This is the movie that director Scott Derrickson made after departing Marvel over “creative differences” with the Doctor Strange sequel, differences I feel like I can agree with. Based upon Joe Hill’s short story, The Black Phone is a return to Derrickson’s horror roots, along with regular screenwriting collaborator C. Robert Cargill, and you can feel the director’s reflexes resetting. It’s like three movies in one, not all of them needed or entirely coherent. It’s about generational trauma and abuse, a survival thriller about escaping a psychotic serial killer, and a little kid trying to hone her nascent psychic powers. The stuff with Ethan Hawke as “The Grabber,” a kidnapper of children who imprisons them in a locked basement dwelling with a broken black phone attached to the wall, is great, and Hawke is fascinating and unsettling. Each mask he wears seems to come with a slightly different persona attached, so with each appearance we get another sliver of who this disturbed man may have been. The story of survival is made even more intriguing when our protagonist, young Finney (Mason Thames), learns that the past victims can communicate with him through the mysterious black phone. The scene-to-scene learning and plotting is fun and efficient and requires Finney to be a little bit of a detective, exploring his dank surroundings and the failed escape attempts of the other kids to utilize for his own hopeful plan. The ghost kids also have limited memory of their experiences, which is smart so that he isn’t given a clear advantage without limitations. The parts that drag are where Finney’s little sister tries to convince the skeptical police officials that her dreams are real and can help find her missing brother. There is one hilarious moment where she prays to Jesus for guidance and then profanely expresses her disappointment, but otherwise it feels like a Stephen King stereotype leftover (Hill is the his son; apple meet tree) that doesn’t amount to much besides padding the running time. It doesn’t even lead to big breakthroughs for Finney to be rescued. As a small-scale creepy contained thriller, The Black Phone is an engaging survival story with a supernatural twist that works as well as it does. It doesn’t have much more depth or meaningful characterization, it’s really just about a kid using the power of neighborhood ghosts to escape a crazy man, and that’s enough at least for a passably entertaining 100 minutes.
Nate’s Grade: B
Consider writer/director Robert Eggers’ bloody Viking revenge movie as a companion piece to 2021’s The Green Knight. Both movies take mythical, supernatural-aided tales of heroics and medieval masculinity and feed into the spectacle while also cleaving the legend to make way for a sense of humanity. We follow Amleth (Alexander Skatsgard) who is a displaced prince who has sworn to kill his treacherous uncle and rescue his mother (Nicole Kidman). It’s a tale so old that it inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet, though that play could have benefited from a climax involving two hulking naked men dueling to the death atop an exploding volcano. The Northman reminds me a lot of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, a movie I described back in the day as “an art film for jocks.” It’s immersive and impressive down to the exact detail, and it doesn’t shirk on the blood and combat. It’s also unmistakably the work of Eggers, a very precise and idiosyncratic indie director whose prior movies felt like stylistic dares. The camerawork is often long with single takes, making all the visual arrangements and coordination that much more impressive. It’s staggering that a studio provided Eggers with $90 million to go make his version of Conan the Barbarian. At a lugubrious 140 minutes, there’s enough sticky carnage to satiate fans of brutish medieval action movies, but I appreciated how Eggers keeps his story purposely streamlined and simplistic until a few keen reveals force the audience and protagonist to re-examine the assumptions and fleeting honor of vengeance in this harsh, unfair environment of men out-killing one another. It’s a movie that provides the red meat and then makes you question whether you might want to go vegan. There’s more that can be unpacked but I wish Eggers had cut back at points. This is a slow movie, which does contribute to its mood and atmosphere, but I also wish Eggers had gotten to some of his plot points with a bit more haste and vigor. The Northman is transporting and bold and also more than a bit bloated. You could laugh at some of its over-the-top machismo but I feel like Eggers is inviting criticism of that very machismo, so enjoy the movie on one level where it indulges all the Old World violence, and then enjoy it on another level where it subverts and castigates the same Old World violence. Or you could just watch for the glistening muscles, famous faces, bad accents, bad wigs, guttural score, and weird imagery.
Nate’s Grade: B
Both First Reformed and You Were Never Really Here use sly genre subversion to act as commentary on what kinds of movies the audience associates with these kind of haunted men, their arcs, and the nature of violence. Subverting audience expectations is in and of itself not necessarily a better option. You can have unexpected things happen but the narrative that happens after needs to be compelling, and if possible, unavoidable in hindsight (Game of Thrones is good at this). By the same notion, the finale of Breaking Bad was pretty easy to anticipate but that’s because of how well written the storytelling trajectory was pointing to its natural end. I can tell a tense father-son reconciliation story and then if I end it with a meteor wiping out the Earth all of a sudden, well that’s unexpected but that doesn’t make it better storytelling. What helps elevate both movies is that the subversions are thematically related to the relationship between violence and vengeance, absolution and atonement, and the audience and our desires with these films.
In First Reformed, Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke, enthralling) is the caretaker of a small upstate New York church where the weekly attendance can be counted on one hand. The church, First Reformed, is nearing the commemoration of its two hundred-fiftieth anniversary that will be celebrated by local dignitaries and the governor. Reverend Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer, surprisingly adept in drama) is the pastor for the mega church that seems to have everything that First Reformed lacks. Jeffers wants to help out Toller but the humble man of the cloth refuses. Rev. Toller is pushed out of his comfort zone by the husband of a pregnant woman (Amanda Seyfried) who challenges him on man’s stewardship of the environment. The husband worries about bringing a child into this world and contributing the larger problem of climate change. This interaction gets Rev. Toller to think about his own culpability and sets him on a path of righteous justice.
