover song for a famous villain.

This is the kind of movie where subtlety is rarely used, which increases the sensation that it’s trying too hard because it seems like it’s saying all of its points with exclamation marks. Even in the opening minutes, while Arthur is applying his clownish makeup, we hear a voice over narration from a TV newscaster who is essentially screaming to the audience all of the important social contexts for the setting (Things are bad! People are mean! The economy is bad! People are getting desperate! What has the world come to?!). There’s a fantasy experience where the characters are just openly explaining their desires. The visual metaphors are pretty simple, like the idea of hiding behind a mask (don’t we all wear masks, man?) and the intimidating set of stairs ascending to Arthur’s apartment that he must climb. So many supporting characters act like mouthpieces for larger collective groups, like a paid therapist who tells Arthur that the people with money don’t care about her or Arthur, the little people caught in the machinery of runaway capitalism, or Thomas Wayne as the callous and cold business elite who seems disdainful about any sort of empathy for others that challenge his responsibility to a larger society. De Niro’s talk show host feels like an amalgamation of a lot of different themes, like daddy issues, the media, but also the representation of ridicule as comedy and mass entertainment. There aren’t so much supporting characters as there are ideas, and in a weird way this could have worked, as if each figure represents some different level of psychosis for Arthur, almost as if it was repeating the 2003 movie Identity and everyone really is a reflection of Arthur’s damaged personality. The inclusion of Beetz (Deadpool 2) is more a plot device meant to humanize Arthur, but the entire premise feels like it’s missing development to make it believable, and ultimately this is the point of her character but it’s a long wait for a reveal for a character that is superfluous at her core. It’s the kind of movie that thinks we need to yet again see the definitive formative act of every Batman movie.

The movie does pick up a momentum when Arthur starts to get set on his way toward becoming the clown prince of crime. When the Joker gets his first taste of violence, in self-defense, the clown vigilante becomes a symbol for a reactionary contingent of Gotham’s lower classes. The groundswell of support provides a welcomed sense of community for a man who has been secluded for his idiosyncrasies, but it’s a celebration of a loss of morality, and so to fully embrace this tide of supporters he must give away the last of vestiges of his soul. This downfall allows for the movie to feel like it’s finally committed to something, where the setups are finally starting to coalesce around a character who is now driving his story rather than being the recipient of misfortune. The violence becomes more shocking and Arthur stops caring about hiding who he really is, and that’s when the movie becomes the full force it had been promising. I was tapping nervously throughout the final thirty minutes because I was anticipating bad things for anybody on screen. Phillips can use this anxious anticipation for unexpected comedy too, like where a character was trapped due to their unique circumstances and whether they too were in mortal peril. I wish Phillips had pulled back because there’s a perfect visual to conclude his movie, that brings the entire self-actualization and loss of morality full circle, and yet the movie gives us another two-minute coda.

Joker certainly feels like Phillips’ version of a Scorsese movie, for better and for worse. If you’re going to imitate anyone, it might as well be one of the greatest living filmmakers whose crime dramas have reshaped the very language of the movies and how we view violent crooks. The go-to response I’ve seen is that Joker is a combination of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. I’ll readily agree with the Taxi Driver comparisons. It’s everywhere. We have a disaffected loner who is turning sour on an increasingly hostile and unstable society he views as beyond repair. Even the shot selections, camera movements, and 1970s era set design evoke that influence. The King of Comedy is more a facile comparison, as Arthur is a disturbed man trying his luck at standup comedy, failing, and becoming more unhinged. The real reason reviewers seem to be making this connection is the inclusion of Robert De Niro, and it feels like that is the only reason he’s actually involved, to ping back to King of Comedy. The idea of a stiff actor like De Niro being a glib talk show host, even in the 1970s, seems like a bad fit. The other real film influence I don’t see getting as much recognition is Network. This is a tale of one man tapping into a vent of anger and starting a movement that ripples out beyond them into something uncontrollable.

Phillips is best known for his comedy work but I could feel his leaning to do a straight genre picture. In other reviews, I’ve cited Phillips’ keen eye for noir-flavored visuals (think of the car traveling across the desert as seen through the reflection of sunglasses in The Hangover). He had the chops to tell a straight genre crime thriller, so it’s not surprising that Joker is a slickly made, unsettling, and effective movie when it counts. This is a grimy-looking New York City, I mean Gotham City, where the garbage piles high (another not so subtle visual metaphor) and the city feels like a maze all its own crushing our main character. The cinematography is great with several strong moments that amplify the mood of unrest and distaste. The cello-heavy score by Hidur Guonadottir (HBO’s Chernobyl) is very evocative and ominously conveys the turmoil bubbling below the surface in a manner that doesn’t feel like pandering. This is a good-looking production made by talented technicians and Phillips has enough skill to pull it all together, even if that aim is really to recreate a style of another filmmaker and the time and place of his films.

I’ve purposely saved the best for last, and that’s Phoenix as the titular character. He is mesmerizing as a broken man trying to find his place in society and flailing wildly. His uncontrollable cackling is so unsettling that when he broke into laughing fits, I could feel myself getting more and more unnerved. At first it was the awkward sympathy of watching a man struggle to get through his disability, trying to compose himself, and embarrassed for the discomfort he was projecting. The very sound of the cackling trying to be contained, as a friend and co-worker Jason credited, watching the laughter catch in his throat, it had such an immediate, almost physical reaction in me. Later in the movie, I cringed because it made me worry what was going to happen next because I know it’s a precursor to bad feelings. When he’s becoming more comfortable with his impulses and dark thoughts, you notice the cackling starts to ebb away. There’s a small moment that I loved where after he flees from his first murder he runs into a bathroom, and once his breathing calms, it’s almost like his body is commanded by some spiritual serenity as he begins to dance. Phillips allows the scene to breathe and play out, to invite the audience to join. This little motif probably appears a few too many times, but it’s a beautiful little moment of physicality that expresses the chaos becoming harmony within a man. Phoenix lost 50 pounds for the role and his gaunt, haunted frame reminds you how much of a shell of a human being this character feels like. He even tells his therapist that he questioned whether he was even a person or not. Phoenix burrows deep into the character and unleashes a committed intensity that is impressively communicated through his sad, reedy, sing-songy voice, his slippery stances and body language, and the madness that seems to resonate from his bulging eyes. Even when the movie is repeating its steps and tricks, it’s Phoenix that constantly gives back to the audience. It’s a performance certainly worthy of Oscar attention and plaudits, though in my mind it’s still a step or two below the instantly iconic, and Oscar-winning, performance from Heath Ledger.

Joker is a movie and should not be held responsible for the actions of others and what they may read from the film. I don’t sense Phillips and his team condoning their protagonist’s lawless actions, and the violence is often undercut so that it feels more disturbing than triumphant and exhilarating. When Arthur does get his first kill, the audience has likely been silently rooting for him to fight back, to punish the wrongdoers, but the movie draws out the scene in a manner that’s akin to a wounded animal panicking as it scrambles for its life and a cold execution. It’s not meant to be cool. Phoenix’s performance elevates the entire enterprise and will unnerve as much as it ensnares. It’s not a subtle movie at all, and it hugs the works of Scorsese a little too closely, both in tone as well as visual symmetry. It’s trying very hard to be nihilistic, edgy, and provocative (this isn’t your “normal comic book movie” it wants to scream with every frame). Arthur just wanted to make people laugh, the movie tells us, but the joke was on him after all (subtlety). If anyone is inspired from this movie, I hope it’s to seek out other Scorsese movies.

Nate’s Grade: B

Brightburn (2019)

Many writers and artists have re-imagined the origin of Superman, the alien orphan sent to Earth and raised by the Kents into a thoughtful young man who empathizes with the humans he has come to identify with. What if that alien child, blessed with powerful abilities, didn’t decide to become a hero and instead saw himself as superior? That’s the premise of Brightburn which looks at the Man of Steel through the lens of The Omen.

