There has been a lot of discussion over Joker, a new dark R-rated spinoff unrelated to other comic book movies and directed by the man who gave the world The Hangover films. Director/co-writer Todd Phillips desired to tell a character-driven drama that explored how Batman’s most notorious villain, and perhaps the most widely known villain of all pop culture, became exactly the clown he is. Some people said the Joker didn’t need a back-story, others said that Phillips had no place dabbling into the realm of superhero cinema, and there were plenty of others who expressed unease that the movie might inadvertently serve as an inspiration for disaffected loners looking for encouragement to make others feel their pain and suffering. After all those think pieces and cultural hand-wringing, Joker, as the actual movie, isn’t quite the transgressive experience that others feared and that the movie very much wants you to believe.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a quiet, pathetic man who is being ground down by the forces in his life. He has a unique medical condition that causes him to break out in hysterical laughter when he’s nervous or upset, which only makes others feel nervous and upset. It’s hard for him to keep his job as a for-hire clown and his therapy and medicine are being eliminated thanks to budget cuts. He cares for his elderly mother (Frances Conroy), crushes on an attractive neighbor (Zazie Beetz), and dreams of being a stand-up comic who will one day grace the set of his favorite late-night talk show host, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Arthur’s life changes from one night of extreme violence and how it shapes his concept of himself and society. He’s tired of feeling bad for who he is and he’s going to realize his true potential on the biggest stage.
There’s something, excuse the modern parlance, quite “edgelord” about the film and its artistic approach. It’s very eager to be dangerous, edgy, disturbing, and there are certainly extended moments where it achieves these goals, notably thanks to Phoenix’s performance. However, I was cognizant of how eager the film was to be gritty, and dark, and different, to the point that it felt like the whole enterprise wasn’t just trying too hard to be different but wanted you to know it was trying. After a while, you just have to shrug and say, “Hey, movie, I get it.” This guy’s life ain’t too hot. The first 45 minutes could probably be condensed in half. The first two acts feel redundant as they establish the many trials and tribulations of this man on the edge of a broken society that has abandoned him. Because of this, Joker can be an entertaining experiment in solo superhero stories but there is a critical absence of depth that keeps the film from going beyond a stellar lead performance. It’s a Martin Scorsese hodgepodge, a cover song for a famous villain.
This is the kind of movie where subtlety is rarely used, which increases the sensation that it’s trying too hard because it seems like it’s saying all of its points with exclamation marks. Even in the opening minutes, while Arthur is applying his clownish makeup, we hear a voice over narration from a TV newscaster who is essentially screaming to the audience all of the important social contexts for the setting (Things are bad! People are mean! The economy is bad! People are getting desperate! What has the world come to?!). There’s a fantasy experience where the characters are just openly explaining their desires. The visual metaphors are pretty simple, like the idea of hiding behind a mask (don’t we all wear masks, man?) and the intimidating set of stairs ascending to Arthur’s apartment that he must climb. So many supporting characters act like mouthpieces for larger collective groups, like a paid therapist who tells Arthur that the people with money don’t care about her or Arthur, the little people caught in the machinery of runaway capitalism, or Thomas Wayne as the callous and cold business elite who seems disdainful about any sort of empathy for others that challenge his responsibility to a larger society. De Niro’s talk show host feels like an amalgamation of a lot of different themes, like daddy issues, the media, but also the representation of ridicule as comedy and mass entertainment. There aren’t so much supporting characters as there are ideas, and in a weird way this could have worked, as if each figure represents some different level of psychosis for Arthur, almost as if it was repeating the 2003 movie Identity and everyone really is a reflection of Arthur’s damaged personality. The inclusion of Beetz (Deadpool 2) is more a plot device meant to humanize Arthur, but the entire premise feels like it’s missing development to make it believable, and ultimately this is the point of her character but it’s a long wait for a reveal for a character that is superfluous at her core. It’s the kind of movie that thinks we need to yet again see the definitive formative act of every Batman movie.
