Superman For All Seasons

I’m not certain there’s a movie from the 2010s about which I have grappled so much more than Man of Steel. I’ve seen it about 5 times in the time since it premiered in the summer of 2013, almost all of which took place within those last two years of my time as a film school undergrad (2013-’14) for various social reasons. Which in some ways makes me grateful that I’ve waited so long to finally drop a review proper ’round these parts, which could have gone either way between mutedly negative or mutedly neutral throughout the years. I don’t know flicked a switch in me what about the rewatch of Zack Snyder’s Superman movies back in March in anticipation of HBOMax’s release of the long-murmured-about Snyder Cut for 2017’s Justice League, but something did the trick in this watch and I finally moved up to strong positivity.

It might have just been the retrospect of where popcorn cinema has gone in the past 5 years, particularly superhero blockbusters, being more and more muted in personality. In 2013, particularly in the wake of the ill-advised attempt at feminism that was Sucker Punch, a Zack Snyder picture was the most unappealing concept for me. A Zack Snyder Superman – especially in the wake of the massive misread of one of my favorite works of literature, comic book or otherwise, Watchmen – was especially an unappealing concept for me. And sure enough, the resultant picture is absolutely emblematic of all of Snyder’s indulgences as filtered by an interest to at least capture that same grounded atmosphere of the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy, sharing the weaker link of that trilogy’s writers room in David S. Goyer and Nolan, Emma Thomas, and Charles Roven in the producers’ slate with Snyder’s regular producing partner Deborah. Those indulgences being slow-motion, color timing to the point of draining it away, and generally a sense of sound and fury that rivals Michael Bay.

Well, frankly the last few years have made me more and more hungry for indulgent blockbusters, with that 800-lb gorilla that is Disney literally outlawing any semblance of personality in their output. And I do mean this review as a one of a trilogy of documents of my “come to Jesus” moment with Snyder’s Superman trilogy so in spite of all the mean things I just said above and certainly the grievances I do still have with Man of Steel as a picture, I come to praise the film and not bury it.

Starting with its best foot forward: the origin story of Superman begins literally with his birth on Krypton, portrayed as a pulp science fiction planet with flying Avatar dragons and floating Meteora-esque mountains above the clouds bronzed-up just well enough to feel like it comes from the mind of the director of 300 (thought thankfully cinematographer Amir Mokri doesn’t embalm the soaring visuals with that heavy color, especially in a very marine-color sequence during this prologue). Sober scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is explaining to the High Council the environmental doom that Krypton is headed for, except that happens to conflict with the coup that militant General Zod (Michael Shannon) had scheduled on that same day, barging in to kill every council member in the room and insisting on Jor-El’s allegiance. Instead, Jor-El retrieve the genetic codex by which Kryptonian children are bred and hides it within the same escape pod through which he ejects his naturally birthed son, Kal-El, prior to Zod’s imprisonment after the coup has failed and Krypton’s inevitable destruction.

From here, we watch through impressively fractured chronology largely driven by the investigation of Lois Lane (Amy Adams) trying to find out who this mysterious man (Henry Cavill) who constantly shows up to perform feats of bravery and mercy all ’round North America through physical marvels like holding a collapsing oil tanker in hellish heat long enough for the workers to escape. We learn expectedly that this is the same Kal-El, found in the pod by farmers Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane) in Smallville, Kansas and raised as Clark Kent. And I think it’s particularly in this Rockwellian vision of Midwest Americana that Snyder and Goyer particularly excel. As Clark (who is portrayed as a child by Cooper Timberline and a teenager by Dylan Sprayberry) comes to learn the hard way that he’s not like other kids and his superhuman abilities like x-ray vision and incredible strength and speed, director and writer go all the way in on communicating just how depressed and alone this kid may be while his parents do what they can to ground him back to these earthy roots.

‘Round the time of Man of Steel‘s initial release, a lot of the criticism was to the treatment of Superman as something to be wary of, distanced in his godhood rather a point to aspire to like he is at his most beloved Golden and Silver Age comic book incarnations (there is another major criticism that we will discuss later on). And while I get the criticism, I’ve always found it a bit too closed-off towards a new approach to the character. We have the bright and optimistic Superman of the comics in Richard Donner’s 1987 Superman, which lest we forget is both one of my favorite comic book performances and my absolute favorite live-action comic book movie. If you need THAT Superman, it’s available. Even when I was not a fan of Man of Steel, I certainly found its decision to wonder “how would it feel to discover you are not of this world?” and to engage it in sincere melancholy to be genuinely interesting, even if Mokri and Snyder go a bit overboard on the color correction. Despite that color timing, they constantly find ways to frame Timberline, Sprayberry, and Cavill in emptiness so that the shots can do double duty in making him larger-than-life but also profoundly isolated, amplifying that emotional uncertainty and discomfort that one could argue Cavill’s lack of footing as the titular man of steel actually feels more appropriate to the journey Snyder and Goyer set out for him.