In the small Midwestern town of Brightburn, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Breyer (David Denman) are a couple struggling to conceive, and then one fateful night a spaceship crash lands on their farm. Inside is a baby boy they decide to raise as their own son. Flash ahead a decade and Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) is a normal kid except he’s never been sick, he cannot be cut, and he’s starting to develop even more powers thanks to his spaceship seeming to activate something within him. It also fills his head with an alien message, one not too friendly for the people of Earth. Tori and Kyle must reconcile how far they’re willing to go to protect their son and whether it’s at the expense of the well-being of billions.

Brightburn takes its thought exercise to the limit, fully developing its intriguing angle of what if the story of Superman went in a much darker, much bleaker direction. Instead of representing a hope for mankind, what if this alien son represented its demise? As I was sitting back and watching, each element felt well placed and well thought out, contributing to a feeling of satisfaction that the screenwriters have given considerable thought to telling not just a good story but the best version of their story. There’s a very early science reference to wasps that tells you exactly where the film is going. I have some small quibbles when it comes to motivations, in particular the flip in Brandon, but these are minor and honestly could have been smoothed out with one or two added scenes. I appreciate that writers Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn (cousins to James) start things rather dark and see it through. This is the kind of movie you pray doesn’t go soft and squishy by the end, where the irredeemable monster is reached through the power of love. This is not that movie. With an all-powerful monster, it would be a cop-out to somehow slide in a happy ending. The entire trajectory of the movie feels appropriate, quibbles over rushed motivation aside, and where we end up feels predictable but right.

The biggest comparison I can make with the film isn’t any of the Superman adventures but a little indie, 2011’s powerful character study, We Need to Talk About Kevin. For those unaware, that movie followed a woman whose son grows up to be a school shooter who also kills her husband and daughter. The movie skips around in time and in doing so reveals through flashes of memory key incidents, flashpoints, where mom realizes something just isn’t right with her dear old son. It’s a test of a parent’s love but it’s also a test of how far a parent can ignore the warning signs that are amassing like a cancer. Like that film, Brightburn demonstrates the limits of parental love and rationalization. For much of the movie, Tori refuses to accept her son’s darker impulses and the reality that is getting harder to ignore. Her son was a gift from the sky and that needs to mean something. Her love and parenting should be enough to keep her child on the path of good and responsibility, she reasons. This only delays the intervention that might have made a difference, but then again, when you’re dealing with a kid with invulnerability and laser eyes, is there any intervention to turn things around? Are some too far gone? There are moments that even touch upon the creepy loner status of deranged spree killers. I genuinely felt sorry this one teenage girl ever showed a glint of kindness to Brandon because all it does is place her and her family into his obsessive fixation to control.

I do believe that your enjoyment of Brightburn will partly rest on your prior knowledge of the Superman mythos and its clever, darker reworking. Considering this is an essential aspect of its premise and execution, I don’t see this as a fault, though it will limit the audience that can simply plug into Brightburn and enjoy it as is. The film leans heavily on the iconography of Superman and purposely twists it as a perverse thought experiment. If you’re indifferent or unfamiliar with Superman, it may play out as an efficient thriller with some solid acting and gross-out effects. However, if you’re a canny follower of the Superman origins, then it becomes a meta commentary with even more to unpack. How does one exactly keep a god grounded in the ways of morality? I don’t mean to make it seem like Brightburn is inaccessible to non-comic book fans. It’s not, but part of the enjoyment for me was how it took something familiar and twisted anew.

Those gore effects are impressively gross. This is a movie that doesn’t shy away from the destructive power of its super demon seed. It builds in intensity and is actually pretty restrained, all things considered, but when it wants to pack a punch, the movie does. There was one extended bit of eye trauma that made me shield my face. How in the world can a person have that much glass shard lodged that far into one eyeball? It causes me shudders even thinking back on it. There’s another scene where a person’s jaw is dislodged like they were the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz, a lanky part that stubbornly won’t stay put. The person even holds their hand over their face, knowingly teasing the audience. As the film hurtles toward its final act, if you can think of a way that Superman could kill a vulnerable mortal, this movie covers it. Super speed splattering a person? Check. Laser eyes boring a hole through a skull? Check. There’s even a scary sense of visual poetry to one kill that goes flying into the heavens in slow motion. The gore and grisly deaths are another aspect that reminds me how well developed the film is.

The acting may be better than you’re anticipating. The screenplay doesn’t simply rely on the main characters being stand-ins for their Superman analogues. While they don’t feel like three-dimensional characters, care has been put to give them more substance so that the drama of their choices can be compelling on its own. Banks (Lego Movie 2) and Denman (16 Hours) debate their increasingly fraught choices with clarity. He’s convinced their son isn’t right and poses a danger, and she doesn’t disagree but refuses to abandon their son after all these years together. Early on, they feel like a real family, and that only makes the tragic events feel much more resonant as things spiral out of control. Banks and Denman are certainly not playing any scene for a knowing wink. To them and the rest of the production the events are very real and very scary. Dunn (Avengers: Endgame) is eerily spooky with his stares and glares, but there are also moments that remind you he is or was still a kid and experiencing the same desire to belong.

This is not going to be a movie for everyone but if you’re intrigued by the premise and/or have an affinity for Superman what if scenarios like Red Son, then it should be right up your alley. It’s a clever and satisfying thriller that appeals to fans with darker desires. It’s about as well executed as its premise could go, and I left my theater thoroughly satisfied with only some minor quibbles for motivation clarity and an extended epilogue (I don’t know if Billie Eilish fits for the end credits but that’s just a personal preference). Brightburn takes the Superman mythos and twists it into a creepy horror film, the origin of a super villain, and an apocalyptic death sentence for the rest of humanity. It’s actually a lot of fun to watch even as it’s disturbing you and leaving you wincing.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The House That Jack Built (2018)

I believe I’m ready to cast Lars von Trier in the same dustbin I’ve consigned Terrence Malick and Michael Heneke. I think I’m done with him and his films. The man has obvious talent but is often his own worst enemy, given to self-destructive impulses and excessive cruelty meant to be daring and challenging but is mostly perfunctory. The House That Jack Built is distasteful by design but also heavy-handed, obvious, and vacuous to a fault.

Jack (Matt Dillon) narrates his life as an American serial killer in the 1970s and 80s. He’s traveling through the afterlife with the help of Verge (Bruno Ganz), a supernatural guide and easy listener. Jack divides his murderous exploits into a series of five key incidents: Lady 1 (Uma Thurman) being picked up looking for car help; Lady 2 (Siobhan Fallen Hogan) as a suspicious neighbor answering the door; Lady 3 (Sofie Grabol) as a mother with kids who is taken hunting and then literally hunted; Simple (Riley Keough), the one who tried to get away; and finally the last scenario where Jack tried to kill multiple men with a single “full metal jacket” bullet. Along the way, Jack talks about the frustrations of his boyhood and adulthood, living with OCD, and the implications of his life’s legacy.

It’s not that a serial killer film, whether it be a psychological examination or gnarly genre thrill ride, can be without artistic merit, but von Trier settles for empty provocations. He’s using the nature of the movie serial killer to essentially terrorize the audience and make them question what entertainment value they ever saw in these kinds of figures and stories, or von Trier’s films at that. I was expecting an unsettling experience given the nature of the subject and the reputation of the filmmaker, but what made the situation all the more oppressive and disquieting is how obvious and heavy-handed everything comes across. The central metaphor could not be any more transparent for any person familiar with von Trier’s back catalogue of punishing feature films. Jack views himself as an artist, specifically an architect, and his art is via terrorizing women for personal satisfaction. In case you needed it further spelled out, Jack is von Trier, a filmmaker who makes movie after movie featuring a central heroine being abused and exploited with no cosmic justice. A von Trier film experience is all about unchecked suffering and systemic abuse from the patriarchy. Sometimes this can be a condemnation that elicits strong emotional responses like a Dancer in the Dark, and other times it feels like von Trier wallowing in flip nihilism, like the conclusion of his two-part Nymphomaniac opus that undid the preceding four hours. Jack kills women for his art; von Trier tortures women for his art. There you go. With that central metaphor established, you’d expect the movie to become an introspective and excoriating probe into von Trier as a notorious filmmaker who often shocks and appalls. Oh how wrong you would be. The House That Jack Built is the same stale slog only with a slight meta twist.