The movie does pick up a momentum when Arthur starts to get set on his way toward becoming the clown prince of crime. When the Joker gets his first taste of violence, in self-defense, the clown vigilante becomes a symbol for a reactionary contingent of Gotham’s lower classes. The groundswell of support provides a welcomed sense of community for a man who has been secluded for his idiosyncrasies, but it’s a celebration of a loss of morality, and so to fully embrace this tide of supporters he must give away the last of vestiges of his soul. This downfall allows for the movie to feel like it’s finally committed to something, where the setups are finally starting to coalesce around a character who is now driving his story rather than being the recipient of misfortune. The violence becomes more shocking and Arthur stops caring about hiding who he really is, and that’s when the movie becomes the full force it had been promising. I was tapping nervously throughout the final thirty minutes because I was anticipating bad things for anybody on screen. Phillips can use this anxious anticipation for unexpected comedy too, like where a character was trapped due to their unique circumstances and whether they too were in mortal peril. I wish Phillips had pulled back because there’s a perfect visual to conclude his movie, that brings the entire self-actualization and loss of morality full circle, and yet the movie gives us another two-minute coda.
Joker certainly feels like Phillips’ version of a Scorsese movie, for better and for worse. If you’re going to imitate anyone, it might as well be one of the greatest living filmmakers whose crime dramas have reshaped the very language of the movies and how we view violent crooks. The go-to response I’ve seen is that Joker is a combination of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. I’ll readily agree with the Taxi Driver comparisons. It’s everywhere. We have a disaffected loner who is turning sour on an increasingly hostile and unstable society he views as beyond repair. Even the shot selections, camera movements, and 1970s era set design evoke that influence. The King of Comedy is more a facile comparison, as Arthur is a disturbed man trying his luck at standup comedy, failing, and becoming more unhinged. The real reason reviewers seem to be making this connection is the inclusion of Robert De Niro, and it feels like that is the only reason he’s actually involved, to ping back to King of Comedy. The idea of a stiff actor like De Niro being a glib talk show host, even in the 1970s, seems like a bad fit. The other real film influence I don’t see getting as much recognition is Network. This is a tale of one man tapping into a vent of anger and starting a movement that ripples out beyond them into something uncontrollable.
Phillips is best known for his comedy work but I could feel his leaning to do a straight genre picture. In other reviews, I’ve cited Phillips’ keen eye for noir-flavored visuals (think of the car traveling across the desert as seen through the reflection of sunglasses in The Hangover). He had the chops to tell a straight genre crime thriller, so it’s not surprising that Joker is a slickly made, unsettling, and effective movie when it counts. This is a grimy-looking New York City, I mean Gotham City, where the garbage piles high (another not so subtle visual metaphor) and the city feels like a maze all its own crushing our main character. The cinematography is great with several strong moments that amplify the mood of unrest and distaste. The cello-heavy score by Hidur Guonadottir (HBO’s Chernobyl) is very evocative and ominously conveys the turmoil bubbling below the surface in a manner that doesn’t feel like pandering. This is a good-looking production made by talented technicians and Phillips has enough skill to pull it all together, even if that aim is really to recreate a style of another filmmaker and the time and place of his films.