Writer/director Paul Schrader is famous for his stories about violent men confronting the wickedness of the world around them. From Taxi Driver to Raging Bull to Hardcore, Schrader has a penchant for documenting the self-destructive recourse of flawed men who feel removed or constrained by a society they feel is out of step with morality. What better canvas then for Schrader than a middle-aged pastor at a small, reclusive church? Rev. Toller is so humble he doesn’t own more than a few sticks of furniture in his home, the adjoining parsonage to the church. He’s friendly but often choosing to keep to himself, forgoing comforts and perceived handouts from the people around him. A woman his own age keeps trying to connect with him, their romantic coupling in the past a platform for her to continue hoping he’ll come around to her. She’s a perfectly nice woman, a choir headmistress for the mega church down the road, but she reminds Toller of his weakness and maybe even something worse. The aforementioned mega church basically keeps Toller’s small parish afloat as a charity (First Reformed is nicknamed the “gift shop church” for its historical notoriety). Rev. Jeffers is concerned about his fellow man of the cloth and the toll his solitude and seclusion is taking on him. It’s like he’s trying to atone for something, taking on a very Christ-like path of penitence. It’s around here that the character is activated into a higher calling in conflict with the church.
I’ll explain what I was expecting given the premise and presence of Schrader. I was expecting a movie much in keeping with A History of Violence, where a small-town man is thrust back into a past life of violence by outside forces and he has to confront how far this “new him” has come from the sins of “old him.” I was expecting Toller to become more violent and radicalized, pitting others in his cross-hairs for retribution. That’s not really First Reformed at all. First off, it’s the slowest of slow burns. You better be prepared to luxuriate in the day-to-day details of Rev. Toller’s simple life, from unclogging toilets to visiting with parishioners in their homes and having long philosophical conversations with them about faith and man’s role in the ecosystem. That conversation specifically teeters toward ten minutes and serves as the end of Act One, and I think if you’re still invested by then, you’ll be along for the rest of the film. However, it’s not going to be an easily accessible movie. This conversation stirs something deeper inside Toller, dissatisfaction with the church and how it coddles with big business, the chief polluters of God’s kingdom. Toller becomes a late-in-life environmental activist who questions the stewardship of the church body. This sets him on a path that seems destined for bloody violence. He’s going to go out in a fury of righteousness. We’re expecting a big bang by the end, especially given Schrader’s history of these kinds of stories with these kinds of men. But that doesn’t happen.
I’ll try and avoid spoilers but discussion over the thematic relevance of the end of First Reformed will unavoidably suggest to the reader some significant plot developments, so please feel free to read this paragraph or skip to the next one. The second half of the movie is setting you up for a very specific ending, one where Toller strikes back against forces he feels are detrimental to the well being of the church. It’s setting you up for a climactic showdown with powerful forces that feel unaccountable for their actions. I was ready for a final rush of violence to serve as the crescendo to Schrader’s slow burn. This is where the movie swerves away from audience expectations. We’re prepared for a meaningful death but instead Schrader’s ending, in retrospect, makes us question why we should have desired such a violent and vengeful finale. Why should this character be a martyr for our bloodlust against the powerful? Ultimately, Schrader’s movie ends on a romantic, optimistic note of personal salvation after setting you up for a dark story with a predetermined, self-destructive end. The abruptness of the ending may inspire some titters, but when you look back at the film, it makes complete sense and calls into question why we would wish for blood and violence over human connection and forgiveness. Schrader is saying that you wanted the wrong kind of movie.
First Reformed takes the modest aims of its protagonist to heart when it comes to the presentation of its story. Schrader films the entire movie in the old-fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio, the square box of old pre-high definition televisions. It’s an aspect ratio that keeps everything centered for the audience and on display. I think there was exactly four camera movements in the entire movie; almost the entirely of the 113 minutes is from a stationary, documentary-styled camera. It’s a very specific visual style that limits the visual information and dynamism but manages to personalize the main character even more. It’s his movie and his journey of self, so the visual representation is also restrained. There’s really one flash of upsetting violence in the whole movie, as if to remind the audience how a violent death is not something to be celebrated. For an R-rated Paul Schrader movie, it’s far more reserved, subtle, and thoughtful. It left me thinking about Rev. Toller and his messianic mission and our desire for a big bloody finish. The idea of a selfless death directed toward violent retribution is inherently self-involved. It’s not death that provides meaning but life, it’s not how we end but what we do with the days beforehand.
You Were Never Really Here is built as a hitman thriller based on Jonathan Ames’ novel. Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a hired gun who specializes in rescuing young women. He’s hired to find the missing adolescent daughter of a senatorial candidate. He investigates the underbelly of sex trafficking to save this little girl, but larger forces are at play and will make Joe suffer gravely for interfering with their wanton exploitation.
The average audience for You Were Never Really Here has been steadily fed a diet of these kinds of movies, from the artful (Luc Besson’s The Professional), to the pulpy (The Long Kiss Goodnight), to any number of hollow, nihilistic video game-styled murder fantasies (Hitman, a thousand straight-to-DVD movies). We’re expecting men of action who are ruthlessly efficient and clever when it comes to their killing. We’re expecting stylish merchants of death who leave behind a heavy body count with swagger. That’s not what brilliant Scottish writer/director Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin) has in mind at all. She takes the iconography of the hitman thriller and turns it into an expectation-smashing existential character study, but not just of its disturbed main character but also for the audience and our relationship to these movies. We expect remorseless killing machines that turn death into splashy and cool tableaus. These movies aren’t so much key on mediation and reflection, beyond the standard “reap what you sow” adage.
Much of the violence is kept off screen or purposely denied to the audience. I’m trying to remember if we even see Joe kill anyone on screen. The infiltration of the sex trafficking organization hops between fixed security angles, edited together in a dissonant manner, where the last shot doesn’t fully line up for a smooth edit, leaving a half second. The effect is one that’s knowingly alienating and challenging. When Joe does unleash his violent skills, it’s rarely given a showcase for entertainment. This is a movie that doesn’t celebrate its violence. There’s a moment where Joe lies on the ground beside a mortally wounded bad guy. They exchange a few cordial words, he procures some vital information, but then Joe stays with the man and the two sing a song together. It sounds bizarre when written out but it’s a moment that really stuck with me. After everything, these two men can find a small sliver of humanity between them to share. Even the final confrontation, the big climactic set piece of any other movie, ends with a shoulder shrug, as if Ramsay is saying to the audience, “Why would seeing all that be cathartic?”