Just as appealing to me is the way that Snyder and Mokri openly ape Terrence Malick just as much as Nolan in their loving shots of wheat fields within that Kent farm that Clark would call his home and with such warm visuals, we understand how that’d be the case too. Malick-inspired movies are about a dime a dozen these days and I’m normally not fond of them (heck, we literally awarded Best Picture and Director Oscars to a Malick rip-off last month), but somehow Snyder’s diving into such a mode with full-on worship that bows its head towards nature similarly to Days of Heaven is very much impressive. Meanwhile, the Kent parents providing Clark with a bit more conflicted and morally dubious suggestions on what would make their son safe rather than fulfill his destiny as a protector of humanity which Costner and Lane successfully deliver as “parents trying their best to help and failing” rather than “adults who would rather see kids die in a bus crash”. Crowe, for his part, shapes this further by playing Superman’s birth father as clearly someone proud and invested in his child’s future but approaches it with chilly scientific interest in stone-faced delivery, like a more matter-of-factly Atticus Finch, and it pushes us to prefer the Kents as figures without disliking Jor-El.

I have made it about 1100 words in spending most of my time on the arguably the first third of the movie, largely because in my eyes… the first third of the movie is perfect. It sets up that grandiosity, that vulnerability, that humanity that makes Man of Steel feel so much more personal and engaged as a story of one guy realizing exactly what he has to be marvelously. But I have no illusions about Man of Steel being perfect and there did come a point in my rewatch where I had to acknowledge “OK, yes, this is why I wasn’t a big fan at first”. It creeps in slowly as the primary external conflict – General Zod’s arrival to Earth seeking conquest, which to Goyer’s credit, ties in well to Clark’s journey to Superman – interrupts Superman’s internal conflict with menace and the threat of 2010s popcorn cinema’s biggest bane, CGI explosion extravaganzas that have not an ounce of the quiet intensity that the Smallville sequences had.

And of course, those sequences pop their ugly head in and take up more space until the climax of Man of Steel turns out to be a colorless gray battle in the ruins of a city that brought up that second famous criticism of the movie, its ostensible lack of concern for collateral damage and the well-being of others (which we will indulge Snyder’s infamous response to on my next review). It not only deals with effects work that hasn’t aged nearly as well as we hoped (though certainly a good amount still survives), but it demolishes the structure of the movie as somehow Goyer determined that Superman vs. Zod was a second feature’s worth of material and added unnecessary further acts and it becomes the obvious point where Warner Bros. as a studio truly mandated Man of Steel resemble as much as any other loud and addle-brained summer blockbuster, especially that there Avengers movie except make it the dark version.

But it is not all bad: we get to witness a morbid vision of Earth as preferred by Zod, ostensibly action movie moments like Lois and Superman escaping Zod’s ship or Superman engaging the World Engine that actually lend themselves to further play with the classic Superman imagery (even if it is still annoying that Zack Snyder had conflated it with Jesus Christ imagery), and the most controversial moment of Snyder’s Superman ever really is one that I think plays extremely well in this character arc.

Most of all, I’ve saved the best element for last and it’s really telling that the weaker the movie gets, the more bravura it is to carry Man of Steel to the finish line. I am speaking of course of Hans Zimmer’s score for the film, which had already done brilliant work in the first few acts subtly seeding itself within the comforts of Clark’s upbringing but once we see him in the red and blue suit for the very first time… Zimmer’s compositions function as practically an ignition to the movie’s best sequence and the climax to all that wonderful character work it was doing trying to get Superman to become THE Superman, his first flight across the globe at high-speeds where Zimmer’s strings and horns soar along with him and feel so eager and elevating in their stirring bombast that we are right there with Cavill, rising in the skies and excited by our potentials. I wouldn’t dare call it superior to John Williams’ iconic march but it is a lot closer of a race than it has any right to be, possibly Zimmer’s career-best work (barring The Thin Red Line) and certainly a miracle of making us believe a man can fly just as the 1987 picture did.

As far as Zimmer carries Man of Steel, it turns out it doesn’t need to carry the movie all the way to the finish line. The final beats of the movie collect itself from all the brainless colorless anti-spectacle quickly enough to tie off the places Snyder, Goyer, and company all brought their new vision of Superman to and earn a sense of optimism to its final dialogue exchange that feel consistent with what we have seen (in fact, that same dialogue exchange makes me grin like a lunatic every time in its obviousness). Which just goes to remind us of where Snyder’s Superman comes from: it’s no less a figure of hope than Christopher Reeve’s beloved Boy Scout, just one that finds itself working harder to get there. Sure, this is a sad Superman, a depressed Superman even, but he is not a miserable Superman as all the biggest critics of the movie seem to claim and it took me a long minute to recognize that while it is cautious about a man of tomorrow standing among the people of Earth with a sense of apprehension and disbelief and distrust about the character’s presence, it is still no less awestruck at the miracle of him and gives exactly the sort of grand scope that such a character demands, just from a different perspective than we expected. A perspective that felt like the first step in Snyder becoming a lot more agreeable as a storyteller.

