Ever wanted to see Oscar-nominated actress Rooney Mara eat a pie? Odd question, I realize, but apparently one that writer/director David Lowery felt compelled to answer. With the success of last year’s utterly heart-warming Disney remake of Pete’s Dragon, Lowery secretly made a low-budget movie with Casey Affleck and Mara, reuniting two of his actors from Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. The end result, A Ghost Story, literally involves a deceased Affleck stalking the screen in a long white sheet with two eyeholes. Lowery’s tone poem of metaphysical grief will likely alienate just as many people as it dazzles, and I fall squarely in the former camp. This movie is arthouse bluster.
This is a twenty-minute short stretched beyond a breaking point to fit a feature-length running time. It’s an impressionistic movie in the guise of the works of Terrence Malick, small and earnest and far more concerned about mood than story. That’s fine but if you’re going the impressionistic route I need scenes that aren’t self-indulgently laborious and constantly striking the same note. The majority of this movie is beautifully composed shots that eventually reveal the ghost standing in the background. It becomes a game of guessing when the camera will reveal the ghost’s presence. I understand that grief and loneliness is going to naturally deserve a slower pace to get a sense of the melancholic loss, but a slow movie that keeps delivering the same imagery is monotonous. The metaphors get old. The only thing holding the audience together is the time-traveling quest for the ghost to retrieve the note Mara’s character slipped into a door jam. It’s a long mystery that will ultimately prove an unworthy payoff. If Lowery is intending for the audience to feel the same sense of boredom and isolation as the ghost, that’s fine, but the movie dwells in this same emotional space with too little variance or further insight.
And this is where I have to come back to the pie as a symbol of the film’s self-indulgence. I have felt the urge to walk out of other movies but never acted upon them. I was minutes away from walking out on A Ghost Story, and it was the pie-eating scene that almost pushed me to bail. The idea of binge eating your feelings is a suitable metaphor for grief, and it works on its own initially, as she sniffles and holds back tears with every bite. And then she keeps eating. And then she keeps eating. The scene goes on for like ten minutes, uninterrupted, and with no further commentary. You are literally watching Mara eat a pie in real time and then throw up. After the sixth or so minute of pie consumption, I started laughing out loud, and then other people around me joined in. What can you do? Just as Mara’s character overindulges to the point of sickness, this scene pushes the beleaguered audience to the point of running out of the room gagging.
This would be different if the movie gave Mara anything really to do besides swallow her feelings. She has a few more scenes of the humdrum of moving on, painting the house she shared with her loved one, and then leaving. It seems like an awful waste of Mara’s talents but I would say the same thing for Affleck. I’m sure not having to memorize any lines after the ten-minute mark and getting to emote entirely through physical expression could be fun for an actor. It’s practically a throwback to silent film thespians. However, he’s just kind of there, like living furniture. I understand that part of grief is feeling like you’re a forgotten being and that time is infinite and punishing. I understand that sadness can feel numbing and cut to the bone. I get the mood; I even get the central metaphor of the de-contextualized ghost in a sheet just hanging around old haunts, unable to do much else, disconnected from the world and unable to move on or make sense of things. My issue is that this approach relegates the actors to stand-ins, squeezing the characters into intentionally bland ciphers for audience relatability. They are not allowed to be characters because somehow this would detract from the artistic appeal or message.
It’s frustrating because A Ghost Story has ideas, images, and moments that intrigue, beguile, and have a poignant power. It’s when the film expands beyond its limited parameters that it becomes its more interesting shape. As the ghost attempts to keep watch over Mara’s character, time moves much faster, to the point that a mere walk from one room to another can be the expanse of months. The triptych sequence of being unmoored through time, as everything speeds by so quickly, accentuates the helplessness of the ghost as well as the isolation. It’s like the world and life itself is outgrowing them, forgetting them, and leaving them further and further behind. There are also other ghosts and our ghost has a subtitled dialogue with them. It sounds silly but it’s actually one of the most sublimely affecting moments in the film, an idea that actually hits its intended mark. Take this exchange: “I’m waiting for someone,” “Who?” “I don’t remember.” Then the other ghost goes back to waiting, forever hopeful, forever clinging onto something that has long since evaporated, where even the memory, the concept of the idea of why has also vanished. Late into the movie the ghost starts going backwards and forwards in time, to a distant future of Bladerunner-like neon high-rises, to the nineteenth century to track a family of westward settlers. The abrupt careening through time says more about the ghost’s existence and it keeps things fresh. If this movie was a total wash, I could write off Lowery’s curio as self-important navel-gazing, but there are kernels of ideas, or moments, that stand out and demand a better presentation for better effect
A Ghost Story will definitely strike different people differently. It’s a deeply personal, poetic, and, if you’re not properly attuned to its metaphysical funeral procession, pretentious and pondersome film that wears out its welcome long before the end credits. I found the substance to be spread too thin over such a longer running time than this execution deserved. If you’re going for an impressionistic evocation, then the scenes need to be paced better. If you’re going for a mood of loneliness, then latch onto the character better and let’s follow Mara’s character as she rebounds and grows old. If you’re going for an existential horror movie, then present more confusion and terror and less of the same visual metaphors on constant repeat. If you’re going for Rooney Mara eating an entire pie in real time, then, well, actually you’ve succeeded. Congratulations. A Ghost Story is going to be one of those movies that critics fawn over that leaves me shrugging.
Nate’s Grade: C
XX is the first horror anthology comprised entirely of female writers and directors. That’s the most noteworthy thing for this relatively disappointing movie. None of the four main segments are that interesting and several don’t really have endings. The first segment has the most potential, “The Box,” about a child that stops eating after getting a peak inside a stranger’s wrapped gift. The family joins him one by one except for the mother. That’s it. There’s no resolution, one moment of shocking gore, and the rest is straightforward maternal ennui. The second is from musician St. Vincent (née Annie Clark) called “The Birthday Party” and it’s not really horror so much as it is dark comedy with a heaping helping of slapstick. Melanie Lynskey (Togetherness) is an overextended mother who discovers the dead body of her husband on the morning of their daughter’s birthday. She has to go to elaborate measures to hide the body while still juggling all the responsibilities others expect from her. It’s amusing in spurts but is often too obvious. The third segment “Don’t Fall” is the most professionally realized and has some nasty special effects, but it’s nothing more than another throwaway entry in the teens-meddle-with-forces-in-nature-and-are-swiftly-punished subgenre. It’s the shortest segment so that helps too. Finally, Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body) writes and directs “Her Only Living Son” which intends to flip the script on the Rosemary’s Baby scenario. The segment reveals its secrets slowly, which makes it a more engaging short to digest. However, it too ends on a perfunctory note. I know there are many talented female filmmakers out there biding their time, waiting for their chance to show their mettle in genre filmmaking, an area that skews heavily male. That’s what makes XX so frustrating. There has to be better material and better filmmakers out there who would kill for this kind of showcase. Maybe next time (XX2?).
Nate’s Grade: C
Rest assured fans, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a definite improvement over its waterlogged 2011 predecessor, but I can’t help feeling like the magic of this franchise, and even the high spirits of the immediate sequels, has been squelched. It’s a multi billion-dollar franchise born from a theme park ride and now I think I’m ready for that ride to come to an end.
Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is once again in the middle of some high seas hijinks. Everyone is on a collision course with the world’s most infamous, swishy, and soused pirate. The ghostly Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his undead crew are looking for a release from their curse and of course vengeance against Sparrow, and Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is their key to reaching their target. Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of Elizabeth Swan and Will Turner, is looking to retrieve the mystical Trident to erase all nautical curses, thus freeing his father’s indentured servitude aboard the Flying Dutchman. Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) is looking to discover the whereabouts of her father via clues tied into astronomy. All the parties are fighting to be the first to discover the location of the Trident and get what they feel is deserved.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales has some advantages that are worth discussing before attention turns to what’s wrong with the franchise as a whole. Unlike Rob Marshall, directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki) understand how to expressly direct action sequences. They have a strong sense of visuals and know how to hit some majestic big screen imagery, whether it’s a see-through silhouette of a zombie shark, or Salazar’s ship splaying like a retracting ribcage, or a runaway bank heist with a literal runaway building. There’s a terrific scene of visual comedy and action when Sparrow is trapped in a spinning guillotine, with the blade coming perilously close only to fall away from gravity and then repeat the process. That was a moment that made me think of the original 2003 film’s comic inventiveness. Instead of just having cool ideas and concepts (carnivorous mermaids, a psychically controlled ship), Pirates 5 at least puts them to better effect. It feels like greater care has been put into meaningfully incorporating the elements of the story, though there are still noticeable shortcomings. I loved the look of Bardem’s villain and the CGI texture that made him seem like he was underwater. It added an unsettling dreamlike quality. Jack Sparrow is thankfully once again a supporting character. There are also several other characters that are worthy of our attention, plus the welcomed return of Barbossa. The movie comes together quite well for an extravagant final set-piece that reasonably serves as an emotional climax.