For Ramsay, the focus of the movie is on the man committing the acts of violence rather than how stylish and cool and cinematic those acts of violence can be. This is the one area where I feel a longer running time could have better helped her goal. I think Ramsay might be the best filmmaker we have for triptych narratives. 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin is a startling and insightful movie that opens up the guilt of a woman whose son grew up very badly, jumping around time periods, using a repetition of images to provide visual stings and associations. You Were Never Really Here does similar labor, establishing our strong silent protagonist through glimpses of a troubled past, from a childhood with an abusive father and a mother he would have to save, to incidents during military service and police investigations that reminded Joe about the depravity of others, in particular the ability to exploit and dehumanize women as disposable property. Ramsay offers discorded images and brief flashes and asks the audience to put together the pieces to better understand Joe as a man propelled and haunted by his bloody past. However, at a slim 89 minutes, the audience could have used more time and opportunity to better develop and analyze this central character. The pieces are tantalizing but I wanted more, and as a result I found Joe to be an interesting start to a character that was in need of more time and attention to transcend the boundaries of his archetype. I needed a little more from him and his world.
There are several moments that quickly come to my memory, sticking with me because of the level of artistic arrangement or implication. Because Ramsay wants to take the Hollywood hitman revenge thriller and deconstruct it and provoke her audience and its desires for violence, there isn’t much of a plot to this movie. I could literally spoil the whole thing with the following sentence: a man of violence is hired to find a missing girl, finds her, loses her, and finds her again at great personal expense. The movie is more of a poignant and intriguing exercise in our relationship to these kinds of stories. There are moments of beauty in the movie that took my breath away, like when Joe lowers a wrapped body into the depths of a lake, and with the shafts of light, the curls of hair, the small visual details, it felt like watching a living baroque painting. There are also several bizarre moments that stand out, like when Joe fantasizes about blowing his brains out at a diner while the patrons, and the blood-soaked waitress, go about their day. It’s these little flourishes that make the movie stand above other hitman movie deconstruction exercises like George Clooney’s overly solemn The American. It’s not all tragedy and inescapable dread. Amidst Joe’s tortured past and troubled future, there’s a necessary sense of hope. You don’t know what will happen next but you’re not resigned to retrograde nihilism.
Both First Reformed and You Were Never Really Here are slow burn indie character studies that ask their audience to question the movies they’ve been set up for. Schrader and Ramsay are deft storytellers who pair their visual gifts to the psyches of their damaged, haunted, and self-destructive middle-aged men. Hawke is phenomenal as Rev. Toller and Phoenix is suitably unsettled from a life of confronting predatory violence. Both movies have also stayed with me, though First Reformed I find to be the better developed, better executed, better acted of the two films. It’s enough of a comeback for Schrader, whose last film I remember seeing was the laughably bad Lindsay Lohan “erotic thriller” The Canyons. These are two movies that aren’t exactly the most accessible. Both challenge the audience to analyze the personal relationships with genre storytelling. If you have patience and an open mind, both First Reformed and You Were Never Really Here provide thoughtful and methodical examinations on genre, violence, and the visceral appeal of empty bloodshed.
First Reformed: A-
You Were Never Really Here: B
Watching the trailers for French maverick Luc Besson’s latest, the sci-fi opus Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, I was wondering where it would fall on a scale between Besson’s own funky, enjoyable Fifth Element and the lackluster and laughable Jupiter Ascending. It looked to tell a big story in a big world and with its director’s quirky visual hallmarks. It should at least be fun, I reasoned, and it is for a while. Unfortunately, Besson’s film (the most expensive European production in history) is a movie that almost needs to be seen to be believed but I wouldn’t actually advise people go see it. Perhaps a better title for this movie would have been Valerian and the City of a Thousand Better Ideas.
Based upon the comic series by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mezieres, we flash forward to the twenty-eight century with agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sgt. Laureline (Cara Delevingne). Their mission is to retrieve a special alien something-or-other that will relate to a larger conspiracy involving the eradication of an alien home world.
Besson’s face-first dive into the wacky world of sci-fi will frustrate the hell out of you, chiefly because it does such an amazing job of creating a vibrant, weird, wild, and luscious world brimming with alien life only to toy with interesting subjects and then indifferently discard them. The elements are all there, it’s just that Besson doesn’t integrate them in meaningful ways, retreating back to being an overly caffeinated, erratic tour guide. My friend Ben Bailey and I came up with several different revisions that would have instantly improved the movie, and that only took us twenty minutes after leaving the theater (more on that below in full detail). Over the course of 137 self-indulgent, hyperactive yet meandering minutes of story, I am stunned at the level of ineptitude.
It’s not all bad, and in fact the first 30 minutes are some measure of good to great. The prologue is a thing of beauty and the highlight of the movie (if you walked out immediately after, when the title popped up, you would be better off). Set entirely to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” we visually chart the history of man’s habitation of space. Stock footage of 1970s space missions gives rise to the early twenty-first century construction of a working space station. The station’s captain accepts each new national group with a magnanimous handshake. Each scene is a jump forward in time, wordlessly building a stronger sense of community and the accomplishment of man’s dreams. Eventually this greeting also extends to First Contact and different alien species come aboard, and they too are given the same handshake of peace. It’s an earnest sequence that comes across as genuinely moving and uplifting. Finally, we see that the space station has, over the course of hundreds of years, collected into a massive floating home to thousands of alien species that came from far to explore and intermingle.
