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Black Widow (2021)

If you ask anyone who their least favorite Avenger is, every one of those participants will have the same exact answer: Hawkeye. If you ask that same group who is their second least favorite Avenger, chances are that a clear majority are going to next say Black Widow. The character has been part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) since 2010 in Iron Man 2, a full decade of idling to gain her solo movie to the point it became a long-running question in the fanbase. Then they killed the character in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame and then also announced she would be getting her solo movie, and the fanbase said, “Wait, now?” Delayed a full year thanks to COVID-19, Black Widow is Marvel’s first theatrical release in almost two years and will likely benefit from some low expectations and eagerness to get back to the big screen spectacle of summer movies.

It’s not Black Widow’s fault that she’s paired with a super soldier, essentially Batman in a flying suit, a nigh indestructible god, and a giant raging id monster. There’s a significant gap between that upper tier of the super powered Avengers and the two non-powered members, Lady with Guns and Guy with Bow and Arrow. It’s hard to compete with all of that, and the glimpses we’ve been given with previous MCU movies haven’t exactly been the most nuanced or dimensional for Black Widow (remember her dubbing herself a “monster” because the state took away her ability to bear children?). We’ve had hints about past troubles and regrets, but it’s never been explored with any significance… until now.

Taking place shortly after the events of 2016’s Civil War, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is on the run from American authorities. She reunites abroad with her estranged sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh), who has recently broken free of the chemical mind control of the sinister Widows program. Yelena and Natasha were living as sisters for three years as a cover family of Russian agents, with Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz) as their parents. They were whisked back to Russia, separated, and thrown back into the Widow program where they were trained to be elite assassins by Dreykov (Ray Winstone, barely flirting with a Russian accent). The combative sisters are being chased by S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, other killer Widows still under the chemical-induced mind control, and Dreykov’s best hunter, the ruthless Taskmaster, a masked warrior who can learn and mimic the moves from other fighters. Natasha and Yelena decide the only way to stop Dreykov is to reunite their old family once again.

I’m a little confused by the general indifference Black Widow seems to have generated from critics and fans because I thought, while with some flaws, that this is still a good movie that I would say is on the cusp of being above average for the MCU’s already high bar. Perhaps, again, this movie is benefiting from lowered expectations. I wasn’t going in with too many demands considering my personal investment with the Black Widow character was minimal prior to her sacrificial death. I wanted a fun movie that provided further insight into her character, considering this would likely be the last time we see Natasha in the MCU. I was surprised how emotionally engaged I became with her movie. While the action is fine, it was the dramatic parts that really grabbed me. This is the first MCU movie where I was looking forward to the breaks in action more than the actual action. The pre-credits flashback (to mid-90s Ohio no less) sets up this fractured family dynamic that serves as the core of the movie, the question over whether these relationships ever really mattered on a deeper level or whether each person was simply playing their assignment. It makes for intriguing drama about vulnerable characters sifting through the small measures of happiness they’ve had and the difficulty of reaching out to people that are important to you. Natasha is in a delicate yet reflective place considering her isolation. The movie is structured like a Jason Bourne-style spy caper, jumping from one locale to the next, but it’s more of a family drama about hurt people reconciling and reconnecting. On its own terms, it’s a real family movie.

There are some major themes and some serious subjects with Black Widow and they are well handled and tied to the character journeys. The opening titles, set to a melancholy cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” covers human trafficking. This is a story about the systems of abuse, primarily abusive men demanding control from throngs of women, and it’s about overcoming abuse and establishing support systems. For Natasha, she made some hard choices to defect to S.H.I.E.L.D., and many others have suffered because of her decision to escape. Many women could not escape their tormentors, and the level of control only became more methodical. Yelena talks about being conscious of everything but unsure what parts of you are really your own doing, and this seems eminently relatable about victimhood. The movie is about breaking free of unhealthy relationships, coming into your own control, and finding healthy families even if they are troubled and a work in progress. That’s why the family moments resonated as much for me. Real attention was given to the supporting characters in Natasha’s orbit.

To that end, the villains exemplify the themes by design, especially Taskmaster serving as a literalization of Natasha facing off against the sins of her past, much like in 2017’s Logan where Old Logan fought young Logan. Fans of Taskmaster from the comics may well be disappointed by the adaptation because the character was very sardonic and, in here, never utters a word (there is a certain Deadpool-in-X-Men Origins: Wolverine reminiscence). More could have been done but the villain represents the consequences of abandonment. I appreciated that even until the final moment, the villain could be redeemed and meant something more than simply another masked heavy to be blown apart. Dreykov, on the other hand, is just a typically awful abuser and his lack of definition fits. He’s a general stand-in for the toxic control of men accustomed to power and the dismissal of female agency. He’s dull but more a designated symbol.

The traveling Black Widow family van is the real draw of this movie. I have been a Florence Pugh fan since her star making turn in 2017’s emotionally disquieting Lady Macbeth, and I welcome her and Yelena into the MCU with open arms. Pugh (Midsommar) is terrific and full of sarcastic wit, at one point criticizing Natasha’s familiar three-point “superhero landing.” She’s also convincing in all the action and gunplay. Even better, there are several dramatic scenes that allow the talented actress to tap into her prowess. She could make me cackle, then the next minute impress me with the finesse of her leg-swinging attack movements, and then the next make me feel something as she tearfully reflects that her cover family was the best years of her life (as the youngest, Yelena had no idea until they ran off that they were all Russian agents). Her combustible yet affectionate relationship with Johansson imbued so much more emotional investment into the Black Widow character for me. Harbour (Hellboy, Stranger Things) is inhaling any available scenery as a past-his-prime Russian super soldier still holding onto his glory days as a communist answer to Captain America (he eagerly asks Natasha if Cap ever mentions him, so hopeful it’s adorable). He’s a regular source of comedy but also has a credible paternal warmth to him as he tries to don the mantle of fatherhood like a costume that no longer fits quite as well. Unfortunately, Weisz (The Favourite) isn’t on screen as much as the other members of the family unit but I still greatly enjoyed watching her finely attuned deadpan delivery.

From an action standpoint, Black Widow will mostly suffice but there is little to really get the blood pumping. The chases and fights are entertaining without delivering anything new. The third act involves an extended set piece with characters plummeting from the sky amid fiery debris. It’s at least visually interesting and the action high-point of the movie. Under director Cate Shortland (Lore, Berlin Syndrome), the action is easy to follow even as it escalates into big video game carnage and explosions. The lack of development in the action would be more of an issue for me if the non-action elements, the story and acting, weren’t as involving. I feel like Shortland was hired for the dramatics and performances and character moments, less so the explosions.