For the last couple days since my screening, I’ve been turning over in my head reasons why the Pirates sequels, especially of late, have felt so removed from the original film and even the lesser sequels from 2006 and 2007. I think I have deduced the three essential missing ingredients: clarity, urgency, and characters.
The first three Pirates films were gloriously complicated and convoluted, a series of spinning plotlines that weaved in and out, intertwined with conspiracy, collusion, and reversals. They’re overly plotted affairs, and eventually the third films succumbs to the pitfalls of convolution. However, something readily apparent in those movies was a sense of clarity in the individual scenes. Perhaps the overall picture was murky but in the moment you knew what needed to happen, which characters had opposing goals, and what those conflicts were. It’s those opposing goals that provide much of the enjoyable confrontations and complications in the film. Take for instance the first meeting with Jack Sparrow and Will Turner in the blacksmith’s shop. Jack is looking to free himself of his shackles and escape. Will is looking to capture Jack, for his believed assault on Elizabeth, and he’s also looking to prove himself as a swordsman. One of them wants to leave and one of them wants to delay that leave. It’s clear. The scene plays out as the characters clash but we, the audience, know the needs of the scene, and it allows each to reveal their character through action. The majority of the first three films follow this edict. The allegiances are all in conflict: Barbossa wants to alleviate his curse, Jack wants vengeance and to regain his ship, Will wants to rescue Elizabeth, and none of them trust the other. While the dynamics are complicated they are built upon classic storytelling devices of conflict/opposing goals and there’s a genuine clarity in the micro. You know what the characters need scene-to-scene and why they are in conflict and what those goals are. In Pirates 5, the goals are too vague or overly generalized, and from scene-to-scene there’s little internal logic established for the actions to have significance.
The next missing element is urgency, which is a natural byproduct of clarity. If you don’t know what your characters are doing or what their goals are then it’s hard to maintain a sense of urgency. The stakes of this franchise have felt a bit wishy washy after the culmination of 2007’s At World’s End. Before, the characters felt like they had something to lose, something that might not be accomplished. Look at the first Pirates film and you see that those goals are being accomplished poorly. There are complications and unexpected detours, but the stakes felt real because there were ongoing challenges. I think the absolving of stakes in the franchise has gone directly hand-in-hand with the series becoming more jokey. Once characters become cartoons the sense of danger dissipates and then anything can become lazily excusable. There is no recognition of an over-the-top anymore, which then makes the characters feel limitless. That’s not good when they’re supposed to be going against supernatural villains who present their own special powers. In Pirates 5, the characters bumble through every sort of scenario, and while they may not be in control at the moment, you never really fear for them. It’s a safe series of chases and escapes like a Saturday morning cartoon you know will merely reset its characters back to their starting positions by the next adventure. It feels weightless, which is shocking considering the Macguffin everyone is after eliminates all known curses.
Finally, with the series becoming jokier, it’s become more of the Jack Sparrow Show to its overall detriment. Maybe it’s too much of a good thing, or maybe it’s a latent realization that Sparrow was never the main character of the original trilogy, but Depp’s iconic figure has simply lost some of his luster. It feels like Depp is on sashay autopilot. He’s still a charming rogue but it’s become drastically obvious that he needs supporting characters that can stand on their own to serve as foils. He’s a character that leaps off the screen; however, if he’s our only focus, then his act starts to curdle into schtick. There are sequences that only serve to deliver misapplied comedy, like a beachside wedding where Jack is strong-armed into marrying an ugly woman. Jack should not be the lead character but he also still needs to be a character with a sufficient storyline and arc, which has not happened since At World’s End. He’s become the Halloween costume of Captain Jack Sparrow, content to coast on audience good will repeating the same act and delivering the same punchlines. Likewise, the characters supporting Jack Sparrow need their own individually compelling stories and motivations to alleviate some of the pressure.
Fortunately, one of the more noticeable improvements with Pirates 5 is that there are some interesting supporting characters, chiefly Scodelario (The Maze Runner). She could have been a discount version of Keria Knightley, much in the same way that Thwaits (The Giver) is so bland he comes across as a discount Orlando Bloom. While she follows the same feisty, independent-woman-ahead-of-her-time model, she manages to separate with her own identity, a woman who loves science, pushes against authority, and is desperate to discover the whereabouts of her father. Her discovery of her lineage provides the film with an unanticipated degree of emotion. She’s a fun character who can provide a rich, exasperated sense of irony as a learned woman constantly being mistaken for a witch, and then when called upon, she provides the heart of the story with her family drama. Likewise, Barbossa has always been one of the series highlights and in particular the MVP of On Stranger Tides. As he’s waffled between friend and foe, Rush has always found a way to make him worthy of our attention. He gets what I’ll call the Yondo treatment in Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 (supporting character elevated into force that can legitimately elicit audience emotion). He comes into the film late but he dominates the second half. Pirates 5 also has a superior villain to On Stranger Tides. Javier Bardem (Skyfall) eats up every second as his ghostly captain and his enjoyment is infectious. He’s weird and creepy and just the right kind of crazy to make him even more dangerous.
Also worth noting is a flashback scene that explores the personal connections between Sparrow and Salazar, though Salazar’s back-story is still rather weak even with the mysterious Caribbean volcanic lava pits. The sequence is noticeable for the fact that it employs the de-aging CGI technology on Depp, making him look like a plasticized version of himself circa… Edward Scissorhands? It’s a neat trick and it seems like nobody does the de-aging effect better than Disney at this point (Michael Douglas in Ant-Man, Robert Downey Jr. in Civil War). But then the movie keeps featuring the effect, showcasing it in ill-advised close-ups, and the magic starts to fade and we’re reminded of its fakeness. It’s a moment that inadvertently sums up the later Pirates sequels: a neat trick undone by sloppy repetition and a lack of self-control.
If you’re a fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, by all means you’ll find enough to satisfy your appetite with the fifth installment. At this point audience expectations have become entrenched, which is one of the reasons why Jack Sparrow has morphed into a Looney Tunes cartoon rather than a fleshed-out comic character with depths of danger. I don’t regret seeing the latest Pirates film but I would also shed few tears if this were the last time we visit this universe. The recent sequels leave the inescapable impression of listless fan fiction. They’re trying to recapture the magic formula of the original but missing the crucial elements that made a movie about drunken pirates and zombies a zeitgeist-harnessing, culture-defining classic. The sequels have lacked consistently effective clarity, urgency, and characterization to register as anything but generally incomprehensible, vacant, disposable mass entertainment. It’s become product, and maybe that was inevitable for what once felt like something so different and subversive, especially coming from the Mouse House. Age softens all franchises and a safe sense of routine creeps in. They start becoming imitations of themselves and then imitations of the imitations. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a fitfully entertaining venture that saves its best stuff for last, has some solid supporting turns, and decent fantasy-horror visuals. It’s also a reminder of what has been lost and, unless the franchise changes course, will continue to be lost.
Nate’s Grade: B-
The Harry Potter publishing universe is almost twenty years old and has racked up more money than can be printed, so it was only a matter of time before some enterprising soul thought about expanding from author J.K. Rowling’s seven novels. I wasn’t anticipating that it would be Rowling as the one reopening her world for untapped franchise potential and financial windfalls.
Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is one of the world’s foremost experts on magical creatures and will one day write a definitive magizoology textbook for students to doodle inside while they sit bored in magic class. He’s traveled to New York City in 1926 and through a series of misunderstandings he exchanges briefcases with Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a factory drone trying to secure a loan to open a bakery. Inside Newt’s briefcase is a collection of colorful and unique magic creatures with goofy Dr. Suess-styled names, and they break free and need to be rounded up. Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) is a disgraced magic authority agent who tries to regain her reputation by helping Newt gather his living contraband before they are discovered by muggles, or as the Americans refer to them, no-majs. Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) is a gravely serious magic official keeping a close watch on the alarming activity. He also has an unclear interest in a fringe political movement that believes witches are real and a real threat. If only they knew the full extent, as a mad wizard-supremacist is also on the loose.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a better franchise catalyst than it is a movie, with several competing storylines that don’t really gel or feel properly developed. This feels like a series of set pieces in search of a movie to unify them. Much of the movie involves dueling storylines that dawdle until they are smashed together at the very end, much like Rowling’s storytelling habit of keeping so many characters and storylines on the fringes and simmering until they are called upon for revelatory disclosure. Storyline number one follows a daffy British magizoologist as he scours New York trying to retrieve his strange and adorable magical creatures. It’s relatively light and mostly fun. Storyline number two is a buddy movie with Newt and Jacob, which is also light and mostly fun. Then storyline number three is an abusive anti-magic movement that may be conspiring to kill wizards that stand in their way, revealing to the wider world the magical realm and the potential threat it poses. This storyline is much darker and adult and it contrasts sharply with scenes like Newt doing a silly dance to present himself for mating with a gigantic rhinoceros creature in heat. It’s hard to reconcile whimsical magic creatures one moment and stern child abuse the next. The varying tones don’t ever gel. The majority of the film is watching Newt scamper around trying to recapture his creatures and stumbling into bigger plot events that are kept on the edges of relevancy.
This movie is more about laying a foundation than telling a relatively complete and gratifying story. The narrative brick laying may be essential for future sequel success but it doesn’t make for the best experience in the theater. Rowling’s first crack at screenwriting has a few hallmarks of novelists-turned-screenwriters (cough, Cormac McCarthy, cough), namely the fuzzy narrative clarity and digressive asides that deter the film’s progressive momentum. It’s hard to critique certain themes and characters that feel useless (Jon Voight for starters) without knowing whether Rowling will decide they are secretly important three movies onward. I don’t know what this movie is about other than setting up lucrative sequels.
Another area of concern is whom Rowling has decided to be the leader of this voyage back in time; Newt Scamander is quite a lackluster lead character for one movie, let alone the prospect of up to five of them. I found this protagonist rather boring. He’s a kind figure and cares for his exotic animals but the man is pretty much the exact same person by the end of the movie as he is at the start and with only passing hints at a secret tragic past as something to enliven what is assuredly a dull, mumbling character. I’m not against Rowling’s decision to catapult a mild-mannered, shy, polite man as her main character especially in the face of paranoia and fear mongering, but the guy has to at least be interesting. There is not one interesting thing about this character outside of his briefcase full of magical creatures. He is a void of character, a blank slate that isn’t any more filled in by the conclusion. The lack of substance also allows Redmayne to retreat into his actorly tics playing up Newt’s social anxiety, almost to a degree that seems recognizably autistic (at least it was with my friend who saw it with me who is on the spectrum). He feels sensitive to the point that his body is going to collapse inwardly upon itself. I saw the same impulses with his overrated, overly mannered performance in The Danish Girl. When lacking significant depth to his character, or at least something of significant interest, he overcompensates with what he’s given and that’s not usually for the best. Just see Jupiter Ascending if you’re truly brave enough or equipped with enough liquor.
I think the stronger lead character would have been Newt’s buddy, Fogler’s no-maj Jacob Kowalski. He’s already our entry point into this older time period so why not make him the focal point? Jacob is a far more interesting character and he’s actually astonished by the revelations of a magical world right under his nose, adding to the general sense of discovery for himself as well as the audience. He’s the more relatable character as he discovers the world of magic and develops fluttery feelings for a magical lass (Porpetina’s psychic sister, Queenie, played by Alison Sudol). The sweet and flirty stutter-stops of a possible romance with Jacob and Queenie are far more heartfelt and engaging than whatever the film tries to pretend has been set up for Newt and Porpentina. By the very end, the movie expects a few smiles and arbitrary sexual tension to compensate for the rest of the film’s 133 minutes that did not establish one passing moment of attraction. Sorry, Rowling, but cinematic romance doesn’t work in spontaneous vacuums. If you want us to fee for the characters and compel them to get together, we need to see your work if you want the coupling to be remotely satisfying.
The rest of the actors do what they can with the thin scraps of characterization that Rowling provides. Fogler (Fanboys) is a reliable source of comic relief. His sincere pleasure from the magical world and its inhabitants makes him endearing, seeing this world through necessary fresh eyes. Waterston (Inherent Vice) is a screen presence that stands out from the pack, though her character is too muted to leave the same impression. Her character’s goal is to clear her name but she seems to readily forget this motivation. Until writing this review I had no idea that Sudol (Transparent) was the songstress A Fine Frenzy, an artist I’ve enjoyed for a decade. Her acting isn’t quite as accomplished as her singing but Queenie is something of a walking ethereal, sad-eyed psychic kewpie doll. Rowling treats her more as a handy plot device when she needs some item explained or intuited. Queenie’s budding relationship with Jacob makes her more interesting. There are plenty of familiar faces that are stranded in underwritten and confusing roles. The likes of Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Zoe Kravitz, Carmen Ejogo, Jon Voight, and Ron Perlman, as a mo-cap goblin, must have simply been happy to participate, and I can’t blame them considering the fortunes that await this franchise.
The world building is hazy yet the world of wizards in 1920s New York City is intriguing enough to keep me hopeful that a better movie could emerge later. We’ve never been stateside before in this universe so my first point of interest was the difference between the magical authorities from across the pond. Apparently the magic-inclined aren’t legally allowed to romantically mix with no-maj folks (call it muggle miscegenation laws). That’s interesting but we only get a glimpse. The Second Salem movement in the United States seems to believe that witches and real danger. They seem like a fringe political conservative movement. It’s interesting yet we only get another glimpse at best. Then there’s an evil wizard who wants to wipe the world of the unclean, surely a setup for You-Know-Who and his malevolent Death Eaters. He’s kept further to the background and only bookends the movie. I just looked it up and Voldermort was born in 1926, so expect even more foreshadowing in the future. I wanted to know more about the world inside the Magical Congress of the United States of America. Why do they have a killer magic tar pit and what does it really do to people? There are passing references to the pre-established Harry Potter universe, small morsels for the crowd to hold onto to get them through this muddled expository journey. Still, there is an undeniable entertainment value of seeing magic interact with a 1920s American landscape. A magic speakeasy is a delightful moment to open up this world in amusing historical ways. Newt’s suitcase and its vast interior world is also a great source of wonder and a potent highlight.
Fantastic Beasts doesn’t quite rise to the level of fantastic implied with its title, though if you’re a Potter fan it could be a welcomed and promising start. That’s really what this movie is, a start, and not so much a complete story. It’s a Potter prologue that provides just enough to get an audience interested but not enough to perhaps get them excited. The main character is a total washout and the varying tones and storylines fail to gel. Rowling has some screenwriting novice growing pains and her general world could use more texture amidst all the special effects sequences. Those magic critters are cute I’ll give them that. There just doesn’t seem like there’s enough here of genuine substance in any capacity, other than setting up a playpen for its four sequels. Director David Yates has shepherded the Potter universe for five movies now. The visual continuity from prequel to main story arc reminds me of Peter Jackson’s turn at reviving the Hobbit trilogy. Actually, Fantastic Beasts reminds me of the Hobbit films in more ways than one. They were both somewhat crass moneymaking ventures inarticulately stretched and padded to ensure more movies and more profits. They are also decidedly lesser than the main story arc. To my movie muggle tastes, Fantastic Beasts ranks toward the bottom of the Potter franchise, just a step above Half-Blood Prince. Too often it feels like textbook Potter stuff minus the character investments. It’s a series of set pieces and latent possibilities and less a full movie. Then again, take my so-so critique with a relative grain of salt, Potterheads.