I’ve purposely saved the best for last, and that’s Phoenix as the titular character. He is mesmerizing as a broken man trying to find his place in society and flailing wildly. His uncontrollable cackling is so unsettling that when he broke into laughing fits, I could feel myself getting more and more unnerved. At first it was the awkward sympathy of watching a man struggle to get through his disability, trying to compose himself, and embarrassed for the discomfort he was projecting. The very sound of the cackling trying to be contained, as a friend and co-worker Jason credited, watching the laughter catch in his throat, it had such an immediate, almost physical reaction in me. Later in the movie, I cringed because it made me worry what was going to happen next because I know it’s a precursor to bad feelings. When he’s becoming more comfortable with his impulses and dark thoughts, you notice the cackling starts to ebb away. There’s a small moment that I loved where after he flees from his first murder he runs into a bathroom, and once his breathing calms, it’s almost like his body is commanded by some spiritual serenity as he begins to dance. Phillips allows the scene to breathe and play out, to invite the audience to join. This little motif probably appears a few too many times, but it’s a beautiful little moment of physicality that expresses the chaos becoming harmony within a man. Phoenix lost 50 pounds for the role and his gaunt, haunted frame reminds you how much of a shell of a human being this character feels like. He even tells his therapist that he questioned whether he was even a person or not. Phoenix burrows deep into the character and unleashes a committed intensity that is impressively communicated through his sad, reedy, sing-songy voice, his slippery stances and body language, and the madness that seems to resonate from his bulging eyes. Even when the movie is repeating its steps and tricks, it’s Phoenix that constantly gives back to the audience. It’s a performance certainly worthy of Oscar attention and plaudits, though in my mind it’s still a step or two below the instantly iconic, and Oscar-winning, performance from Heath Ledger.
Joker is a movie and should not be held responsible for the actions of others and what they may read from the film. I don’t sense Phillips and his team condoning their protagonist’s lawless actions, and the violence is often undercut so that it feels more disturbing than triumphant and exhilarating. When Arthur does get his first kill, the audience has likely been silently rooting for him to fight back, to punish the wrongdoers, but the movie draws out the scene in a manner that’s akin to a wounded animal panicking as it scrambles for its life and a cold execution. It’s not meant to be cool. Phoenix’s performance elevates the entire enterprise and will unnerve as much as it ensnares. It’s not a subtle movie at all, and it hugs the works of Scorsese a little too closely, both in tone as well as visual symmetry. It’s trying very hard to be nihilistic, edgy, and provocative (this isn’t your “normal comic book movie” it wants to scream with every frame). Arthur just wanted to make people laugh, the movie tells us, but the joke was on him after all (subtlety). If anyone is inspired from this movie, I hope it’s to seek out other Scorsese movies.
Nate’s Grade: B
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-
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+
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
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 Hodge-podge 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 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+
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+
In 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.
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.
Rogue 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.
It 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.
Let’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
The Harry Potter publishing universe is almost twenty years old and has racked up more money than can be printed, so it was only a matter of time before some enterprising soul thought about expanding from author J.K. Rowling’s seven novels. I wasn’t anticipating that it would be Rowling as the one reopening her world for untapped franchise potential and financial windfalls.
Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is one of the world’s foremost experts on magical creatures and will one day write a definitive magizoology textbook for students to doodle inside while they sit bored in magic class. He’s traveled to New York City in 1926 and through a series of misunderstandings he exchanges briefcases with Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a factory drone trying to secure a loan to open a bakery. Inside Newt’s briefcase is a collection of colorful and unique magic creatures with goofy Dr. Suess-styled names, and they break free and need to be rounded up. Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) is a disgraced magic authority agent who tries to regain her reputation by helping Newt gather his living contraband before they are discovered by muggles, or as the Americans refer to them, no-majs. Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) is a gravely serious magic official keeping a close watch on the alarming activity. He also has an unclear interest in a fringe political movement that believes witches are real and a real threat. If only they knew the full extent, as a mad wizard-supremacist is also on the loose.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a better franchise catalyst than it is a movie, with several competing storylines that don’t really gel or feel properly developed. This feels like a series of set pieces in search of a movie to unify them. Much of the movie involves dueling storylines that dawdle until they are smashed together at the very end, much like Rowling’s storytelling habit of keeping so many characters and storylines on the fringes and simmering until they are called upon for revelatory disclosure. Storyline number one follows a daffy British magizoologist as he scours New York trying to retrieve his strange and adorable magical creatures. It’s relatively light and mostly fun. Storyline number two is a buddy movie with Newt and Jacob, which is also light and mostly fun. Then storyline number three is an abusive anti-magic movement that may be conspiring to kill wizards that stand in their way, revealing to the wider world the magical realm and the potential threat it poses. This storyline is much darker and adult and it contrasts sharply with scenes like Newt doing a silly dance to present himself for mating with a gigantic rhinoceros creature in heat. It’s hard to reconcile whimsical magic creatures one moment and stern child abuse the next. The varying tones don’t ever gel. The majority of the film is watching Newt scamper around trying to recapture his creatures and stumbling into bigger plot events that are kept on the edges of relevancy.
