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Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022)

It’s hard to talk about Black Panther: Wakanda Forever without first discussing its missing whole, namely Chadwick Boseman. It was a shock when Boseman died during the summer of 2020 of terminal cancer, which he had kept hidden except for a small number of close confidants. I remember hearing the news and being in disbelief, figuring this must be another celebrity death hoax, but then the terrible news was confirmed. It’s one of those celebrity deaths that you remember when you found out, mostly I think because here was an actor in his prime and headlining Oscar-nominated movies and precedent-setting blockbusters. It felt too soon to be gone. It felt wrong. It’s that grief that the characters of Wakanda Forever are also wrestling over. Reflecting real life, the sequel to 2018’s hit Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) entry elects to have T’Challa (Boseman) pass away in the movie as well, off screen, and from a cause more human than super, dying from a disease. The movie is knowingly channeling our grief for the loss of Boseman into a story about characters also mourning the loss of this good man. This loss hangs over the entire movie and provides it more gravitas and emotional depth it would have had otherwise. Wakanda Forever is a suitably exciting and expansive sequel, especially following the empowering cultural model writer/director Ryan Coogler followed with the first film, but it’s hard not to feel the loss of Boseman, both in presence and in storytelling.

We open with Shuri (Letitia Wright) diligently trying to save her brother’s life only to be out of time. The nation of Wakanda is in full mourning, losing their champion and king. In the wake of this loss, the outside world sees opportunity. Having come out of hiding, Wakanda is being pressured to share its valuable vibranium mineral resources with other nations, and some are eager to take them by force if necessary. This has inadvertently created a gold rush for vibranium, and the C.I.A. has discovered traces of the rare mineral on the ocean floor. This undersea incursion has provoked a heretofore unknown underwater community into action. Namor (Tenoch Huerta) is a super-powered mere mutant, able to fly with tiny wings on his heels, and able to breathe under the sea just like the inhabitants of Talochan. Namor has declared war on the surface world and seeks Wakanda to be an ally, and if not that, then their first conquest.

This is a movie dominated by the women of Wakanda, and they bring the fury. Everyone is processing the loss of T’Challa in different ways. Shuri is rededicating herself to her scientific research, as she blames her brother’s death on her inability to solve his ailment in time. T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), has been appointed leader of Wakanda and must represent her nation’s interests while still grieving for her son. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) has retreated from the larger world of spycraft to open a school in Haiti. Okoye (Danai Gurira) is supposed to be the chief security officer for Wakanda, and she busies herself with new threats and armor rather than dwell on being unable to save her king. Each character feels the weight of the loss and opens up reflections of grief, as each knew T’Challa on a different level: mother, sister, lover, protector. The attention that Coogler allows for their and our grief allows the movie to work on a communal cathartic level (I teared up a few times myself). Wright (Death on the Nile) has some heavyweight emotional moments, and the movie is structured around her path of healing as well as the wayward detour of vengeance and hate. It’s a conclusion that hits upon the expected spectacle of superhero action but hinges upon, foremost, an emotional arc.

Coogler is two-for-two when it comes to creating dynamic, engaging villains who have strong perspectives that cause the heroes to better reflect upon their own roles. Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) is one of the MCU’s best villains, and I think it’s interesting that the first Black Panther ends with the hero realizing the villain’s perspective is right and adjusts from there. With Wakanda Forever, we get Namor protecting his people, and his reasoning sounds a lot like the Wakandan leaders who wished to remain separate from the larger world in the earlier film. The background for Namor is completely rewritten by Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole and for the better. They’ve invigorated the character by attaching a rich Mesoamerican culture to Namor’s people and history. We have another hidden world of minorities that are super-powered and developed beyond the reach of colonialism. The flashback for Namor, dating back to the sixteenth century, is startlingly effective, establishing his strange origins, the great change for his tribe to being sea-dwelling, and what happens when he returns to the surface world to honor his late mother’s funeral wish. When he returns, the Spanish have built plantations and have captured the indigenous into being their chattel. Namor sees this exploitation in the name of a foreign God and swears off the surface world. This cultural angle imbues the character’s focal point but it’s also just plain neat to watch an ancient Mesoamerican culture given the big screen superhero treatment with reverence and awe. By providing a compelling villain, it also makes the emotional stakes more compelling. We’ll likely side with the women of Wakanda, but you might also be rooting for Namor too. I also think it’s fun that the underwater Atlantean prince character for DC and Marvel is portrayed by a Mexican-American actor and a Polynesian actor.

Where the movie doesn’t work as well is with its introduction of Riri Williams (Dominique Thorn, Judas and the Black Messiah) who is the human McGuffin. She’s a brilliant engineer who accidentally discovers a vibranium detection device, but why does nabbing her matter to Namor? With the device already created, the proverbial horse has left the barn. Kidnapping the inventor after her technology has already been utilized seems too late. There’s no real reason she could not be replaced with an inanimate flash drive except that this establishes the character up for her 2023 Disney Plus TV series. It’s this larger corporate portfolio push that I’ve always worried about with each new MCU edition, now 39 in total, that they will be forced to set up future movies and shows at the detriment of telling a focused and satisfying movie. The MCU movies I’ve generally liked the least are the ones that fall under this pressure the most, like Age of Ultron, Iron Man 2, and Multiverse of Madness. I found the character of Riri Williams to be fun, but her inclusion always seemed like a distraction to the larger story. I’m sure you can make thematic connections, a young brilliant black woman finding solace in Wakanda, but if you were looking to trim down an already overlong movie, I think Riri is the easiest to eliminate.

With Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Phase Four of the MCU has officially closed and Phase Five will begin shortly with Ant-Man 3 in February, 2023. In the wake of the conclusion of the multi-phase Infinity series and 2019’s Endgame, this phase felt dominated by closure and exploration. The Disney Plus series provided little conclusive offshoots for many of the original Avengers characters. It’s also been a period of experimentation, with Marvel broadening its tone and scope from martial arts movies, spy thrillers, romantic epics, and familiarizing audiences to the concept of the multiverse with good movies (Spider-Man: No Way Home) and not-so good movies (Doctor Strange 2). And of course Wakanda Forever is the biggest edition yet on fulfilling a sense of closure, though it had never been intended to be before Boseman’s passing. It’s a sturdy sequel with a palpable emotional undercurrent and an engaging villain to boot. I called 2018’s Black Panther as agreeable, mid-tier Marvel entertainment, and I’d say the same for its sequel. However, with Boseman’s passing, it’s naturally elevated. Wakanda Forever is long and overstuffed but also emotional and engrossing and satisfying.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Solaris (2002) [Review Re-View]

Originally released November 27, 2002:

A most amazing thing occurred when I sat down in my theater to watch Steven Soderbergh’s sci-fi remake, Solaris. The majority of the theater was women, no small part I’m sure to George Clooney and the promise to see his posterior not once but twice. As the film progressed I kept hearing the rattling of seats and the exit doors. When the lights came back on more than half my theater had walked out on Solaris. I have never seen this many walk outs for any film before, and if one has to hold this title Solaris certainly does not deserve this dubious honor.

Clooney plays Chris Kelvin, super future psychologist who is struggling to overcome the grief over the suicide of his wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone). Clooney is dispatched to a space station orbiting the mysterious glowing planet Solaris. Seems strange goings on, are, well, going on. When he arrives he finds that the station head has taken his own life and the two remaining crew members on board could use more than a few hugs. Clooney goes to sleep (in a bed resembling bubble-wrap) and is startled awake when his dead wife is suddenly lying right beside him. But is it his wife? Is it merely his memories being recounted? Is it Solaris messing with his gray matter? Does Rheya have consciousness of the past or of her self? What are her thoughts on her new materialization? Good luck Steven Soderbergh, existentialist party of one.