The next part is also wordless, following the idyllic existence of a planet of Na’vi-like lithe, blue-skinned alien natives who frolic along a beach and collect pearls. It’s another rather sincere visual sequence. This tranquil CGI world comes to a screeching halt when fiery debris begins to rain down from the atmosphere, followed by a gigantic alien spaceship that crashes and causes an extinction-level event. One of our lithe aliens is trapped behind and comes to terms with her fate. She sends out her spirit in one last radiant burst before the pyroclastic cloud engulfs everything. These two sequences engender good will with the audience and show the potential power of Besson’s transporting vision.
Shortly afterwards we get the first major set piece of the opening act, an inter-dimensional bazaar known as Big Market. In one dimension it’s just a large expanse of empty desert, but with the right gloves and glasses visitors can interact with alien vendors and shop to their hearts content. It’s a fantastic setting and Besson takes time to set up the different particulars and rules and then lets it loose. It’s exciting and imaginative and the only sequence where the character of Valerian feels in trouble or at a disadvantage. It’s a wonderfully knotty sci-fi set piece with multiple points of action interweaving into a satisfying spectacle. There’s even a fun alien crime boss voiced by John Goodman. I whispered to my friend that this was already better than Jupiter Ascending. I regrettably spoke too soon.
Everything afterwards is a cascading mess that assaults your senses and wastes your time. There isn’t a strong narrative drive to the movie, never felt more than during its protracted second act that is nothing but a series of wearisome narrative cul-de-sacs. The movie errs significantly by establishing Clive Owen as an obvious villain so early (he’s torturing a Na’vi-like alien in the friggin’ first act). Owen’s character becomes the supposed MacGuffin that propels the characters forward. They have to retrieve him, but when the audience already knows so early that he’s not worth the effort, the sense of urgency deflates, not that there was much of a sense to begin with. The movie quickly adopts a flippant attitude where it feels like nothing matters, and so nothing does. We jump from one detour to another as if they were single-issue comics that Besson was determined to realize on the big screen. The characters never feel in danger because Besson deploys contrived solutions at every turn. A special jellyfish on the head is a solution to finding a missing Valerian. Simply jumping down a floor grate is a solution to charging aliens. It’s like Besson throws his characters into dilemmas and merely points to the exit door conveniently there the whole time. That’s not satisfying or entertaining. It makes the movie feel episodic, listless, and like it’s just filling up time. What started so promisingly rapidly degenerates into overly exuberant camp nonsense.
Another major issue is that the main characters are awfully boring and miscast. Valerian is supposed to be a charming rogue, a swaggering playboy, a fearsome cop, and none of these attributes work with DeHann. The guy has been excellent in other movies but is entirely unbelievable as the title hero, intimidating nobody and impressing even less. He’s supposed to be a talented expert operative but the results on screen don’t back up the praise. His combat moves require a large suspension of disbelief. DeHann (A Cure for Wellness) speaks in a baffling 90s Keanu Reeves voice for the entire movie, relegating his entire emotional range to a grating monotone. Valerian isn’t charming whatsoever but Besson seems to think an audience will fall for him. He’s an irksome misogynist who sets his sights on his partner, Laureline. Their “romance” is unconvincing and hindered with some laughably clunky dialogue. The movie runs like you have a pre-existing relationship with these characters, but we don’t know them or their back-stories or their shared history. He’s immediately hitting on her and proposing marriage in the first act, though it all seems like a sleazy scheme just to sleep with her. Delevingne (Suicide Squad) has a striking look to her but I can’t tell if she can act yet. Granted the roles I’ve watched ask her to mostly serve as a model. Her character is stiff and unemotive and equally boring, though slightly more convincing as an aloof badass. It’s a shame she gets sidelined as a damsel needing rescue when she seems far more capable than her partner. These two are the living embodiment of prioritizing attitude over characterization.
There’s a very late moment when Besson has his two lead characters just spout transparent exposition at one another to communicate themes and character arcs, and it took everything I had not to laugh out loud. Laureline is about to give an alien something valuable and Valerian pulls her aside and tells her they can’t. “I follow the rules,” he says, and I snapped my head back in alarming whiplash. What? This dolt has been breaking everything and doing whatever he has wanted for hours, and now at the last minute Besson is trying to force him to articulate a paradoxical character description? Being saddled with these two distant, glib, irritating leads is bad enough, but DeHann and Delevinghe have as much chemistry as a batch of dead fish. No danger of sparks flying here.
Before I got into some spoiler detail with my suggestions on how to improve Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, let me appreciate some of its virtues. The movie is often a technical marvel bursting with detail at every edge of the frame. Besson’s quirky sense of humor and playfulness is on display from the imaginative alien designs to the lived-in settings. The movie isn’t afraid to get weird, and some of those details are delightful like a two-barreled gun that can point in different directions. There’s even a small creature that will poop out copies of whatever it eats. Even when the characters and story let you down, the visuals provide a reason to keep going. I enjoyed Rihanna’s shape-shifting alien, a burlesque dancer whose routine feels almost like a medical test to determine which Rihanna fetish works best for you (rollergirl, French maid, naughty nurse, S&M kitten, torch singer, school girl?). Part of her appeal is that she’s the only supporting character in the movie. Her presence changes the character dynamics of Valerian and Laureline and gives us somebody new to hang onto. I liked the dopey aliens that resemble the sloth from the Ice Age movies, and I especially enjoyed a surprise payoff for their insistence that Laureline wear a stupidly large hat. Whether these moments are enough to cancel out the rampant excess will be up to the individual moviegoer.
This next section is going to involve spoilers, though I don’t think this is a movie where knowing the plot is going to really ruin the experience. Still, you have been warned, and if you wish to remain spoiler-free, please skip to the last paragraph (though do come back later).