It took eleven years, one more thanks to COVID, but Black Widow finally has her starring vehicle and the MCU is finally back on the big screen (or your home screen via Disney Plus and thirty additional dollars). I watched the movie with my girlfriend and cheerfully noted it would be the first theatrical Marvel movie we watched during our year-plus courtship, thus a real milestone in modern geek dating (we’ll have many opportunities ahead as there are six more Marvel movies scheduled between now and summer 2022). I was surprised how much I enjoyed Black Widow once it had reassembled its family dynamic and I hope to see the extended Romanoff family members in future MCU editions. It’s a late but welcomed swan song for Natasha Romanoff and her checkered past. For the first time, I felt for her character, and part of that was the result of enjoying her family nucleus and the pathos they brought. Black Widow is a serviceable action movie with fun characters and potent dramatic interactions with heavy, well-realized themes. I’m baffled by the general critical indifference (I have a lot fewer qualms than I did with 2019’s Captain Marvel). It’s the rare big movie where the quiet moments are the high-points, and twenty-plus movies in, that’s at least something new from the juggernaut that is the MCU.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Cruella (2021)

I don’t think I’ll be shocking any readers when I disclose that this Cruella doesn’t kill a single dog in her new movie. I hope I didn’t ruin the experience for anyone hoping for mass puppy slaughter. I figured Disney was going to go this route as they developed a villain biopic for Cruella DeVil, a woman obsessed with making coats from the skin of dalmatians. How exactly does one make a character like that sympathetic? Well by essentially making her a fan fiction version of Cruella DeVil and providing an even more dislikable antagonist to root against. The question then arises does this really count as a villain biopic when the character is so reconstructed? It follows the blueprint of 2014’s Maleficent where it posits that the story we’ve been told has been a matter of misunderstandings and smear campaigns from the Powers That Be. Cruella isn’t a puppy murderer. Now she’s a school outcast, plucky orphan with her own motley crew, and up-and-coming avant garde fashion designer looking to get her big break.

It presents her as an underdog on several fronts and with a back-story that might go down in history for its reclamation. Minor spoilers ahead, considering it’s early in the movie, but Cruella’s mother was literally killed by dalmatians pushing her off a cliff. The blunt re-imagining might even draw titters of laughter as the movie says, “Here’s the real reason she dislikes dogs.” However, even this tragic revision doesn’t make this Cruella hate dogs. There’s even a cute pooch on her team. This is a Cruella that’s not so cuddly but not unlovable either. She’s presented as a scrappy underdog with a punky attitude and whether this works will depend on your adherence to what a Disney villain biopic should be. Personally, I had no fidelity to the character of Cruella DeVil so I didn’t care. I wanted an entertaining movie with a strong lead performance from Emma Stone, and that’s what I got.

Set in 1970s London, Estella (Stone) is a lonely girl born brilliant but tempered by an uncaring society. After the dalmatian-assisted murder of her mother, Estella and her pals are meeting out their days with small-time grifts and cons. Estella dreams of being a fashion designer and her boys manage to get her an entry level job at a department store. Her experimental window display gets the attention of The Baroness (Emma Thompson), a sharp-tongued and formidable fashionista that makes the world tremble. Estella adopts the identity of “Cruella,” with her natural half-black and half-white hair, to upstage the Baroness, draw publicity for her own unique fashion creations, as well as enact vengeance and retrieve her mother’s missing necklace/family heirloom stolen by the Baroness, as if you needed even more reasons to dislike this lady.

Cruella in many ways feels like The Devil Wears Prada mixed with a superhero origin tale. The Estella/Cruella dynamic is played like a secret identity, wherein she adopts one to achieve a personal goal and becomes seduced by the freedom the alternate identity has to offer. The first half plays quite like Prada, with our fashion upstart working her way up the chain, gaining attention for her insights and designs while fighting against a system meant to squash new ideas. The character of the Baroness is very clearly patterned after Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) and the command she wielded in her influential position atop the established fashion industry. At first, Estella wants to gain her approval and become a protégé, and then she wants to topple her, crush her, and it becomes a matter of how far she will go, with characters saying variations on, “You’ve changed. It used to be Estella, now it’s only Cruella.” Even The Devil Wears Prada featured a similar character descent for its protagonist. Except the question never seems too in doubt with Cruella because the character of Cruella is less a person succumbing and fraying, like the Oscar-winning 2019 Joker prequel, and more a tale of self-actualization and empowerment. That’s why it feels more like a superhero origin and less like the Joker’s origin. She’s becoming more confidant, more assertive, and more accepting of her true nature.

Under the direction of Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya), Cruella feels like a colorful, sprightly caper, something with more attitude and dark humor than I would have believed capable of being forged from the Mouse House with their own intellectual properties. This could have easily been a cash grab but Gillespie and his team of screenwriters, including one of the writers from 2018’s The Favourite, decides to take that big Disney checkbook and have fun with it. This movie reminded me of a PG-friendly version of 2020’s Birds of Prey for adolescents. It’s got slapstick, schemes, contraptions, narrative shuffling, charming and weird characters, and a lot of visual style and attitude to spare. Above all else, this is a fun movie, and one that assembles set pieces and mini-goals that lead to enjoyable payoffs. There’s a funny big heist as the mid-point but it doesn’t go according to plan, as so we watch as Estella and her team have to adapt and get out of a series of escalating traps. The rivalry between Cruella and the Baroness leads to some gaga dress designs I’m certain will get Oscar attention in due time. There’s plenty of life simply coursing through this movie from the actors to the visuals to the extensive music library. Even when the movie is overstaying its welcome (this could have easily been trimmed down by 15 minutes) the movie still finds ways to keep you entertaining and pleased.

Chief among those reasons is Stone (La La Land) as our star. She’s honed her British accent after her Oscar-nominated performance from The Favourite and it’s easy to see a straight-line from that cunning social climber to this new role. Stone finds the right mix of camp and pathos to make the character work. She’s no exaggerated cartoon but she needs a certain energy level to keep you charged. She’s no mousy heroine but a powerful force looking for the right armor that fits. Stone might not be playing the Cruella DeVil of the 1961 cartoon but she’s playing a version of the character that is more capable of carrying a two-hour-plus movie. Special consideration should be paid out to Paul Walter Hauser, who was so memorably dimwitted in I, Tonya, and portrays Horace, a similarly dimwitted member of Cruella’s crew. The man knows what he’s doing when he’s given these roles and it’s easy to see why he keeps getting more.

The amount of needle-drop music cues in this movie puts 2016’s Suicide Squad to shame. I was amazed how that movie could literally go from song-to-song with barely a gap, sometimes only using mere seconds to make its sonic case. The Cruella soundtrack is wall-to-wall music selections, many from the 1960s and 1970s rock and punk scene, and it’s another holdover from I, Tonya that Gillespie has brought with him. The over reliance can become distracting in itself because of the sheer volume of musical selections, many of which can be exceedingly literal (you better believe, yet again, “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones is called in). It’s a sign of just how powerful the Disney brand can be as I’m sure a huge chunk of the movie’s budget went toward getting all these dozens and dozens of music clearances. If you consider it like a kid’s introduction to classic rock songs, it’s excusable, but the number of songs can also be distracting.