For no better example of how heavy-handed the movie is, simply observe its unnecessary framing device where Verge/Virgil is literally leading Jack in the dark toward the subterranean bowels of Hell and the two are digressing the long walk. My friend and filmmaker Jason Tostevin said he was watching The House That Jack Built with a “scrunched-up face” for its majority until the last thirty minutes when he accepted it as a morose comedy, and then it started playing better for him. That might just make sense, considering von Trier’s overwrought pitch-black sense of humor and overall belief that life is a joke. I did laugh out loud once Jack and Verge are floating in bubbles. It also provides some, not much, context to scenes like Thurman’s, where she keeps needling Jack about what a bad serial killer he would be based on his decisions. It’s almost like von Trier is trying to say that Jack took the psycho killer plunge because a bossy woman kept annoying him and pushed him into it. The early sequence of Jack stumbling into being invited into a woman’s home has a clumsiness that almost invites a degree of wicked comedy, especially after Jack tries to treat the woman who seems incapable of dying. There’s also the absurd conclusion of the “house” Jack actually finally constructs. However, even as a supposed “comedy,” The House That Jack Built is an obnoxious experience that will make you feel worse by the end of its painfully lugubrious 150-minutes.

There was one kernel of an idea that could have worked, the nature of a serial killer with OCD. Those competing impulses would provide a level of new interest. During the second incident, Jack is compelled to go back to the crime scene again and again, risking being caught by a pesky neighbor or police officer, but he can’t help it. He’s obsessed that he didn’t check every last square inch and there’s an unseen blood droplet that will doom him. The concept isn’t new as Ray Bradbury had a short story “The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl” about a killer obsessed with eradicating every trace of his fingerprints. It puts the killer in a position of vulnerability that makes every killing more fraught. It’s almost like von Trier can suspect his audience enjoying this aspect of his story and so he must snuff it out. For whatever reason, Jack says he eventually just stopped caring. He just got over his crippling OCD tendencies through the power of criminal apathy. Jack is never in any danger of being caught because, and even Verge interjects on this, the people of this world are preposterously stupid. Nobody believes Jack is a potential murderer, and so this level of ignorance (and white male privilege) enables him to kill with impunity. By removing the possibility of any external threat, Jack becomes that much more boring. The only possible points of interest now become his disturbing murder tableaus. An extended sequence with Keough (Logan Lucky) made me feel queasy, especially when her character’s breasts end up getting severed and slapped onto an ignorant officer’s windshield. That moment felt like von Trier rubbing it in that a good-looking white man can get away with anything.

Even with its five-incident structure, plus celestial-spanning epilogue, the movie is all over the place. von Trier never met a Wikipedia article he didn’t like and want to awkwardly shoehorn into a longer narrative. Get ready for more seemingly unrelated academic asides meant to come across as philosophical pontification on the nature of art, evil, culpability, and whatever else sounded smart at the time. Jack compares his murder sprees to… medieval architecture. He then digresses about pianist Glen Gould, dessert wines and their decomposition process, the screaming WWII German airplane the Stuka, the theory of Ruin Value, the balance of light and shadow from two streetlamps, and you bet there are concentration camp anecdotes. At one point Jack and Verge are debating how one can best enjoy art and von Trier uses clips from his own movies as examples of “challenging art” in case you wondered whether or not he was going to be too hard on himself and his past. These quizzical asides often feel tacked on like academic footnotes, yet the film is stuffed full of them. It lurches from incident to incident and footnote to footnote, mostly because Jack is a rather boring lead character with a boring worldview and past. Then there’s the final epilogue that literally takes place in Hell. If you can make it past that, dear reader, you’ll be treated to a smash cut to the end credits set to, I kid you not, “Hit the Road Jack.” It’s a baffling, tonally discordant decision that only furthers the theory of Jack as a comedy.

I feel like I’ve endured enough von Trier films in my life at this point that I can walk away, content with the decision. It’s getting harder and harder for von Trier to tell a new story and his old tricks have grown tired, placing him into unintentional (or intentional?) self-parody. There isn’t enough introspection or insight or narrative complexities to justify this bloated and bedeviled look at one man’s many misdeeds. The characterization is slack and there are no significant supporting figures, only victims and stooges, and sometimes both at once in von Trier’s mocking reflection of our universe. I felt varying degrees of sympathy for every actor in this movie. They deserve better. Matt Dillon can play to the dark side well but he deserves more than to be a smiling cardboard cutout. Uma Thurman was one of the best actors in Nymphomaniac Part One. Doesn’t she deserve better than to get repeatedly smacked in the face with a broken car jack (get it, a “broken jack,” because the main guy’s name is… oh, you do get it?)? Riley Keough definitely deserves better than to have her breasts fondled for a solid minute onscreen and then used as a coin purse later. And the audience likewise deserves better than to spend 150 minutes watching misguided torment and misogyny disguised as introspection and social commentary. The House That Jack Built is rotten to its very foundations and another excuse in cheap sadism for the cheap seats.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Mowgli (2018)

Sometimes second place might as well be last place in the film industry. Pity Andy Serkis and the years he spent making a live-action, mo-cap enhanced version of The Jungle Book only for Disney to scoop him years in advance and deliver a billion-dollar hit. It’s impossible not to compare the two and unfortunately Serkis’ passion project is found wanting in many areas. For starters, there’s far less Shere Khan (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), which is a shame. He’s really only in the film for very little. I think Cate Blanchett is miscast as the voice of the snake, Kaa, who acts like a grand keeper of the jungle’s history and future. I’m not sold on Serkis as Baloo, a grumpy paternal figure present from the beginning that trains the wolf pups so they can join the pack. The middle half-hour Mowgli spends in the company of man with a kindly poacher also feels like the movie is spinning its wheels. It keeps the rest of the jungle on hold. There are some rather dark asides that can be quite surprising, from wolf pups plummeting to their doom, bloody scars, cute severed heads to haunt your dreams, and three separate occasions where characters will watch the light vanish from a dying animal’s eye. It’s definitely a more brutish, cruel, and dangerous world, but at what greater expense? The characterization doesn’t add up to much. The character relationships are minimal. The CGI creatures and settings look unfinished. The whole enterprise feels rushed even though it’s been on the shelf for some time, which may be why the studio was eager to sell it to Netflix for a cool $90 million. You’ll watch Mowgli and nod, generally entertained, but questioning whether it’s 90-million worth.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Border (2018)

Border is a hard movie to describe without giving away key parts of its plot. Ostensibly this Swedish film is about Tina, a customs agent with a genetic deformity who can literally smell fear. She’s bedeviled by another man, Vore, who looks to have the same genetic deformity she has, which unleashes a flurry of gnawing questions over whether the two have some deeper connection, who might be her real family, and whether this genetic deformity is really what she’s been lead to believe. The movie is from the writer of Let the Right One In and takes a very macabre and understated look into a fairy tale realm bleeding into our own world. The movie is mostly grounded and benefits greatly from its lead actress, Eva Melander, who gives a rousing, nuanced performance under heavy prosthetic makeup. Tonally, it feels like the darker impulses, which can get extremely disturbing, are at odds with some of the other competing storylines, like her gradual self-awakening and the potential romance with Vore. Nothing will prepare you for how weird things will get including an awkward sex scene that defies belief. Border holds out a bit too long with its pertinent information, delaying the mystery without enough clues to tease things out in a satisfying manner. Afterwards, the remaining reveals reflect more on the cruel depths of Vore and less with Tina’s response. It makes an uncomfortable direction feel like it’s meant more as provocation. Ultimately I think I needed more from the story and characters to better meet out the aims of its genre-defying vision. It’s definitely a different movie and will register for those looking for dark, adult fairy tales.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Assassination Nation (2018)

Assassination Nation is an explicitly potent and timely Movie of the Moment; it’s a modern “Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” for the Age of Trump, exposing the fissures in our society, primarily the elements that prey upon, police, and punish women. The film is brimming with female rage that you may leave shaking. It’s a movie that wants to grab you and scream its message in your face, and that will be off-putting to several, but the overall experience was so stimulating, so ambitious, so affecting, and so emotionally cathartic, that I wanted to howl back, now championing this audacious movie to whomever might listen. This is one of 2018’s best movies and most vital statements.