I was beside myself in frustration because it feels like there are story elements ripe for the plucking that would have instantly improved Valerian and Besson is just too oblivious. Firstly, none of the characters that Valerian and Laureline run into seem to matter in the slightest. That alien mob boss who swore vengeance? Never returns. The aliens that kidnap Laureline and offer her up as a tasty treat to their king? Never return. Besson’s Fifth Element benefited from establishing different groups of characters with conflicting purposes that would continually run into one another and complicate matters. It makes the movie much more fun and it allows characters to have greater meaning than one-off appearances. We should be building a team and gaining a new member from every new location visited, which would make the visits more meaningful and lighten the time spent only with Valerian and Laureline. My first solution would be to bring back these different alien antagonists in comical and bungling ways, especially for Act Three. Another solution is to radically change the angelic, Na’vi-like ethereal aliens. It’s revealed they’ve been hiding on the station for decades (though not in a different dimension, another missed potential payoff). They just want to go home, though whether that’s a replication or a different dimension is unclear. What if these peaceful aliens didn’t forgive humanity for obliterating their planet? What if the key to bringing back their home world was to suck the life force out of the space station or Earth itself? That would flip the script and make you question whether these displaced aliens are morally justified in their actions. It would also set the stage for a rollicking third act that culminates in a frantic chase through all the different levels and communities introduced throughout the film, complete with the various antagonists complicating matters with their own motivations. This would all be infinitely better than the third act we get, which left me flabbergasted at how slack and uninspiring it is (defusing a bomb?). Why build up this strange and wonderful world and do nothing with it by the end?
Getting back to my original question: is Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets better or worse than the Wachowski sisters’ misfire, Jupiter Ascending? Besson’s latest certainly looks lovely and is crammed to the rafters with ideas, several of which you desperately wish had garnered more attention and development. This is an overstuffed movie, especially at 137 minutes, and yet it will leave you seriously wanting. The disinterested lead actors slog their way from one uninspired chase scene to another, gallivanting in a world that will have no real significance once we move onto the next expensive set. It all feels like manic decoration meant to stimulate and distract from the glaring deficiencies with characters and story. It starts out great and then degenerates into kitschy futuristic junk. It feels like somebody made a PG-13 Barbarella but mandated that nobody ever smile. DeHann is grossly miscast as a rakish rogue and his onscreen relationship with his leggy costar is painfully realized. I think I respect Jupiter Ascending more because that cinematic world could have sustained something interesting and they took it all seriously enough even when things got absurdly silly. Valerian is so flippant and stuck with sourpuss leads. A better movie was within reach, which makes it all the sadder that Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is reluctantly the movie we get, a visual spectacle that bores as it overwhelms. If you put this movie on mute and did some peyote, maybe it would achieve its true artistic value.
Nate’s Grade: C
Obviously the new Magnificent Seven remake was never going to be as good a Western as the 1960 original, or as good an action movie as its source material, Akira Kurosawa’s legendary Seven Samurai. Once you accept that, the question becomes whether simply being an enjoyable Western action movie qualifies as a success given its storied pedigree. If you can’t do better than the original, why bother making it as my friend Ben Bailey would question. The answer is of course blunt (money) but the conundrum is how does one improve on classic film masterpieces? I think the new Magnificent Seven found its footing by accepting its unquestioned ceiling and instead going down a different path, instilling the essence of what made the older films so superb, and just trying to be the best B-student it can be with its new set of guidelines for broad entertainment.
The dusty town of Rose Creek falls under attack by ruthless industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), who wants the land for his mining company. He installs loyal toadies as lawmen for the town and to ensure any troublemakers are put to “justice.” Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) wishes to avenge her fallen husband and recruits a famous outlaw, Chisolm (Denzel Washington). He agrees to help and rustles up a powerful posse of gunslingers to defend the town from Bogue and his cruel forces.
There’s a reason this story still works as well as it does and that’s because the structure is ready-made for payoffs and audience satisfaction if the director and actors are capable. Act One establishes the threat and our two main roguish heroes, and then Act Two starts off with the gathering of the team, routinely one of the greatest sequences in screenwriting, and then the Act Two midpoint involves toppling the corrupt thugs controlling the town, and Act Three is the culmination between the forces of anti-hero good versus evil over the ultimate battle for the town. It’s an against-all-odds underdog tale with good but possibly doomed forces against a villain used to steamrolling through vulnerable citizens. I don’t care whom you are, that story structure worked then and it still works now. Fuqua and company don’t break a winning formula and know what strengths they have and how best to maximize them for top entertainment value.
The biggest asset is this glorious cast, headlined by Washington and Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy). There isn’t admittedly much to these characters from a development standpoint. They’re given back-stories, though some of them are fairly airy and provide a bare minimum of effort. Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) in particular just kind of shows up and everybody shrugs and says, “Why not?” more or less. Also, while on this subject, it’s a bit contrived that when the bad side has their own villainous Native American that the script has to conspire for the only two Native Americans to face-off, especially when we’ve been given no history or connection between them prior to this climactic showdown. Back to the main cast, Washington settles into his suave badass persona we’ve come to expect from the man. He even fades into the background at times, ceding space for the other characters to have their moments. Make no mistake, though, because Washington’s character is a strong central anchor for this movie and even on autopilot this actor still produces attitude with style and gravitas. There’s also the simple pleasure of just watching Washington in a Western. The man was made for this setting of taciturn badasses. The brightest star of the picture is Pratt, expertly cast as a charming rogue with a big personality. What the characters lack in development they make up for in colorful personalities, which is acceptable in a genre that rewards memorably outsized figures of entertainment. Pratt is a fun rascal with a penchant for sarcasm and playing around with his prey. Every minute Pratt commanded the screen was a minute that captured my full attention.