This movie is more about laying a foundation than telling a relatively complete and gratifying story. The narrative brick laying may be essential for future sequel success but it doesn’t make for the best experience in the theater. Rowling’s first crack at screenwriting has a few hallmarks of novelists-turned-screenwriters (cough, Cormac McCarthy, cough), namely the fuzzy narrative clarity and digressive asides that deter the film’s progressive momentum. It’s hard to critique certain themes and characters that feel useless (Jon Voight for starters) without knowing whether Rowling will decide they are secretly important three movies onward. I don’t know what this movie is about other than setting up lucrative sequels.
Another area of concern is whom Rowling has decided to be the leader of this voyage back in time; Newt Scamander is quite a lackluster lead character for one movie, let alone the prospect of up to five of them. I found this protagonist rather boring. He’s a kind figure and cares for his exotic animals but the man is pretty much the exact same person by the end of the movie as he is at the start and with only passing hints at a secret tragic past as something to enliven what is assuredly a dull, mumbling character. I’m not against Rowling’s decision to catapult a mild-mannered, shy, polite man as her main character especially in the face of paranoia and fear mongering, but the guy has to at least be interesting. There is not one interesting thing about this character outside of his briefcase full of magical creatures. He is a void of character, a blank slate that isn’t any more filled in by the conclusion. The lack of substance also allows Redmayne to retreat into his actorly tics playing up Newt’s social anxiety, almost to a degree that seems recognizably autistic (at least it was with my friend who saw it with me who is on the spectrum). He feels sensitive to the point that his body is going to collapse inwardly upon itself. I saw the same impulses with his overrated, overly mannered performance in The Danish Girl. When lacking significant depth to his character, or at least something of significant interest, he overcompensates with what he’s given and that’s not usually for the best. Just see Jupiter Ascending if you’re truly brave enough or equipped with enough liquor.
I think the stronger lead character would have been Newt’s buddy, Fogler’s no-maj Jacob Kowalski. He’s already our entry point into this older time period so why not make him the focal point? Jacob is a far more interesting character and he’s actually astonished by the revelations of a magical world right under his nose, adding to the general sense of discovery for himself as well as the audience. He’s the more relatable character as he discovers the world of magic and develops fluttery feelings for a magical lass (Porpetina’s psychic sister, Queenie, played by Alison Sudol). The sweet and flirty stutter-stops of a possible romance with Jacob and Queenie are far more heartfelt and engaging than whatever the film tries to pretend has been set up for Newt and Porpentina. By the very end, the movie expects a few smiles and arbitrary sexual tension to compensate for the rest of the film’s 133 minutes that did not establish one passing moment of attraction. Sorry, Rowling, but cinematic romance doesn’t work in spontaneous vacuums. If you want us to fee for the characters and compel them to get together, we need to see your work if you want the coupling to be remotely satisfying.
The rest of the actors do what they can with the thin scraps of characterization that Rowling provides. Fogler (Fanboys) is a reliable source of comic relief. His sincere pleasure from the magical world and its inhabitants makes him endearing, seeing this world through necessary fresh eyes. Waterston (Inherent Vice) is a screen presence that stands out from the pack, though her character is too muted to leave the same impression. Her character’s goal is to clear her name but she seems to readily forget this motivation. Until writing this review I had no idea that Sudol (Transparent) was the songstress A Fine Frenzy, an artist I’ve enjoyed for a decade. Her acting isn’t quite as accomplished as her singing but Queenie is something of a walking ethereal, sad-eyed psychic kewpie doll. Rowling treats her more as a handy plot device when she needs some item explained or intuited. Queenie’s budding relationship with Jacob makes her more interesting. There are plenty of familiar faces that are stranded in underwritten and confusing roles. The likes of Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Zoe Kravitz, Carmen Ejogo, Jon Voight, and Ron Perlman, as a mo-cap goblin, must have simply been happy to participate, and I can’t blame them considering the fortunes that await this franchise.