In Salem, four teenagers have become the most hated people in town. An anonymous hacker has been stealing people’s private information, correspondence, and intimate pictures and uploading it for the public to digest. The town has gone mad with this feeding frenzy of new info and open secrets, leading to suicides, retribution, and murder. Lily (Odessa Young, a strong debut that reminded me of Olivia Cooke) and her BFF posse, Bex (Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), and Em (Abra), become the main suspects and the town turns on them, looking for some good old fashioned vigilante justice.

The film is messy and chaotic but these are not the usual detriments; it is exploding with things it wants to say about the hypocrisy and nastiness of our modern era. Early on Lily remarks to the audience, “I read this quote from a writer once who said 10 percent of the population are cruel, and 10 percent are merciful, and the other 80 percent can be swayed in either direction. I’m sure that writer has never seen 4chan or Twitter.” At the end of the day, Assassination Nation will not allow its audience to take comfort even as it transforms into a female revenge thriller. Here is a movie that grabs you forcefully and says, “This is who we are now so what are you gonna do about it, huh?”

When Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling wrote “Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” he was critiquing the veneer of civilization we clung onto through our “good manners,” yet with the right pressure points we could just as easily turn on our fellow man with suspicion. The divisions in our current political climate often feel unable to be bridged; how does one reconcile a middle ground between one side that views gay people, trans people, women, people of color, and immigrants as human beings deserving of rights and protections and another side that laments the Way It Used to Be? There was one tense moment at gunpoint where a character that had previously led a literal lynch mob says, through convenient tears, that he’s sorry. Oh, he’s sorry he almost murdered an innocent classmate? Are there some decisions, some votes that you just can’t erase with a “sorry”? When people are willing to drop all pretenses of humanity for tribal allegiance, then perhaps those people don’t get away with an apology for their grievous harm. As the hacking begins, it’s initially pinpointed coming from a Russian IP address, and I wondered if maybe writer/director Sam Levinson (son of Barry) was making an additional comment about how easily these divisions can be exploited by an outside actor, as they were with the Russian propaganda missions of 2016 (and beyond). There’s another culprit responsible for the dissemination and the eventual explanation for a motive is a pitch-perfect end note demonstrating the destructive nature of casual cruelty.

The breakdowns in the Salem society stem from a deluge of secrets being unleashed and consumed without abandon. Everyone feels exposed, naked, some of them quite literally considering the treasure trove of hacked pictures, again drawing comparisons to celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence getting their intimate personal pictures broadcast. The expectations of privacy are malleable in a digital age of consumption, where the wider public is insatiable to know and see everything no matter the violation. The ravenous consumption of intimate secrets then foments into a mindless mob in need of blood. It’s the social media horde that has to find a new victim to point the outrage machine at. This is best demonstrated by the school’s principal (Colman Domingo), an early victim of the hacker. Included on his cell phone’s gallery are nine pictures of his young daughter in the bathtub. Ready to take down another target, the community demands that the educator resign despite his pleas that they are innocent pictures but the crowd argues that all nudity is the same and therefore sexualized, especially when it depicts females. He’s dubbed a pedophile and a child molester and every horrific term. He’s pressured by the school board to resign and he faces down his hostile, accusatory crowd. I was so taken with this storyline and the personal anguish this man was going through that I wish we had gotten more time and appearances with him as a significant supporting character (this refrain will be referenced again). It’s these early moments that made me think of the Salem of Arthur Miller’s play, a bluntly obvious comparison point for a painfully blunt movie.

The world of Assassination Nation is deadly to women. It’s the kind of movie where male entitlement can turn a street harasser into a would-be murderer, which dredges up memories of Mollie Tibbetts, killed by a man who refused to accept that she didn’t have to talk with him or acknowledge him while she was out jogging. The teen girls are pressured to be sexual beings by those who want to commoditize their bodies, and then they are puritanically demonized when these actions become public knowledge. I kept finding relevant correlations with so many moments and themes throughout the film, and I imagine many others will do the same. That is one of the charms of a movie bursting with so many things to say; each person may be challenged or affected by something different. The satire is unsparing and darkly comic but when it needs to be serious and disturbing, Assassination Nation can switch tones with ease. You’ll be laughing at some violence, cringing at other examples, and possibly cheering by the end as just deserts are served. Having a multitude of tones and messages doesn’t detract from the overall impact; it just means there are more storytelling avenues to chase and different emotions to elicit.

Take for instance a scene that occurs after the end of the movie. We watch an African-American marching band lead by a lead female performer with a baton. They stomp in unison through the smoldering remains of a suburban neighborhood and play a brassy rendition of pop scion Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop.” It’s a song about youthful revelry but also a declaration of independence from the oppressive expectations of others (“It’s our party, we can say what we want/ It’s our party, we can kiss who we want”). Can this moment relate to the idea that a younger generation must keep marching onward in the face of tragedy after tragedy, that the racism and misogyny and mass shootings won’t stop, that we’re a constant shuffling funeral march in the unmovable face of broken politics? Is there reference to the expectation of African-Americans to perform through horrifying adversity for the entertainment of a white audience? Is this a celebration or elegy? It’s a strangely beautiful coda that left me thinking even more, and if something that happens even after the end credits can stay with me, you know you have a worthy work of art.

This is a movie that affected me deeply as a drama and, as it changes gears, a suspense thriller. There are some extended assault and torture sequences that will test the comfort level of every viewer. There is a healthy exploitation streak that runs through the film, but I found it far more meaningful than say the recent gonzo art flick earning overzealous critical raves, Mandy. Levinson’s camera will adopt the male gaze that imprisons these teen girls with close-ups of gyrating movement and pouty stares. Some will characterize these moments as Levinson muddying his message by indulging in the same objectification he has been criticizing. I can understand that analysis but I think it goes deeper. I think the camera is adopting the objectification of the world and Levinson is asking us how we feel now that we’ve gotten to know many of these women. Are they so easily disposable once you widen the lens and see them as vulnerable, sympathetic, and relatable human beings?

The final act delves into full-on exploitation vengeance thriller and becomes a feminist rallying cry against the wider array of misogyny poisoning society. I imagine future generations will memorize Lily’s final speech to the American public with the same degree of awed reverence as college-aged males do for Tyler Durden (a movie where its target audience missed the satire). It would be glib to simply dismiss Assassination Nation as an opportunistic RiotGrrrl response to the Me Too movement. This is a primal cry against the Age of Trump and feels like the first great film in response to our 45th president and all that his ascension has wrought.

When the film does go into thriller mode, Levinson proves surprisingly adept. There is an extended tracking shot that swoops from window to window, floor to floor as we slowly watch a home invasion in progress, and it’s exceptionally taut. The camerawork by cinematographer Marcel Rev (White God) is remarkably fluid, floating around its subjects in glides like the camera is serving as the eye of god. There’s a mesmerizing quality to the visuals that transcends the array of genres the film effortlessly hops between. One minute you’re caught up with the arresting, upside down camerawork leading to an explosion of violence, and the next you’re taken with a surreal depiction of suburbia. The music selection is also on fire with choice tracks by K. Flay, Bishop Briggs, Joywave, Bams Courtney, Gracie Mitchell, Billie Ellish, and others. It alternates between guttural and polished, angry and contemplative, but it screams as loud as the film itself. I’ll be surprised if I come across a better contemporary soundtrack to a 2018 movie.