It’s not that Solaris is necessarily a bad film, it’s just that it’s plodding, mechanical and overly ambitious. There are long periods of staring, followed by brief exposition, then more staring, sometimes earnestly but mostly slack-jawed. Solaris is attempting to be an existential meditation on identity and self, but what really occurs is a lot of nothingness. For a movie that was over three hours in its original 1971 Russian conception, and a mere 93 minutes in its slimmer Soderbergh size, I could likely get this movie done in 6 minutes. It could be argued that its arduous pacing amplifies its methodical subject matter but whatever.

Clooney has said in interviews how Solaris was the most challenging role of his career. To this I make a collective noise of disagreement. Clooney turns from grief-stricken to confusion, then back to grief-stricken with nary a line of dialogue. The effect is more dampening than emotional. Clooney’s conscience gets even worse when he banishes New Rheya into the cold vacuum of space then Another Rheya appears the next night. He just can’’t escape this dead woman.

I’m very pleased to see the glassy-eyed, apple-cheeked actress McElhone in movies again. She seemed to be on the cusp of mainstream acceptance after prominent roles in 1998’s Truman Show and Ronin, yet she just disappeared. McElhone is a wonderfully expressive actress and deserves to be a leading lady.

Soderbergh’s take on existential dread could be described as a noble failure. Solaris is the type of overreaching, underachieving film only really talented people could make. And for anyone wanting to leave after the double dose of Clooney’s derriere, they both happen in the first 30 minutes. You can go after that if you so choose.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

I think Steven Soderbergh is the perfect film artist to discuss the topic of the “noble failure.” That’s what I dubbed his remake of Solaris in 2002, and having re-watched it twenty years later I would still concur. Soderbergh is the ultimate idiosyncratic indie auteur who, miraculously, found himself Hollywood success and power. Soderbergh is probably best known for the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy of slick, star-powered heist movies, or his Oscar-winning 2000 movies Traffic and Erin Brockovich. The last time a person scored two Best Director nominations in the same year was 1938 (Michael Curtiz for Angels with Dirty Faces and Four Daughters, if you are dying to know). Soderbergh has never rested on his many laurels, and every new mainstream success inevitably saw the man flirt with new narrative and technical experimentation. It seems like Soderbergh gets restless every so often and needs to find a different reason to excite him about a filmmaking challenge. He made a small indie about workers in a decaying doll factory that was released same day on DVD as it was in theaters. He made a two-movie political epic on the rise and fall of revolutionary Che Guevara to showcase the amazing capabilities RED high-definition digital camera. He created an action vehicle for MMA fighter Gina Carano because he saw a future star-in the-making in her bouts. He filmed a movie entirely on an iPhone camera because he could. He made a movie about male strippers based upon Channing Tatum’s past experiences and it became one of the most successful movies of his career.

In short, Soderbergh is a restless artist who always seems to be trying to challenge himself. However, many of those experiments don’t always work. 2018’s Unsane would have been forgettable minus its iPhone gimmick. 2006’s The Good German would have been forgettable without its pastiche to older Hollywood style. Even when his movies do not fully work, you feel Soderbergh’s passion to experiment and push his boundaries. It’s with this context that I re-watched 2002’s Solaris, based upon the 1972 meditative and melancholic sci-fi movie by Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. It’s amazing to me that Soderbergh, right after his twin Oscar noms and the box-office success of 2001’s Ocean’s Eleven gave him artistic cache, said, “I want to remake a three-hour Russian movie from thirty years ago.” And the studio said, “Oh, well, keep it under 50 million and half as long and we don’t care.” In 2002, Solaris was one of my more memorable theatergoing experiences, as I detailed in my original review. I’ve had walkouts during other divisive movies but nothing like what happened for Solaris. I’m fairly certain it was a matter of the crowd being sold a sci-fi movie with Clooney’s handsome mug, “from the director of Ocean’s Eleven,” and the promise of catching some Clooney rear nudity (12 days prior, the movie had received an R-rating before successfully appealing to a PG-13). They weren’t expecting a very minimalist, cerebral, and slow movie about grief and identity (it got a rare F grade from opening weekend Cinemascore audiences). By the end of the movie, the majority of patrons in my theater had left early. I thought maybe revisiting this movie twenty years later would perhaps allow me to find new artistic merit into this box-office dud. I have not.

There are ideas here worth exploring and unpacking, especially once the main conflict is fully established, namely Clooney’s dead wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone). Why is she coming back is less an interesting question, and thankfully the screenplay by Soderbergh ignores answering. It’s all about the effect it’s having on her husband and whether or not she is who she is. There’s an existential question of whether or not she constitutes living and what aspects do we hold onto to prove we are who we are? Is this the real Rheya, has she been plucked back from an afterlife? Is this a Rheya who has access to her earlier memories? Or is this Rheya merely a composite of her husband’s memories and personal and flawed interpretations? The mind boggles.

It’s that final question that presents the most intriguing exploration, as it presents Rheya less a fully-dimensional character and more a prisoner to her husband’s perspective. His view of Rheya can be biased, flawed, filling in gaps with assumptions and speculations, like his speculation that the real Rheya was so remorseful about aborting her child that she took her own life after being confronted by her husband. This leads the Solaris-rebooted version of Rheya to be more undone by depression and suicidal impulses. I enjoyed this portion because it shifted the criticism onto Clooney who refused to let her be gone. He even plans on taking Rheya back to Earth, even though that might not be possible. Will she evaporate if she gets too far away from the orbit of Solaris? We’ve gone beyond whether or not Rheya is a hallucination because the other crew mates (Jeremy Davies, Viola Davis) see her too. The movie flirts with the confrontation of Clooney’s character’s implicit control, that he’s literally dreaming a version of her for his emotional needs and he doesn’t care whether or not it’s the real Rheya. It begs the question of how well anyone can truly know another person. There will always be some observer distance, unable to fully delve into every hidden quarter of another person’s mind and heart. Clooney accepting his loss would have been a fine ending point, or refusing to, and Solaris does end on a similar downer ending, though with more radiant ambiguity. It’s interesting but it doesn’t really open up thematically or character-wise, keeping Clooney’s mournful space psychologist at a unsatisfying clinical distance. Just because we see moments of characters longing and looking emotionally bereft does not mean we know them. Maybe, in the end, that was Soderbergh’s meta-textual in-movie criticism.

At 93 minutes, there’s not much to Solaris beyond its intriguing questions that feel only fitfully toyed with. There is a lot of empty space here for diving deeper into the characters and the relationships and big questions, but the movie feels too weighed down with its overwrought import. Scenes don’t play out so much as escape from the ponderous atmosphere. There are intriguing questions here but there isn’t enough story material to keep me connected. As a result, I became restless myself, zoning out while I watched a person stare off into the distance for the eleventh time, this time knowing that their internal thinking had to be different, somehow, from the ten other times. It’s a sci-fi movie without big special effects or action sequences. It’s starring George Clooney in, possibly, his most insular, minimalist role of his career. It was never going to be a jaunty crowd-pleaser. I haven’t seen the 1972 Russian movie but given its lengthy running time and the fact that it’s reflective of a Russian cultural experience, I have to assume there is more substance there and an adequate foundation to tease out these questions, but I’m free to admit my assumptions, much like Clooney’s character, could be all wrong.

As for my original review in 2002, I got to hand it to my twenty-year-old self. This is a solid analysis and with some snappy wordplay to boot. I’m impressed by this review. Solaris is another of Soderbergh’s “noble failures,” a project that cannot quite grasp its reach, but I’d rather artists like Soderbergh keep trying and litter the cinema with noble failures than inundate us with the same-old same-old.

