Prey is the kind of Predator movie I have been clamoring for years to make. The franchise was in some major need of a mojo rejuvenation, and instead of constantly repeating the same stories to lesser and lesser effect (see: 2018’s sloppy release), the filmmakers finally saw the obvious and exciting answer. By placing the Predator into different points and places in world history, the producers have finally tapped into the creative potential of the equation of [cultural warriors] vs. alien bounty hunter. Each new movie allows a new selling point jumping from famous warrior to famous warrior. Imagine samurai versus the Predator, or Crusaders versus the Predator, or Vikings versus the Predator, or a Wild West showdown against the Predator. It would be like an intergalactic Deadliest Warrior franchise. It’s a super advanced alien species, so why can’t we establish that they’ve been flying to Earth for centuries for their recreational sport? Each movie can establish a larger mythology, but it also just supplies the fun of seeing history’s greatest warriors and different settings and cultures versus a powerful alien monster. Prey is the best Predator sequel, by far, and arguably as entertaining and engaging as the 1987 original.
In 1719, we follow a tribe of Comanche in the Northern Great Plains. Naru (Amber Midthunder) wants to be a respected warrior like her big brother, Taabe (Dakota Beavers), who cautions her about the weight of responsibility. She discovers strange tracks and is convinced that their tribe is not safe from a new predator. How little does she know how right she is.
Within minutes, Prey had me. I’ve seen complaints that the first half is slow, but I think people are discounting the time needed to establish the ordinary baseline life of this community, their relationships and conflicts and goals and hopes, before introducing the change agent. That takes time if you want to be able to understand this different life but also if you want to really connect with the characters. The first half provides the foundation for the second half to run with and have bloody mayhem that counts as more than surface-level entertainment. The best compliment I could provide for screenwriter Patrick Aison (plus director Dan Trachtenberg) is that had the Predator never beamed down, I still would have found the story to be interesting. The details are rich and build an authentic picture of life 300 years ago before European colonists would completely upend indigenous life. The Predator series, at its core, has been a nativist underdog tale, where the primitive people of Earth have battled against the technologically superior alien warrior. The dynamic makes it easy to root for the Earthly heroes, but it’s even easier when you have a protagonist like Naru, fighting for respect as a woman already. The character is shown as headstrong but capable, and her mistakes provide opportunities for her to learn and better strategize later. I genuinely gasped when certain indigenous characters died. I’ve never had an emotional response to any Predator film.
The reveal of the Predator is cautiously handled, with the big guy taking time to explore his own surroundings. I enjoyed that this Predator also isn’t as advanced as his more modern ilk. He wears an intimidating alien skull mask and has more limited, though still high-tech, weaponry. I also enjoyed that this Predator feels like he has more of a personality. It’s not just a mirthless tall guy in a thick suit. The actor, Dane DiLiegro, is still providing a tactile, physical performance, and he has moments that reveal the cruelty of this alien but also its volatile temper, which is kind of hilarious. He encounters the wildlife and goes from snake to bear to man, right up the food chain, but some of his more violent kills demonstrate an almost petulant attitude. This is a Predator that doesn’t quite have it all together, and it makes the eventual battle with the Comanche feel like a conflict that has two sides that are worthy but also with their vulnerabilities. It makes the final showdown more interesting. It also allows us to take perverse pleasure in the big guy mowing down a team of predatory French fur trappers that imprison Naru and use her as bait. Oh boy, the gory comeuppance is fun.
The action sequences are smoothly handled by Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane) who favors verisimilitude without sacrificing the visual artifice. The photography is gorgeous, and the emphasis on natural light and environments add so much the overall authenticity. Trachtenberg also knows what visual style will work best with which moments. There’s one scene where Naru sneaks back into the trapper camp and her vengeful fury is portrayed in a breathless long take to make the moment even more intense and enjoyable to appreciate the beat-by-beat fight choreography. The scenes with the Predator stalking in the fog play with claustrophobic suspense. The action has a very pleasing sense of construction that clearly presents the pieces that are needed for the scene-to-scene goals, and then the characters will adapt as necessary through organic complications. This is just good action construction, and Trachtenberg fields each like an expert.