Nate’s Grade: B-
After eight years and over a dozen movies, the unstoppable box-office juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) seems like it could successfully sell the public on any concept, no matter how undeniably bizarre. This is the same studio that made us weep over the death of a tree that said three words. At this point, I think I can argue that the MCU has a higher film-to-film consistent quality of excellence than Pixar, the other most trusted brand in cinema (Pixar’s creative/emotional highs are certainly higher but they’ve had their share of misses). Marvel has earned the benefit of the doubt. The common complaint is that their movies feel too formulaic and insubstantial. I would definitely argue against the latter and the former needs no real defense. Marvel has built an empire on a system that works because it delivers crowd-pleasing and character-oriented blockbusters that are packed with payoffs for fans and newcomers. The alternative, chiefly the dour bombast of the fledgling DC film universe, isn’t much more appealing, but then again I have been labeled a “Marvel shill” by those infuriated from my inconceivable pan of the very conceivably terrible Suicide Squad, so take my word with some skepticism. For any other brand, Doctor Strange could be too weird. With the MCU, it’s another comforting sign they really know what they’re doing.
Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant New York neurosurgeon who loses full control over his hands after a horrible car accident. He travels to Nepal to seek out holistic remedies to aid his recovery and instead finds the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a powerful mystic. She takes a liking to Strange and invites him into their temple to train as a pupil of powerful sorcerers (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong). Former sorcerer, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), has gone rogue and believes the only way to survive the oncoming cosmic giant Dormammu is to join him. Doctor Strange must summon all the skills of multiple dimensions in order to save the day.
Doctor Strange is at its core an origin tale and one that feels somewhat familiar at least for its first half. It’s likely not an accident that Stephen Strange bears more than a passing resemblance to Marvel’s other egotistical, arrogant charmer, Mr. Tony Stark. He’s a man who has to be humbled and learn the error of his ways and his outsized hubris, which makes for an effective character arc to structure an introductory movie around. It also makes fine work of Cumberbatch’s otherworldly sense of haughty superiority (I can’t wait to watch future Strange and Stark banter). The first half is essentially Training Montage: The Movie. Strange learns about the ancient mystic arts and, more importantly, super powers. The movie doesn’t follow Thor’s lead and argue that magic is another form of science. It declares magic as its own thing. Strange learns how to open portals, how to shift reality, how to astral project, and even how to stop time. Each new power is given proper attention and the learning curve adjusts as needed, allowing an audience to process the various rules and dramatic stakes. It’s a structurally smart assembly of mini-goals to keep an audience secure in what otherwise could be overwhelming for its New Age mumbo jumbo.
After the origin heavy lifting is taken care of that’s when Doctor Strange becomes everything I could hope for, namely a highly imaginative action movie with a breakneck pace and a boundless sense of imagination. This movie feels kinetically alive and unpredictable in ways that few Marvel movies even approach. Once Strange and Kaecilius meet at the halfway mark it becomes a gallop to the finish line with one highly entertaining action set piece after another, and even better they are wildly different. We don’t have battles about running and firing weapons or just punching bad guys extra hard; instead, it’s reality itself that bends to the will of the fighters. Characters walk on walls, shift the state of architecture, create teleportation portals to hop in and out of, shift the entire gravity of the world to force people away from said portals, and turn New York City into a kaleidoscopic playground. There’s an extended chase scene that literally feels like a series of M. C. Escher paintings come to starling life. The sequence is eye-popping in the best way and, shocking enough, it’s not even the climax of the movie. There are so many fun possibilities for crazy action sequences. There are other sequences that stand out, such as an out-of-body fight between two warring astral projection foes. The real climax of the movie is something I’ve never seen before, a battle that takes place as time resets. The smoldering ruins of a cataclysm are put together brick-by-brick and characters dodge the debris as it rapidly reforms. It’s visually thrilling to watch but it’s also a clever sequence because there are continuous opportunities for danger and in many ways that your brain cannot naturally suspect, like when a wall reforms and traps someone within. Whatever your feeling on the general MCU and its blockbuster formula calibrations, Doctor Strange is a great leap into something different, momentously exhilarating, and inventive.
Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) was an intriguing choice considering his background in supernatural horror, but, as should be obvious, the MCU overlords score again with their foresight and risk-taking. Derrickson’s visual influences hew much closer to Christopher Nolan and the Wachowski Siblings than the greatest hits of the MCU, and that’s exactly what this world needed to stand out on its own. I cannot overstate just how enjoyable the last hour of the movie can be, though this isn’t meant as a backhanded slight against that first half. The action-packed hour only works because of the setup from before and laying a careful foundation for the characters, their dynamics, and the rules of this trippy universe that bends conventional physics. All the careful world-building and training montages set up the sprint through a fireworks factory of fun, and I had a smile plastered to my face the whole time, eagerly anticipating the next detour into crazy.
I’m even going to impart you, dear reader, with some advice I haven’t given since 2013: if possible, see this movie in 3D. The hypnotic visuals and elusively shifting reality demand to be seen with the added help of the third dimension. The movie will still obviously work in a non-3D format but why deny yourself the full impact of these incredible visual experiences? New York City contorting is worth the extra few bucks alone.
The acting is another highlight for such an enjoyable movie. Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) easily makes for a terrific lead actor, someone who can bring a sense of gravitas or dry sarcasm when called upon. His sense of comedy is underrated and this Sorcery Supreme gets his fair share of punctuating the weird and wild with a perfectly delivered joke. A bit with a sentient cape allows for great physical comedy. His American accent is also much improved from earlier far spottier efforts in 2013’s August: Osage County and 2015’s Black Mass, which featured perhaps the worst “Baustun” accent in recent memory. Cumberbatch is the charming smartass, the know-it-all who realizes how much he still has yet to learn, and his final showdown with the Big Bad Evil sheds large-scale disaster for something much more personal (no giant portal in the sky or faceless army of monsters/aliens, hooray!). His character arc of learning that it’s not about himself culminates in a brilliantly conceived sequence that satisfies. The other standout is Swinton (Snowpiercer) who once again melds with her character, who happens to be a mysterious Celtic mystic who may not even be human. The early half is instantly elevated when Swinton is on screen. She presents a matter-of-fact sense of the preposterous that is downright serene. It’s also a role that is more than just a requisite mentor as The Ancient One has some secrets that will be revealed. I was also genuinely pleased with how much screen time Mikkelsen (TV’s Hannibal, Rogue One) gets for his villain, who has a wicked deadpan. I pity Rachel McAdams (Spotlight) who plays the underwritten love interest role we’ve seen similar to Natalie Portman prior performances. She at least gets a few good scenes before being forgotten.
With each additional entry into the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, the fan in me gets to reexamine and realign the pecking order of quality. In my own subjective rankings I would say that Doctor Strange is just below the top tier of the MCU (Guardians of the Galaxy, Civil War, Iron Man) and on par with Winter Soldier. This is a highly enjoyable and highly imaginative action movie teeming with eye-popping visuals. Many of the visual set pieces are stunning and demand to be witnessed on the largest screen possible. The movie never loses its sense of fun and wonder while still respecting the dramatic stakes of the cataclysmic events, and when it goes big it makes it matter. I have no previous attachment to this character and Doctor Strange was just about everything I wanted the film to be and then some. It’s another sign that Marvel can take any property and find the formula to make it a satisfying smash. I enjoyed Doctor Strange enough that I want to see it again, and this time even bigger to better soak up the strange.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children feels like Tim Burton’s X-Men franchise, and it’s just as awesome as that sounds. Burton has always had an interest in the outcasts and misfits of society and now he has his chance to leave an imprint on the ever-present superhero phenomenon. His own personal group of gifted youngsters is looking to form a funky family and fight against fearful forces that have their sights set on exploiting these special children or worse. It’s a natural fit for a man who has become a Gothic industry unto himself over three decades of peculiar and spooky filmmaking. This is Burton’s chance to flex franchise tentpole muscles with a subject matter perfectly attuned to his offbeat sensibilities, and watching the fabulous final product is akin to watching a master musician dive into Beethoven’s Fifth. This movie was flat-out delightful.