Re-View Grade: C+

Don’t Worry Darling (2022)

By now, you’ve likely heard all about the gossip-churning headlines from behind the scenes of Don’t Worry Darling, which eclipsed everything else about the movie and is, sadly, the most interesting thing about an otherwise flawed Stepford Wives retread. There were scandalous rumors of affairs, rumors of actors uncomfortable with affairs, rumors of actors refusing to take part in publicity for the movie, which motivated legions of online super sleuths to analyze every social media missive to the finest point to discover hidden messages and meaning. There was even a point where the Internet debated for a week whether or not Harry Styles actually and actively spit upon Chris Pine at the Venice Film Festival (both actors deny this happening). Looking back, it was a wild time, a bit silly, and far out of proportion for the actual movie we eventually get with Don’t Worry Darling.

Alice (Florence Pugh) is living the perfect 1950s life – OR SO SHE THINKS. Her husband, Jack (Harry Styles), leaves with the other men for work in the desert facility owned by Frank (Chris Pine). The wives of the community diligently tend to the household chores, gossip poolside, and have a full-cooked meal and drink in hand for their returning breadwinners. Alice begins seeing disturbing visions she cannot explain, and another wife (Kiki Layne) starts acting up, trying to warn her, and men in red suits seem to pounce whenever someone steps out of line. It’s a lush suburban community designed by Frank, meant to be the sparkling, hopeful epitome of the American Dream, but it might be a nightmare instead as Alice investigates.

Don’t Worry Darling is a fleetingly entertaining movie with big ideas but it doesn’t know how to handle them and what to say beyond its obvious points. Immediately in the movie, you’ll know something is wrong with this idyllic community. The Stepford Wives is an obvious comparison point, so I kept waiting for the movie to pivot from this predicted influence, to go a separate route or go deeper, making its commentary meaningful for today’s world. Unfortunately, the movie never does move beyond this influence, nor does the movie go deeper than to easily castigate its men for wanting to control their women and remodel them as dutiful, cheerful, robotic housewife throwbacks to the halcyon age of 1950s Boomer nostalgia. It’s all too surface-level for a movie about superficial men wanting to unburden themselves of having to live up to the expectations of women. There’s plenty that could have been said about the pernicious forms of toxic masculinity festering around the darker corners of society and the Internet, the rise of fragile men in the alt-right and incels and trolls, and their angry, entitled, self-loathing feelings toward women projected into harassment. This movie only merely glances at its touchy subject. The commentary is too basic, leveling men want to dominate women and erase their agency and identity for their own satisfaction, the same points from The Stepford Wives in the 1970s, which was a direct response to the feminist movement challenging traditional gender roles in the home. I won’t spoil the exact means of what this false reality is for Alice and the others, but suffice to say, it leaves a lot more questions for me than answers (Has nobody reported any of these women missing? Their friends and family? Why have such potentially deadly stakes? Why would modern men fantasize about six-decade-old Boomer nostalgia?).

In short, this reality is false, and the screenplay by Katie Silberman (Booksmart) and Carey and Shane Van Dyke (The Silence) makes it known immediately, so the story is structured with our foreknowledge in place. It becomes a game of how long before Alice puts together her conclusion and which strings she chooses to pull and what blowback from the established order that demands ignorance and obedience. There just isn’t enough intrigue here. In The Truman Show, the protagonist gradually began to doubt his reality but each suspicious peculiarity added to a better sense of the larger picture, and since it wasn’t until halfway through that we saw “the other side” of Truman’s manufactured world, the audience too was learning about this facade and all the effort to keep it hidden. Don’t Worry Darling has a repeated motif of Alice seeing confusing images of her and the other wives in a stark Bubsy Burkeley-esque musical number, but why? What does this reveal about the inner workings of the reality behind the reality? It’s not even made clear what it relates to literally, so it must be a metaphor, but it’s again too obvious and heavy-handed. I understand all the women are learning and practicing dance, but to what end does this serve? I needed further rules established about this secret society so I had more of an understanding of what was at stake as Alice begins to test her boundaries and put others in danger. The conclusion is also ludicrously short-sighted, just a matter of crossing a magical line, like a kid touching base in tag, and that’s before a segment of self-awakening that made me wonder if Alice had miraculously become Neo. It’s the kind of conclusion that feels way too easy and unfulfilling, attempting a note of “what happens next?” ambiguity but really feeling more unsatisfyingly incomplete and empty.

Even though Don’t Worry Darling is flawed, Wilde’s directing is still an asset. She’s clearly having fun playing in a much different genre than 2019’s Booksmart, and the thriller elements are achieved by the eerie contrasts that Wilde finds to highlight of this hidden prison. The sunny cinematography and retro production design are sharp, and the musical score by John Powell (How to Train Your Dragon) has an off-kilter but electric charge to it, often working in hums and stutters to better accentuate the horror atmosphere creeping into this would-be paradise. Wilde even captures the speeding cars in the desert with a certain thrilling aplomb. Much publicity was made about the portrayal of the sex scenes within Don’t Worry Darling, namely, with a woman behind the camera, that they focus on feminine pleasure, a feature often lacking in a male-dominated field built upon the sizzle of the male gaze. I’ll agree that both scenes put more focus on Alice, also our main character so perhaps there’s that, but knowing the full context of the story, it seems more than a little misguided to purposely emphasize feminine pleasure. Also, it’s hard for me to actually believe these kinds of self-involved, parochial men would prioritize giving pleasure to their partner. This detail seems in conflict with the larger thesis.

Thank goodness for Florence Pugh, a refrain every viewer repeats with every movie co-starring the Oscar-nominated actress. Pugh (Black Widow) ably carries this movie on her back. Her performance has more nuance than the character writing provides, and it’s enjoyable to see her challenge the imposition of authority and push back. It’s yet another emotionally heavy role with several scenes of sobbing and screaming, and Pugh is one of the best actors when it comes to expressing the heights of emotional distress without overdoing it into histrionics. As my wife said by the end of the movie, Pugh deserves to star in a feel-good, chippy rom-com after all the grueling emotional work she’s endured in many of her more prominent roles.

Harry Styles (Dunkirk) doesn’t fare as well, dwarfed by his scene partner. There is one moment where he has an emotional breakdown in his car that is nicely portrayed, a mixture of pity and guilt and pure cowardice, and Styles really nails it. However, his smooth hunky husband persona works well enough, enough so that it’s hard for me to see someone like Shia LeBeouf, who Wilde originally had cast in the role, working as intended considering his more intense presence would make you doubt the man’s intentions almost immediately. I wish somebody gave Chris Pine more to do in this other than smugly smirk in the background (admittedly his “being in the background” of one scene was an uncomfortable oddity that demanded further exploration).

There are things that genuinely work with Don’t Worry Darling, moments that dazzle and excite, technical elements that elevate the material, and performances that stick, but it all comes down to a disappointing and underdeveloped script that cannot figure out what to do with its messy themes. It’s too obvious where the movie is headed given its heavy thematic similarities to The Stepford Wives, but it could have taken that familiarity and reapplied it to today’s Internet-age misogyny preying upon female autonomy, but it doesn’t. It could have also fleshed out the particulars of its fraying world-within-a-world to better feel complete and intriguing and meaningful, but it doesn’t. It could have presented a compelling hero’s journey of Alice pushing back against formidable opponents, but it doesn’t do that. It could dress down these bad men and make them account for their misdeeds, but it doesn’t really. It’s a mystery with an all-too obvious answer, with the exception of the exact circumstances behind the pretty facade, and not enough substance and commentary that pushes beyond simple social moralizing. I guess ultimately the movie is much like its own gilded reality: pretty to look at but lacking much below the surface.

Nate’s Grade: C

Nope (2022)

Within two movies, and most likely just with his first in 2017, Jordan Peele catapulted himself as a brand name in the world of horror. At this point, you’ll see a Peele horror movie sight unseen because you know what you’re getting is going to be a unique experience. There are plenty of modern horror directors that have built a rabid fandom, like Ari Aster or James Wan, but nobody seems to be given the same platform as Peele has earned at this juncture. The writer/director has become what M. Night Shyamalan used to exhibit, the director whose creative visions were each highly anticipated event movies. Nope is Peele’s first foray into science fiction territory and the results are messy, disturbing, and, at points, astounding.