Whether you consider Cruella a faithful or radical reinterpretation of the Disney villain, the live-action showcase is a star vehicle for its shining star. Stone is captivating and having a grand time in her fabulous fashions, and the movie makes it easy to feel her highs as well. It’s not exactly a great movie as many of its supporting characters are underwritten or overly convenient, and its question over the madness and identity of its heroine is more theory than practice, but Gillespie and his team have decided to make Cruella a fun movie, and to that end they have succeeded. It’s colorful, breezy, punky, funny, and consistently amusing, with outlandish set pieces, outlandish characters, and outlandish escapes. Yes, the mom-killed-by-dalmatians tragic back-story might elicit its own howls of bafflement, but the movie doesn’t belabor it for extra ironic impact. Cruella (or Cruella Lite, if you will) is an entertaining reinterpretation that knows what to scuttle to work on its own terms. Whether those alterations are too drastic or defang the character are up to you, but I’d rather watch a kinder, softer, yet still prickly Cruella than one skinning dogs.

Nate’s Grade: B

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 crafty costumes by Mark Bridges (Phantom Thread) lend to the overall authenticity of the period. 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

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)

When they adjusted the Hobbit movies so there was going to be three instead of two, it required some very noticeable padding and filler material to meet out that requirement. The second Fantastic Beasts film (of a planned five film series, expanded from a trilogy) feels exactly that way, a mostly table-setting movie with more incidents than plot, a few pertinent revelations, and not much in the manner of resolution. The second Fantastic Beasts does improve on its predecessor in several regards. It introduces a formidable villain that’s well played by Johnny Depp. It introduces a compelling younger version of Albus Dumbledore that’s played by the dashing Jude Law. It also finds more purpose for its hero, the shy magical zookeeper Newt (Eddie Redmayne), as the series inches closer to a wizards-vs-wizards world war. Things take a turn for the darker; within the First Act, a baby is murdered. They didn’t even do that in the new Halloween. The larger world building of Beasts, written by author J.K. Rowling for the screen and directed by longtime stalwart David Yates, has been its biggest draw. The supporting characters are back, though not everyone has much to do. Rowling is improving as a screenwriter but she still has trouble executing exposition-heavy scenes, resorting to sequence after sequence of characters prattling on. Ultimately, it doesn’t feel like there’s much of consequence until the very end, so we endure characters running through underdeveloped and contrived storylines. One of these involves Katherine Waterston mistakenly believing Newt is engaged (his brother is) and somehow, despite having access to magic let alone other forms of media, never findings out the easy truth. It’s stuff like that that show me Rowling was struggling to find material for every character to push them forward on this now extended journey. Crimes of Gindelwald is an overall step in the right direction for the prequel series even if this individual movie has trouble standing on its own magical merits.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Nun (2018)

It’s amazing to me that The Conjuring series has become a literal billion-dollar franchise and in only four cost-effective movies. Rare is the film franchise that births spin-offs so readily, but The Conjuring has already introduced two Annabelle movies, one Nun film, and an upcoming Crooked Man feature. It’s almost as if any supernatural creature given a minor spotlight in the James Wan-produced series is destined for greater things. It’s like the Conjuring universe is a pipeline to stardom for America’s next big malevolent demon. I’m thinking the Conjuring 3 could spend 30 seconds on some tall tale about a haunted plunger and it would be spun off into its own franchise within a year, tops. The Nun is the fifth film in the series, the second spin-off film, and probably the movie with the least amount of narrative substance given its starting material. It’s a mixture of old horror staples and exorcism mumbo-jumbo, and it’s also not half bad.

In 1950s Romania, a small abbey is being haunted by an evil presence that had been confined behind a door that ominously warned, “God ends here.” A nun has committed suicide under mysterious circumstances. Father Burke (Demian Bichir) is called by the Vatican to investigate the strange happenings. He teams up with a local nun-in-training, Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), and a traveling merchant Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) who first discovered the dead nun’s body. The sisters inside the abbey are behaving oddly and it’s not long before our characters realize they’re trapped in the abbey with something wicked looking for a human host to escape.

There’s not really much to the plot of The Nun so the emphasis comes in the realm of atmosphere, unsettling visuals, and unnerving set pieces. The investigative process with our priest and nun-in-training doesn’t amount to many revelations, and the information won’t be new for the audience considering this specific demon Valak has been seen in two other Conjuring-related movies now (maybe three?). It becomes a haunted house thriller and, like the earlier and much ballyhooed Hereditary, a movie of moments. So your mileage will vary depending upon how affected you are by the atmospherics and imagery. With The Nun, I felt like the visuals were built upon more rigorous Catholic religious iconography and a foundation of decades of accumulated exorcism film imagery. Plus the very design of the titular nun is just super unsettling by itself, let alone placed in a spooky setting with spooky lighting. Director Corin Hardy (The Hallow) finds visually pleasing and distressing imagery that he emphasizes for better effect, like a team of faceless nuns standing in formation, or a tormented boy with a snake that slithers out of his screaming mouth. It’s not subtle in the slightest but credit for not relying upon an inordinate number of jump scares for its chief spooks. In the realm of schlocky horror, The Nun is actually a little restrained when it isn’t being ridiculous, but it’s the kind of ridiculous that makes you laugh and anticipate the next scene rather than check your watch. Again, your mileage will vary, but I enjoyed the theatrics and imagery more than the overrated Hereditary.

This brings me to the biggest head-scratcher in the movie that would have seemed designed to ensure audience investment. I had no idea Taissa Farmiga (TV’s American Horror Story) was going to be in this movie let alone the co-lead of the movie. As soon as I saw her face I leaned forward, newly intrigued. My working assumption was that the younger Farmiga was going to be the prequel version of the character played by her older sister, Vera Farmiga (yes, they’re sisters and not mother/daughter). Suddenly this made her character that much more interesting and created a direct connection from the events of the nuns to the larger Conjuring universe, providing a back-story for the Warrens to lean upon. It also allowed me to transfer my feelings for the character onto Taissa Farmiga, making me care far more about her well-being as she creeped around dimly lit corners than if she had been any other woman in a habit in a bad place. The fact that The Nun had so effectively hidden Taissa Farmiga’s presence from the marketing made it feel like an intentional surprise, something to let the audience know the filmmakers weren’t skating by. It raised my opinion of the movie and my enjoyment from scene-to-scene.