Jake (Asa Butterfield) is reeling from his beloved grandfather’s (Terrence Stamp) mysterious death. The old man loved sharing his stories about tending to the shape-shifting Ymbryne Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) and her wards, a group of children with special abilities including starting fires, controlling plants, invisibility, and being able to float lighter than air. On a trip to Wales to investigate grandpa’s stories, Jake discovers a time portal and is taken back to the WWII era where Miss Peregrine is waiting for him. She and her children relive the same day and will never age. They’re hiding from Barron (Samuel L. Jackson) and his group of scientists who wish to hunt the children. Jake is tasked with being the new protector, as he is the only one that can see an invisible band of slender monsters known as hollows that feast on the children.
There’s a whimsical nature to the dark elements, and the script is rife with enjoyable payoffs and fun moments that cry out for a full visual immersion. This is Burton’s best film since 2007’s Sweeney Todd (I have a soft spot for that macabre musical), arguably best since 2003’s Big Fish, and maybe his most fun movie since his 90s heyday. If you’re a Burton fan, you’ll be tickled by all the imagination and humor. I grew up on the cinema of Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas (yes, directed by stop-motion maven Henry Selick but still very much a Burton film), so I’ll admit that seeing Burton in high form once again warmed my little mischievous heart.
You get a sense just how involved Burton was in the filmmaking and its details, the degree of passion and involvement, and also his commitment to being a dark movie intended for peculiar children and adults with macabre interests all over the world. I kept thinking that the 12-year-old version of myself would have adored this movie, never mind the 34-year-old version of myself who greatly enjoyed it too. This feels like a natural evolutionary step for children and adolescents who gorged themselves on the works of Edward Gorey and R. L. Stine. It’s not a significant spoiler but it’s something I feel you, dear reader, need to know in order to properly assess just how wonderfully morbid the movie can come across. There is an entire visual feast of a group of villains dining upon the delicacy of… children’s eyeballs. You read that right. It’s a silver platter piled high with severed eyeballs, and they get slurped down like it’s spaghetti. I could only cackle to myself at the audacity of the movie to embrace the fun of the darkness rather than hiding from it, mitigating it, trying to be delicate with tone. The villains want to return to a normal state that can only be achieved by consuming the eyeballs of peculiar children, and so they are hunted not for sport or prejudice but for eyeballs. That’s wonderfully squirmy, and it definitely affected me, an avowed cinema patron who gets extra squirmy with any onscreen eye trauma. There are other creepy and memorable moments, like a dead child being used as a ventriloquist doll and the slenderman-styled hallows creatures. The moments are plenty but they don’t choke the story’s momentum, which hums along with great imagination and lucidity.
There’s a lot going on with Miss Peregrine, and Jane Goldman’s (Kingsmen) screenplay juggles a lot of rules and world building without losing momentum. I was intrigued early and the movie would widen its focus, providing more texture and connection to the world in calculated doses. It was enough that I always felt like I was learning something while still being able to see how the pieces snapped together in retrospect. There’s time travel that has to be done at a very specific point, the rules of who can travel back in time to these bubbles of safety, the history of this specific day stuck in time, the non-linear history of the protectors, the fact that the bubbles are also teleportation hotspots, the history with Jake’s grandfather, the history of the Ymbryne and their powers, the powers of all the peculiars, dream prophecy, mad scientists and their peculiar ailments, the differences between the hallows and the predatory scientists, and also establishing the character dynamics of several lost children and a budding YA romance. It’s amazing that Goldman’s script is as understandable as it is considering all that heavy lifting. It’s not completely free of muddled plot points and some hazy explanations, but those instances are a clear minority to what works so effectively. I wanted to know more about this world, and once they added time travel and teleportation, I was hooked. I enjoyed the movie so much that I’m considering reading the additional books for my next freaky fix.
The acting ensemble is full of bright spots and none brighter than the new queen of genre gusto, Eva Green. I raved about Green’s magnetic performance in the considerably lesser 300 sequel. She was easily the best part of that movie and it suffered whenever she wasn’t on the screen. The same can be said for the too-long-in-the-making Sin City sequel. She was the best thing in Burton’s otherwise forgettable Dark Shadows feature. In short, this woman is incredible, and she digs into the vampy and ridiculous with the right degree of malevolence and glee. Green is a wonderful hostess into this magical world, and her foreknowledge gives her a caffeinated energy that makes her even a tad more peculiar. Her children are all fine actors who have uneven parts thanks to the unfair distribution of their powers. Not everyone gets super useful abilities. I felt sorry for the kid who projected his dreams from his eyeball especially during the third act scuffles. A mouth in the back of the head doesn’t seem very useful either. I enjoyed the idea that the invisible kid needs to be fully naked to be fully invisible, and everyone acknowledges this reoccurring fact with shoulder-shrug nonchalance. The standout amongst the peculiars is Ella Purnell as the winsome girl who will float away. She has an innocent and yearning quality that doesn’t sink her character. She’s more than just a love interest to Jake and Purnell helps channel great affection. Jackson (The Hateful Eight) is expectantly highly entertaining as the lead villain and Butterfield (Ender’s Game) is perfectly acceptable as an audience surrogate into this wild world.
I was duly impressed with just about every element, from the structure of the screenplay and its precision with information and intrigue, to the level of acting, to the dark and whimsical tone, to Burton’s own peculiar particulars that fill out the film with adoration. It may sound corny but there is an affection woven throughout the film, for its dispirit outcasts, for their strangeness, for the ardor of telling a spooky story that can appeal to children without pushing away adults. There’s a care that’s been absent Burton’s other recent films, especially Dark Shadows, which left me bewildered whether Burton had any genuine fondness for the source material. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a haven for fans of the peculiar, Burton’s oeuvre, and those looking for a quality children’s film that has some bite. I can only hope for more fantastical adventures.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Kevin Smith has been a filmmaker who has flouted expectations. When people didn’t think the Clerks guy could make a religious thriller, he did it. When people said a movie about a man being transformed into a walrus creature was undoable, he did it. I was a moderate fan of Tusk, that man-as-walrus-as-Frankenstein movie that started as a joke premise from Smith’s popular podcast and then given strange cinematic life. Yoga Hosers is the second part in Smith’s “True North” trilogy of Canadian-set horror films. I wasn’t expecting much with Yoga Hosers and I felt like I got even less than that.
Colleen Collete (Lily-Rose Depp) and Colleen McKenzie (Harley Quinn Smith) are bored clerks at a Winnipeg convenience store. Their world is turned upside down when an attractive senior boy invites them to a “grade 12” party. Too bad they have to work, though even when on the clock the girls hardly work, instead preferring to jam in the back storage room as a fledging rock band. The girls have bigger threats than unruly customers. They’ll have to battle bad Satanists, forgotten Canadian Nazis, and tiny bratwurst men who leak sauerkraut when smashed. What’s a Canuck to do?
The two areas that have always been the hallmarks of a Kevin Smith movie, his idiosyncratic characterization and ribald humor, are both strangely absent and desperately needed. Within the first ten minutes of the movie, I turned to my friend and confided, “I think I hate these girls already.” It’s somewhat ironic that Smith has gone back again to the bored convenience store clerks as the platform for his heroes. Where Dante and Randall were railing against pop-culture, adult responsibility, and a society that constantly made them feel inferior for their menial occupations, these girls aren’t railing against anything. If anything they’re retreating from the world, their noses constantly glued to their smart phones and social media. The excursions with youth culture feel rather inauthentic. The teen dialogue lacks comic snap and repeats phrases too often that it feels like set-up for T-shirt slogans (“Basic!”). Smith is far from his territory of dick and fart jokes and esoteric pop-culture detours. We’re introduced to many new characters with a slam edit of an Instagram-like cover page accompanied by an irritatingly chirpy 8-bit score. The intro graphics appear so quickly as to have little impact other than annoyance. The lead characters have no engaging personalities. They have an infatuation with older, cute boys, a love of yoga, a general attitude against authority, and a common level of self-involvement, but they’re not characters. They’re goofy but rarely are they grounded or better developed. One girl is daft and the other girl is… less daft. I’m not expecting these characters to have depth considering this is a movie with one-foot tall killer bratwurst Nazis, but some degree of personality is demanded. It’s the bare minimum.