The Haywood family ranch has been involved in the motion picture industry since its very beginning. One of the first film images, a black man astride a horse, was the great-great-great grandfather of Emerald (Keke Palmer) and Otis Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya). The brother and sister are trying to save the family ranch after the untimely and strange passing of their father (Keith David) who was felled by debris falling from the sky. Their neighbor, Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), is spinning his notoriety as a child actor into a Western theme park attraction. Ricky’s claim to fame was being one of two survivors of a 1990s sitcom where the trained chimpanzee, who in the context of the show was his adopted sibling, snapped and went on a killing spree. Emerald and Otis Jr. begin to suspect that there is a real unidentified flying object hanging over their land, so they set out to capture living proof and become rich and famous. The alien, hiding in an unmoving cloud over the course of six months, has other plans and intends to assert its claim on the Haywood territory.

Peele is proving himself more and more as a major director of genre spectacle and vision. Each of his three directorial efforts will hit people differently; I think they’ve incrementally gotten a little sloppier in the writing department, but Peele is only growing stronger as a visual stylist and orchestrator of big screen spookery. There is a grandeur to the visual arrangements, owing as much to the expansive language of Westerns and the awe of early Steven Spielberg. I wish I had seen the movie in IMAX as Peele intended, since he went to all the trouble of planning specific sequences for the grand IMAX cameras. There are several moments that are jaw-dropping and stirring in horror and wonder. A literal rain of blood and viscera and expelled non-organic items is a striking image. Even the unnatural way that helpless people are thrown off the ground can be jolting and primal. There’s a claustrophobic interior sequence of desperate people that really conveys the terror of the doomed. A big addition to the eerie atmosphere is the brilliant sound design. The otherworldly-ness of the alien encounters is heightened by a really in-depth sound design that can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand at attention. Even the sound of rain, and its distance, can be an indicator of the proximity of danger. There are also the distant sounds of horrible screams circling through the clouds high above, and it’s a deeply unsettling design trick that works every time. Even when the movie wasn’t quite as engaging from a narrative or thematic standpoint, Nope is always engaging on a simple delivery system of spectacle. The way Peele distributes his visual clues and keys, sometimes literally, always provides something for an audience to anticipate.

I was also starting to grow impatient from Peele’s coy narrative games. The plot moves in frustrating starts and stops, teasing an intriguing development or proffering a question and then skipping backwards, denying the viewer a sense of gathering momentum. There’s a toying sense of teasing out how far he can go before an audience gets too impatient and quits. Much of the first half also takes place during night or sequences of sustained darkness, which can definitely play into the the fear of what could be in those shadows, but it makes for a fitfully frustrating experience when you’re trying to unravel a science fiction mystery. I kept wondering how all these pieces were going to come together, especially the ongoing subplot about this killer chimpanzee, but I had faith in Peele (mostly). That faith was rewarded but I’ll admit for the first hour I was wondering if Peele was too evasive for his own good.

Nope begins as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and then transitions into Jaws and stays there, and it was during the second half that my interest magnified exponentially. It’s around the hour mark that the movie finally puts all its cards on the table and declares what it is and what the remaining movie is going to be about. All the stutter steps and vagaries are cast aside, and the movie finally shifts into its grand entertainment of a group of humans learning about an overwhelming and unusual threat and plotting their unorthodox plan of attack. I’ll still try and play around spoilers without getting too deep into specifics. It’s a great relief when Peele no longer has to tease his threads and mysteries and can at last be open and let the conflicting components come together. The annoyances I felt in the first half melted away, and I was satisfied as the movie picked up a genuine momentum and smartly tied in many prior plot elements for the bigger picture, like the inflatable tube men, old timey picture-taking souvenir machines, and even the very vague almost carwash-esque imagery from the opening credits. The second half of the movie is more fun because it’s a big hunt and it allows our characters to make use of what they have learned to form conclusions and strategic moves and adjustments. It’s characters making smart decisions. It’s a scenario that finally allows Peele to finally play with all the setups he’s spent an hour cheekily hiding around.

While the climax is great, and the movie gets consistently better, I don’t feel like all of its many thematic ties come together. Being a Jordan Peele horror movie, we’re now expecting there to be extra layers of social-political commentary and allegories. The back-story for Ricky as a child actor is given a lot of attention and screen time for a two-hour movie, and I don’t know if what it adds up to is equal to the time it was given. Thematically, you can make some speculative reaching about the exploitation of animals for spectacle, about underestimating and not respecting nature, and even setting up for later tragedy, but it all seems less meaningfully integrated than any other Peele movies’ elevated subplots. With the Ricky back-story, there is even a literal anticipation of a literal shoe to drop, which seems so obvious as a visual metaphor but I cannot link it directly with what follows. I can keep digging and find connections but it requires far more effort than Peele’s other works of horror. The family history of working for Hollywood as horse wranglers feels underdeveloped. There are also rules that it establishes that Peele isn’t fully consistent (just don’t look?) that left me questioning. I figured that colonialism would be an obvious parallel with invading aliens (H.G. Welles even made use of the analogy 120 years ago), but maybe that was too obvious territory for someone like Peele. My friend Ben had a crazy early theory that the aliens themselves would resemble horses and thus they were returning to free their equine brothers and sisters from human exploitation. I guess I’ll go ahead and spoil you, dear reader, that this does not happen in any shape with Nope.

I’d rank Nope the third best Jordan Peele horror venture, and while it clearly makes use of science fiction concepts and its rich iconography, it’s still very firmly a movie rooted in horror, the horror of the unknown, the horror of being small and helpless, the horror of being left behind. Not all of Nope’s many ambitions quite land, and the themes feel a bit more jumbled or underdeveloped, but I want Jordan Peele to continue making the movies he wants on his terms. Not every one is going to hit exactly the same for me, or for any viewer, but we’re all better when unique artists like Peele are given the latitude and support to bring their personal visions to the big screen. As long as he’s still achieving a baseline of quality, something that befell the middle Shyamalan period, then I say swing away and let’s see where you’ll take us all next, Jordan Peele.

Nate’s Grade: B

S1mone (2002) [Review Re-View]

Originally released August 23, 2002:

Director Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) needs a hit. His new movie is in the can but his temperamental star (Wynona Ryder in a juicy cameo) pulls out and demands all footage of her be left on the cutting room floor. The studio is close to dropping Taransky’s film deal, and the studio head just happens to be Taransky’s ex-wife (Catherine Keener).

Under this intense pressure Taransky retreats to mourn his failed potential, until an eccentric one-eyed computer engineer gives him the key to his solution. It seems that instead of interacting with actors and their egos and trailer demands, Taransky has found a new movie star — one completely made up of ones and zeroes named Simone. Taransky edits Simone into his film and soon after the nation is in love with the digital blonde. Simone mania sweeps the nation and soon her smiling image graces all sorts of memorabilia. The public can’t get enough of the mysterious Simone who never goes to public functions and only seems to speak or appear for Taransky.

Writer/director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) has some fun with the premise but tries to have his cake and eat it too when it comes to his satire. S1mone starts out satirizing egotistical stars, then the Hollywood system, then the press, then the public as star worshipers. The movie is all over the map trying to have something witty to say about all these different topics but is too busy to settle down on any one for a while. The satire S1mone embodies feels deflated from all the work it’s trying to do.

Pacino has always been able to do comedy but seems wearier than ever. He indulges in his comic like over-the-top aggression he’s been doing since Dick Tracy. Keener plays another of her icy businesswomen roles although she thaws quite easily and quickly in the film.

There’s a rather funny subplot involving Pruitt Taylor Vince and Jason Schwartzman as tabloid reporters on the prowl of the elusive Simone that deserves much more attention than it gets. The bulk of the movie could have been these two entertaining characters.