The rest of the cast is solid and make the most of their screen time, putting in memorable supporting performances to compliment the stars. Vincent D’Onofrio (Jurassic World) is basically like a human equivalent of a bear or yeti. He’s this massive and animalistic creature and I appreciated D’Onofrio’s gusto in embracing the peculiarities. In a film of great casting and memorable characters, he nearly steals the movie. Ethan Hawke (Boyhood) has one of the more credible character arcs in the film as well as the best name (Goodnight Robicheaux). He’s haunted by a lifetime accumulation of killing. His flinty co-star Byung-hun Lee (RED 2) is the strong silent type and the two of them have a nice gunslinger chemistry, nicely contrasting but still a believable brotherhood in arms. Bennett (Hardcore Henry) is going to break out in a big way in 2016. She has a very arresting face (it’s her eyes) and an instant screen presence, which is hard to do with these guys soaking up much of the oxygen. She also gets to prove her mettle and not be treated as a romantic object, so hooray. My one concern with Bennett was that the costume designer had let her down, as it seemed the top of her gown was dangerously close to slipping off her shoulders at several key points. I understand this is designed to squeeze in a slight surge of sensuality for what is very much a PG-13 action flick but it became distracting with its obviousness. Bennett deserved better, though she might be another figure of T&A with her role in The Girl on the Train. We shall see (maybe much). The only sore spot is the villain, a wasted Sarsgaard (Black Mass) who never quite lives up to a diabolical nature worthy of the attention of our colorful cadre of anti-heroes. He’s a bully but he doesn’t seem formidable enough or that interesting.
Fuqua (The Equalizer) hasn’t been the most consistent stager of action with his up-and-down career but he puts out all the stops with The Magnificent Seven to great effect. The action sequences are robust and shot with great attention to geography and escalation. I knew exactly what the stakes were with each sequence and gun battle, and I knew the different people and their placement and the goals. With a crew of seven and counting, it can be difficult to adequately find room for each of the fighters to be well utilized and have at least a moment that matters (just look at what happened with Suicide Squad). The second half of Act Two is our team plotting how to compensate for the overwhelming forces coming down their way, and the plotting produces plenty of opportunities as the audience watches the setups and waits for the payoff jamboree. There are little payoffs, big payoffs, crowd-pleasing payoffs, character arc pleasing payoffs; it’s an action movie that knows the climax should be the best part, and it doesn’t disappoint. The town may be in rubble and strewn with corpses by film’s end, but you’ll be happy and content from the wealth of tense and smartly directed action. Helping things along, Fuqua’s Wild West photography is often strikingly beautiful with its use of natural light.
The Magnificent Seven makes up for its lack of originality and rich characters in colorful personality and the sheer scope and intensity of its action. It can’t contend with John Sturgis and Akira Kurosawa, but what modern movie can? I don’t fault the movie for failing to live up to the standards of two classics in two different genres. I instead credit the movie for knowing its strengths and knowing how best to develop and deliver them for maximum mass appeal enjoyment. The cast is wonderfully selected and given fun characters to dig into, and the onscreen camaraderie of our seven might not rise to the level of magnificence but it’s pretty good by all accounts. That’s a rather keen summary of the movie writ large; with modestly recalculated expectations, the movie may not be magnificent but it’s plenty good and plenty entertaining. Washington and Pratt are stars making full use of their broad star appeal. The action sequences are well staged and peppered with payoffs, and it’s worth congratulating the team on having several parallel lines of action and keeping all of the shifting particulars understandable for its audience. The Magnificent Seven is about as good as I expected any remake to be, and while it doesn’t rise to those storied heights it does achieve its goals with vigor and style.
Nate’s Grade: B
The biggest problem with Getaway was also likely its main selling point to gear heads: it’s one long 90-minute car chase. That may sound like a good thing to audiences that love them some high-speed thrills, but back up a moment because this scenario could be like getting sick from eating too much ice cream. Car chases are one of the greatest things in movies, but they are still dependent upon execution and overall context within the narrative. If you got nothing but relentless car chases, wouldn’t that start to get boring? And so it is with Getaway whose endless stream of car chases becomes one long, plodding, monotonous blur of tedium.
Brent Magna (Ethan Hawke) is a former racecar driver looking for a fresh start in Bulgaria. One day he comes home, sees the Christmas decorations shattered, and is told that his wife has been kidnapped. The mysterious The Voice (Jon Voight in constant close-up) threatens to kill Brent’s wife unless he plays along. As per his orders, Brent hops into an impressive stolen car, outfitted with cameras so The Voice can keep tabs. Brent is ordered to drive around the city wildly. At one point, The Kid (Selena Gomez) pulls a gun on him, claiming that the car belongs to her. She’s forced inside the car and the two unlikely partners are made to do the bidding of The Voice.
A major problem for the movie being stuck in neutral is that it’s directed by Courtney Solomon, the man who previously helmed notorious stinkers like Dungeons and Dragons and An American Haunting. The action sequences are so badly edited together that often it’s a collage of fast-paced imagery without feeling the impact. It’s hard to tell what’s going on much of the time, so you just give up. There is one extended uncut scene of high-speed driving, but ordinarily Getaway is replete with confusing quick-cuts. More so, Solomon has difficulty properly staging the action sequences to draw out tension, falling back on speedy resolutions and rote action tropes. He doesn’t have a strong feel to visually orchestrate action. I cannot recall one action sequence that grabbed my attention, partly because they just run together into a flavorless meringue. The most annoying feature is Solomon placing a series of cameras all over the interior and exterior of Brent’s car. The movie frequently cuts around these security camera POVs, which are visually unappealing and remind you of a lame reality TV competition show. I think the camera aspect was included to give a grander visceral aspect of the car chases, to put you in the middle of the action. However, isn’t that the point of a really good car chase anyway? Shouldn’t proper execution make me feel thrills rather than dumb camera angles glommed onto the car? I would argue that Getaway was sold on the notion that the added Webcams make it “found footage-y.”