The world building is hazy yet the world of wizards in 1920s New York City is intriguing enough to keep me hopeful that a better movie could emerge later. We’ve never been stateside before in this universe so my first point of interest was the difference between the magical authorities from across the pond. Apparently the magic-inclined aren’t legally allowed to romantically mix with no-maj folks (call it muggle miscegenation laws). That’s interesting but we only get a glimpse. The Second Salem movement in the United States seems to believe that witches and real danger. They seem like a fringe political conservative movement. It’s interesting yet we only get another glimpse at best. Then there’s an evil wizard who wants to wipe the world of the unclean, surely a setup for You-Know-Who and his malevolent Death Eaters. He’s kept further to the background and only bookends the movie. I just looked it up and Voldermort was born in 1926, so expect even more foreshadowing in the future. I wanted to know more about the world inside the Magical Congress of the United States of America. Why do they have a killer magic tar pit and what does it really do to people? There are passing references to the pre-established Harry Potter universe, small morsels for the crowd to hold onto to get them through this muddled expository journey. Still, there is an undeniable entertainment value of seeing magic interact with a 1920s American landscape. A magic speakeasy is a delightful moment to open up this world in amusing historical ways. Newt’s suitcase and its vast interior world is also a great source of wonder and a potent highlight.
Fantastic Beasts doesn’t quite rise to the level of fantastic implied with its title, though if you’re a Potter fan it could be a welcomed and promising start. That’s really what this movie is, a start, and not so much a complete story. It’s a Potter prologue that provides just enough to get an audience interested but not enough to perhaps get them excited. The main character is a total washout and the varying tones and storylines fail to gel. Rowling has some screenwriting novice growing pains and her general world could use more texture amidst all the special effects sequences. Those magic critters are cute I’ll give them that. There just doesn’t seem like there’s enough here of genuine substance in any capacity, other than setting up a playpen for its four sequels. Director David Yates has shepherded the Potter universe for five movies now. The visual continuity from prequel to main story arc reminds me of Peter Jackson’s turn at reviving the Hobbit trilogy. Actually, Fantastic Beasts reminds me of the Hobbit films in more ways than one. They were both somewhat crass moneymaking ventures inarticulately stretched and padded to ensure more movies and more profits. They are also decidedly lesser than the main story arc. To my movie muggle tastes, Fantastic Beasts ranks toward the bottom of the Potter franchise, just a step above Half-Blood Prince. Too often it feels like textbook Potter stuff minus the character investments. It’s a series of set pieces and latent possibilities and less a full movie. Then again, take my so-so critique with a relative grain of salt, Potterheads.
Nate’s Grade: B-
“We all know the third movie is the worst,” says young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) in a curious moment that is too meta for its own good. It’s meant to be an in-joke, and possible a jab at 2006’s heavily derided X-Men: The Last Stand, but it ends up summarizing more than one X-Men movie. Easily the weakest of the prequel series, X-Men: Apocalypse is a muddled super hero movie that marginalizes its interesting characters, lacks a thematic linchpin, pushes a new batch of boring and often superfluous new mutants, and feels like everyone is running through the paces of what they think an X-Men movie should be. It’s not Last Stand, the near franchise-killer that Days of Future Past had to wipe out of existence, but this movie is a dull and clear example of the lousy mediocrity of compounded missed chances suffered at the expense of loyalty to formula.