If there is a niggling detraction for the movie it’s that we could have used more time spent rounding out the supporting characters. Besides Lily and Bex, the other girls are more defined by their relationships and proximity to our protagonist. I wanted them to open up more as characters. I also wanted even more catharsis by the end of the movie. After almost two hours of rampant misogyny and subjugation, I could have used even more lingering vengeance as the girls defended themselves from their attackers. Still, my biggest regret with Assassination Nation is that I didn’t spend more time with the supporting characters and their individual personalities and trials. I just wanted more.

Bristling with anger and feminine agency, Assassination Nation is a warning shot, a rallying cry, and a daring artistic statement about the role of women in response to the rise of Trump and his cronies. It’s not subtle but that doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. It’s blunt and extreme because our times are blunt and extreme, it’s messy because our news cycles are messy, desperate to cover a cascade of catastrophes and scandals, it’s using the language and imagery of exploitation cinema because that is too often the lens with which women are viewed in modern society, as achievements to unlock, as trophies to be won, and as a product for mass consumption. Levinson has put together a movie that has a possibility of being a seminal film, of being a touchstone of the resistance to the Trump Era and all that it stands for, but at its core it opens up with excoriating detail the pressure and punishment women must persevere through on a daily basis as targets of patriarchal entitlement and the dangerously fragile egos of dangerous men. In the recent weeks we’ve watched a possible Supreme Court nominee who might have committed multiple acts of sexual assault, and the response has been to “plow ahead” and appoint the man for a lifetime position ruling on the legality of women’s rights without further inquiry or investigation. The film feels even more charged, relevant, and prophetic with each new allegation of wrongdoing being hand-waved away as mistaken identity, boys-will-be-boys moral relativism (more like rapists-will-be-rapists), and the same kind of nonsense that women have been subjected to since the original Salem and well beyond that. For every woman fed up with the status quo, Assassination Nation is your movie, and for every man whom needs a feminist lesson with an extra dose of Purge-style bloodletting and vengeance, here is a brazen and affecting statement. Assassination Nation is the movie of the moment and it’s a knockout.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Lobster (2016)

lobsterWhen people decry the relentless slate of sequels, remakes, and redundancy from the Hollywood assembly line, they’re looking for something original and different, and there may be no movie more different this year than Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster. David (Colin Farrell) is the newest guest at the Hotel, a place for singles to find their true love. He has 40 days to fall in love with a compatible mate or else he will be transformed into an animal of his choice (hence the title, David’s choice). The people at the hotel are all in competition to find their mate. Outside the confines of the hotel, in the woods, are dreaded single people, those who ignored the rules of society. They are to be feared and hotel guests are rewarded for capturing wild singles on weekly hunting trips. One way or another, David is going to have to decide his place in society as a person or animal.

The Lobster is daringly different, wildly imaginative, and drops you into the middle of its cracked, alternative landscape and expects you to pick things up as you go. It’s something that the writer/director already achieved with chilling, car-crash fascination in Dogtooth, a dark parable about extreme parental protection that crossed over into abuse. This is a world that opens with a distraught woman driving a long distance just so she can shoot a donkey in the head. Who is this woman? Why would she purposely murder this animal? Why is she so emotionally invested? And with that jarring act of peculiar violence, we’re off. We’re never told how this world came to be, it just simply is. There isn’t any extensive exposition save for one initial sit down David has with hotel management to determine what animal he’d like to turn into at the end of his stay if unsuccessful in love. There’s a genuine sense of authenticity to this deeply weird place and the characters all play it with straight-laced absurdity, which makes the satire land even harder. It sells even the most bizarre aspects, like the ongoing visual incongruity of wild animals just trotting around the background. You can sit back and think, “I wonder what that peacock’s story was, or that donkey, etc.” Its abnormal background pieces that add to the context of the world. I loved discovering new little wrinkles and rules to Lanthimos’ world that made perfect sense within its parameters. In a world where coupling is the only goal, of course masturbation would be a punishable crime. I enjoyed that there are other means guests have to stay at the hotel, chief among them hunting down the loners in the woods, which allow the more awkward or anti-social guests added time at the expense of others. Even in a world this bizarre, there are people who are making their own way, including the revolutionaries in the woods (more on them later). The movie is exceedingly funny and so matter-of-fact about its peculiarities to make it even funnier.

960The movie straddles the line between skewed ironic romance and cynicism, so I’m not surprised it’s rubbed people the wrong way. This can be a pretty dark movie and that’s even before the violence against animals/former people. It’s certainly written from the point of view of someone who is single and those currently in that category will likely relate the most to the film’s strident social commentary. “It’s no coincidence the targets are shaped like single people,” a man says in reference to target outlines. The pressures can seem absurd in their own regard, and the film has a clever concoction where the “happy couples” are merely two people who share a superficial physical trait. These two people are near-sighted. These two people get nosebleeds. These two people have a limp. Even the characters are named after their physical depictions, like The Limping Man and Short-Sighted Woman. It’s not exactly subtle but the satiric effect is still effective. The hotel manager says, to a newly cemented couple, “If you encounter any problems you cannot resolve yourselves, you will be assigned children, that usually helps.” The humor can be very dry and very dark, never stopping to inform you where to laugh. There’s a sad woman played by Ashley Jensen (TV’s Extras, Ugly Betty) who is desperate for companionship, offering sexual favors to any man who might just alleviate her loneliness. She is ignored and often threatens to kill herself, and then one day she does it by jumping out a hotel window, but she’s not successful. It’s one more dark, awful ironic point of suffering for this woman, and she screams in agony while others ignore her, including a clearly affected David, still trying to play indifferent to win over the hard-hearted woman he sees as his best way out of the hotel. It’s a hard moment to process but one that made me admire the film even more for the cold courage of its convictions.

Supplementing the dark satire is an off-kilter romance that emerges halfway through the film once David escapes the hotel. He finally meets up with the source of our narration, the Short-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz). It’s here that the movie shows glimmers of hope for the hopeless as David and this woman are drawn to one another. They’re in a world of outcasts but the rules of those in the forest do not allow coupling. They reject the expectations of the ruling order, and so they must remain resolutely single. the only time David and the Short-Sighted Woman can be open with their affection is when they go undercover into the city, posing as a couple, and getting a chance to kiss with abandon, all as a cover of course. They build up their own secret non-verbal language to communicate their feelings, much like a couple builds its own personal shorthand and inside jokes. The loners are only to listen to music individually and dance the same, but David and the Short-Sighted Woman synch their CD players to listen to the same track, to simulate like they are sharing a dance together even if not in proximity. It’s here where The Lobster becomes a beguiling and surprising love story and one where the heartless may grow a heart, watching two odd people find one another in such an odd world. However, Lanthimos does not let this emergence of romance blunt his message. The loner leader (Lea Seydoux) suspects coupling in her group and goes to some pretty drastic lengths to test the fortitude of feelings between David and his secret girlfriend. It’s like getting cold water dumped on the runaway spell of optimism. The fitting ending is left in ambiguity for the audience to determine whether they were meant to be after all.