Smith’s millennial satire is fairly toothless, which sadly is much like the comedy of Yoga Hosers. I hope you like puns and jokes about how funny Canadian accents are. The Colleens say “soory aboot that” and isn’t that hilarious? How about a convenience store called “Eh-2-Zed”? How about a yogi whose name is Yogi Bayer? How about an off-brand version of Lucky Charms called Pucky Charms? Why are there so many freaking puns? Then there’s the re-emergence of Johnny Depp’s wacky Quebec investigator, Guy Lapointe, allowing Depp to indulge his tendency for prosthetics and heavy accents. The shticky Lapointe character absolutely derailed Tusk and whatever unsettling momentum had been built, but he feels far more at home in the goofy world of Yoga Hosers. I might even say his presence is one of the highlights, as once more Depp gets to sink his teeth into all the Peter Sellers physical comedy tics he’s been holding back.
There’s just not enough comedy to go around here. There are goofy elements that crash into one another, like the Brat-Zis and a gigantic Goalie Golem, but it feels very much like Smith is just throwing a lot of dispirit elements together and expecting cohesion. He might even be expecting the audience to be satiated just in seeing something “different.” While Red State and Tusk were films that had sharp tonal shifts, Yoga Hosers never really settles into the silly supernatural teen comedy it desires to be. I laughed here and there but it was mostly attributed to Smith letting his more capable comic actors go off on tangents, like Justin Long’s yogi with his unorthodox poses. Ralph Garman, Smith podcast regular, shows up late as a Nazi who prefers to discuss his plans via celebrity impressions, a talent of Garman’s. It’s the kind of “hell, why not?” plotting that dominates the movie and makes you wonder if there ever was a finished script.
I doubt any version of this story would have materialized if it wasn’t starring the daughters of Kevin Smith and Johnny Depp, and I don’t have a huge issue with this. Nepotism has been a core function of Hollywood for over a hundred years, and if Smith wants to create a vehicle for his daughter, by all means. The two young ladies have a pleasant chemistry and are believable BFFs. Their back-and-forth will occasionally elevate the jokes, like their insistent yet limited Batman impressions. Harley Quinn Smith has an enjoyable mugging quality that shows she’s studied her expressions from the school of Silent Bob. Her companion, Lily-Rose Depp, may be the real breakout. She’s the more consistent actor and the stronger anchor for the film. Even when the dialogue lets her down she still infuses a notable energy into her performance. There’s an emerging talent under the surface that looks ready for discovery, and perhaps the French film Planetarium with Natalie Portman will make others take notice. I get the impression that Kevin Smith and Johnny Depp are proud papas and just wanted to have fun together as a family. Consider the movie the equivalent of a quirky sweet 16 birthday party.
Yoga Hosers is a movie for a very select group of people, perhaps only Smith’s immediate family, friends, and most ardent of podcast listeners. I doubt that’s me. I’ve been a Smith fan since my own teens. His was one of the cinematic voices that awoke my own sense of what movies could be. I miss the caustic wit that separated Smith from the indie pack. The man was one of the few writers who could spin crass vulgarity into Shakespearean gold. He was a writing talent that many emulated but few could reproduce. Smith’s whip-smart comic perspective has always been his biggest cinematic draw, but with Yoga Hosers it feels decidedly neutered and wound down. I know he has gone on record saying he’s making the movies he wants to make without interference, but it doesn’t feel like the same Smith. Admittedly, a filmmaker in his early 20s is going to have a different perspective and creative impulses than a husband and father in his mid 40s. This apparently means that Smith has veered away from his conversational comedies and button-pushing topics and bought fully into genre filmmaking, mixing a pastiche of horror elements and varying tones. As an artist he doesn’t owe me or any other fan anything. Yoga Hosers might be a one-off, a love letter to his teen daughter and her bestie, or it could portend what is to come. Kevin Smith is making movies for himself at this point in his career. If you feel left out in that equation, like me, that’s okay. We can always go back and watch Clerks again. From my viewpoint, it feels like Smith is voluntarily erasing what made him a unique cinematic voice and choosing to disappear into the benign morass of schlocky genre filmmaking.
Nate’s Grade: C-
I have no personal love for the original 1977 Pete’s Dragon. I thought you, dear reader, deserved to know this morsel. I never felt a sense of wonder from the animated dragon creating mischief while a town tried to rid itself of an orphan and a bunch of hillbillies sang an ode to child abuse (it was a different time?). Disney has gotten into the self-cannibalizing habit of dipping into its own past and remaking its animated hits for a new generation of moviegoers. It worked splendidly with last spring’s Jungle Book, and the new version of Pete’s Dragon is further proof that when Disney aligns the right artist with a vision and gives them latitude to express that vision, rewards are generously reaped. This is a delightful, heartwarming, and enchanting summer movie that got me crying.
Pete (Oakes Fegley) is a young boy who lives in the wooded reservations with one very special friend, a furry green dragon he has named Eliot. He’s been living in the woods for six years after Eliot rescued him following a car accident that claimed the lives of Pete’s parents. One day a park ranger, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), comes across Pete and brings him back into town for medical evaluation. He’s a mystery child, a bit feral, and demands to return home into the woods. Grace incites Pete into her home and her family, but there are worries about the boy acclimating to society. All the while Eliot is looking for his best friend and mournful that they might have to part ways after all.
Pete’s Dragon is a simple story but this is not a detriment to its ultimate effectiveness. Rather the filmmakers take care to treat this childhood fable with enough heart and earnest emotion that the movie feels fully developed to its aims. The characters and their journeys aren’t exactly revolutionary, but I didn’t mind at all. This is an old-fashioned family film told without irony and set in a nondescript past that adds to the universal appeal of its message. It’s elegantly simple but there are poignant themes running under the surface, namely an unmistakable level of melancholy with Pete’s process of growing up. This feels like Disney’s version of Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, a movie that examines the hard but necessary transitions of childhood and the acceptance of a sort of loss among the fantastic. This movie isn’t consumed with a dour interpretation of childhood as an oppressively hellish existence of misunderstanding (I didn’t connect with Where the Wild Things Are if you couldn’t tell) but it does acknowledge a loneliness of being absent a family to call your own. Pete’s life with Eliot is filled with boyish excitement and adventure but he knows he can’t hold onto that world much longer, and this realization magnifies the remaining time with Eliot. From start to finish, Pete’s’ Dragon is bursting with warmth and resonant emotions.
I was unprepared for the emotional wallop that this film delivered. Not since perhaps Pixar’s Up has a movie so effectively triggered my sympathies in its opening ten minutes. In a beautiful yet tastefully restrained sequence, Pete becomes an orphan and is rescued by Eliot, and the vulnerability and compassion of this moment already had me tearing up. Full disclosure: I’m a sucker for the “boy and his dog” stories, and while Eliot is a special dragon by design he is, at his core, a rendition of man’s best friend. Their relationship is one of love, companionship, and protection. They’re a pack. When Eliot spots Pete cozy in a family house, he’s crestfallen but accepts that a placement in the human world is where Pete belongs. And then at the end after a fraught situation, Pete instinctively runs to Eliot and leaps into his arms, and Eliot takes him in, holding him dearly, and it was at this point that I couldn’t stop the flow of tears even if I wanted to. Happy tears, people. The takeaway of the film is the formative bonds of family and the need to reach out for that nourishing companionship. While it’s highly emotional, it’s all earned and avoids cheap maudlin, manipulative theatrics, short of one extended sequence of Eliot’s capture.
I never would have expected such an old-fashioned yet preternaturally charming movie from the team responsible for the somber indie Western Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Director/co-writer David Lowery is locked-in with its goals and finds ways to build its characters through small, cumulative actions. The film also has a marvelous sense of place as get a strong feel for everyday life in this foggy Pacific Northwest environment. Contributing to that sense is a terrific soundtrack of low-key folk songs that thrum with a lovely homespun gentleness that taps into the earthy magic of its setting. The score strings-heavy by Daniel Hart is perfectly attuned to the emotional rhythms of the film without becoming overbearing. The photography is often gorgeous and the editing near invisible with how effortlessly it presents its story with room to breathe. There’s a standout sequence that highlights just how well all of these individual elements come together to form a greater whole. Pete escapes from the town’s hospital and desperately runs outside. He is dazed by the activity of the modern world and the geography of the town, and the residents of this town are just as dazed about Pete, a wild child exploring his alien surroundings. He hops aboard a school bus and the children inside are amazed at Pete’s daredevil antics. The chase sequence is set to the Lumineers’ “Nobody Knows” and it builds upon the sense of discovery, community, and mutual awe. It’s a wonderful sequence that develops patiently.