When Taransky finds that his creation has become more than he can handle he tries to discredit her through a series of funny public appearances and avante garde film choices. But then S1mone sadly goes back to its more mediocre roots. Taransky tries to get rid of Simone but it all horribly backfires.

As the film progresses you start to realize all the gaping holes that come up – like how can Taransky, a self-described computer illiterate, handle the most technical computer program of all time? How come no one would find out that Simone lacks a birth certificate, social security number or even tax records for her studio work? And why does the audience have to sit through the disgustingly cute daughter of Taransky and Keener, who just happens to be a computer whiz-kid, besides the fact she’ll have a late fourth quarter save of dad?

It’s not that S1mone is necessarily a bad film; it just has this missing piece to it when you watch it. Some scenes are funny, many drag, and the whole thing needed to be tighter and punchier. And to clear up any confusion, it is indeed an ACTRESS who plays Simone. Her name is Rachel Roberts.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

I cannot stand movie titles that try and force numbers into the place of letters. Don’t be Fant4stick, be Fantastic Four. Don’t be Thir13en Ghosts, be Thirteen Ghosts. Don’t be L4yer Cak3, be Layer Cake. Even one of my favorite movies of all time, Se7en, is guilty of this. I hate the implication of how you’re intended to say the new forced titled (Examples: Fant-Four-Stick, L-Four-Yer Cak-Three, Se-Seven-En). I find this all to be annoying, and I refuse to type S1mone as it was originally entitled, with a one replacing the “I” and a zero replacing the “O.” You get one number, that’s it, because it’s all my power to only do that much. End of re-view preface.

I thought going back to 2002’s S1mone could be interesting considering it was about cutting-edge technology possibly replacing actors and revolutionizing the film industry. Around 2001, with advancing special effects starting to touch the possibility of photo realism, this seemed like a possible turning point. Writer/director Andrew Niccol even considered using an all-digital actress for the title role of his industry satire after viewing footage of 2001’s Final Fantasy movie. He eventually decided against it, and we’re all the better for it because imagine re-watching this movie with twenty-year-old technology that fools the entire world into thinking Simone is real (cue teenage snickering). The character was played by model-turned-actress Rachel Roberts and her identity was kept a big secret around the time of the movie to keep the illusion that S1mone was cutting-edge technology. It’s ultimately proof that the real thing, whether that’s practical in-camera effects or even live actors, will always age better and have a place in moviemaking. As I said revisiting Final Fantasy: “Beyond the complexity that real actors can bring to performances, there’s the ease and cost that cannot be beat by a computer. Maybe in time this will change but for now rest easy Tom Hanks. You’re not going anywhere.” But hey, Roberts and Niccol have been married since 2002 and have two children together, so at least something came out of S1mone besides a title that causes me pain to type.

The big problem I have with S1mone, besides its title spelling, is that its satire with no bite, and its chosen point of view is actually the villain. First, this movie just isn’t funny. I was more charitable when I originally reviewed it back in 2002 but I didn’t laugh once throughout the near two hours. It weirdly feels absent much in the way of social commentary. Simone is an instant star and everyone falls in love with her. There’s a beginning entry into commentary when her creator, Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino), attempts to sully her image but only proves to make her more popular, but then that’s it. There’s a goofy, near-farcical quality to Taransky trying to hide the pretend nature of the world’s most desired actor. He even drives a car while operating a mannequin to provide cover. If Niccol wanted to really push this angle, there would be considerably more challenges for Taransky to maintain his illusion, getting more and more outrageous like steam building to a blowup. It’s not that this doesn’t happen but that Niccol’s screenplay makes it so absurdly easy for Taransky. He dictates that Simone wishes for her privacy and occasionally leaves behind some detritus of human life and that’s all it takes to establish a convincing existence. Nobody challenges him, at least not in a serious manner, which negates the conflicts and possible comedy of keeping the farce. Everything comes so easily and it makes the ensuring comedy barely explored if evident.

Another major drawback is that Taransky is the villain but the movie thinks otherwise. He’s sick and tired of the demands of actors. He has his complaints about working within the contradictory Hollywood studio system, but his major gripe is with working with actors. When the possibility of a photo-realistic replacement that will do whatever he says is offered, he snatches it. It’s because Viktor doesn’t view actors as people, and he feels the need to control and not to collaborate. He’s an artist with a capital-A but it’s the actors with their unwieldy egos, of course. It’s even more nefarious when you add an icky layer of misogyny to his actions. He wants a young woman who will do anything and everything he demands for his pictures. When the studio boss questions the extensive level of nudity for his next movie, Taransky says Simone will do it without hesitation because that’s what the role requires to accomplish his true vision. All he wants is a living doll to respond to his button-pushing without reserve or complaint. He wants an actor, and especially a woman of conventional attraction, to do his every selfish bidding.

At no point does the movie present our hero’s actions as being questionable or possessive. For him, all actors should just be replaced with ones and zeroes that will do whatever he wants, even nudity, and his perspective is strangely rewarded given Simone’s instant success within the industry. She literally ties with herself for the Best Actress Oscar. There may be a satirical commentary available about how quickly the public falls in love with their oblivious perception of celebrity, and how little they actually know the person behind the headlines, much like all celebrities of old and new, but the thematic work isn’t there. I kept waiting for Viktor to earn his delayed comeuppance, humility, or at least learn something of value, but through this misadventure he’s able to relaunch his career and even get his ex-wife back, so hooray?

This is also a peculiar outlier for Niccol as both a screenwriter and a director. He favors high-concept sci-fi scenarios, like 1997’s genetic have/have nots allegory, Gattaca, or 1998’s reality TV gone to its extremes drama, The Truman Show. 2005’s Lord of War is a powerful and slickly stylish condemnation on the global impact of arms dealers and gun trafficking and the bloody footprint of capitalism. S1mone is the lightest movie of the man’s career. Maybe he wanted a break from working on high-concept studio releases. 2011’s disappointing In Time likely lead him to a safer studio territory of adapting and directing 2013’s The Host based upon the YA novel by Twilight author Stephenie Meyer. I didn’t even know that Niccol has made two other movies since, 2014’s Good Kill and 2018’s Anon on Netflix. He’s listed as being the screenwriter for a 2027 Monopoly adaptation, so that could be a thing. Niccol is the kind of storyteller I want more often, a man with clear visions and ideas, but S1mone proves that he’s best suited for headier realms. Comedy is not the best fit for this man’s talents (I think we’re supposed to laugh at the very image of Pacino applying lipstick to kiss autograph photos).

Is there anything of entertainment value here? There are ideas that could work with more attention and development. I liked the team of Pruitt Taylor Vince and Jason Schwartzman as investigators tracking down the pieces that don’t quite add up about Simone. I think there was a real opportunity to deconstruct the star-system of Hollywood and have Taransky finally able to launch his true artistic pursuits that had previously been denied without Simone’s attachment. Perhaps the movie just narrows completely to the window of Taransky making his dream project while maintaining his deep secret. Perhaps even make the movie a mockumentary, like the documentary camera crew has discovered this amazing fact and are promised continued access as long as they can help keep the secret for like two years, enough for the director to see his vision through and then use this as his swan song. Then the movie becomes focused on the mishaps and chaotic complications of getting one project off the ground while having asides that can tweak the egos of actors and producers and studio suits eager to work with the next big thing. I think that would have been an improvement over a movie where an aging director gets his groove back by fooling the world and suffers next to nothing in the process. The climax is low stakes just like the rest of the movie because the protagonist gets everything he desires with minimal effort. S1mone is an intriguing idea of movie that suffers from misapplication, under development, and a bad protagonist to celebrate and reward.

My initial review in 2002 was too kind. There’s too little below these ones and zeroes to count.