It’s also in the second half of The Lobster that the movie loses some of its grandeur and momentum. We’re introduced to a new primary setting with new rules to adapt to and a new order to follow, and there’s a general interest to discovering another competing area of this landscape with a diametrically opposed social order. They punish people by mutilating parts that come into affectionate contact with another person. We see a couple with bandages around their red, swollen mouths, and then the reference of the “red intercourse” makes your imagination fill in the horrific blanks. David has left one regime dictating his life to another regime dictating his life, but they just aren’t as interesting. It feels like the film is starting to repeat itself. I would say the second half world building isn’t as compelling as the first but that’s why the romance emerges, something for the audience to root for. Now that he’s finally found someone he connects with they’re not allowed to be together. There’s never a shortage of irony in a Lanthimos movie.

rs-240540-thelobsterThe actors are perfectly in synch with the strange rhythms of this world, and Farrell (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) and Weisz (The Light Between Oceans) deserve special attention for their committed performances. Farrell gained 40 pounds for the role, which seems to have translated right into his stint on season two of HBO’s True Detective. He’s a schlubby guy that’s still mourning the deterioration of his marriage and larger society is insisting he get over it. He has only 40 days to recover or he’ll be plucked from the ranks of humanity. There’s great sadness tinged in his nonchalant responses to the absurd realities of this world, and Farrell keeps finding ways to make you laugh and wince. Weisz is our placid voice into the strange new world and it helps establish a sense of grounding as well as connection to her character when she eventually emerges. She injects a palpable sense of yearning to her character, especially once David is in reach and they begin their relationship. It’s got the cute romantic comedy staples but on its own terms, and seeing Weisz smile warmly is a pleasure in a morbid movie.

The Lobster is a romance for our age and an indictment of the romance of our age, an era where the swipe of a finger on an app is the arbitrator of contemporary dating. It’s a satire on our fixation of coupledom and being in relationships even when they’re not sensible. It’s a cracked fairy tale that punctuates the romantic love we’ve watched distilled to an essence in Hollywood movies. It’s a surreal and dark movie that manages to become emotionally moving and poignant, leaving on a note of uncertainty enough for different factions in the audience to interpret as either hopeful or hopeless. The Lobster is a unique movie with a singular artistic voice that dominates every shape of the narrative, the characters, and the boundaries of this fantastic alternative world. I imagine my depth of feeling for the movie will only grow the more I watch it. This isn’t an overwhelmingly dark or unpleasant movie without the presence of some light. It’s not an overly off-putting movie without an accessibility for a curious audience, whether those people are single or in happy relationships. The movie is inventive, transporting, but still relatable, rooting the nexus of its weirdness on the same awkwardness and anxiety everyone feels with the prospects of prolonged romantic courtship. If 2016 was a year that celebrated the oddities of cinema getting their due, then The Lobster is a captivating and unusual creation deserving of its spotlight and surefire future cult status amidst lovers of the weird.

Nate’s Grade: A

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

miss-peregrines-home-for-peculiar-movie-posterMiss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children feels like Tim Burton’s X-Men franchise, and it’s just as awesome as that sounds. Burton has always had an interest in the outcasts and misfits of society and now he has his chance to leave an imprint on the ever-present superhero phenomenon. His own personal group of gifted youngsters is looking to form a funky family and fight against fearful forces that have their sights set on exploiting these special children or worse. It’s a natural fit for a man who has become a Gothic industry unto himself over three decades of peculiar and spooky filmmaking. This is Burton’s chance to flex franchise tentpole muscles with a subject matter perfectly attuned to his offbeat sensibilities, and watching the fabulous final product is akin to watching a master musician dive into Beethoven’s Fifth. This movie was flat-out delightful.

Jake (Asa Butterfield) is reeling from his beloved grandfather’s (Terrence Stamp) mysterious death. The old man loved sharing his stories about tending to the shape-shifting Ymbryne Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) and her wards, a group of children with special abilities including starting fires, controlling plants, invisibility, and being able to float lighter than air. On a trip to Wales to investigate grandpa’s stories, Jake discovers a time portal and is taken back to the WWII era where Miss Peregrine is waiting for him. She and her children relive the same day and will never age. They’re hiding from Barron (Samuel L. Jackson) and his group of scientists who wish to hunt the children. Jake is tasked with being the new protector, as he is the only one that can see an invisible band of slender monsters known as hollows that feast on the children.

738There’s a whimsical nature to the dark elements, and the script is rife with enjoyable payoffs and fun moments that cry out for a full visual immersion. This is Burton’s best film since 2007’s Sweeney Todd (I have a soft spot for that macabre musical), arguably best since 2003’s Big Fish, and maybe his most fun movie since his 90s heyday. If you’re a Burton fan, you’ll be tickled by all the imagination and humor. I grew up on the cinema of Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas (yes, directed by stop-motion maven Henry Selick but still very much a Burton film), so I’ll admit that seeing Burton in high form once again warmed my little mischievous heart.

You get a sense just how involved Burton was in the filmmaking and its details, the degree of passion and involvement, and also his commitment to being a dark movie intended for peculiar children and adults with macabre interests all over the world. I kept thinking that the 12-year-old version of myself would have adored this movie, never mind the 34-year-old version of myself who greatly enjoyed it too. This feels like a natural evolutionary step for children and adolescents who gorged themselves on the works of Edward Gorey and R. L. Stine. It’s not a significant spoiler but it’s something I feel you, dear reader, need to know in order to properly assess just how wonderfully morbid the movie can come across. There is an entire visual feast of a group of villains dining upon the delicacy of… children’s eyeballs. You read that right. It’s a silver platter piled high with severed eyeballs, and they get slurped down like it’s spaghetti. I could only cackle to myself at the audacity of the movie to embrace the fun of the darkness rather than hiding from it, mitigating it, trying to be delicate with tone. The villains want to return to a normal state that can only be achieved by consuming the eyeballs of peculiar children, and so they are hunted not for sport or prejudice but for eyeballs. That’s wonderfully squirmy, and it definitely affected me, an avowed cinema patron who gets extra squirmy with any onscreen eye trauma. There are other creepy and memorable moments, like a dead child being used as a ventriloquist doll and the slenderman-styled hallows creatures. The moments are plenty but they don’t choke the story’s momentum, which hums along with great imagination and lucidity.

There’s a lot going on with Miss Peregrine, and Jane Goldman’s (Kingsmen) screenplay juggles a lot of rules and world building without losing momentum. I was intrigued early and the movie would widen its focus, providing more texture and connection to the world in calculated doses. It was enough that I always felt like I was learning something while still being able to see how the pieces snapped together in retrospect. There’s time travel that has to be done at a very specific point, the rules of who can travel back in time to these bubbles of safety, the history of this specific day stuck in time, the non-linear history of the protectors, the fact that the bubbles are also teleportation hotspots, the history with Jake’s grandfather, the history of the Ymbryne and their powers, the powers of all the peculiars, dream prophecy, mad scientists and their peculiar ailments, the differences between the hallows and the predatory scientists, and also establishing the character dynamics of several lost children and a budding YA romance. It’s amazing that Goldman’s script is as understandable as it is considering all that heavy lifting. It’s not completely free of muddled plot points and some hazy explanations, but those instances are a clear minority to what works so effectively. I wanted to know more about this world, and once they added time travel and teleportation, I was hooked. I enjoyed the movie so much that I’m considering reading the additional books for my next freaky fix.

miss-peregrines-home-for-peculiar-children-2016The acting ensemble is full of bright spots and none brighter than the new queen of genre gusto, Eva Green. I raved about Green’s magnetic performance in the considerably lesser 300 sequel. She was easily the best part of that movie and it suffered whenever she wasn’t on the screen. The same can be said for the too-long-in-the-making Sin City sequel. She was the best thing in Burton’s otherwise forgettable Dark Shadows feature. In short, this woman is incredible, and she digs into the vampy and ridiculous with the right degree of malevolence and glee. Green is a wonderful hostess into this magical world, and her foreknowledge gives her a caffeinated energy that makes her even a tad more peculiar. Her children are all fine actors who have uneven parts thanks to the unfair distribution of their powers. Not everyone gets super useful abilities. I felt sorry for the kid who projected his dreams from his eyeball especially during the third act scuffles. A mouth in the back of the head doesn’t seem very useful either. I enjoyed the idea that the invisible kid needs to be fully naked to be fully invisible, and everyone acknowledges this reoccurring fact with shoulder-shrug nonchalance. The standout amongst the peculiars is Ella Purnell as the winsome girl who will float away. She has an innocent and yearning quality that doesn’t sink her character. She’s more than just a love interest to Jake and Purnell helps channel great affection. Jackson (The Hateful Eight) is expectantly highly entertaining as the lead villain and Butterfield (Ender’s Game) is perfectly acceptable as an audience surrogate into this wild world.