Part of the success of the movie is also due to the skill and implementation of the special effects team. Eliot is a cuddly creature you want to take home with you yet he can still be intimidating under the right circumstances. He’s on screen a lot but his magical qualities don’t diminish. This is one highly communicative dragon and it’s easy to empathize with him (those exquisitely emotive canine eyes help). There’s a tenderness to him that convinces the audience early on to take a journey with Eliot and see what happens next.
The human specimens are heartfelt and enjoyable as well. Ostensibly the main character, his name is in the title after all, the role of Pete rests on the tiny shoulders of actor Oakes Fegley, and he aces the part, tapping into the rougher, wilder edge while also selling the dramatic moments in a clear relation to his interpretation of the character. The next main character is Howard (Jurassic World) and she’s quite good. She gives a maternal performance that doesn’t go overboard while still allowing her to come across as an independent, thinking woman with her own desire for proof of the fantastical. She has several tender moments with Fegley. The actors all perform ably. Even West Bentley (TV’s American Horror Story) works well in the movie, and when was the last time that could be said? Karl Urban (Star Trek Beyond) is enjoyably hammy as the villain who’s not much of a villain. I wish Redford (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) was in more scenes because his grandfatherly presence is so enjoyable to watch and he so easily slides into the part.
Disney is two-for-two when it comes to 2016 live-action remakes of its old catalogue, and if The Jungle Book and now Pete’s Dragon are any indication, then bring on the remakes. The original Pete’s Dragon was never a memorable or enjoyable film for me, so there was already much to improve upon, which is what the new version does in every way. It’s poignant, heartwarming, earnest, and bursting with feeling. It’s a simple story told exceptionally well with artistry and grace. There’s a dash of indie flavor to the mainstream filmmaking. I think this movie will appeal to people of all ages, grown ups that are looking for some magic in their movies, as well as families looking for a movie that will entertain children but won’t rot their brains. It’s fortunate that we can end such a mediocre summer at the movies on a high note, and Pete’s Dragon is a wonderful infusion of the old and new, magic and reality, heartache and triumph. It’s a movie dripping with purity, and one that demands to be seen and hopefully cherished.
Nate’s Grade: A-
When it comes to horror, concept is king, but what’s just as important is fully developing that concept to meet its potential, and that’s where Lights Out succeeds. This is a low-budget horror movie that taps into a primal fear of the dark with a supernatural entity named Diana that can only be seen outside light sources. Thankfully, director David F. Sandberg smartly thinks of fun and interesting ways to play with this concept, like Diana disappearing in bursts of muzzle fire and a frantic, life-saving use of a car alarm. There’s a great suspense sequence where an off screen light from a flickering neon sign, switching off and on steadily, sets up audience expectations and lingers, drawing out the fear. The editing is terrific. There’s also a surprising subtext tackling the issue of mental illness and depression, as Diana, the malevolent spirit tethered to Maria Bello’s character, only seems to appear during the rougher patches of her life, and Diana fights against Bello getting “better” which weakens her existence. Theresa Palmer (Warm Bodies) settles in as a capable heroine that genuinely cares for her younger brother in danger from her mother and her “friend.” I cared about the people in this. The movie also subverts some genre clichés and treats its handful of characters with credibility. While the very end leaves some questionable final statements on mental illness, Lights Out is an elevated B-movie that takes its fun premise and executes it with aplomb. It’s worth 90 minutes in the dark.
Nate’s Grade: B
After watching the debacle that was Batman vs. Superman, I said it had killed my hope for the larger DC film brand. Thanks to writer/director David Ayer, and by extension Zack Snyder’s ongoing influence, Suicide Squad reconfirms every bad step they’re down on this bad road of anti-entertainment.
Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) is worried about national security in a world where a certain Kryptonian has upended our sense of priority. She wants to assemble a team of bad guys who can do some good. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) is placed as the commander of a “suicide squad,” a black ops team of super villains that are injected with devices to make their heads go kablooey if they disobey. Among the ranks is Deadshot (Will Smith), a paid assassin who never misses, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the former psychiatrist and lover to The Joker (Jared Leto), an Aussie named Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a guy with the ability to control fire, a human-crocodile hybrid named appropriately Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and the Enchantress (Carla Delevigne), a thousands-year-old spirit inhabiting the body of Dr. June Moone, who also happens to be Flag’s girlfriend. Assisting Flag is Katana (Karen Fukuhara), a masked swordfighter with a tragic and mystical past. The Squad is thrown into harms way and have to work together as a group if they plan on surviving.
The tone and structure of the movie is like an unholy marriage of Stephen Sommers’ (The Mummy) sense of careless plotting and archetypes, mish mashing tones, and Joe Carnahan’s (Smokin’ Aces) sense of wanton violence, killer cool killers, and militaristic fetishism. It’s a problematic pairing of tone that almost sort of works in the opening twenty minutes as it sets up the various bad guys with their requisite little slices of backstory. Primarily Deadshot and Harley Quinn are the spotlight characters, and it helps that the two most charismatic actors play them. The first twenty minutes doesn’t exactly push the narrative forward in a meaningful way as it involves Davis digressing with an armada of high-energy flashbacks, but it’s almost forgivable. Her pitch to the government for a black ops team of super villains seems credible enough in this anxiety-ridden world, so Ayer has at least started off not quite well but well enough. And then it all goes downhill so fast into a vortex of suck and cannot recover.
It was at the first act break that I knew this movie wasn’t going to recover and get better. You see the advertising has been very secretive about who the true antagonist is for this movie, which is none other than the Enchantress. The introduction of this Jekyll/Hyde character and her power is initially interesting, though she certainly stands out in a world of meta-humans. The problem is that this character is obviously far more powerful than everyone else in the movie, as evidenced by Waller’s “show off” moment having the Enchantress teleport and bring back nuclear secrets from a hostile foreign nation. I think Ayer realizes this and so he quickly, and I mean quickly, positions the character as the Big Bad of the film. Dr. June Moone whispers the word “Enchantress” and she appears, and then she whispers it in her sleep and, oh no, the wicked witch lady is out and nobody seems to have any contingency for this. How has nobody thought about the risk of her accidentally saying this one word? Should she be sleeping with some sort of gag?
Enchantress steals the other ancient idol containing the spirit of her brother, which is just hanging around for some unknown reason, and the two of them are distraught that mankind, which once worshiped them, has moved on. They’re going to destroy the world by making a vague world-destroying machine, which basically comes across as a giant energy portal. The brother becomes the primary villain, a giant heavy with dumb tentacle weapons, and the two of them take human beings and turn them into a faceless army of disposable soldiers thank to the power of Enchantress kissing them. It’s at this point that the movie reminded me of Sommers’ Mummy Returns sequel where the goofy tone and careless development swallowed the movie whole, shrugging and saying, “What more did you want from us?” The villains are quasi-Egyptian gods who want to destroy the world. The last act finally positions the Enchantress as the one to topple, and our anti-heroes are attacking her with guns and baseball bats. It’s just laughable and not in the good way. The entire Enchantress as villain storyline is a swirling CGI mess and her army of faceless henchmen inspire no interest or dread.
You would rightfully think that a movie about a ragtag team of kooky anti-heroes would be darkly comic and have a whimsical sense of fun, much like what James Gunn achieved with Guardians of the Galaxy. I walked out of Suicide Squad dumbfounded and muttering to myself, “How… how do you screw this up?” I think the movie has confused snark with humor. There is precious little that comes across as funny. The characters have some one-liners but that’s about it, and they grow tiresome after a while. Suicide Squad is a classic example of trying too hard; it’s all empty posturing and posing, asking for plaudits about how edgy this cut-and-dry PG-13 movie must be with its mall Goth aesthetic and irreverent sense of good and evil. It tries so hard to be edgy that you can see the onscreen flop sweat. Case in point: the avalanche of music selections. In the first ten minutes or so it feels like there is one needle-drop music selection mere seconds after another, and Ayer chooses a mixture of artists for their on-the-nose lyrics. “You Don’t Own Me” for Harley Quinn especially, “Come Baby Come” just for a scene involving a bat with the choice lyrics, “swing batter batter batter,” a cover of Nirvana’s “Lithium” because it has “friends in my head” as a lyric, “Sympathy for the Devil” for many obvious reasons, “Spirit in the Sky” when the gang is airborne, “Seven Nation Army” when the gang is put together, and so on. If there were a handful of on-the-nose music selections, it would be passable, but it’s almost like the overzealous music director worked overtime to provide as many selections as possible to cover-up the movie’s empty sense of fun.