The Journey Is The Destination

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It is the most tempting thing to approach Stagecoach in terms of where it lands with John Ford’s career and John Wayne’s career, both of which are slightly overstated by history considering that Wayne was already trying very hard to break as a star and Ford had already been so well-established as a Hollywood filmmaker that he even had a Best Director Oscar under his belt. This IS a pair of men who collaborated on a movie that ends with the message “print the legend”, but in any case the legend has some amount of truth to it: this is, more than any other shot at stardom that Wayne took, the one that made him the face of American cinema for the next 20 years at least. And while it wouldn’t be too accurate to call this the movie where Ford came together with his own style, I am tempted to say that as John Ford’s most perfect film… it was a necessary launchpad of his legacy into further masterpieces. Indeed, why – in a chronological series where I am talking about the 7 films of Ford’s that I give five stars ratings to – this is the first movie I’m talking about.

Indeed, it would be tempting to talk about Stagecoach as a John Wayne movie but that would slightly neglect the excellent manner in which Stagecoach functions as an ensemble piece, even while it definitely favors Wayne as a screen persona (who is solely billed under Claire Trevor). In a genre like the Western that is more often than not seen as a metaphor for society and adjacent topics, Dudley Nichols’ screenplay – adapted from the short story “The Stage to Lordsburg” by Ernest Haycox – functions efficiently in that utilisation. The characters in Stagecoach are archetypes before they are flesh-and-blood, but lived in archetypes that feel real in the confines of the story from the collected performances: There’s Dallas (Trevor), an ousted prostitute from the Arizona town of Tonto, accompanied on the coach proudly by fellow disgrace Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell). As Boone is an alcoholic, he very easily takes a liking to the fretful whiskey salesman Peacock (Donald Meek), and as a Union veteran, he takes conflict with the ex-Confederate gambler Hatfield (John Carradine). Hatfield himself joins the stage at the last second-to-last second as a gentleman to accompany the Mrs. Mallory (Louise Platt) as she journeys to reunite with her cavalry hero husband and secretly carries a child in her womb. That actual last-second passenger before the stage departs from Tonto ends up being the windbag banker Gatewood (Benton Churchill), attempting to embezzle money. Driving the carriage to Lordsburg, New Mexico is the unceasingly talkative Buck (Andy Devine) while riding shotgun is Marshal Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft) in the hope that he’ll have a chance to catch the recently escaped prisoner The Ringo Kid, who seeks revenge in that same destination. Very early on the road, Curley gets his wish and catches up with Ringo as his prisoner and one final additional occupant to the coach…

This is probably the only time here where I’ll talk about Stagecoach like the John Wayne show, but Ford and cinematographer Bert Glennon (who worked together the same year on Young Mr. Lincoln) truly knew how to make the camera fall in love with Wayne’s face. And the introductory sequence of The Ringo Kid – which, as you can guess, was Wayne’s role – is the best example of this: we get an off-screen sound cue of a rifle blast (meant to get the wagon’s attention) and cut to a medium shot of Wayne before the frontier mountains, saddle in one hand and performing the dynamic action of spinning his Winchester to reload with the other as the camera zooms so fast into a close-up that it loses focus for a noticeable split second. It is a movie throughout excited to present Wayne among other things where Ringo ends up superseding Dallas as the movie’s ostensible protagonist by Ford’s fiat and an excellent example of how Ford is able to use the form to favor certain characters over others.

And yet though Wayne is the STAR, I maintain that this is a movie whose strengths come from the collective adoption of the ensemble storytelling. Nichols’ script has thrown several distinct personalities into a stagecoach and just let them interact with each other as the actors throw in their own personal non-verbal reactions to their interacting: the manner in which Hatfield favors Mallory but ignores Dallas when it comes to his principles on how to act before a lady, Doc’s continuous pestering of Peacock for whiskey samples to Peacock’s discontent, Buck’s endless yammering while Curley tries to maintain vigilance as the coach enters Apache country without the cavalry’s escort, Gatewood’s constant blustering to the annoyance of everyone, and so much more. This is a movie about forcing characters in spatial relation to one another and responding towards the others’ presence and seeing if the length of the ride is enough to see a change in any of them. Ford, Glennon, and editors Otho Lovering and Dorothy Spencer are excellent at keeping us aware of the spatial relation when using the frame to box the characters within the coach (mostly in sets of twos) and relying on eyelines to make it clear who is speaking to whom and TOWARDS them too, but a dinner table scene around the 1/3 mark takes full advantage of that wide open space to explore just how far of a length these characters wish to maintain between each other depending on their disrepute. It is in the moments of the stage’s stops where we are most beholden to the blocking as much as Ford and Glennon’s containment of that blocking in the frame.