In 1983, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is running his school for gifted youngsters, a.k.a. mutants, and has a new class of students including Jean Grey, Scott “Cyclops” Summers (Tye Sheridan), Kurt “Nightcrawler” Wagner (Kurt Smit-McPhee). Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is trying to live a simple life and exclude himself from a larger fight between humans and mutants. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is crossing the globe and discovering new mutants to rescue. Everything changes when an ancient mutant is awakened in Egypt. Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) is thousands of years old and is rumored to be the first mutant. He collects four mutant helpers he deems his Horsemen, and in 1983 it happens to be a young Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Archangel (Ben Hardy), and Magneto. Apocalypse promises a world built for only the strongest mutants and will wipe the planet with those found lesser.
Let’s start with the empty void that is the titular super villain; Apocalypse is a complete waste and a complete bore. Oscar Isaac is a terrific and soulful actor who can be so malleable to roles as diverse as misanthropic Llewyn Davis to dreamy X-wing pilot Poe Damaron. He is buried under pounds of purple makeup that limit his expression, coupled with a heavy costume that also limits his movement. Apocalypse should have probably been a motion capture performance. Andy Serkis has proven that mo-cap performances can exhibit tremendous emotive qualities and the technology can support it. Mo-cap would have been better than staring at Ivan Ooze lumbering around. Then there’s his haphazard characterization. Apocalypse is both too all-powerful and shackled with powers that are too vaguely ill defined. He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy that needs an entourage for support despite the whole snazzy “Four Horsemen” backing band name. Apocalypse should be the solo act; he doesn’t need a backup band. You could have written Storm and Psylocke out entirely and had no impact on the plot whatsoever. My pal Eric Muller even jokes that Psylocke literally walks off the movie. Allow me to indulge my X-Men fandom a moment and just say how Apocalypse is my favorite X-Men villain and Psylocke was one of my favorite X-Men way back when I was reading the comics consistently in the 90s. I loved the psychic blade of Psylocke, though in this movie it’s pretty much just a laser arm sword, which is a underwhelming. Seeing both of these characters completely wasted is particularly disappointing to 90s me.
But back to Apocalypse, he seems too powerful to need to seek out a select group of super lieutenants and part of this is also because of how poorly the movie explains the specifics or limitations of his powers. He absorbs the powers of his host mutants but what are those powers exactly? The movie never specifies beyond the weird shifting-humans-into-walls thing that looks a bit too silly to be truly terrifying. Every time he displays a new fancy power we just have to accept it, but if he keeps unleashing powers we never know about then why does he even need assistance? We already see Apocalypse turning the world into dust clouds, so why does he need Magneto to, I believe, rip the metal core out of the Earth? It’s not like he has a meaningful relationship with Magneto, the only Horseman who truly matters. Apocalypse should be the mutant equivalent of a god, and credit to my pal Ben Bailey on this assertion, and the world of mutants should be forced to make a choice to follow this god who genuinely wants a new world consisting only of his “children.” Instead he’s just a bloviating and boring demagogue that makes a terrible lead villain. For a guy who might be the “first mutant” and inspire the Bible, it sure seems like squandered potential.
The trio of the core characters of the prequels (Professor X, Magneto, Mystique) is largely sidelined and you can certainly tell that the actors are eyeing the exit door, no more than Lawrence. These are the characters we’ve gotten to know and the ones we’ve built up an emotional attachment to, so why not just push them to the outer edges of your story and shove some new even younger X kids in place to dominate the narrative? Lawrence and Fassbender especially are given the least to do. When Mystique has to become a de facto X-Men leader and teacher, you can feel like everyone is just going through the motions. They just look bored or at least unable to hide their ambivalence with the muddled screenplay. The new X kids are also fairly bland with little charisma. I think there’s an actual scene where Nightcrawler is walking around a mall in plain sight. The X kids are here to take over for the Magneto/Xavier/Mystique unit and provide a bridge to the original X-Men series. It is here where I must now gripe because First Class was set in 1961 and Apocalypse is set in 1983 and nobody looks like they’ve aged. Maybe that’s a mutant ability plot device but then Rose Byrne’s human character hasn’t aged much either. Her character is also completely pointless in this movie. She might not be as badly shoehorned into the action as Lois Lane was in Batman vs. Superman, but then again there still isn’t anything as terrible as anything in BvS.