I was duly impressed with just about every element, from the structure of the screenplay and its precision with information and intrigue, to the level of acting, to the dark and whimsical tone, to Burton’s own peculiar particulars that fill out the film with adoration. It may sound corny but there is an affection woven throughout the film, for its dispirit outcasts, for their strangeness, for the ardor of telling a spooky story that can appeal to children without pushing away adults. There’s a care that’s been absent Burton’s other recent films, especially Dark Shadows, which left me bewildered whether Burton had any genuine fondness for the source material. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a haven for fans of the peculiar, Burton’s oeuvre, and those looking for a quality children’s film that has some bite. I can only hope for more fantastical adventures.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

08d16d4567f303c46f16a66041eca2f620352f4bBatman and Superman have been a collision course for a while. The two most famous superheroes were once scheduled to combat in 2003. Then the budget got a tad too high for Warner Brothers’ liking and it was scrapped. Flash forward a decade and now it seems that money is no longer a stumbling point, especially as Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice cost an estimated $250 million dollars. I wasn’t a fan of director Zack Snyder’s first take on Superman, 2013’s Man of Steel, so I was tremendously wary when he was already tapped to direct its follow-up, as well as the inevitable follow-up follow-up with 2017’s Justice League. You see DC has epic plans to create its own universe of interlocked comics franchises patterned after Marvel’s runaway success. Instead of building to the super team-up, they’re starting with it and hoping one movie can kick off possibly half a dozen franchises. There’s a lot at stake here for a lot of people. That’s what make the end results all the more truly shocking. Batman vs. Superman isn’t just a bad movie, and I never thought I’d type these words, it’s worse than Batman and Robin.

Eighteen months after the cataclysmic events of Man of Steel, Metropolis is rebuilding and has an uneasy relationship with its alien visitor, Superman (Henry Cavill). Billionaire Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is convinced that an all-powerful alien is a threat to mankind, especially in the wake of the dead and injured in Metropolis. But how does man kill a god? Enter additional billionaire Lex Luthor (Jessie Eisenberg) and his acquisition of a giant hunk of kryptonite. Bruce runs into a mysterious woman (Gail Gadot a.k.a. Wonder Woman) also looking into the secrets held within Luthor’s vaults. Clark Kent is pressing Wayne for comment on this bat vigilante trampling on civil liberties in nearby Gotham City, and Wayne is annoyed at the news media’s fawning treatment over an unchecked all-powerful alien. The U.S. Senate is holding hearings on what responsibilities should be applied to Superman. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is worried that her boyfriend is getting too caught up in the wrong things. Lex Luthor is scheming in the shadows to set up one final confrontation that will eliminate either Batman or Superman, and if that doesn’t work he’s got a backup plan that could spell their doom.

batman-vs-superman-review-picI think it’s only fitting to tackle each of the particular heavyweights in this huge showdown and devote time to dressing down why exactly the movie fails them.

Let’s start with Batman because quite frankly he’s the character that the American culture prefers (his name even comes first in the title for a Superman sequel). Ben Affleck (Gone Girl) was at the bad end of unrelenting Internet fanboy-fueled scorn when the news came out that he was going to play the Caped Crusader, but he’s one of the best parts of this movie, or perhaps the better phrasing would be one of the least bad parts. He’s a much better Bruce Wayne than Batman but we don’t really get much of either in this movie from a character standpoint. There isn’t much room for character development of any sort with a plot as busy and incomprehensible as Batman vs. Superman, and so the movie often just relies upon the outsized symbolism of its mythic characters. We have a Batman who is Tough and Dark and Traumatized and looking for (Vigilante) Justice. We only really get a handful of scenes with Batman in action, and while there’s a certain entertainment factor to watching an older, more brutal Batman who has clearly given up the whole ethical resolve to avoid killing the bad guys, under Snyder’s attention, the character is lost in the action. The opening credits once again explain Batman’s origin story, a tale that should be burned into the consciousness of every consumer. We don’t need it, yet Snyder feels indebted to what he thinks a Batman movie requires. So he’s gruff, and single-minded, and angry, but he’s never complex and often he’s crudely rendered into the Sad Man Lashing Out. He’s coming to the end of his career in tights and he knows it, and he’s thinking about his ultimate legacy. That’s a great starting point that the multitude of live-action Batman cinema has yet to explore, but that vulnerability is replaced with resoluteness. He’s determined to kill Superman because Superman is dangerous, and also I guess because the Metropolis collateral damage crushed a security officer’s legs, a guy he’s never met before. The destructive orgy of Metropolis is an excellent starting point to explain Bruce Wayne’s fear and fury. I don’t know then why the movie treats Wayne as an extremist. I don’t really understand why there’s a memorial for the thousands who lost their lives in the Metropolis brawl that includes a statue of Superman. Isn’t that akin to the Vietnam Wall erecting a giant statue of a Vietcong soldier stabbing an American GI with a bayonet? This may be the most boring Batman has ever been onscreen, and I repeat, Ben Affleck is easily one of the best parts of this woefully begotten mess.

Next let’s look at the other titular superhero of the title, the Boy Scout in blue, Superman. The power of Superman lies with his earnest idealism, a factor that has always made him a tougher sell than the gloomy Batman. With Man of Steel, Warner Brothers tried making Superman more like Batman, which meant he was darker, mopey, theoretically more grounded, and adopted the same spirit of being crushed by the weight of expectations and being unable to meet them. Cavill (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) was a Superman who didn’t want to be Superman, where dear old Pa Kent advocated letting children drown rather than revealing his powers (Father’s Day must have been real awkward in the Kent household). It wasn’t a great step and I wrote extensively about it with Man of Steel. The problem is that Superman and Batman are supposed to be contradictory and not complimentary figures. If one is brooding and the other is slightly more brooding, that doesn’t exactly create a lot of personal and philosophical conflicts now does it? It clearly feels that Snyder and everybody really wanted to make a Batman movie and Superman just tagged along. Superman clearly doesn’t even want to be Superman in the Superman sequel, often looking at saving others with a sigh-inducing sense of duty. He’s still working as a journalist and making moral arguments about the role of the media, which seems like a really lost storyline considering the emphasis on blood and destruction. He wants Superman to be seen as a force of good even if others deify him. That’s a powerfully interesting angle that’s merely given lip service, the concept of what Superman’s impact has on theology and mankind’s relationship to the universe and its sense of self. Imagine the tectonic shifts acknowledging not only are we not alone but we are the inferior race. We get a slew of truly surprising cameos for a superhero movie arguing this debate (Andrew Sullivan?) but then like most else it’s dropped. Clark is trying to reconcile his place in the world but he’s really just another plot device, this time a one-man investigation into this bat vigilante guy. The other problem with a Batman v. Superman showdown is that Superman is obviously the superior and would have to hold back to make it thrilling. We already know this Superman isn’t exactly timid about killing. The climax hinges on a Batman/Superman connection that feels so trite as to be comical, and yet Snyder and company don’t trust the audience enough to even piece that together and resort to a reconfirming flashback.

how-will-lex-luthor-play-into-batman-vs-superman-dawn-of-justice-520679Arguably the most problematic area of a movie overwhelmed with problems and eyesores, Eisenberg’s (Now You See Me) version of Lex Luthor is a complete non-starter. He is essentially playing his Mark Zuckerberg character but with all the social tics cranked higher. His socially awkward mad genius character feels like he’s been patched in from a different movie (Snyder’s Social Network?) and his motivation is kept murky. Why does he want to pit Batman and Superman against each other? It seems he has something of a god complex because of a nasty father. He is just substantially disappointing as a character, and his final scheme, complete with the use of an egg timer for wicked purposes, is so hokey that it made me wince. If you’re going with this approach for Lex then embrace it and make it make sense. Late in the movie, Lex Luthor comes across a treasure-trove of invaluable information, and yet he does nothing substantive with this except create a monster that needs a super team-up to take down (this plot point was already spoiled by the film’s marketing department, so I don’t feel guilty about referring to it). If you’re working with crafty Lex, he doesn’t just gain leverage and instantly attack. This is a guy who should be intricately plotting as if he was the John Doe killer in Seven. This is a guy who uses his intelligence to bend others to his will. This Lex Luthor throws around his ego, nattering social skills, and force-feeds people Jolly Ranchers. This is simply a colossal miscalculation that’s badly executed from the second he steps onscreen. The movie ends up being a 150-minute origin story for how Lex Luthor loses his hair.