It’s also the case that Ford and Glennon have no problem applying that same visual favor to the rest of the characters as they do to Wayne, given that this is also a story about the hypocrisies and gatekeeping of society. Dallas is the most sympathetically presented character – even ahead of Ringo – as we watch her being practically chased out by a hovering cluster of old women with judging eyes. Doc Boone is given no less a framing of dignity than his sober fellows. In fact, the most evidently unfavored of the Stagecoach inhabitants is Gatewood, playing as an example of the manner in which Stagecoach has a disinterest in proper society and the way it treats its outcasts. Gatewood is ostensibly the most distinguished figure there and also the most blatantly crooked and bullying. Meanwhile, Mallory and Hatfield – being the second and third most distinguished (distantly third for the gambler) – have their moments where the film looks down on their attitudes towards Dallas and Boone but also allows nuance that lends itself to the most interesting arcs for the characters.

Within the two towns where this movie starts and ends, there is nothing but dismissal for Ringo, Dallas, and Boone and the film’s shots are no less dynamic – as Ford had an eye for composition like no one else in the game – but feel less eye-catching than the actual journey that takes wide fascination with the landscape and the image of a lone coach traveling through these lands (particularly Monument Valley*, Ford’s favorite location and it is so easy to see why) and the place where Ringo and Dallas can dream of a better life together beyond the border of “civilization”. Particularly the moonlit night sequences where they stand with a fence between them as the celestial glow lands on them talking romantically, obvious in its symbolism but nevertheless striking. Personally, I find it fascinating that a director who takes care to establish Native Americans as a presence beyond white society is so eager to condemn white society as lacking any place for these characters that Stagecoach gives its heart to and if there is one wish I had, it was that Stagecoach extended that grace to its exclusively hostile depiction of the Apache people.

The only time this balance doesn’t work out is something Stagecoach gets away with because it is also the most exciting and conventionally entertaining scene: a climactic action-packed chase from the Apache warriors packed with tracking shots of fierce stampeding and several of the most mind-blowing stunts from the legendary Yakima Canutt. I imagine only someone clinically dead could not have their heart-stopped watching Canutt climb under the coach harnesses or running with the camera across this terrain trying to dodge or even feel helpless in a late beat between Mallory and Hatfield, but maybe I’m just too taken by Ford’s sense of action and adventure and character drama complimenting each other.

For Stagecoach is not Ford’s best movie in my eyes, but it gives a good argument for being my favorite Ford movie and thereby one of my favorite movies of all time. It is a good amount of so many things, all of them constructed so efficiently that you can hardly notice the time passing by you or how conventional it is at the end of it all, while many of these things are communicated with the most memorable broad strokes possible on the level of imagery, performance, and storytelling that it stands as a quintessential work of Hollywood’s most noteworthy year of filmmaking.

*Come to think of it: That’s the one “FIRST” of Stagecoach, the First Western to use Monument Valley’s iconic imagery. Look up Harry Goulding when you get a chance, as that man is responsible for the way we see the Wild West in a manner that is not appreciated enough.

Skrrt Skrrt in Reverse

There is a claim amongst those who have chosen to go to the cinema to see Christopher Nolan’s latest film Tenet* that it is way too confusing. I get where the attitude is coming from too, since Nolan’s script is basically filled with the continuous dumps of exposition that have made him a notorious storyteller but particularly the stuff focusing on its central conceit is delivered in labyrinthine convolutions that even our Protagonist (John David Washington) needs a minute to digest and calibrate to, something sadly prevented on account of Tenet‘s notoriously poor dialogue sound-mixing**. And speaking of our unnamed Protagonist, the manner in which character or story feels more thin and obligatory than anywhere else in Nolan’s career probably just made viewers feel like it wasn’t worth the work of sorting out that dense stuff.

But, also I don’t really care.

Which is not the same thing as saying that Nolan doesn’t care since I’d claim elements regarding the character of Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) and certain reveals come from a place that assumes we have more connection to the characters than I think it accomplishes. But I do think it’s clear that Nolan just wanted most of the story material to act as stakes or pretext to what he’s really trying to play with.