Another fun addition with Prey is that they filmed it with two audio tracks, an English-language track and one fully in the Comanche language. It’s not the most necessary option since most viewers will likely simply watch it in English, or not know about the alternative until after watching, such as myself, but it’s an impressive addition that can make the movie even more immersive and authentic and generally considerate of another culture and language.
Now, with all my points of praise for Prey, why oh why did Disney shunt this movie straight to its secondary streaming arm with Hulu? After the Fox merger, I understand that the Mouse House doesn’t quite see the same level of value in every Fox property not named X-Men or Avatar. This was restarting a franchise that still has some life in it, but even more than that, this is a good movie with plenty of artistic acumen that would have played splendidly on a big screen and an excellent sound system to really sell every fleshy slice and alien gurgle. It seems preposterous to me that a new Predator movie, let alone an actually great one, is denied theatrical release. I know the domestic box-office is still not what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic. I understand that Fox’s leftovers don’t have the same sexy appeal to the new bosses. It just puzzles me that nobody thought that they would make money off of Prey, which has proven to be a big hit on Hulu with critics and fans (ignoring cranky misogynists questioning the physical ability of women). Prey is a great action movie built upon solid characters and patient, clear plot and action development. When it comes to gore, I wish it wasn’t as heavily CGI and a more memorably gruesome, but that’s my only real criticism of what is fundamentally a fun and exciting movie. Give me more like Prey.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Originally released May 16, 2002:
Yes, it’s easy to say that Attack of the Clones is better than Phantom Menace, but hey, most anything was better than watching that movie about trade and taxes. The truth of the matter is that for a long while Clones is just as boring as Menace, especially anything involving Anakin onscreen. It’s slow moving, dull, and remarkably poorly written. Lucas cannot write dialogue and someone needs to take away his yellow writing notebooks before he strikes again. The movie only shows life during the last 45 minutes when it finally cooks with a non-stop rush of action. Before then though I would recommend resting up for this period.
Can anyone ever say “no” to the Jedi master in plaid? What Lucas needs desperately is collaboration, writing and directing. Lucas needs to loosen up the reign of his empire before the three Star Wars prequels undermine the original set. He may have the technology to create any manner of CGI creature but he has no power to get his actors to show any of the realistic and animated life. It seems all Lucas cares about is directing blue screens and leaving his actors out to dry.
And that much ballyhooed romance between Anakin and Amidala? Oh ye God, what romance? You could find something more alive in a monastery. Portman and Christensen have as absolutely no chemistry (unlike the romantic pairs in another, huge Hollywood movie out now). Portman has perfected the staring ahead method. I don’t know if that’s supposed to be romantic. Now I like Natalie Portman, I really do. Her performance in The Professional gets me every time, but her acting is stiff and overly serious here.
I thought Anakin could not get any more annoying than Jake Lloyd’s awful “yippee”-filled run in Menace, but I’m starting to reconsider this begrudgingly. It’s easy to see why Christensen was chosen, he looks like the lost N’SYNC member. His acting on the other hand is not with the force. The Clones Anakin mopes around and when he gets upset he whines in a falsetto voice. It’s actually quite funny to see the future Darth Vader, evil master of the Dark Side and much feared, whining like a six year old throwing a tantrum. This Anakin needs a time out and a lolly.
When Anakin returns to become a protector for the senator, upon their first meet in ten years he shoots her the puppy eyes and says, “I see you have grown as well — grown more beautiful.” Subtlety, thy name is not Anakin Skywalker. The very next scene where they’re alone he’s trying to put the moves on her, though he does not try and use the force to undo her bra. Then somewhere along the line his dogged persistence just wears Amidala down and she relents. She says, “I’ve been dying a little bit day by day, ever since you re-entered my life.” Ugh. You’re likely to find more romantic passages in a Harlequin bodice ripper at 7-11.
The romance in Clones is like spontaneous romance. There is no beginning, the nurturing of it is not shown, we don’t see the eventual progress. All that happens is he shows up and then instant romance. It just happens. I don’t think so. It’s like a kid went to a girl’s third grade birthday party, then they meet in high school for the first time since that day and are instantly in love. Do you buy that? Well I certainly don’t.