The one character that somewhat works is Wonder Woman and this may be entirely due to the fact that her character is in the movie for approximately twenty minutes. Like Lois, she has little bearing on the overall plot, but at least she gets to punch things. I was skeptical of Gadot (Triple 9) when she was hired for the role that should have gone to her Furious 6 co-star, Gina Carano (Deadpool). She didn’t exactly impress me but I’ll admit I dropped much of my skepticism. I’m interested in a Wonder Woman movie, especially if, as reported, the majority is set during World War I. There is a definite thrill of seeing the character in action for the first time, even if she’s bathed in Snyder’s desaturated color-corrected palate of gloom. Realistically, Wonder Woman is here to introduce her franchise, to setup the Justice League movies, and as a tether to the other meta-humans who each have a solo film project on the calendar for the next four years. Wonder Woman gets to play coy and mysterious and then extremely capable and fierce during the finale. One of the movie’s biggest moments of enjoyment for me was when Wonder Woman takes a punch and her response is to smile. I look forward to seeing more of her in action and I hope the good vibes I have with the character, and Gadot, carry onward.

Batman-v-Superman-previewThe last act of this movie is Snyder pummeling the audience into submission, and it’s here where I just gave up and waited for the cinematic torment to cease. The action up to this point had been rather mediocre, save for that one Batman fight, and I think with each additional movie I’m coming to the conclusion that Snyder is a first-class visual stylist but a terrible action director. The story has lacked greater psychological insights or well-rounded characters, so it’s no surprise that the final act is meant to be the gladiatorial combat Lex has hyped, the epic showdown between gods. In essence, superheroes have taken a mythic property in our pop-culture, and Batman and Superman are our modern Mt. Olympus stalwarts. This showdown should be everything. The operatic heaviness of the battle at least matches with the overwrought tone of the entire movie. It’s too bad then that the titular bout between Batman and Superman lasts a whole ten minutes long. That’s it, folks, because then they have to forget their differences to tackle a larger enemy, the exact outcome that every single human being on the planet anticipated. I’m not even upset that the film ends in this direction, as it was fated. What I am upset about is a climax that feels less than satisfyingly climactic and more like punishment, as well as a conclusion that no single human being on the planet will believe. Snyder’s visual style can be an assault on the senses but what it really does is break you down. The end fight is an incoherent visual mess with the screen often a Where’s Waldo? pastiche of electricity, debris, smoke, fire, explosions, and an assortment of other elements. It’s a thick soup of CGI muck that pays no mind to geography or pacing. It’s like Michael Bay got drunk on Michael Bay-filmmaking. What the hell is the point of filming this movie in IMAX when the visual sequences are either too hard to decipher or something unworthy of the IMAX treatment? Do we need an entire close-up of a shell hitting the ground in glorious IMAX? The Doomsday character looks like a big grey baby before he grows his spikes. I was shocked at how bad the special effects looked for a movie that cost this much money, as if ILM or WETA said, “Good enough.” Once it was all over, I sat and reflected and I think even Snyder’s Sucker Punch had better action.

Another problem is that there are just way too many moments that don’t belong in a 150-minute movie. There’s an entire contrivance of Lois disposing of a valuable tool and then having to go back and retrieve it that made me roll my eyes furiously. It’s an inept way of keeping Lois involved in the action. How does Lois even know the relevancy of this weapon against its new enemy? Then there’s her rescue, which means that even when the movie shoehorns Lois into the action to make her relevant, she still manages to become a damsel in needing of saving. She feels shoehorned in general with the screenplay, zipping from location to location really as a means of uncovering exposition. Then there’s the fact that there is a staggering THREE superfluous dream sequences, and we actually get a flashback to one of those dumb dream sequences. The most extended dream sequence is a nightmarish apocalyptic world where Batman rebels against a world overrun by Superman and his thugs. There’s a strange warning that comes with this extended sequence of future action but it doesn’t involve this movie. Batman vs. Superman suffers from the same sense of over-extension that plagued Age of Ultron. It’s trying to set up so many more movies and potential franchises that it gets lost trying to simply make a good movie rather than Step One in a ten-step film release. In the age of super franchises that are intertwined with super monetary investments, these pilot movies feel more like delivery systems than rewarding storytelling. Payoffs are sacrificed for the promise of future payoffs, and frankly DC hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt here.

wonder_woman_97887I must return to my central, headline-grabbing statement and explain how Batman vs. Superman is a worse movie than the infamous Batman and Robin. I understand how loaded that declaration is so allow me to unpack it. This is a bad movie, and with that I have no doubt. It’s plodding, incoherent, tiresome, dreary, poorly developed, and so self-serious and overwrought to the point that every ounce of fun is relinquished. It feels more like punishment than entertainment, a joyless 150-minute exercise in product launching. By the end of the movie I sat in my chair, defeated and weary. Here is the most insidious part. Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice obliterates any hope I had for the larger DC universe, let alone building anything on par with what Marvel has put together. If this is the direction they’re going, the style, the tone, then I don’t see how any of these will work. What’s to like here? “Fun” is not a dirty word. Fun does not mean insubstantial nor does it mean that larger pathos is mitigated. If you’re going to have a movie about Batman and Superman duking it out, it better damn well be entertaining, and yes fun. It’s not a Lars von Trier movie. The Marvel movies are knocked for not being serious, but they take their worlds and characters seriously enough. They don’t need to treat everything like a funeral dirge, which is what Batman vs. Superman feels like (it even opens and closes on funerals). This movie confirms all the worst impulses that Man of Steel began, and because it gutted all hope I have for the future of these oncoming superhero flicks, I can’t help but lower its final grade. Batman and Robin almost killed its franchise but it was in decline at the time. As campy and innocuous as it was, Batman vs. Superman goes all the way in the other direction to the extreme, leaving a lumbering movie that consumes your hopes. The novelty of the premise and seeing its famous characters standing side-by-side will be enough for some audience members. For everyone else, commence mourning.

Nate’s Grade: D

Krampus (2015)

jEYZE9aNot quite funny enough and not quite scary enough, Krampus is a holiday antidote that wants to be a modern-day Gremlins but needed to be nastier, darker, or some variant with the suffix of –er. Writer/director Michael Dougherty has been down this holiday road before with Trick ‘r Treat, a superb horror anthology genre gem that was buoyed by a twisted sense of humor and a clever criss-crossing set of storylines that pollinated plenty of payoffs. Krampus begins with a brilliant opening credit sequence that sets a high bar o promise the movie will ultimately be unable to deliver, watching slow-mo stampeding shoppers fighting over Black Friday discounts set to a classic Bing Crosby yuletide tune. From there it’s more a Griswald dysfunctional family gathering until one of the young boys rips up his letter to Santa in disillusionment, calling forth Krampus and his minions. From there the family is terrorized and come closer together in struggle, trying to understand their predicament. There are a few great character designs for the minions, especially a jack-in-the-box whose face unhinges into a sarlac pit of teeth. The PG-13 rating keeps the film from getting too gory or too wicked, which also belies the fact that at heart it’s really an old-fashioned Christmas morality play about loving one another. I was ready to groan with what appeared to be the ending but Dougherty at least subverts the expected and makes sure that there are lasting consequences for bad behavior. This isn’t going to be remembered as a holiday classic but if you’re looking for a fun horror comedy, Krampus at least has something to offer before you feel left wanting.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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