And what he’s ostensibly supposed to be playing with is time, but what I feel like Tenet is REALLY playing with… something that made it an absolute blast for me and an incredibly swift 2 1/2 hours in the theater… is momentum. Pure forward momentum, with editor Jennifer Lame throwing us right into the first action setpiece to heart-pounding bass rhythm of Ludwig Göransson’s phenemonal score – both replacing Nolan’s long-time collaborators Lee Smith and Hans Zimmer for the first time and making their mark from the first frame. The thrust of Tenet‘s pacing is a thing of which it shares with the best 21st Century action films***, but what I really think Tenet shares most of its M.O. with is The Terminator. That movie – possibly the best action movie of all time – finds a way to keep running forward with its characters while still consistently and regularly dropping new bits of information to deepen what originally began as just as an interminable chase.

Tenet isn’t a chase, though, it is a globe-trotting espionage tale. It is basically Nolan’s attempt at his own science-fiction James Bond picture with areas of luxury porn and villain lairs. Washington proves to be suave and relaxed enough to fill that sardonic secret agent type while still finding room to respond in emotionally plausible ways as he learns more about Kat or his partner Neil (Robert Pattinson, likewise relaxed in a proper sloppy way). It even gladly gives Kenneth Branagh the easiest opportunity to ham up a Russian accent for the sake of cartoonish Bond villain bombast.

And it’s probably here that I confess that my hesitance to sum up the plot is based on wanting to give as little of the twisty plot away as possible since the whiplash of those reveals is part of what launches us just be another of Tenet‘s a plentiful popcorn setpieces of varying scale. Suffice it to say that the Protagonist learns of an eponymous organization that deals with time travel and a potentially devastating future and the movie follows his investigation into the organization while learning firsthand of the method of time travel: objects are inverted in their entropy to a point that they experience the same linear time but in the opposite direction from us. So it looks to the eye (camera or otherwise) like the subject is moving backwards, whether falling up into a hand or being fired into a gun.

Essentially, the camera trick that this conceit recruits into being the star of the film is the oldest in the book: running film backwards (and while I doubt that they actually performed this manually as that is maniacal in the 21st Century, I expect that celluloid purist Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema felt further kindred to that trick by shooting in 70mm IMAX). Here is where it is most impressive that Nolan and Lame are able to make Tenet as a film feel like it’s driving down its path without stopping even in the moments where the sudden change to backwards movement should feel like a gear shift. Van Hoytema maintains the same sleekness with the reversed elements in any given shot as the forwarded elements and the cleanliness of combining the two is completely exciting to experience, particularly in action sequences where we are taken by surprise with what is reverted while Lame just clips each shot ever so slightly so that the abruptness of a cut makes us consistently feel disarmed without losing coordination with the pieces of a sequence.

That latter part is particularly most admirable of Lame’s involvement and one of the most underrated things I find about Tenet and probably the biggest reason I wasn’t bothered by the lack of clarity with regards to the why or how is its clarity regarding what’s happening in a moment-by-moment sense. For one thing, halfway through the film we are introduced to a color-coding with red and blue in a subtle moment regarding what state certain characters are in during a particular moment and this is later given an overt reminder with a specific lighting of an industrial set. For another, Göransson gladly utilises backmasking in moments where the Protagonist or Neil (and thereby we as an audience) are meant to be experiencing the inversion ourselves, giving us an aural experience that matches the visuals of a world moving the opposite way as us, while still maintaining a steady bass beat all throughout to keep us drawn in (I imagine that this comes particularly from Göransson’s background as a hip hop producer and man does it result in possibly the best score for a Nolan movie to date).

None of this negates how obstructive the dialogue mixing is, particularly when I mentioned above that consistent reveals feel just as much a part of the momentum as the action itself. But I definitely found myself catching up to each moment with enough focus. “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” is the button to one of our central exposition scenes and I have to say that that philosophy worked well for me watching Tenet. It is like most other Nolan pictures in that if you stop to give it too much thought and it will eventually fall apart (this is even true of his most-acclaimed picture, The Dark Knight). But if you are willing to just pay attention and get ahold of what’s going, you will have good time just swaying with every swing that it throws you on. If you’re not down with that, well then you may as well be playing the movie backwards.

*Which to those who have decided not to go to a movie theater, my due respect to you. I understand it is a theater-by-theater case regarding the measures taken while we’re still in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic but the theater I went to (which I will not name) did not feel as safe as I’d hoped and I don’t think there’s another release coming that I intend to go to a cinema to watch for the next several months. I had a great time as the review should indicate, but I am conflicted about my act and will not be recommending anyone to go to a movie theater as long as COVID is active in their area.
**Nolan has claimed that this is deliberate to add subterfuge and confusion. I honestly find that kind of shitty.
***Mad Max: Fury Road, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, and John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum are the ones that I think of when I say that, none of which Tenet is even close to the level of, I am sorry to say but not too sorry.

Keanu Dig It?