The scenes revolving around Obi-Wan are the only ones worth opening your eyes for. Ewan McGregor has got the Alec Guiness voice down and proves to be a capable leading hero. His voyage to see the clone army and Jango Fett is the subplot that we want, but the movie keeps skipping back and forth between this and the inept romance. By this time everyone knows that Yoda shows off his fighting mettle with a light saber. This is a great idea and the audience I saw it with was having the time of their life during this moment. It’s the only part of the movie that taps into the feeling of whimsical fun of the original trilogy.
Lucas curtailed the criticism of Menace saying it was the setup for all five other movies. I imagine he’ll say the same thing with this one, except that it was setup for four movies. Yes it’ll make a huge amount of bank. Yes it’s a technical achievement but what good are all the bells and whistles if we as an audience are bored? You’ve got one more Star Wars left George, please do it right.
Nate’s Grade: C+
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Something unexpected has happened in the ensuring twenty years since the Star Wars prequels were first released to a generally muted response from the rabid fandom. A generation has grown up with these movies as “their Star Wars.” In my own anecdotal experiences, many teenagers do not just view Episodes I-III as entertaining movies, they even view them as their preferable Star Wars trilogy. After the latest Star Wars movies, Episodes VII-IX, some fans have even been looking back on George Lucas’ much maligned prequels with revised appreciation. “At least there was a cohesive vision,” they’ll say, in comparison to the wild pendulum swings between directors J.J. Abrams (Force Awakens, Rise of Skywalker) and Rian Johnson (Last Jedi). Have we all been too harsh on Lucas and his moribund attempts to inject life into his three-movie arc charting the fall from grace from legendary villain, Darth Vader a.k.a. Anakin Skywalker? The short answer is… no. While I agree that children who grew up with the likes of Jar Jar Binks and CGI overkill will consider Episodes I-III more their style, the flaws of these films are undeniable when compared to the superior storytelling and characterization of the others. Even in comparison to the new Star Wars, these movies still suffer. So please remove your rose-colored glasses, fandom, and accept that even with time, Attack of the Clones is still a lousy adventure.
I think a majority of Star Wars fans experienced the five stages of grief upon the 1999 release of The Phantom Menace, the first new Star Wars movie in 16 years. I remember a classmate who wore Star Wars T-shirts every day for weeks in fevered anticipation of the new movie, including T-shirts relating to the new characters and merchandizing opportunities (what the “new characters” were, even Darth Maul). After the movie came out, I remember charting over the last weeks of school his response, going from claiming that, “Of course it was great,” to a more measured, “Well, it wasn’t what the originals were, but it’s still good,” to, “It has its problems but…” and finally the acceptance that it just wasn’t a very good Star Wars movie or even a good movie. He stopped wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Phantom Menace characters.
This was the backdrop for the production of 2002’s Attack of the Clones, a realization that must have spurred Lucas to do better. During the many years of pre-production for Phantom Menace, Lucas was cloistered by yes men agreeing that every new addition was going to be sensational. Lucas was astonished to learn about the volume of hatred against Jar Jar Binks, a character he thought would transcend and become the most popular character in all of Star Wars. The intense negative feedback threw the old Jedi Master in plaid for a loop. Maybe residing in a creative bubble that only reinforces everything you say isn’t the best environment. We were told that Lucas had learned from his mistakes from Phantom Menace. He even brought on another screenwriter to help him, Jonathan Hale (The Young Indiana Jones TV series), something he didn’t do for the concluding Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. At the time, I was among the throng of fandom that wanted to cling to hope, that maybe The Phantom Menace was an aberration, that maybe that same feeling of elation could return of the Star Wars of old. And then I watched Attack of the Clones and it confirmed what I and many feared: Phantom Menace was no fluke; it was merely the way things were going to be from here onward.