The scenes that aren’t car chases end up becoming respites, something to strangely look forward to, and judging by the atrocious dialogue, this is not a positive. Another problem is that the car chases are all relatively the same. It’s alleys, it’s streets, sometimes ice rinks, but we’re in Bulgaria and the particulars of the car chases will not budge. There is nothing to distinguish Car Chase #13 from Car Chase #86, and so it all just becomes bland even with all the vehicular mayhem. The stunt work is certainly impressive but I just wish it had been put to far better use.
Then there’s the matter of the characters and plot, or rather, the complete lack of them. The movie doesn’t waste any time, putting Brent in his muscle car and speeding around by minute two. I can almost respect that expediency, but it comes at a severe cost. All we know is that the guy drives good, which will be self-evident in seconds, and that his lovely wife was kidnapped by bad people who want him to drive. That’s it. Naturally, having one dude in a car doesn’t lead to great moments of characterization, and so we’re given the plucky teenage misfit partner played by the absurdly miscast Gomez (Monte Carlo, Spring Breakers). This character is annoying from the start and played by an actress who cannot convincingly portray an edgy character. So she comes off as artificial and irritating. It’s uncertain at this point whether Gomez can step outside her doe-eyed Disney Channel branding, but this awful movie certainly isn’t helping. Being stuck in the car with these two terribly written characters is like being trapped on a long vacation with the relatives you hate.
The plot is about as simple as you could think, and then most of it fails to make much sense. The car belongs to The Kid. The bad guys want to hit up her dad’s bank, stealing funds about to be liquidated, and then this all requires Brent to drive like a maniac throughout Bulgaria, where the country apparently hasn’t invented helicopters yet to track speeding cars. The plot really is the thinnest tissue to get the movie from one loud car chase to the next, with some asides where Gomez can spit out a few adult profanities (no F-bombs kids, this is still PG-13 after all). The conclusion makes little sense (spoilers). In the end, the villainous Voice congratulates Brent and his sidekick for winning, vanquishing his greedy scheme. Okay, but the Mr. Voice goes one step further claiming that this was his plan all along, to push Brent to his full potential that he always knew he was capable of. What does this mean? This man staged a highly elaborate heist, hired men with fierce firepower, and installed all this fancy technology just to make Brent a more self-actualized individual? This ending clearly points to a conclusive lack of an ending. Once the car chases were over, the screenwriters looked at each other and said, “Now what?” and that was when they typed “The end.”
I’m struggling to come up with any verifiable positives I can say about Getaway. I suppose if you’re an auto aficionado, you’ll get a kick out of watching Brent’s car, a Shelby Super Snake Mustang (I readily admit to looking this up because I don’t care about cars), in action. Other than that, unless you have a strong desire to watch Voight’s mouth in extreme close-ups for 90 minutes (you know who you are), there really isn’t anything of value to be found in the wreck that is Getaway.
If you’re a car chase junkie, I think taking a shot with Getaway could be just the trick to sober you up. It’s one long 90-minute car chase but made so ineptly, at every angle of filmmaking, that it gets so monotonous and boring far too early. When you don’t have characters to keep your interest, a plot that makes sense, action sequences that offer some variety, editing that makes the action coherent, and direction that hamstrings the viewer to lousy dashboard-esque cameras, then it’s easy to fall asleep to the sounds of near-constant vehicle crunching. Getaway is a terrible action movie, a terrible movie in general, and proof positive that action fans should be careful what they wish for.
Nate’s Grade: D
Sci-fi cautionary tales have been an outstanding way to provide commentary for contemporary anxiety. Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont, and the recently departed Richard Matheson were masters of this. A movie can make you think as speculative fiction while still following a thriller/horror blueprint to entertain the masses. And so writer/director James DeMonaco (Assault on Precinct 13, The Negotiator) wades into these waters with The Purge, a home invasion thriller that has a premise that, on the surface, might make you scoff. In 2022, the United States has practically solved unemployment and crime thanks to a nifty little holiday known as the Purge. Every year, for a twelve-hour window, law is rescinded and so are emergency services like police and firefighters. For those 12 hours, good American men and women are allowed to engage in just about every sort of crime up to and including murder. It’s designed for people to release all their aggression and darker impulses, thus allowing for a safer, happier 364 and a half days a year.
James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) is the top salesman when it comes to hardcore home security systems, the kind with the thick metal doors over your windows and doors. He lives in one of those finely protected homes with his wife, Mary (Lena Headey), and children, Max (Max Burkholder) and Zoey (Adelaide Kaine). They’re prepared for a long night behind barricades. Then a wounded black man (Edwin Hodge) runs through the cushy neighbor, crying desperately for help. Charlie offers him refuge inside the Sandin abode. Shortly after, a group of masked vigilantes, led by a lad who looks like Patrick Bateman, knock on the Sandin home. The bloody ma is their “bait,” and these angry folk demand he be returned to them, or else they will be coming in and sparing no one.
This high-concept thriller is a well-crafted suspense piece, with several well-developed sequences that squeeze out tension. The premise involves some mighty suspension of disbelief but you’d be surprised how easy it is to accept and move on. The kids provide dissenting voices, mostly Charlie, and we get a lean history of the Purge and all the information we need to go forward, at least for this night. I liked how it’s become a common passing greeting to say “Stay safe” to people on the day before the Purge. Little details like that make the world feel more thought out. I like that engaging in the Purge is thought of as one’s patriotic duty. There are some tantalizing moments of dread as well, like a neighbor sharpening his killing tools outdoors. But really the movie comes down to its suspense, broken up into a series of different goals. James wants to protect his family and return the “bait,” but first he needs to find him and subdue him. Charlie wants to save him and get to him first. It’s your standard people-groping-in-the-dark kind of picture, but when given a strong sense of urgency and some good actors, it can be plenty suspenseful. DeMonaco does a fine job of making sure his story doesn’t get too confusing, tasking the audience with keeping track of too many participants. So when we have Zoey’s bad boyfriend (Tony Oller), he’s dealt with before the manhunt begins. When the home invasion kicks in, the manhunt is over. When it looks like Zoey is heading straight for the stranger, it’s a storyline that culminates very quickly. There’s a good sense of clarity throughout The Purge, which aids the effectiveness of the thrills.