And then I found out Taissa Farmiga’s Sister Irene is a separate character from Lorraine Warren. Huh? Of all the young actresses in the world to select, choosing the literal younger sister of Vera Farmiga, who looks strikingly similar, feels far too intentional to be coincidental. Why isn’t she just the younger version of Lorraine Warren, setting her up for a life of hunting the supernatural after this formative experience? She’s even presented as a nun in training and not a full-fledged bride of Christ. Even the decades in age difference would add up. It’s not like you’re playing that close to the facts of the case when it concerns the Warrens who, by modern accounts, are considered frauds by many. Come on, James Wan. Come on Conjuring universe. What are you doing here? The solution was right within reach and you deliberately ignored it.

The Nun is a moderately entertaining movie subsisting on strong production design, exorcism iconography, and solid performances from capable actors. It’s not really more than the sum of its parts but, for me, there were enough effectively creepy moments and punchy images that won me over by the end of its 96 minutes. If you’re a fan of the Conjuring series, or particularly demonic possession/exorcism movies, then you’ll likely find enough entertainment to be had, even if the filmmakers absurdly decide not to have Taissa Farmiga play the younger version of an already established central character. Was this a late-in-the-game rewrite to absolve her of her connection to Vera Farmiga? I’m happy for anyone connected to the production to contact me and clear this up (after my surprising conversation with a key creative on Sherlock Gnomes, I’ll just start openly asking for clarifying correspondence from Hollywood filmmakers now). The Nun in essence does just enough to be silly or scary when needed and possibly worth a watch for horror fans. Now about that haunted toilet plunger. I may have a pitch ready if you’re open to it, James Wan. After all, what’s scarier than a broken toilet?

Nate’s Grade: C+

The First Purge (2018)

This is the first Purge movie to exist in the era of President Donald J. Trump, and that has made the films more political and even more oddly relevant. The movies have been pretty upfront about the political machinations of the Purge events from the start, the rich elites (read: white males) using the annual occasion to sweep the world of undesirables (read: poor, minorities). The fourth film, The First Purge, goes back to the origins and it’s even more bluntly political with its commentary. However, when we see children being held in cages in our daily headlines, it’s an affirmation that we may live in blunt times and perhaps we need blunt instruments of dark social satire to get the message across.

The residents of Staten Island have been selected for a social experiment from the governing party of the New Founding Fathers (NFF). For twelve hours, all crime will be legal. Dmitri (Y’lan Noel) is a local gang leader with his eye on his community, making sure his people will be taken care of and protected. His ex-girlfriend Nya (Lex Scott Davis) rejects his outreach, and little brother Isaiah (Jovian Wade) is looking for vengeance against a psychopathic loner in the neighborhood. The creator of the Purge, social scientist Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei), only wants to see where the data leads. The NFF, on the other hand, have their own motives and will make sure the experiment succeeds at all costs.

Never has the Purge universe felt closer to our own than with this new movie, and that’s a testament to the film franchise finding new ways to spin its stories, but it’s also an indictment on our own modern times. When we have a president who on a whim, as recently reported, asked why we can’t just invade Venezuela or why we can’t just use nuclear weapons, it doesn’t seem too far away that he might, without a moment’s notice or hesitation, champion a real Purge program. The new movie reflects this reality with even more explicit relevance. The figures of oppression and white supremacy are preying upon vulnerable black and brown Americans. We have militiamen dressed in Klansmen garb, shiny Nazi outfits, police uniforms, and even masks that evoke blackface. These same creatures of hatred have been given a new platform of legitimacy from a president who has trouble saying anything bad about his fans, thus ennobling and enabling the fringe elements into renewed visibility. This is a movie where the citizens of a poor neighborhood have to fight back against the racist elements set to kill them and empowered by the government. If that doesn’t sound eerily relevant today, you haven’t been keeping up with the omnipresent news cycle of outrageous offenses.

Another interesting turn of events is that this might be the first Purge movie that is hopeful about the human race. For three movies, the Purge has celebrated our darker natures, positing that mankind when stripped of responsibility for its actions would inevitably trend toward brutish violence because they could. The core belief of the Purge is that people need a release of the evil inside them, as if there was a finite level. We’ve watched crazy people do wantonly destructive and murderous acts for three movies. The First Purge offers a completely different perspective. Once the event happens, the majority of the “participants” will elect not to engage in casual mayhem and murder. There will be the occasional few acts of vandalism and theft, and an outlying psycho or so (more of that dude later), but the majority of State Island residents just stay indoors, find refuge in their church, or simply attend a block party. They actively disengage. It’s then that the NFF fret that the social experiment they’ve bet so much political capital on will not turn out with the preferred results they need. They need Americans to be afraid, and it also helps eliminate the minority voting bases for their rival political parties. This reality is not to their liking, so they will simply repackage the news to their liking. That’s when the NFF push the reactionary elements (paramilitary white supremacists) to infiltrate and instigate mass death to ensure the Purge experiment is successful. The numbers are skewed, and paying people based upon their level of violent participation may start the process skewed to begin with. In an unexpected bout of optimism,The First Purge argues for the morality of humanity.

Because of this very purposeful perspective, it also means that the movie is a bit slow and dull for the first hour. The First Purge has the same flaws as the other films, notably an over reliance on jump scares and less-than-interesting peripheral characters. One female supporting player (Mugga) is meant to be comic relief but I found her to be exceptionally grating, like she had been ported in from the sitcom version of the Purge (There is a TV show headed for USA and a commercial for it in the end credits, the first I’ve ever seen that happen). The glowing iris contact lenses of the participants created an eerie mood in place of larger set pieces. Some of the run-ins are actually rather lame, like an armed holdup where the gun is revealed to be… a water pistol. Who is running around pranking people with a toy when actual murder, with actual murder-capable guns, is sanctioned? That’s just beyond stupid. Likewise there’s a crew of people waiting in the sewers to… sexually assault women by grabbing their crotches. It’s a bit odd considering all of the uncomfortable waiting they must endure. I did find the lead character Dmitri to be quietly compelling as he tries to protect his neighborhood. When the final act comes, and Dmitri becomes a one-man wrecking crew taking down murderers in Nazi regalia, that’s when the movie transitions into the action spectacle we’ve been craving. The final fight is righteous and satisfying, and it even brings back a wildcard character you may have forgotten. By its conclusion, The First Purge has packed its best, most exciting stuff, but until then it’s a somewhat somber, somewhat restrained experience that may rankle the blood-lusting audience that had grown familiar with the series’ depravity.