The prequels had two major storytelling goals: 1) to explain the transformation of Anakin Skyler into the mighty Darth Vader, and 2) to explain the rise of the evil Empire and its Emperor. To offer some compliments before the onslaught of criticisms is unleashed, I think Lucas does an agreeable job with developing the latter goal. This movie came out around the time of Bush’s War on Terror where the threat of attack was enough to call pre-emptive strikes and where the president was given special war powers that, to this day, and the formal conclusion of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, haven’t been fully relinquished. There are several obvious and eerie parallels to the political instability of its initial release but also for today in 2022. We are witnessing one political party lurching toward rampant authoritarianism, a repudiation of democratic norms and ideals, and celebrating personality over principles and winning at any cost. Watching the different alien races of the Republic champion the need for a strong, decisive ruler to cut through the bureaucratic red tape of representative democracy, someone who seems above politics, someone who will protect the people, and someone who sees opponents as enemies of the state, well it’s not hard to make the connections. This is the path of fascism, the rise of dictators, and it was the same brew of nationalism, grievance, fear-mongering, bigotry, scape-goating, and information distortion during the 1930s as it is during the 2020s. For those angry Star Wars fans upset by the diversity of the newer movies, screaming, “Keep politics out of my Star Wars,” you do understand the entire thing has been a metaphor for fighting fascism, right? It’s not even subtle.
However, where the movie pitifully fails is by linking Anakin’s downfall with his romantic relationship with Padme (Natalie Portman). There was potential here with a forbidden romance where Anakin fights against the oath of chastity to the Jedi and both must try their best to subsume their out-of-control feelings. I’m sure that’s what Lucas thought he was making. It didn’t quite work out that way. The romance in Attack of the Clones is laughably bad. The dialogue is cringe-worthy and deeply inauthentic. Every character speaks like a robot. When Anakin starts to finally court Padme, he shares his infamous “I don’t like sand” observation, but he directly pivots toward liking his current location because it’s “soft and smooth,” and it is WITHIN SECONDS of saying this that he stares weirdly at Padme and they share their first kiss. That line worked! Upon meeting Anakin, almost every character remarks how much he’s grown up, as if Lucas is trying to say, “He’s no longer a kid, so it’s okay for him to try and get some.” Padme repeats this observation at several points, and I started to question what exactly was the age difference between these two. Nothing about this romance feels genuine. At one point, they literally roll down a hill like two children rough housing. The romance is so hilarious juvenile and poorly developed. In my original review in 2002, I referred to it as a “spontaneous romance,” and that’s exactly what it feels like. Anakin’s yearning looks more like a child having a temper tantrum. Also, Padme ignores a host of red flags including when Anakin confesses to killing “men, women, and children” in a blind rage upon his mother dying. She also tells him to stop looking at her because it makes her uncomfortable, and does he stop? No.
The other problem is that the actors are clearly bored with one another. Natalie Portman has since become of my favorite actors, but she’s always been an actress that has trouble hiding her boredom with a role she doesn’t connect with. You can feel her eagerness to be done with the franchise in every green screen scene (just keep chanting, “Only one more movie, Natalie”). Her destiny is to be a mother and to be the catalyst for Darth Vader becoming Darth Vader, and she’s never been looked as anything more. Sure, you can argue she’s headstrong and resourceful in a general sense, but then she has to be scraped by an arena monster so she can bare her midriff during the climactic action scuffle. I don’t think any actress can make this clunky dialogue work, like, “I’ve been dying a little every day since you came back into my life.” Is that supposed to be complimentary? Another quick dialogue criticism: EVERYONE is always addressing everyone all the time with titles. “My old friend,” and, “Master,” and, “My Padewan,” and, “Master Jedi,” in case anyone forgets for a moment what the character relationships are.