Re-View Grade: C-

Prey (2022)

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+

Lightyear (2022)/ Luck (2022)

After two years and three movies sent straight to Disney’s burgeoning streaming service, Pixar returns with a theatrical movie that taps back to the very beginnings of this storied storytelling company. We’re told, via opening text, that Lightyear was Andy’s favorite movie and thus the reason he was so excited to bring home a Buzz Lightyear action figure in the first Toy Story. However, if this is Andy’s “favorite movie,” then this kid needs to be exposed to more movies. It’s an acceptable sci-fi story about Buzz (voiced by Chris Evans) learning the value of others and that being vulnerable is not the same as being weak. He’s a space ranger stranded on an alien world. Every time he attempts to restart their fuel system, it jumps him forward in time four years, and soon enough he’s a man out of time and those stranded have built a colony civilization over 100 years. There’s a band of misfits, who aren’t terribly funny, and some laser fights and action sequences, which aren’t terribly exciting, and the third act twist is predictable. The animation is top-notch, but the storytelling is definitely a few notches below infinity and beyond. What astounds me is that Andy could watch this movie and want a Buzz toy instead of the real breakout, the robotic cat Sox (voiced by Peter Sohn) who is wonderfully droll. I cannot fathom anyone watching this movie and desiring owning another character above this delightful supporting character. This movie makes me think a little less of Andy as a discerning arbiter of pop-culture zeitgeist. Lightyear is fine as escapist entertainment but too facile and inessential to the Toy Story universe.

Luck is the first animated feature from Skydance, a production company that entered the animated realm by hiring former Pixar head John Lasseter as their chief creative executive. In some ways, Luck feels reminiscent of early Pixar movies, exploring the “secret life of” those in charge of dictating the forces of luck. The problem with Luck is that it is overwritten and overburdened with world building that crushes the emotional core. We follow a young woman aging out of the foster system and she’s been besieged with bad luck all her life. She follows a talking cat and discovers a hidden world where workers mine luck crystals and have lucky pennies as portal generators and there’s a dragon, for some reason, as the CEO of Good Luck, and to get back home she needs to team up with the cat to find a thing, but to find that thing they need to go to a place, but to go to that place they need to – and you get it. The plot is overworked with a chain of tasks that explain more of this world’s mechanics without connecting to the emotional journey of the character, like in 2015’s Inside Out. I was amazed that this woman lacks even a shred of bitterness about her own trenchant bad luck. There’s a nice message about accepting the bad with the good in life, and how both are opportunities for growth, but I kept wondering why our hero didn’t once lash out at those responsible. I’m also a little hesitant about using whether a little girl will be stood up by her potential new foster family as the stakes of completing the good luck reset goal. That seems pretty heavy for wackiness. The animation isn’t quite at the level of Pixar, or the best of Dreamworks, but it’s colorful and bright even if lacking more advanced lighting and texture. Luck lacks enough gravitas and development to really appeal to adults but it’s also probably too busy and convoluted to entertain small kids.

Nate’s Grades:

Lightyear: B-

Luck: C+

Thor: Love and Thunder (2022)

Thor: Love and Thunder reminds me a lot of Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2, admittedly a film I’ve come more around on since my initial viewing in 2017. When Ragnarok was released later that same year, it was an irreverent blast, a breath of fresh air for a franchise that didn’t really know what to do with its hero, and under director Taika Waititi’s sensibility, the character had new, witty life. A similar response occurred with the original Guardians of the Galaxy as the world fell in love with the offbeat characters and storytelling and style from writer/director James Gunn. Before 2014, we didn’t know what to expect with a Guardians movie. When the sequel was released, we had a template of expectations, and the follow-up didn’t feel quite so fresh, quite so lively, and falling back on repeating too many of the same moments or jokes because it’s what was expected. It felt a bit burdened with the creative shackles of upholding these expectations. The same feeling of same-ness permeates Love and Thunder, and to be fair that’s also because the success of Ragnarok raised our expectations for a Waititi MCU movie.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is trying to find his way after the events of 2019’s Endgame. He’s gotten in shape, spent some time palling around with the Guardians of the Galaxy (returning in 2023!), and reconnected with the love of his life, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). She’s been chosen by Thor’s old broken hammer to be its new wielder, granting her superhero status. Except in her human status, she’s dying from stage four cancer. Just as Jane comes back into his life, Thor might have to come to terms with losing her all over again.

This movie just doesn’t feel like it has the same natural prankish energy of Ragnarok, though part of this again might be myself acclimating to Waititi as a filmmaker and storyteller. Prior to Ragnarok I had only known him for the delightful vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, and since Ragnarok Waititi has become his own industry, winning a screenwriting Oscar, lending his name and acting to hit TV shows, including a version of What We Do in the Shadows, and even Disney wants his mark on Star Wars. In short, the man is everywhere. In 2022, we now have a much better idea of what to expect from a typical Waititi project. Love and Thunder is recognizable to the man’s omnipresent brand, and still a fun movie with some solid gags, but it also feels a bit sloppy and repetitive.

I kept thinking about all the powerful dramatic potential in the different storylines that are barely explored because the driving plot is a universe-hopping caper to save a bunch of kidnapped children (yes, the children represent something, the next generation, renewal, legacy, but let’s carry on). Tackle the pathos of Jane Foster, who in her normal human state has her body betraying her. She feels weak and incapable of the greatness she feels burdened to still accomplish with her declining time. With the power of Thor, she becomes a superhero, and with super swole arms. However, this power trip also has its own ironic downside. Every time she powers up, the magic hammer is actually draining more of her life force, meaning she’s actually speeding up her terminal illness. Here is a character given a dire situation and an escape and yet that escape only worsens the illness. There’s such powerful drama there to explore as she comes to terms with how to spend her final moments, among them reconnecting with her super ex-boyfriend. This could have sufficed as the entire movie and told from her perspective.

Then there’s Gorr the God Butcher, gloriously played by Christian Bale like he’s in a James Wan horror movie. Here is another example where the villain doesn’t just have a sympathetic back-story but where they are correct in their aims, though maybe not in their methods (think Killmonger arguing Wakanda should do more). Gorr is tired of the gods crushing the little guy with their general entitlement, indifference, and selfishness. These fancy deities aren’t worthy of worship. The power structure needs upending. It’s easy to get behind Gorr’s plight and see connections to our own imbalanced world. This too could have sufficed as the entire movie and told from his perspective. Now, things could have gotten even more interesting and complicated for Jane, because she’s not officially a god unless she’s yielding Thor’s hammer and joins those rarefied ranks. It would pose another question of whether wielding this power would be worth her remaining time, especially with a heat-seeking missile coming for her on a righteous quest of vengeance that is slowly eating him alive. Both are dying but can they fulfill their goals?

If these storylines had been given careful development and the necessary time to breathe, Love and Thunder could have been one of the most interesting movies in the ever-expanding MCU cannon. Instead, it’s galloping to work so hard to stick to the Waititi brand expectations, to reignite our feelings of Ragnarok, and so these promising elements ultimately get shortchanged by hit-or-miss comedy bits. I liked several of them even despite myself. The set piece where Thor and Jane and friends travel to Omnipotence City has such imaginative heights. Russell Crowe is having a grand time as a hilarious Greek caricature of Zeus that is more concerned about the upcoming company orgy and brushing feta crumbles from his beard. I loved the almost Lego Movie-esque zany sight gags of the cohabitation of gods from different religions (Korg’s god sits on an iron throne of scissors, its own visual joke). It’s such a fascinating concept that I wish we could have spent even more time here. Let’s see the Egyptian gods mingling with the Sumerian gods while pranking some weird alien deity. The set piece serves two narrative purposes: gathering a powerful magic weapon, and learning the gods are sitting out the battle with Gorr for their own short-sighted self-preservation. It’s mostly a pit stop. Again, there was more pathos that could have been explored here as people meet gods, but this is my cross to bear. The general banter is amusing and has more hits than misses even if the hit percentage is lower. I laughed every time the magic axe would silently pop onscreen in jealous judgement. I even enjoyed the screaming goats even though from their first moment they are the exact same joke. Regardless, whenever Thor and company would travel to a new place and I heard that familiar goat scream, it would make me giggle despite my reservations.