And now we have to talk about the best character in the whole movie, and maybe second best after Frank Grillo’s grizzled badass hero. Skeletor (Rotimi Paul) is a local criminal who seems pretty unstable, prone to violent outbursts and self-aggrandizing talk. Whenever he talks it feels like you need a spittle guard as protection. He either has facial implants of scars running along his exterior, though I’d bet they were self-induced scars. He is, as my friend Ben Bailey attributed, the human equivalent of Roberto from Futurama, a psychopathic stabby robot that would mumble to himself and, very often, stab repeatedly. That is Skeletor, who is so brazenly crazy that he circles around from threat to figure of entertainment, like some 80s slasher villain elevated by personality and execution (not literally). When he reappeared I would chuckle to myself and say, “Oh, what’s that Skeletor going to get up to next?”

The First Purge is the latest in an unsubtle sci-fi thriller franchise, though this is the first Purge movie to separate itself from its grisly ilk in interesting and thematically relevant ways. It rejects the core pessimistic belief system that human beings, when given the freedom to be violent, will exercise that opportunity. This is the first questionably (naively?) optimistic Purge movie, even though we know what comes after. It’s a bit slow and still beholden to the overall staid formula of the franchise, but this is a Purge film with enough sharp contrasts and a streamlined thematic perspective that it stands out. I won’t say it hits the peak of 2014’s Purge: Anarchy, but I would easily call this the second best entry in the franchise. In Trump America, it’s scary how relevant these movies have become and it’s refreshing they haven’t shrunk from that unexpected relevance.

Nate’s Grade: B

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

The notorious back-story behind Solo: A Star Wars Story has more than eclipsed whatever else this “young Han Solo” prequel appeared to offer. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were responsible for a string of fast-paced, silly hits like The Lego Movie and the 21 Jump Street films, and when producer Kathleen Kennedy hired them, it felt like an inspired infusion of new blood to make a Star Wars movie different in tone and approach. Five months into shooting and mere weeks away from completing photography, Miller and Lord were fired. The on-set rumors and sources have relayed a badly conceived marriage between the directors, given to improv and irreverence, and Kennedy’s sense of what a Star Wars movie should include. Enter Ron Howard, no stranger to the world of George Lucas, and an extensive battalion of reshoots, and you’re left with Solo, which only lists Howard as director. With that as its genesis, it feels like this movie should be a train wreck. It’s not that. Instead, Solo is fitfully entertaining but underwhelming diversion weighed down by its untapped potential.

Years before that noisy Mos Eisley cantina, Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) is a low-level criminal trying to find a better life. He loses his girl, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), joins the Imperial Army, and defects, finding a partner in a big hairy wookie named Chewbacca (Joonas Suatamo). The two of them join a crew of thieves run by Beckett (Woody Harrelson), and after a job gone wrong, everyone is in grave danger and deep debt to the crime lord Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). The crew must even the score and make things right, and they must navigate unreliable allies like Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), his trusted robotic assistant L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), and, most surprisingly, Qui’ra herself, working as one of Vos’ top criminal consultants.

Solo is hard to justify except as an increasingly tedious appeasement to the greater altar of fan service. The movie reminded me of those young author biopics like Finding Neverland where everything is given the unspoken-though-heavily implied significance of dramatic irony, where the audience knows, “Oh, this will be where that comes from, or that’s the first time that happened, etc.” Solo provides further light on the Star Wars minutia that only a scant few will work up real excitement over. For every interesting revelation, like Han and Chewbacca first meeting and bonding, there are numerous others that could best be characterized as cataloging the story of Who Gives a Crap?: The Movie. Who cares how Han got his dice? On that note, did I just not remember this trinket being as heavily showcased in the original trilogy as these new films emphasize? Also, who cares about how Han gets the Millennium Falcon? Who cares how Han got into the smuggling business? Who cares why Han was on Tatooine to begin with? The film expects audiences to supply the significance for scenes that lack that on their own. Too much of the script by Lawerence and Jonathan Kasdan (In the Land of Women) coasts along on audience good will carried over from the original trilogy.

As far as being a heist movie, Solo doesn’t put much concentrated thought with its heist set pieces. Much of the plot hinges on a “job” to recover a large amount of fuel owed to the scary crime boss, so the job itself should be treated as important. Once topside, the characters stick to their ruse for about five minutes and things immediately go bad and then it’s just one messy, ongoing action sequence. I could understand carefully planning a scheme only for it to unexpectedly go wrong, but the appeal of heists are their intricacy, development, and complications, and Solo sadly snuffs this appeal out. The high-point of the film is an early Act Two heist that’s the sci-fi equivalent of a train robbery. Things start off promising with the space craft being able to rotate around its rail, which tickles the imagination for plenty of dire hangings on. We even get a few preparatory words for the plan, though even those are fairly general. And then things start and they immediately go bad and stay that way without satisfying complication. Part of the appeal of heists is seeing the curve balls, the unexpected complications, and how our team reacts and recovers. It’s a fun sequence with some thrilling visuals but it never rises beyond the sum of its action particulars, and so an important set piece is held back from going for greatness. The action throughout Solo is serviceable but rarely does it feel like what’s onscreen is the best version of what it could have been. Serviceable, sure.

Which brings about the inevitable analysis over what can be gleaned from the final product that traces back to its original team of directors. There are a handful of comic asides that feel like the lasting touch of Miller and Lord. Beyond that, Solo feels very much like Howard’s movie, though much like Rogue One, the mind conjures the possibilities of the original version. One of the biggest changes is that Howard added Bettany’s gangster character. He’s on screen for really two sequences though his importance stretches over the entire film. Solo feels cohesively like one movie to the degree that if you had never heard about the headline-grabbing production tumult, you wouldn’t suspect anything had happened behind-the-scenes. However, the lasting impact seems deeper, namely that many of these sequences feel, to some degree, interchangeable by design. The execution and development feel lacking. It’s a lingering feeling that what you’ve been watching isn’t fully coming together. It’s not fully engaging the attention and making the most of its beloved characters. It feels less like a seminal moment in the story of Han, Chewie, and Lando and more like an extended episode of a television series. I was too detached and grew restless too often. I started waiting for it to be over rather than waiting to see what happened next.

Ehrenreich showed enormous promise with 2016’s Hail, Caesar! both with comedy chops and leading man appeal, so he seemed like a capable choice for a young Han Solo. After rumors of having to hire an emergency acting coach on set, I was expecting a poor performance. He’s decent, grinning through the indignities, stumbling along with a sardonic sensibility that still plays into a confident sense of optimism against the odds. Ehrenreich, much like most of the movie, is perfectly fine, entertaining at times, but far too often a passing blip. The real star of the movie is Glover (TV’s Atlanta) who is brimming with charisma. Plus Lando’s suave, pansexual nature and tendency toward shady scheming lends itself to a more fascinating glimpse at a character we know decidedly less about.