This was Hayden Christenson’s first movie as Anakin and it’s worth noting that for a time being he was regarded as a hot up and coming actor. He was nominated for a Screen Actor’s Guild Award for 2001’s My Life as a House, and he’s genuinely fantastic in 2003’s genuinely fantastic Shattered Glass, a film role that takes full advantage of the actor’s whiny, pubescent acting tendencies. Christenson was widely lambasted for his performances in Episodes II and III. His performance is definitely weak, especially compared to the heft of James Earl Jones’ voice. He’s not good as Anakin Skywalker but nobody would have survived this role. It was one thing to find out big bad Darth Vader used to be an annoying little twerp of a kid, and it’s not that much better to also discover that annoying kid matured into an annoying, moody teenager. It’s demystifying one of cinema’s greatest villains and providing so very little in return. Patton Oswalt had a comedy bit about not caring where the stuff you love actually comes from. There was a rash of villain back-stories in 2000s cinema, with Vader and Hannibal Lector and Michael Myers, and none of these stories lived up to providing a satisfying explanation. Christensen has been unable to exit the shadow of the Star Wars series. He has a brief stint as a leading man, most notably in 2008’s Jumper, but has receded into the world of direct-to-DVD offerings, appearing in five movies since 2010. He’ll be reprising Darth Vader in Disney’s upcoming Star Wars TV series, so it will be interesting to see if the brunt of fandom that once rejected him now accepts him.
The other sad aspect of the prequel trilogy is just how meaningless so much of the action feels. I was watching the extended climax on Genosis, which feels clearly inspired by 2000’s Gladiator, and just shrugging at all the onscreen CGI carnage. I just didn’t care. While the prequels have more action and special effects wizardry, and the lightsaber battles are more intense and acrobatic, the emotional stakes are still so absent. Watching a dozen CGI characters kill a different dozen CGI characters is no more exciting than watching dominoes fall unless there is an emotional connection to what is happening. Any emotional connection with the prequels is strictly imported from the prior movies. I find it hard to believe that people can watch Episodes I-III and genuinely care about the conflicts of these characters. The prequels also reveal that Lucas was at his best not just with collaboration but also with restraints. With all the money in the world, the man doubles down on his worst directing and writing impulses, and everything onscreen feels weightless and vapid and intended to sell a new line of toys. The movie takes so long to get going because it divides its time between a romance that does not work and an investigation into a clone army that can only go so far. It’s memorable and a little fun to watch Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz) as a mighty Jedi lightsaber warrior, but that’s about all that I found Attack of the Clones had for me as far as intentional entertainment value.
I also want to note that the movie really clears any doubt about the aura and competency of the Jedi. These guys suck at everything. They get killed pretty easily. They are terrible at sensing the encroaching Sith and Dark Side. They are terrible at upholding rules, order, galactic safety. They just suck at everything they do. They carry a cool laser sword and can play mind tricks and that’s about it. Maybe Lucas was intentionally laying a critique at the guardrails of democracy, saying we cannot trust the guardians to stand alone to protect against the rise of fascism, but I think I’m projecting too much thematic clarity onto a man that thought Jar Jar Binks was destined for greatness. Another side note: it’s hilarious to me that Lucas has Jar Jar as the Senator that proposes giving Palpatine the emergency war powers. It’s like Lucas said, “Oh, you don’t like my silly Jamaican rabbit alien? Well, what if I made him an essential footnote to the end of the Republic? You can’t erase him now, unless you’re me, and I’ll tinker however I want!”
My 2002 movie review was right on, which has been something of a rarity for the early part of this re-review. I enjoyed the line about this Anakin needing a “timeout and a lolly.” I would probably lower my rating down to a C. I’d rather watch this or any of the prequels before 2019’s Rise of Skywalker, but that’s because I was more invested in those characters and their stories and thus far more disappointed in how Abrams handled his finale. Maybe that’s to its benefit, that the characters are so poorly written, and poorly acted, and the CGI action is so blandly imagined, that I’d rather watch Attack of the Clones and let my eyes glaze over.