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Lately I’ve been finding myself over excited for the possibility of Chad Stahelski adapting Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim, a series that was a personal guilty pleasure read back in my undergrad years. This excitement was verbalized shortly after seeing his latest feature John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, the third in the John Wick franchise that saw him make the move for Hollywood stuntman to action film director, where I realized that this franchise and the Sandman Slim series had a lot of things in common that Stahelski has proven a boon to: (under)world-building, a story of romance-based vengeance, a protagonist who is evidently the best at the violent thing he does, but the biggest element that Parabellum indicates (and that I should have known from the first John Wick) is a love for movies and eagerness for references that is shared by Kadrey’s books.

Within the first three minutes, Buster Keaton clips are projected in the background off of a Times Square building (this was also done in John Wick: Chapter 2 within the first three SHOTS). Within 30 minutes, the titular assassin John Wick (Reeves) seeks refuge in the Tarkovsky Theatre*. And then there’s the casting, which is obviously not the first thing I’d expect to praise John Wick for, but as the best ensemble of the whole franchise to date, a lot of the actors feel very much winking to their past careers. Mark Dacascos is introduced running a sushi shop, Jerome Flynn (in a heinous accent) finally lives Bronn’s dream of having a castle, Boban Marjanovic’s cameo appearance feels reminiscent of fellow basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the Bruce Lee vehicle Game of Death, and in a franchise full of flexes, no bigger flex is made than having Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman – Mad Dog and The Assassin themselves – mark over getting to fight John Wick himself! Not unexpected coming from a franchise that knowingly reunited Laurence Fishburne with his Matrix co-star but to the degree that this third entry indulges in… wow.

Needless to say, the ensemble is only one of every single aspect of the John Wick films that Parabellum has amped up. Following in the style of the later Mission: Impossible films, Chad Stahelski and his team’s response to continuing the tales of their grieving assassin is to just bring out “more”. More elaborate fights, more elaborate sets, more elaborate world-building, and on and on. The note that Chapter 2 left Wick on was the promise of the entire underworld of Assassins – centralized by the international chain of hotels called The Continental – coming down on Wick, so there wasn’t much to demand of writer Derek Kolstad and yet he finds a way to add a layer to that threat in the form of the confident and poised official Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon). The Adjudicator’s sights expand beyond Wick to the hands of anybody who aided or aids Wick in his escape from repercussions, including New York City’s Continental manager Winston (Ian McShane) and Bowery King (Fishburne), and this allows more sketching of the hierarchies and traditions of this murderous culture while Wick has to deal with end-to-end would-be killers trying to get his head.

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More than anything, this unrelenting hunt that Wick is at the center of introduces a wide variety of combat styles stemming from the otherwise mundane locations Wick has to escape from alive – from having to deal with the cramped rows of the New York Public Library to a vintage Chinatown warehouse filled with knives to evading motorcycles under the L train on horseback – bringing out the full creativity of the stunt coordinators trying to escalate each fight to a climax and the full ability of the stunt team to use their bodies as spectacle. And their humor too as this turns out to be the most self-aware of the John Wick films to date with moments like Wick weaponizing a notorious joke from Blart Blart: Mall Blart 2 and recreating Tuco’s revolver-building sequence from The Good, the Bad, the Ugly as a ticking timeclock sequence. Dacascos himself seems eager to jump in on the good humor of the franchise, his shinobi master Zero being all too eager to make pals with Wick while still stressing the inevitability of him killing Wick as hired by The Adjudicator as their primary instrument. And it’s a cheeky attitude that fills every facet of Parabellum as a work of art, most notoriously when production designer Kevin Kavanaugh includes – amongst his sleek, flowing luxury Berber tents in the Sahara and finely-aged historic ballet auditoriums – a set made out of glass designed to visualize the video game-like boss levels Wick must elevate in the climax as well as facilitate an absurdly hilarious moment where he just keeps getting kicked over and over by Zero’s ninjas into sugarglass pillars with no time to catch his breath.

John’s inability to ever catch his breath seems evermore present in this installment, making us more aware then ever that everything John is going through during this trilogy took place in very close chronological proximity (Parabellum opens less than an hour after Chapter 2 closed) and after Kolstad practically ignoring John’s widow-ship in the last movie, it’s brought forward once more for John to answer the query: “My son, how did you come to be so lost? Never seen a man fight so hard to end up back where he started.” Indeed, embodying frustrated exhaustion turns out to be yet another effective utilization of Reeves’ acting limits, where his laconic nature pushes against all the blood and sweat and sand all around him to be more focused in its viciousness than ever.