I also had my qualms with the concept of Eternity, a magical place located at the center of the universe but destined to grant a wish to whomever gets there first. It’s too transparent as a plot device and its very existence this far into the MCU creates too many nagging questions. In the history of the universe, no other creature successfully reached this wish-granting locale? And if this existed at least to Thor’s understanding, then why didn’t the characters think about this as an option to thwart Thanos and his universe-halving finger snap? I know the answer, because it wasn’t written into a movie until now, but this is the drawback of throwing ultimate power plot devices without more careful context. Eternity could have been a secret just to the inner circle of the famous gods, unknown to all but a few, but even that strains some credulity. If Zeus is such a carousing hedonist of legendary status, I’m sure he would have either blabber-mouthed its existence or sought it ought for his own gain. I genuinely liked the set piece at Eternity, a small planet that sucks all color from existence, making the imagery even more striking like the inky panels of a comic. The same question happens when Thor shares his power late in the movie. Couldn’t the Avengers have used this too?

I fully acknowledge that my criticisms are butting against the movie Waititi wanted to tell. I’m pushing for its inherent dramatic potential while it wants to be a more comic and romantic adventure about the power of love. I think by the end it gets there, and the dramatic confrontations have some emotional weight to them, especially about the idea of what we leave behind for others after we’re gone. Although, even this is mitigated by the general stakes-lowering reality that death never seems so permanent in the world of comics and monetarily useful IP. It’s a joke how many times Loki has been brought back from the dead and Thor doesn’t even know that his trickster brother has been brought back from the dead again (again again). We’ve now established time travel and an emphasis on the multiverse of alternate universes, which means at a moment’s notice, any meaningful death or sacrifice has the possibility of being undone. This is also the reality of a moneymaking machine that has dominated the movies and pop-culture landscape for 14 years. No death is ever going to be for real in this environment so why should I put so much emphasis on the dramatic potential of what losing a loved one, or your sense of self, can have? I can sit back and enjoy the lesser, but still enjoyable, Waititi quirk on display for two hours of silly.

Hemsworth (Spiderhead) is so sharply skilled at comedy that I feign to remember his previous existence as a dramatic actor. He’s still on the same sublime, charismatic yet blithely self-effacing vibe he was with Ragnarok. Portman (Annihilation) comes back after close to a decade for a clear reason to leave her mark on what had been an otherwise forgettable character and giving her a renewed sense of power and direction and agency. Bale (Ford v. Ferrari), as mentioned, is fantastic. I appreciate that his character isn’t physically huge and bulky. He looks quite the opposite, like he’s wasting away, like somebody slathered an ashy coat of paint from living-skeleton Bale after The Machinist (yes, also the obvious Voldermort comparison). He is relishing every teeth-stained syllable as a nightmare creature living from the shadows. The prologue with his character is heartbreaking and yet understated (and truth be told, having young children in my household, it hit me more personally), and I turned to my fiancé and said, “I’m supposed to not like this guy?” I wish the opening credits were then a montage of Gorr seeking and slaying wicked gods. Bale is playing his role like he’s definitely not in a Waititi movie about goofy screaming goats; he’s playing Gorr like a tragic hero of myth. This is why I would have been happy had the whole movie been told from his perspective. The new characters from Ragnarok suffer the most and become sidelined as “Others Along on the Quest.” For Korg, this is fine, but for Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, I mourn her absence. Also, both characters are definitively queer now, though Korg might be more a question, making Love and Thunder the gayest movie in the MCU, and just after Pride Month, so take that for what you will, folks.

As a fun matinee, Love and Thunder will amuse and brighten, even if its comedy highs don’t quite hit as high this time under the burden of franchise expectations. Love and Thunder is a movie that will be best known for Portman and Bale, both of whom elevate the scattershot material with their dedication and professionalism. It might even be known for Crowe’s hammy scene-stealing, or the super-powered cadre of cute kiddos, or even the screaming goats. It’s a movie more of moments and ideas, too many underdeveloped or lacking the gravitas they deserve, especially concerning Jane and Gorr. I feel like a grump bemoaning that the big superhero movie should have more time spent on a woman contemplating her own existential demise as well as man’s relationship and fealty to our gods. Still, it’s Waititi doing his signature brand of quirk with $200 million of house money from Disney. Thor: Love and Thunder is a lesson in diminished returns but when you have Ragnarok as your starting point, it’s at least guaranteed to still be worth your two hours once and deliver some chuckles and smiles.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Jurassic World: Dominion (2022)

Jurassic World: Dominion has received, by far, the worst reviews and reception of the six-film franchise that has taught us the valuable life lesson that dinosaurs will eat people. Director Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World) is back though he remained a screenwriter for the entire World trilogy along with Derek Connolly (Safety Not Guaranteed). It’s also bringing the band back together by including Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum as their beloved original trilogy characters (there’s also B.D. Wong, again, if that does anything for ya). I’ve delayed seeing the movie because of my own sense of caution and resignation. Is it as bad as feared?

It’s years after dinosaurs have become reintegrated into the human world. Owen (Chris Pratt) and Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) are living out West together with the clone girl from 2018’s Fallen Kingdom. He’s lassoing wild dinos and she’s breaking them out of illegal testing sites. The BioSyn CEO (modeled after Apple’s Tim Cook, here played by Campbell Scott) has big plans for… world domination? It’s actually unclear besides general profit. The evil businessman hires kidnappers to abscond with the little clone girl, the baby dinosaur to Blue, America’s favorite family-friendly raptor, and for good measure, he’s also unleashing swarms of killer locusts. Owen and Claire are hopping the world to find their missing family (Owen promises the raptor he will return her baby) and uncover yet another evil scheme from an evil rich person.

There is a lot going on with Jurassic World: Dominion and yet so little is happening, at least from an intellectual standpoint. This feels like three different movies inartly slammed together and it is overstuffed with subplots all competing for screen time, so every few minutes feels like a possible off-ramp for another episode of what the opening concept portends. The concept of a world where humans are forced to co-exist with dinosaurs is a genuinely exciting starting point, and it’s a Jurassic movie I would want to see, and I do… for a montage to open and close the movie. It’s a shame that the most interesting part of this movie, the global acclimation of creatures of an older millennium rejoining our ecosystem, is kept as literal background. I suppose by the end nature just took care of itself. Instead, the majority of the movie is split between two less engaging stories: giant locusts and a rich guy’s private dino enclosure. Yes, dear reader, you read that correctly. After five movies of dinosaurs in parks, where we begin with dinosaurs in the real world, it’s back to spending time in another glorified dino park, and would you believe that something goes wrong at this park too? Why even bother setting up an exciting premise if it’s abandoned so completely? The movie we do get is a lesson in diminished returns and accepting disappointment. This feels more like a giant locust movie for half, about a villainous corporation weaponizing genetically modified plagues to kill their competitors’ stock. It’s certainly something that seems plausible for a massive corporation, but what is this doing in my Jurassic World movie? Why did we need another blankly evil CEO, this time the guy who appeared in one scene in Jurassic Park, as if that mattered? Why do we need more extraneous characters taking away oxygen from the legacy characters returning especially when they seem too similar to the already established characters? Why should I care about three dinosaurs fighting at the end like I’m personally invested in any of these creatures? My sadness manifested watching this franchise descend into even more farcical dumb blockbuster nonsense.