No character symbolizes the film’s ethic of trying too hard more than Leto’s (Dallas Buyers Club) rendition of the Joker. Admittedly Heath Ledger’s performance was iconic and cannot be replicated, but Ayer’s script doesn’t even justify the character’s presence. There is no standout or memorable scene with the Joker to help signify just what kind of character he is, how he’s far different and more dangerous than your everyday psychopath. If you called this guy a different name you would swear it’s a different character because they fail to make his inclusion meaningful. We see Joker in flashbacks relating to Harley Quinn, and it’s in these short moments that the character plays best, in particular a high dive into a vat of chemicals all in the name of twisted love. Through Harley, we get a fleeting sense of a Sid and Nancy sort of courtship that could be interesting. However, alone, Leto’s Joker is a wash, intimidating guards with lackluster “crazy talk” and maniacal giggles. There’s a shot of him lying on the ground surrounded by a carefully constructed circle of weapons. It’s a small moment but it makes him seem more OCD than scary.
Joker’s storyline is trying to free his girl from prison, but the larger problem is that Harley Quinn is a worse character when she’s with her “puddin'” Mr. J. She loses her independence and just becomes arm candy and settles into The Girlfriend in Short Shorts. She elevates him and he drags her down. That’s a direct problem with characterization. The Joker is a distraction to the other characters and his small scenes tracking her down do not excuse the detour. Leto snarls and struts but it feels over conscious and dull. There is a better way to use the Joker: make him the target of the Squad. That pushes Harley Quinn directly into the center of the story and provides plenty of internal conflict for her to wrestle with her tortured psyche and sense of adoration for a man who had tortured her and abandoned her. That would be more interesting. In the Snyder universe, we have a Batman who has no compulsion against killing his enemies, so why the hell is the Joker still alive to terrorize? It seems bizarre that Affleck’s Batman would let this guy go unless the fan conspiracy theory that the Joker is secretly a disturbed Jason Todd, a former Robin, was accurate. That would make the character instantly more intriguing and provide some needed depth to what is a shallow character that is all exaggerated attitude. He’s the worst modern Joker but not the worst part of the movie.
The characters are just not that interesting and the far majority of the Squad teammates are meaningless background players. Killer Croc, Boomerang, Slipknot, and Katana are utterly useless in this movie. They fill out space and kill some faceless bad guys, but their plots could just as easily been attached to the other Squad members. Katana in particular is another one that feels like she’s been pulled in from a different movie entirely. She’s introduced as this killer assassin and Flag says, offhand to the point of hilarity, that her sword captures the souls of the men it kills. There’s a later moment where she’s swearing her love to the trapped soul of her husband in the glowing blade, and I just couldn’t hold back and started laughing. I’m sure this point is directly taken from the comics, but it’s thrown in without any care, any setup, and its tone is directly conflicting with the snarky nogoodniks. Diablo is given a boring and predictable arc but he at least has a dollop of characterization outside “zany” or “menacing” because he wants to not use his fire-starting powers. These characters just don’t matter to the story, and the actors aren’t given anything close to resonant character moments to make them matter to us. The Batman cameos are completely superfluous as well. There’s no reason that our criminals couldn’t have been brought in from other circumstances. Batman also has a creepy moment where it seems like he’s forcing himself on Harley Quinn to give her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. It’s such an off-putting and curious moment I kept waiting for Bruce Wayne to wake from another dream sequence.
I think back on Captain America: Civil War again and how the filmmakers were able to deftly integrate a bevy of heroes and make them matter, giving each one a small moment to be fleshed out, providing arcs, and incorporating them in exciting and satisfying ways into combat that would let them show off their stuff. Suicide Squad is not that.
There isn’t one good action sequence in this whole movie, and with the Enchantress army of monster goons, it starts to feel like an extended episode of the Power Rangers but with an oversight of firearms. What’s the point of bringing in a bunch of weird characters with super powers if all they get to do is one gunfight after another? Once the Squad lands in Raccoon City, er, I mean whatever city ground zero is, the movie is one long slog to eventually confront the Enchantress. It’s one abandoned street filled with goons to get shot down after another. Repetition settles in and Ayer doesn’t use the opportunity to have his characters do something fun or different. The action doesn’t excite and the characters don’t excite, and everyone trudges, head down, to their dire destination in the sky. It feels like a shadowy warzone without a clear objective, direction, or understanding of the threat. There is one interesting aspect of the action that’s never developed as it should be, and it’s the Squad’s vulnerability to losing Flag. Not only does he have the control to make their heads burst, if he is killed in action then the Squad dies too. Deadshot realizes that the team has to defend Flag and out-rightly rescue him a couple of times. It reminds me of a video game escort mission but Ayer never really does much more than having his characters recognize this dynamic. As much thought is put into the action as put into the antagonists, which is to say little. Some of the action is so poorly edited and choreographed that I just hit my head against the back of my chair and waited for it to be over.
There are a few bright spots in the film, mostly provided by the lead actors. Smith (Focus) is still one of the world’s most charismatic actors even if he’s saddled with the rote “I wanna see my daughter” storyline to humanize his remorseless assassin. Smith relishes his anti-authority figure and settles into a comfortable and appealing groove. Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street) is delightful and her character’s zany non-sequiturs are more often funny than grating. You can tell Ayer is also a fan, as his camera lovingly oogles her body. It’s a performance that whets your appetite for more Harley Quinn that the movie doesn’t seem to be able to deliver, especially when it starts to go down a route that presents her almost sentimentally. Davis (The Help) does a fine job selling her badass tough guy moments as the leader of the program. I don’t quite buy the “government/jailers are the real bad guys” angle the movie consistently presents to elevate its Dirty Dozen. The “worst of the worst” can’t be all that bad considering we’re working under the mandate of a mainstream PG-13 rating. They’re villains with gooey centers and moral codes.
It’s not at the punishing level of disaster that Batman vs. Superman wrecked, but this is a movie that is plenty bad, and not in the good way, or the fun way, just in the bad way. Even things that should be saving graces for a comic book movie about antiheroes, the fun personalities and visuals, are lacking. Ayer doesn’t know what to do with his overabundance of characters once he gets them assembled and he doesn’t have the visual dynamism of a Snyder. Ayer has talent with writing machismo characters and can even be a fine director of action as he proved with the sturdy WWII tank movie, Fury. It certainly feels like this movie got away from him. If this is trying to be an over-the-top B movie, it fails. If it’s trying to be a flashy and stylish diversion, it fails. If it’s trying to be a subversive take on super heroes, it fails. It just doesn’t work. It wants to thumb its nose at super hero movies and dance to its own anarchic, nihilistic beat, but you never believe the movie’s own convictions. It feels like empty posturing, confusing attitude and costuming for edge. It felt like some film exec pointed at Guardians of the Galaxy and said, “Make us one of those.” The sad thing is that Batman vs. Superman wasn’t good but it was at least ambitious, having to set up multiple franchises, serve as a sequel and reintroduce Batman. Suicide Squad had to do considerably less with the easy task of making a group of crazy anti-heroes as popular entertainment, and it flounders. It’s going to be a long wait until 2017’s Wonder Woman, the next DC movie in their larger plan to compete with the Marvel big boys, and the howls from dissatisfied moviegoers will echo until then, providing a pessimistic landscape for every new scrap of footage and trailer. Remember that the Suicide Squad trailer looked mighty good too and the actual movie is well and truly awful. Sometimes the packaging is the best part and sometimes it’s the only part.
Nate’s Grade: C-