But really this is all just a pretext for designing fashion like violence. A very dedicated pretext mind you that certain viewers might understandably not find as gloriously pulpish as I do (indeed, a backstory scene between Wick and Halle Berry’s Sofia feels like the weakest moment in the franchise while still maintaining this film being the best work either actor has performed yet), but the pretext is able to step out of the way quick enough to return to the chase for Wick and the constantly escalating danger (paced impeccably by Evan Schiff so that each battle feels like an individual short film) in an ever-more florid array of Metropolitan color provided by Dan Laustsen (this film might include my favorite cinematic depiction of Manhattan’s Chinatown, presented in such overwhelming rain that the lights become blurry circles in the alleys interrupting the blue with imperfect circles of yellow and red).

It’s such an overwhelming amount of visual stimuli, overwrought dramatic epic (with a 30s serial-esque quest into the golden Sahara desert taking place in the middle), and breathtaking body movements (so aware of action movie’s function as cinematic ballet that it intercuts a violent slaughter with a ballet sequence) outdoing its predecessors that answering John Wick: Chapter 4‘s demand for “more” seems an impossible task for Stahelski, but I’m excited nevertheless for how they meet that need head-on. I mean, we have MORE DOGS in this film even and they munch on their enemy’s nuts! Deez Nutz!

*Which in turn brings one to remember Atomic Blonde – directed by John Wick‘s uncredited co-director David Leitch – featuring a fight scene set behind a movie screen playing Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker.

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Ride the Tiger, You Can See His Stripes But You Know He’s Clean/You Can Feel His Heart But You Know He’s Mean

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There is a reticence in talking about Mandy, Panos Cosmatos’ fuck crazy 2nd feature film following the 2009 cult horror Beyond the Black Rainbow, by way of its narrative elements by both detractors and fans. The detractors simply posit that the film doesn’t have anything to say while the fans (of which I am a very devoted one) may or may not agree with that but think “who cares?”, a sentiment I would agree with 9 out of 10 times as a hardcore formalist. But when it comes to Mandy, I have to admit the emotional charge of the movie is so irreversibly tied to all of its aesthetical pleasures that it feels like claiming Blade Runner or Mad Max: Fury Road are shallow just because they happen to be simple screenplays with filmmakers who decide to expand their themes within their designs. Every visual and audial decision within those two films does more to inform how you feel, bring up concepts and themes for you to ponder about, and guide you into some semblance of an emotional beginning, middle, and end than their skeletal screenplay.

Mandy’s screenplay, written by Cosmatos and Aaron Stewart-Ahn, is one that begins by taking the good part of an hour establishing the serenity of 1983 California’s Shadow Mountains where grizzled lumberjack Red (Nicolas Cage) and his spacey titular artist/convenience store clerk girlfriend Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) live in calming isolation within the wooden terrain, apparently serving as each other’s comforts from some upsetting past (an unacknowledged scar runs down the left of Mandy’s huge pool-like eyes and there’s the slightest hint from Red’s refusal of a beer that he has survived alcoholism). It’s working as Red quietly lounges in their transparent glass house (with a bedroom that’s all windows seeing the trees before them and the stars above) and Mandy indulges in reading dark fantasy novels that inspire her artwork and discussing astronomy with Red. But this does not last as Mandy crosses paths with the sinister Children of the New Dawn cult based in some curdled bastard spawn of hippie philosophy and Christian fanaticism. She particularly catches the lustful eye of their deranged leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) and he uses his power to invade Red and Mandy’s home.

The subsequent violence that occurs invokes a rage that brings about the forging of a battle axe that resembles Celtic Frost’s logo, the hunting down of their Black Skulls bikers (who look like grisly Clive Barker-imagined Judas Priest fans, in inky black leather speaking in gargled guttural sounds resembling blood stuck in their throat and surrounded by a doomy fog), an inadvertent trip through cocaine and blood-mixed LSD, and the hunting down of the Children themselves including an eventual chainsaw battle that leaves Motel Hell’s brilliant fight in the dust*. It’s a film that feels like a music video despite the only needle drop being the very calm and lulling King Crimson track “Starless”. But it opens with a quote about being buried listening to music and Mandy’s whole wardrobe is band shirts and we are shown late in the film that they met at a local metal concert, so there’s no escaping the musical nature of the film.

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Overall, Mandy is a film that feels of the same spirit of Beyond the Black Rainbow: Panos Cosmatos knows the kind of movies he loves watching and he wants to make more of them (that his tastes align with mine make me all the more eager that he make more while being horrified at the 9-year gap between his first and second movie). He knows what he loves to look at: big swatches of primary colors from cinematographer Benjamin Loeb bathing the images, heavy metal inspired designs with prog rock pacing, unhinged and practically comical bloodletting in large form, and apparently he’s a huge fan of Too Many Cooks (Casper Kelly guest directs a fake commercial that serves as sudden comic relief to the most emotionally devastating moment AND – on second watch I realized this – begins a series of visual breadcrumbs to our protagonist’s crazed journey). More importantly, he knows the sort of music he loves to hear: hellish, droning, sludgy black metal that uses shuddering impact for rhythm and wants to go as deep as it possibly can so as to make your bones vibrate for the coming violence alternating with echoing simple guitar tones for the early moments of domestic bliss, supplied impeccably by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson as the last of his career-long trials to transform music into mood-informing sound design**. If I have to tell you that’s my musical jam, you don’t know me and I must admit Jóhannsson’s range here between sedate relaxation and harsh tonal noise focused on guitar and synthesizers feels the closest we will come to a Buckethead score which is something I’ve always wanted.