Clarke (HBO’s Game of Thrones) is saddled with a non-starter of a storyline as the old girlfriend who got away. Harrelson (Three Billboards) plays another cranky father figure role. Bettany (Avengers: Infinity War) is generally wasted as a villain lacking a stronger sense of identity or menace. His weapons of choice, two laser-edged knives, seem like where the depth of character creation ended with him. Oh, he also has scars over his face, so that’s about the same as a personality. The lone supporting player that leaves an impression is Waller-Bridge (Fleabag) as the android, L3-37. I could have used an entire movie with her and Lando. She becomes a political revolutionary by accident over the mistreatment of droids, and L3-37 does what the other supporting characters, and even what Ehrenreich to some extent, do not — leave you wanting more.

After its problematic history, it would be easy to look for ways to carve up Solo as a hodgepodge creation of studio interference but that’s too tidy an explanation. I’m not against the idea of a “young Han Solo” film franchise, though it needs to find the right stories to shed new and meaningful light on this classic rogue. Han Solo was, like, mid thirties at the oldest in 1977’s Star Wars and Ehrenreich’s early-to-mid 20s version doesn’t afford a great many differences (he was already a “young” character to start with). If you’ve bought into the Star Wars universe, there should be enough to at least be entertained by, and if you’re a nascent fan, then Solo might be an easily digestible fun adventure. The mitigated or underdeveloped potential nagged at me as I was watching. It’s got aliens and space heists and most of the time I was approaching boredom. I’ll label the movie with its own Scarlet F: it’s… “fine.” It’s the kind of movie you shrug your shoulders at afterwards, not necessarily regretting the experience but moving along. Perhaps we’re just at a natural point in the post-Disney-purchase of Star Wars, and now we’re facing less-than-ideal time-discharged product. I was hoping for more, either good or bad, but had to settle for a relatively lackluster prequel. I don’t know if there will be further escapades with the “young” Han Solo but I wish they choose them more wisely. Even the title feels bland.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

The most interesting part of The Cloverfield Paradox might be the film’s release. Following the model of secrecy and subterfuge from producer J.J. Abrams, this was originally a script called God Particle by Oren Uziel (Shimmer Lake). It was reworked by Doug Jung (Star Trek Beyond) to meld it into the ongoing Cloverfield universe. It was originally scheduled for theatrical release in February, and then pushed back to April, and then it was scaled back to being released directly through Netflix. The first time the public saw a frame of this movie was during a high-profile Super Bowl spot that advertised it would be available for viewing as soon as the big game was over (the ad spot cost $4 million, or about one-sixth of the film’s modest budget). The Cloverfield Paradox is an intermittently entertaining film with some nice visuals, curious moments, and a bevy of good actors looking frantic and perplexed in space. It’s also a bit of a storytelling misfire and an underwhelming addition to the larger Cloverfield mythology.

High in space, a team of scientists is testing a cutting-edge particle accelerator that, if functioning, will provide abundant and renewable power for an Earth that is plunged on the brink of a world war thanks to depleted energy resources. Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is one of the scientists and wondering if she will ever get back to Earth and see her husband again. Then one fateful day, the accelerator works but then goes on the fritz, slamming everyone around the station. When they come to they realize that the Earth and moon are missing and they are adrift. That’s not the last of the peculiarities. A woman (Elizabeth Dibecki) is found inside the station, connected to the wiring. Where did this woman come from, where are the scientists, and what happened to the Earth?

The Cloverfield Paradox is never going to be confused as great sci-fi, but it can be good enough depending upon the tastes of the individual viewer. The opening very succinctly establishes the stakes of the mission as well as the toll of the repeated failures. Once the station does its wonky thing and the Earth vanishes, that’s when it hooked me. Are they in a different part of the universe? Did they accidentally wipe out the Earth? These are pertinent and intriguing mysteries deserving of attention. The visuals in the movie are slick and well lit by cinematographer Dan Mindel (Star Wars: Force Awakens), who ignores the old staple of the poorly lit space corridors throughout the film. The actors are all well cast and provide the kind of performances that make you care enough. Mbatha-Raw (Black Mirror’s “San Junipero”) is a terrific lead. She’s strong, smart, but also given a tragic back-story that informs her decision-making when the weirdness hits. Dibecki (Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2) is primarily directed to be a statuesque mystery. Chris O’Dowd (Molly’s Game) is the comic relief that doesn’t wear out his welcome. None of the characters do anything that stupid. It’s just enough that you might feel sorry for some of them when they eventually perish. There are workable elements throughout the movie that will hold your attention and curiosity.

It’s shortly after its inciting incident of being mysteriously vanished that you start to realize the deeper story problems inherent with The Cloverfield Paradox. The central mystery (where are we? what happened to the Earth?) is enough of a hook but doesn’t allow for much in the way of a clear-cut throughline of how to uncover these answers. The clues that occur throughout the second act serve as almost random points of weirdness that rarely add up to anything significant. Little things like missing worms, the missing gyroscopic GPS drive, and a crawling arm serve as points of peculiarity but they feel disconnected from anything else happening. It’s during this stretch of the film where the film feels like anything can happen and not in a good way. The strange occurrences don’t follow any rhyme or reason even after it’s revealed what is causing them. They just happen because, most likely, somebody thought it would be cool or unexpected. This will only get you so far in plotting unless to can tie events back to character. The resulting explanation is a shaky experiment-gone-wrong that plays out like an unmemorable Star Trek episode, with the crew discerning what their new reality is and why. If you read about the original screenplay, when it was called God Particle and unrelated to anything Cloverfield, there was a lot more hard sci-fi intrigue and a paranoia plot reminiscent of the breakdown in civility in the flawed but serviceable thriller It Comes at Night. It’s hard not to have the opinion that the original screenplay by Uziel was made more generic.

The third act goes all-in on the action heroics and survival thrills, pitting characters against one another for the well being of their homes. What once began as a trippy, reality-distorted sci-fi film becomes a lazy climax where one character stalks corridors and casually shoots people. It’s a conclusion that feels too expected and rote for all of the weirdness that transpired earlier. It’s not quite the steep crash that was the final act for Danny Boyle’s otherwise engaging 2007 film Sunshine, but it’s certainly a less interesting way to tie up your movie. There are some fun set pieces. O’Dowd interacting with his missing appendage is a funny almost buddy comedy. Some of the deaths are visually interesting as they make use of the cold vacuum of space in killer ways. There’s a nice climactic moment involving a character coming to terms with his or her personal grief that feels moderately earned though still facile enough to be unmovable. It feels like another in a series of checklists as far as what kind of character arcs, set pieces, twists and turns are to be expected from a mid-range sci-fi thriller. I thought last year’s Life did all of this better and with more style and nasty menace. If you’re going to watch a derivative space station thriller, at least make it one where the filmmakers have more of a plan from scene-to-scene and a genuine appreciation for their source material.