The best part of this movie might actually be its most ridiculous. There’s a mid-movie set piece where our heroes infiltrate an underground dinosaur fighting ring in Malta. That’s cool, and we’re introduced into new secondary villains we can enjoy get their just desserts once the dinosaurs inevitably get set loose. The lead trafficking lady says the raptors have been trained to kill anything that she shines a laser pointer on, which was also introduced in the last film. She targets Claire and then it becomes a foot chase between Claire and a determined raptor. It’s a silly excuse for a chase but it has an extra sense of urgency. It’s also completely ridiculous and ridiculously fun. Claire transforms immediately into Jason Bourne and is leaping from rooftop to rooftop and crashing through windows. Owen is riding a motorcycle through the narrow streets while being chased himself. It’s all action movie pablum and it works for what it is in the moment. Treverrow’s action set pieces have some moments that pop, especially Claire cautiously slipping into a pond to escape a supposedly blind dinosaur. There are even dinosaurs with feathers now. Alas, the movie can only work as dumb fun for so long before it just becomes infinitely more of the latter.

There are so many moments on repeat here that Dominion feels like it’s stitched together like another genetically modified dinosaur clumsily patched with parts of the franchise’s past. Oh, and you better believe we’re going three movies in a row with a new genetically-modified super monster to better sell toys (at least this one isn’t stated as being part raptor). The appeal of this movie, besides the concept abandoned above that I mentioned, is the old characters coming back together, even though Goldblum and Neill each headlined a Jurassic sequel. This action is also a tacit condemnation of the investment in the new trilogy’s main characters. I doubt anyone is going to say, “Wait, Owen Grady and Claire Dearing are back for another movie? Count me in.” I bet most people didn’t even remember either of their names. But if we’re bringing back important characters of franchise past, let’s give them something important to do. They get into danger and scrapes but it’s also always with a wink and a nod that is grating. Goldblum gets to wave his arms around to distract like he did in Jurassic Park. Dern gets to cuddle a triceratops like she did in Jurassic Park. Even Neill features in a dangerous teetering automobile like he did in Jurassic Park. The contrivances to get them all in the movie were already there, but then you give them little to do other than go through the motions of their past (I will always demand more Goldblum time). There are certain dinosaurs reappearing to hit that nostalgia button. It’s the poison-spewing dinos, the ones that blinded and killed Nedry (Wayne Knight), and they’re back, except they can also have their mouth grabbed shut in the most unintentionally hilarious moment. Why even bring back an evil CEO barely mentioned in 1993? Do we need that strained connection for a role recast because the original actor is in jail for assaulting a minor? It’s an excellent example of losing track of the appeal of nostalgia by metric volume.

As far as I’m concerned, that little clone girl, a.k.a. Maisie (Isabella Sermon), is responsible for all the pain and suffering in the world because of deadly dinosaurs. At the end of Fallen Kingdom, this little kid single-handedly rescues the dinosaurs from extinction because, as she said, “They’re alive, like me.” I guess her reasoning is they weren’t supposed to exist, but they do, so we should value life. The problem with that occurs when that creature also happens to be a predator. I would have loved Dominion to explain why Maisie is living in an isolated cabin is because she’s the world’s most wanted person, as mobs of victims blame her for their loved ones dying at the hands, feet, and claws of dinosaur mayhem. The world is in chaos because of this little kid’s rash decision. This cloned girl storyline was the worst part of Fallen Kingdom and now she gets to be the worst part of Dominion as well. Her entire presence is once again as a plot device. I guess she served a purpose as her realization over her identity lead to her decision to save the poor dinosaurs, but here she’s a literal savior cure with legs. Apparently, the reason why the big bad corporation kidnaps her, along with baby Blue, is because her DNA is the key to eradicating genetic disorders. Fortunately, you only need some blood or saliva for a DNA sample and kidnapping seems like overkill. You could have just asked her nicely for a sample, fellas.

Why would this gesture work on other dinosaurs?

However, the dumbest aspect of this requires some sticky spoilers discussion, so you have been warned. Maisie was the grandchild of Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), a retcon character to elbow in another rich co-founder of Jurassic Park that we just never heard about until the fifth movie. Except she was really his daughter but as a clone. Well now we get even more retconning because Maisie’s mom, herself, gave birth to her… self. The adult Maisie impregnated herself with her own clone (because this was the easiest way to have a child?) but she’s also genetically modified her DNA to exclude a terminal disorder killing the adult Maisie. If adult Maisie wanted to save others from having her genetic disorder, why not publicize this valuable information? Why not tell her colleagues? Why leave her clone as the lone evidence? This new info makes me kind of hate the adult Maisie. She brought her clone into the world and made her a target. This seems cruel and unnecessary. It also doesn’t make sense for a person supposedly valuing life or the larger scientific community or even her own child. I’ll say it: she’s a bad mom.

The wild swings and retcons reminded me of what happened with the newer Star Wars trilogy. In 2015, both The Force Awakens and Jurassic World are released to massive success and kickoff reboots of their respective franchises. Both of the movies purposely leaned onto nostalgia for their originals, even repeating similar plot beats and reminders to trigger positive association. Then both directors, J.J. Abrams and Treverrow, left the franchise and the second movies, 2017’s The Last Jedi and Fallen Kingdom, took big swings, tried to be something different from the mold, and were met with divisive responses from the larger fanbase. I appreciate both of these movies attempting to do something different with something so entrenched in formula. Then for the concluding movie, both franchises had the original director return to essentially retcon the retcons, to bring the movies back to what was familiar and ultimately dull. It’s even more interesting when you take into account that Treverrow left the Jurassic series to spend a year of his life developing Episode 9 before being fired and hastily replaced with Abrams.

I remember the meta-commentary in Jurassic World about modern audiences becoming jaded and complacent to scientific wonders mirroring movie audiences becoming blasé to what used to marvel us in the realm of special effects extravaganzas. As it leaned into its considerable nostalgia, it was doing so in a thinly veiled satirical criticism of, “Is this what you want?” Now all the meta-commentary and irony have been stripped clean and it’s simply a big, dumb, lumbering beast awaiting its own creative extinction as it meets an end. The franchise is still a colossal moneymaker and Dominion has a chance of topping one billion in box-office, so there will be more adventures cannibalizing the past for inevitably diminished returns, and then we’ll get the special reappearances of, like, Jake Johnson’s character or Guy at Computer #4 to the celebration of few if any. None of the Jurassic movies have ever come close to capturing that certain magic from the first movie but they have all been, in some way, serviceably entertaining even at their worst. Dominion is the worst of the franchise and feels devoid of passion and awe and curiosity. To paraphrase a clever man, the studio execs were too busy thinking about whether they could and less busy worrying about whether they should. I guess you could shut off your brain and possibly enjoy it but that’s admitting defeat. Jurassic World: Dominion makes dinosaurs dull and that’s a disservice of imagination.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Spiderhead (2022)

Before writing this film review I sat down and read George Sanders’ short story “Escape from Spiderhead,” published by The New Yorker in 2010 and available to be read here. It would probably a better use of your time than watching the Netflix movie adaptation, and it surely won’t take 90 minutes, though that’s an assumption on my part. The story follows Jeff (Miles Teller), a prisoner who is undergoing experimental drug trials for a lighter sentence. Chris Hemsworth is miscast as the sunny, smarmy head of the drug trials, mostly featuring a drug that induces extreme feelings of desire and love and attachment. The movie is simply too predictable once you acknowledge the plot elements of secret drug trials and tests of loyalty and emotions. You’ll likely foresee the movie’s big reveals far before the screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Deadpool, 6 Underground) reaches the obvious ploys for twists to turn Sanders’ more introspective, nuanced, and psychological story into a rah-rah formula sci-fi action movie. The first act is relatively promising and close to its source material, but the intriguing and philosophical questions about human connections, guilt, compliance, free will, and corporate hegemony are brushed aside for a silly series of action scenes, brawls, and big escapes. Mostly, I found Spiderhead to be dull because it was too predictable and because it didn’t have much more to say than any over-extended Black Mirror episode. It’s a passable sci-fi allegory that’s light on allegory and settles for being another anesthetizing streaming byproduct.

Nate’s Grade: C

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