The X-Men franchise from the beginning has been a super hero saga with subtext and social commentary. It might not be completely subtle but it was effective and brings greater relevance and emotional power to the struggles of our mutant heroes. The first prequel was about a core philosophical divide between Xavier and Magneto; the second movie was about the individual versus society and was personally exemplified by the moral crisis of Mystique’s hunt for vengeance that would lead to the downfall of humanity. This third movie has none of that. Magneto is suffering from a personal tragedy caused by prejudice and fear but the basic theme is the same from First Class just not nearly as well articulated. Here it’s more just blunt “kill ‘em all” vengeance, and he’s made to be a practically mute cipher until called upon at the very end for some tidy plot work. I haven’t even talked about the tacky return to a concentration camp. The characters are either fighting the bad guy or fighting with the bad guy. That’s it. There isn’t any major personal or philosophical conflict that is highlighted by the subtext of the plot. It’s all just more grist for world-ending CGI nonsense.
Apocalypse at best is a series of moments, and the overall quality level rarely rises beyond competently acceptable, not exactly a ringing endorsement. The movie’s action sequences are rather dull and visually repetitive, making poor use of geography and development. The entire third act is a blandly extended action sequence in the dusty ruins of Cairo. Things just sort of happen and then more things just sort of happen. The opening action sequence in Days of Future Past is better than 99% of the scenes in this movie. The clear highlight that everyone will rightly cite is Quicksilver (Evan Peters) showcasing the amazing potential of his super speedy powers, but even this is a repeat of a highlight from a previous movie. It’s like the producers decided to take the moment everybody loved and do it bigger and better. It was a real fun surprise in the first time, and now it’s become the newest part of the X-Men formula. Still, it’s a fantastic sequence with great visual panache and a lively sense of humor. When the world slows down and Quicksilver steps into the frame, it’s almost like a hero moment for the audience to cheer. He saves a school of mutants, and a dog, from a colossal explosion, but it too is just another moment that could have been cut from the movie entirely. It’s a fantastic moment, the obvious highpoint, and yet it’s still superfluous. The other highpoint is an extended cameo at Alkali Lake, and again it is superfluous and calls into question greater franchise continuity.
Speaking of continuity, there are some major events in Days of Future Past but especially Apocalypse that make me question how the events in the 2000s X-Men still stand. According to the events of the prequels, Mystique “outed” herself to the world and proved the existence of mutants to the wider public when she tried killing Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage) and infiltrated the Nixon White House. Cut to 1983 and Apocalypse broadcasts a message to every human and mutant on the planet. He launches the world’s entire arsenal of nuclear weapons into space. That seems like a big deal, the kind of deal that would dramatically alter the events in the 2000s to the point that a mutant registration act would seem hilariously quaint and far too late. The character relationships in the first X-Men movie must also be reassessed with the events of Alkali Lake. It’s hard for me to reconcile the earlier films matching up with these prequels at this point.
The studio execs and producers behind the X-Men series have already gone on record speculating that their next movie will take place in the 1990s and have Mr. Sinister as its chief villain. I think they’re getting a little too ahead of themselves with the larger franchise vision much like what happened to Sony after their 2012 Amazing Spider-Man reboot. They started plotting two sequels, a spin-off, and lost sight of simply making a good movie with characters you care about and memorable action sequences. They lost track and had to reboot their Spider-Man franchise yet again, this time with an assist from the Marvel bigwigs. I don’t need an X-Men-a-decade adventure. I just want good movies. Out of six movies, half of them are great and the rest are acceptable to terrible. Apocalypse won’t kill its franchise but I think the negative and indifferent response from the public, as well as less-than-robust box-office returns, will give the studio caution. Don’t just throw out an X-Men movie in order to lay the tracks for the next two X-Men movies. Make a compelling and entertaining X-Men film that stands on its own. If you can’t do that, then there won’t be too many more X adventures, period.
Nate’s Grade: C