Now let’s talk about what exactly makes this a Cloverfield movie. Much like 2016’s agile contained thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane, this is a follow-up where the Cloverfield elements feels inelegantly grafted on. I suppose the use of the giant particle accelerator in space may have opened a hole in space-time for giant monsters to come through, but I thought it had been previously established as an alien invasion? Regardless, the only real storyline that tenuously connects the events in space to the larger Cloverfield universe is the storyline on the ground with Hamilton’s husband, Michael (Roger Davies). He’s recovering from whatever went wrong in space, which has resulted in cataclysmic damage across the Earth. He finds a lost and scared little girl and takes her under his protection, swearing to reach out to her family. They take refuge in a shelter. Every time the movie cuts back to Michael trying to reach his wife, or anyone really, and pacing nervously, I was getting bored. Who cares about this little kid when we have realty-bending mysteries up in space? If we don’t know what’s going on topside, or if the movie refuses to entertain some kind of accessible mystery, then every moment spent away from the space station is a moment wasted. The concluding conversation Michael has over the phone is simply there to remind the audience once again that this is indeed a Cloverfield movie, with an obvious visual reminder that feels too late.

The Cloverfield Paradox is another Cloverfield movie where the Cloverfield elements feel like the least interesting part. I don’t know if this is exactly the best plan for extending this franchise. With 10 Cloverfield Lane, I felt the gnawing suspense of an effectively developed contained thriller. With The Cloverfield Paradox, the space mystery and its ensuing twists and turns feel too arbitrary and disconnected to have more than their immediate impact. It’s a movie that sadly gets less interesting every moment it marches closer to its generic action-thriller conclusion. Still, there are moments here that will entertain and I’m happy that Netflix is becoming a breeding ground for the mid-range sci-fi films that Hollywood no longer seems willing to give space for. If you’re a fan of the Cloverfield series or high-concept space thrillers, there may be enough here to warrant a viewing and justify your time. I look forward to this model continuing, the next Cloverfield movie having even less to do with the Cloverfield universe. Maybe we’re only years away from an Oscar-bait film about overcoming adversity set amidst World War II and Cloverfield monsters. It’s like a recipe: just add Cloverfield monsters (or are they aliens?).

Nate’s Grade: C+

Alien: Covenant (2017)

Was Prometheus really as bad a movie as fans made it out to be? While the 2012 Alien prequel could be rather obtuse, and the characters made some of the stupidest decisions as reportedly intelligent scientists, it had an intriguing central mystery, moody sense of atmosphere, great sets, some viciously memorable sequences like Noomi Rapace’s self-directed surgical operation, and a delightfully supercilious Michael Fassbender bot. By the film’s end there were still plenty of outstanding questions unanswered, and so five years later director Ridley Scott has returned with Alien: Covenant to further confound and entertain. The crew of a colony ship takes a detour to land on a habitable world and trace the mysterious transmission belonging to the android David (Fassbender). As expected, all is not what it seems and the crew is almost immediately put into jeopardy. For fans who wanted more answers from Prometheus, there is a surprising amount of carryover to serve as a resolution for the prior film. There are a few big reveals, particularly about the xenomorph evolution, but the overall Alien storyline is moved just mere inches forward, slightly closer to the events of the 1979 original. The biggest problem with Covenant is that it’s too pedestrian for far too often. It sticks pretty close to the formula we’ll all familiar with, so we know it’s only a matter of time before the xenomorphs hit the fan. There is a dearth of memorable scenes here. The characters in Covenant aren’t that much smarter and make their fair share of stupid decisions (hey, let’s ignore the existence of wheat on an alien world or the possibility of killer microbes being in this breathable air). There’s just more of them to be killed off. The movie doesn’t really bother getting to know a far majority of them, consigned to the fact that they’re only here to be later ripped apart and exploded in gore. Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) does a fine job as a Ripley replacement. Danny McBride (Eastbound and Down) has some effective dramatic moments too. But the best reason to watch Covenant, an altogether middling Alien sequel/prequel, is for twice the Fassbender robot action (there’s a Fassbender-on-Fassbender kiss, which will likely break Tumblr). Alien: Covenant is a missed opportunity of a movie hampered by a disappointingly predictable script, tedious characters, and a lack of strong set pieces. It’s acceptable entertainment but not much more. The moral: don’t be a dick to robots.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Rogue One (2016)

rogueone_onesheetaIn the opening text crawl for Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, it says, “During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star.” Disney, in its infinite wisdom to cash in on every potential resource of its lucrative cash cow, has decided to devote a whole movie to that one sentence in that initial crawl. I can’t wait for each sentence to get its movie. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (in case you’d forget) is the first film outside of any of the trilogies and much is at stake. Not just for the rebels but for Disney shareholders. If a wild success, expect future tales coming from every undiscovered corner of the Star Wars universe. And if Rogue One is any indication, that’s exactly the kind of artistic freedom needed to blossom.

Not actually in the finished film.

Not actually in the finished film.

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) has plenty to rebel against. Her father (Mads Mikkelsen) was forced against his will by Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to work on a fiendish death machine for the Empire. Jyn’s father is responsible for designing the Death Star. Jyn is broken out of imperial prison by Cassian (Diego Luna) for the Rebellion. They want her to track down her father, find out whatever she can about this new fangled Death Star, and if possible, retrieve the plans on how it might be stopped. Her mission will take her to the ends of the galaxy to reunite with her father and to provide hope to the Rebellion.

Finally after many films we finally get a war movie in a franchise called Star Wars, and it’s pretty much what I wanted: a Star Wars Dirty Dozen mission. It’s thrilling to go back to the height of the resistance against the Evil Empire and see things from a ground perspective with a skeleton crew working behind the scenes. We may know the future events of those Death Star plans but we don’t know what will befall all of these new characters. Who will make it out alive? The open-and-shut nature of this side story in the Star Wars universe brings a bit more satisfaction by telling a complete story. This film will not have to wait for two eventual sequels years down the road in order for an audience to form a comprehensive opinion. I welcome more side stories like Rogue One that expand upon the fringes of the established universe and timelines, that establish colorful new characters and tell their own stories and come to their own endings, and hopefully don’t feature any more Death Stars (more on this below). It seems like it was ages ago that major studio tentpoles just attempted to tell a single, focused story rather than set up an extended universe of other titles to nudge along their respective paths. Director Gareth Edwards (2014’s Godzilla) is less slavishly loyal to the mythos of the series than J.J. Abrams. His movie doesn’t feel like flattering imitation but its own artistic entry. The cinematography is often beautiful and the natural landscapes and sets provide so much tangible authenticity to this world. Edwards has a terrific big-screen feel for his shot compositions and achieving different moods with lighting. He knows how to make the big moments feel bigger without sacrificing the requisite popcorn thrills we desire.

star-wars-rogue-one-teaserRogue One has to walk a fine line between fan service and its own needs. While it’s fun to see Darth Vader on screen again voiced by the irreplaceable James Earl Jones, it’s also a bit extraneous other than some admittedly cool fan service. We don’t need to see Vader clear out a hallway of Rebel soldiers but then again why not? It’s the same when it comes to the inclusion of cameos from the original trilogy. Some are minor and some are major, achieved through the uncanny valley of CGI reconstruction. Gene Kelly may have danced with a vacuum cleaner and Sir Lawrence Oliver and Marlon Brando both appeared as big floating heads after their deaths, but this feels like the next step beyond the grave. There’s a somewhat ghastly feel for watching a dead actor reanimated, so your sense of overall wonder may vary. The cameos are better integrated than the Ghosbusters ones.