Re-View Grade: C
In 2015, I was completely on board with a Kingsman franchise. Based upon the Mark Millar comics, the film was a hip, transgressive, action-packed, and refreshingly modern remix of stale spy thriller tropes. It also followed a satisfying snobs vs. slobs class conflict and a My Fair Lady-stye personal transformation of street kid to suave secret agent. In short, I loved it, and I said co-writer/director Matthew Vaughn used big studio budgets smarter than any other blockbuster filmmaker. Flash forward to 2017, and the Kingsman sequel started to show cracks in my resolute faith in Vaughn, and now with the long-delayed Kingsman prequel, I just don’t know if I care any more about this universe. It feels like the appeal of the franchise has been stamped out by its inferior additions. This one chronicles the origins of the Kingsman tailors/secret agency, a question nobody was really asking. It’s the beginnings of World War I, and a comical cadre of super villains, such as Mata Hari, Rasputin, and future assassin Gavrilo Princip, is meeting to plot doom and destruction and goad the world’s powers into war (in a goofy but appreciated comical touch, Tom Hollander plays the leaders of England, Germany, and Russia). Ralph Fiennes plays Orlando Oxford, a pacifist leading a special team trying to thwart the drumbeats of war by taking out the shadow brokers. The Kingsman movies were known for its attitude and cheekily crossing the line from time to time, but that willful perversity seems so desperate with this new movie. During the Rasputin mission, the disheveled madman literally stuffs an entire pie into his face, tongues Oxford’s wound on his upper thigh, and lasciviously promises more to come for him and Oxford’s adult son. The sequence is almost astonishing in poor taste and grotesque, and it just seems to go on forever. And yet, thanks to the sheer audacious energy of Rhys Ifans as the pansexual cleric, this actually might be the best or at least most entertaining part of the 130-minute movie. The problem is that The King’s Man doesn’t know whether it wants to commit to being a ribald loose retelling of history or a serious war drama. It’s hard to square Rasputin cracking wise and sword fighting to the 1812 Overture and an interminable 20-minute tonal detour that seriously examines the horrors of trench warfare. It jumps from silly comic book violence to grisly reality. That entire episode is then washed away with a joyless climax that feels like a deflated video game compound assault. I’ll credit Vaughn for dashes of style, like sword-fighting from the P.O.V. of the swords, but this movie feels too all over the place in tone, in ideas, in execution and lacking a dynamic anchor. Fiennes is a dry and dashing leading man, though I was having flashbacks of his 1998 Avengers misfire at points. It’s a story that doesn’t really accentuate the knowledge base of future Kingsman, and it’s lacking a sustained sense of fun and invention. It needed more banter, more subversion, more over-the-top and less formulaic plot turns. In my review of The Golden Circle, I concluded with, “It would be a shame for something like this to become just another underwhelming franchise.” That day has sadly arrived, ladies and gentlemen.
Nate’s Grade: C
So were you ready for the feature-length back-story for the safe-cracker character in Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead so that you could feel more emotional involvement and understanding why he was so obsessed with cracking that special super vault in Vegas? Oh, you didn’t, well Netflix decided to spin off the goofy, energetic German character, once again played by Matthias Schweighöfer, who also directs the movie too, and now here it is. The character is too goofy to justify anything terribly dramatic, so the prequel becomes about how he was roped into a heist gang after becoming a star in the… underground safe-cracking betting ring. I would say that seems far-fetched but Netflix’s Squid Games pretty much explained its existence with, “Eh, the rich are bored and will bet on anything.” The most fun part for me was when the movie would take a few self-aware winks, as if it knew it was a movie, and characters would express how, if this were a Hollywood heist movie, this would happen, or that would happen, and then it inevitable does. It’s a small thing but it was something that slightly gave the movie its own identity because everything else is so rote and without charm or intrigue. The requisite gang has their requisite tensions and requisite betrayals and requisite unrequited romances. I just didn’t care much and the set pieces never elevated the suspense or interest level. The heist movie formula is ready-made for enjoyable setups and payoffs, as long as you see it through and hopefully give us fun characters and unexpected complications to overcome and improvise. Army of Thieves feels like a slapped-together action thriller that would have served as the years-later direct-to-DVD franchise ripoff except we got it the same year as its zombie franchise launch. And that’s the thing, this movie is literally taking place during a time there is a zombie outbreak and we’re just shrugging and going along with a standard heist that could have existed in any non-zombie outbreak universe? When even your supporting police characters say, “Hey, shouldn’t we pay more attention to that, you know, zombie apocalypse thing?” then maybe you heed their advice.
Nate’s Grade: C
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+
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
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
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