For the first half of the movie, things snap together well enough that you just accept the premise and its implications, forgoing the nitpicks that wait. It isn’t until the third act where you start to disengage from the film and pick it apart. As a cautionary tale, it has some interesting ideas about class warfare; the main villain is right out of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist playbook. But the ideas and moral commentary fade as the movie becomes more a standard, albeit effective, suspense thriller. I really appreciated the argument that unemployment is so low because the Purge takes care of the sick, homeless, and poor and disadvantaged, those chiefly who cannot defend themselves and are easily targeted. It’s an eerie extreme that doesn’t feel too many steps removed from the last presidential election where Republican primary debate audiences cheered the hypothetical death of the poor. But then the nitpicks do come and once they do it’s like a rushing tide that cannot be stopped. Why do people have stockpiles of guns but no bulletproof vests and gear? Why wait for the bad guys to get in when you and your armed, well-defended family in your home fortress can preemptively strike? Why would you order the Sandin family to return your “bait” and then turn off their power? Doesn’t that make it much harder? Why would killing your girlfriend’s father win her over? Do you think she’s really still going to be your girlfriend after that? How big is this house that people get lost in it constantly? Who hides under the bed in this day and age? And, when hiding from intruders who wish to kill you, why in the world would you keep your flashlight on?
It’s late in this last act that the film tries to go one step too far. The home invasion commences, the struggles are pretty dandy to watch with some creepy imagery, and then DeMonaco has to go beyond that, introducing a secondary set of antagonists that at once feel obvious and poorly set up. The family asks, befuddled, why these new antagonists are doing what they’re doing, but they, and you, will not get a straight answer. It’s really designed to be shocking and little else, and so it feels tacked on and unnecessary. The last ten minutes of the film fumble the momentum of the movie. It’s a stumble at the finish line and leaves some lingering doubt as you assess the effectiveness of the whole movie.
So the premise begs the question: what would you do with a lawless 12-hour window? I think most human beings would be too timid to embrace their animal side. Morals and ethics factor in, naturally, but really I think it’s just good old fear, the fear that anyone else can snuff you out with impunity, and engaging in the Purge also makes you a target. I think most people would probably try and engage in heists, but then the bank would be crawling with twenty different heist teams squabbling over who gets the loot. The banks would also surely increase their security astronomically.
The premise, while intriguing, also permeates with scads of ambiguity. Purge hours are from 7 PM to 7 AM, but what if you’re in the midst of committing a crime and go over the window? To use the bank robbery example, what if you get the money but fail to leave the bank by 7 AM, or even have? At that point, are you considered a criminal? Does the money go back to being counted as stolen goods or if it was pilfered during Purge hours it doesn’t count? Then there are the psychological ramifications of said Purge. If your neighbor raped your wife, Scott-free, you cannot tell me that vengeance isn’t going to play a key part in next year’s Purge. Seeing that face every day, acting “neighborly” while knowing what happened, plotting, waiting, and while the rapist neighbor prepares for the attack as well. Actually, that sounds like a pretty decent sequel (you can have that one for free, Blumhouse). How much Purge-related violence is just retaliatory vengeance? How do people stay in this country? If I as rich and could afford a super pricy security system, perhaps I’d rather take a weekend getaway to Canada instead. Or just stay for good.
The Purge is an effective little thriller until it isn’t, which thankfully only unravels in the concluding ten minutes or so. Until then, DeMonaco gooses his film with enough scares and thrills to justify a sitting, leaving an audience mostly satisfied until they exit and start to pick the film’s nature apart. I would have liked a bit more moral inquiry, political commentary, and some headier looks into these New Founding Fathers running the country, but I was satisfied with the suspense thriller I got. It’s modest, proficient, and well developed with its suspense, so I can’t be too picky. Then again, with this premise, The Purge could have been a lot more than what it is, a lot more disturbing and a lot more contemplative. But I’ll settle for effective and call it a day.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Taking a cue from zombie cinema, Daybreakers takes the idea of vampire-as-virus to an apocalyptic crescendo. The world is populated almost exclusively by vampires now. Human beings are farmed for blood but they are in such limited supplies. You see there is an extreme blood shortage because the vampires have lived beyond their means. That’s right, it’s a consumer consumption/environmental metaphor. The limited resources are dire because if vampires go without human blood they begin to devolve into senseless, winged mutating monsters known as “subsiders.” The poor cannot afford the skyrocketing blood prices so they are most fated to doom, while the rich argue that the blood supplies need to go to families first and not be wasted on the lesser dregs. The U.S. vampiric military, when not hunting humans, shackles the subsiders and marches them into the sunlight to be executed. Daybreakers has a lot more on its mind than most vampire movies, and it’s plainly fascinating to explore the realities of a world run by vampires (cars that drive during the day, the Subwalk, blood in your coffee). For most of its running length, Daybreakers is an intriguing setup that makes room for cool visceral action and social commentary. Then in the final act it sort of devolves itself into one big, dumb action movie. Ethan Hawke is a blood scientist trying to work on a synthetic substitute for a super vampire corporation that, of course, is evil. He stumbles upon an outlandish “cure” for vampirism and wants to resurrect humanity. This leads to a climax where Hawke and his human warriors wage battle inside the corporate HQ. For a promising concept, it’s depressing that Daybreakers had to end in such a typical manner. At least the vampires explode in the sun instead of sparkling.
Nate’s Grade: B-