There’s a great cinematic pleasure in putting together a team of rogues and rebels. The characters on board this mission have interesting aspects to them. Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) is a blind warrior and aspiring Jedi. He feels like he stepped out of a great samurai movie. He uses his connection with the Force to make up for his lack of visual awareness, and Chirrut demonstrates these abilities in several memorably fun instances. There’s a world of back-story with Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a dotty wheezing warrior who is more machine than man at this point. Whitaker gives an unusual performance that reminded me of a kindlier version of Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet. The reprogrammed robot K-250 (vocal and motion-capture performance by Alan Tudyk) is a reliable source of catty comic relief and I looked forward to what he was going to say next. The first 40-minutes is mostly the formation of this group, and it’s after that where the movie starts to get hazy. We know how it’s all got to end but the ensuing action in Act Two feels a bit lost. This may have to due with the reportedly extensive reshoots that were done last summer to spice up the movie (much of the earliest teaser footage isn’t in the finished film). I’d be fascinated to discover what the original story was from Chris Weitz (Cinderella) and just what rewrites Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) performed so late into its life. For much of the second act, the characters feel a bit too subdued for the life-or-death stakes involved, and that translates over to the audience. We travel to different locations throughout the first two acts but I can’t tell you much about them other than some intriguing mountainous architecture. The plot is a bit too undercooked and still obtuse for far too long, requiring our team to bounce around locations to acquire this person or that piece of information. Rarely do the characters get chances to open up.

getIt all comes together in the final act for a 30-minute assault that makes everything matter. It’s a thrilling conclusion and the movie finds a way to keep escalating the stakes, bringing in powerful reinforcements that force our Rogue One crew to alter their plans and placement, while still clearly communicating the needs of each group and the geography as a whole of the multiple points on the battlefield. It’s what you want a climactic battle to be and feel like where each player matters. It’s also a welcome addition to the Star Wars cannon, as we’ve never seen a beach assault before. It feels like a new level that was unlocked in some video game, and that’s no detriment. The ending battle has different checkpoints and mini-goals, which allows for the audience to be involved from the get-go and for the film to jump around locations while still maintaining an effective level of suspense. Many of these characters make something of a last stand, and you feel the extent of their sacrifice. I read in another review that the reason Jyn and her rogues win is because they accept that they are replaceable, and Orson Krennic fails because he made the mistake of believing himself irreplaceable. I think that’s a nice summation about the nobility of sacrifice. I won’t get into specific spoilers but I was very pleased with the ending of the film even though it’s not exactly the happiest. It feels like a fitting ending for the darker, grittier Star Wars tale and it provides earned emotional resonance for the setup of A New Hope, which this movie literally rolls right into.

With as many fun and potentially interesting characters aboard for this suicide mission, it’s somewhat surprising that they are also the film’s weak point. Beyond simple plot machinations like Character A gets Character B here, I can’t tell you much more about these rogue yet noble folks other than their superficial differences. Take for instance the Empire turncoat, pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) What personality does he have? What defines him? What is his arc? What about Cassian? He’s supposed to secretly assassinate Jyn’s father if given the chance, but do we see any struggle over this choice? Does it shape him? Does his outlook define his choice? Can you describe his personality at all whatsoever? What about the villain, Krennic? Can you tell me anything about him beyond his arrogance? What about Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), who carries a big gun and is close friends with our blind wannabe Jedi. Can you tell me anything about this guy beyond that? Even our fearless leader, Jyn Eros, feels lacking in significant development. She wants to find her father, get vengeance, but then changes her mind about sacrificing for the greater cause of hope. Many of the character relationships jump ahead without the needed moments to explain the growth and change. The original trilogy was defined by engaging characters. When you have a ragtag crew of six of seven rogues, you better make sure each brings something important to the movie from a narrative perspective, and not just from a pieces-on-the-board positioning for action. Look at Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy for tips. If this was going to be a powerful and emotionally involving war movie, the characters needed to be felt deeper. All too often they get lost amidst the Star Wars debris and then they become debris themselves. Ironically enough, Rogue One has the reverse problems of The Force Awakens, a movie that benefited from engaging characters but sapped from an overly familiar and cautious story. It’s telling when my favorite character, by far, is a sassy comic relief robot.

maxresdefaultLet’s talk about the Death Star in the room, namely the fact that over the course of eight Star Wars movies there have been Death Stars, or the construction thereof, in five of them (63% rate of Death Star sighting). We need a break. You can cal it a Star Killer Base whatever in Force Awakens but it’s still a Death Star in everything but name. I can’t even put a number to the amount of money it cost the Empire/First Order to build these things, plus the review process to try and correct design flaws that never seem to get corrected. At this point it feels like this model just isn’t cost-efficient for its killing needs. What about a more mobile set of multiple mini-Death Stars? I hope that the filmmakers for the new trilogy (Rian Johnson, Colin Trevorrow) refrain from putting another similar planet-killing space station-type weapon into their movies as we’ve had enough. However, the use of the Death Star in Rogue One was perfectly acceptable because it already fit into the timeline of the first film. I also greatly appreciated the clever retcon as to why the Death Star had its fatal flaw. It took a bothersome plot cheat from 1977 and found a gratifying and credible excuse. Now when Luke blows up that sucker it’ll have even more resonance.

Rogue One is a Star Wars adventure that feels like its own thing, and that’s the biggest part of its success. By being a standalone story relatively unencumbered by the canonical needs of hypothetical sequels, the movie opens up smaller stories worth exploring and characters deserving a spotlight. This is an exciting and entertaining war movie, and the kind of film I want to see more of in this multi-cultural universe. It’s not a faultless production as the lackluster character development definitely hampers some audience investment. I wish more could have been done with them before they started being permanently taken off the board. While Rogue One is looking to the past of Star Wars it still makes its own independence known. I hope this is the start of a continuation into exploring more of that galaxy far far away without the required additions of every Skywalker and Solo in existence. It’s a far bigger universe and it needs its close-up.

Nate’s Grade: B

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