Anyway, Mandy does indeed share only the spirit of Beyond the Black Rainbow and practically nothing else. For one thing, as opposed to Black Rainbow’s interiors***, Mandy is so very much in love with the texture of the outdoor Shadow Mountains and just as the first hour serves to ingrain the sincerity of Red and Mandy’s relationship, it also makes us intimately familiar with the lush terrain in which they found their peace. The first scene of Red finishing his work day has a dusky shadowy blue to it that softens the image while distinguishing the dark brown from the leafy green (the whole movie seems to go for a fuzzy grained filmic look but the sharpness of the imagery tells us this is digital). A shot of Mandy reading her favorite book on her bed halos her in a glow radiating from the window of trees behind her. It is the sort of movie that makes me wish to live in its environment, if not for the fact that we’re also witnessing this beautiful paradise transform into something more demonic starting with the devil reds that make up the entirety of the Children’s introductory scene driving in. As the film progresses, it slowly dries out into caverns and hills and we have man-made objects impose themselves into this place, like churches and hangars that imprison tigers in them, until it’s a yellow-crimson and alien and unrecognizable. Mandy‘s final shot only confirms a space that seems to mirror the character’s final states of mind.

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For another thing, Mandy is as aware of the presence of cosmic influences as its predecessor but humorously unconcerned with it. Bill Duke’s understated cameo that functions to demystify the dragons Nicolas Cage intends to slay. If it weren’t for the beautiful final shot, a repeating dream format, and a jarring drug trip montage 2/3 of the way in, its dry humor might be seen as dismissive towards its inspired ideas. MIGHT. Instead, all it means is that Cosmatos and his cast and crew – I never even had time to acknowledge the brilliant duality in Brett W. Bachman’s editing because for all the first is patient and in no hurry for us to soak in the place-setting, the second half’s cutting ratchets and escalates things to a roaring final third and that’s while still indulging flourishes like a dissolving superimposed close-up between Jeremiah and Mandy or a ghostly slowing-down of movements. And I don’t know who’s responsible for the three major title cards but I want them all in my bedroom wall – they’re all going to have fun with the movie. Having a sense of humor doesn’t water down how exhilarated it feels about itself. In some ways, it makes Red’s statements more badass in a casual way (“Don’t be negative” is my favorite line in the movie).

Anyway, if I’ve sold anybody on rushing to see this movie, I’m going to insist you stop reading right here because it’s gonna be a good ol’ spoiler alert while I go into what I think the movie wants to say. I sure hope the promise of Mandy‘s rock and roll sensory overload is enough to imply your satisfaction (though there is clearly going to be some people that know this isn’t for them). Indeed, there are some who would argue understandably that Mandy is much more rewarding without reading much into it and it’s certainly rewarding enough as manic carnage with a metal soul.

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I am not one of those people.

That sensory overload is not just sound and fury. It’s a story about loss and the sort of devastation it brings to a personality and to a home. Nicolas Cage is an actor we are familiar with as acting unchained and unhinged, grinning maniacally and screeching and yelling frequently. It’s amusingly extreme, but extreme nonetheless and primal. And in Mandy, there’s a context to that… Red has just had everything that made his home a home destroyed. Everything that domesticated him. He’s now a wild animal, caked in blood by the time he finishes off the Black Skulls and now only speaking in order to discuss the violence he is about to return to the people who killed Mandy. It’s extremely self-indulgent and unhealthy in its portrayal of him drinking and snorting and slashing and decapitating (and if Loeb’s camera movements during the centerpiece bathroom breakdown imply anything, the film is aware of this and afraid to approach him, instead just hovering around) but it’s Red letting his masculine rage out against the Children nevertheless. And by the end of it, he has a John Wick-like emptiness and roams aimlessly down this landscape too close to comfort to Jupiter.

And yet there’s a layer of the film that implies that it’s not Red’s grieving that’s occurring: it’s Mandy’s. I can’t help reading the film as potentially her fantasy in grieving for Red (which would explain the otherwise uncommented on moment where Red is stabbed in the gut). The constant dreams where she is present in gorgeous animated form guiding him, the juxtaposition between him and a tiger, the mythological items that appear (with the villains’ tools always in a sudden flashing green close-up) similar to the books Mandy reads, and the final shot of starlings (a bird Mandy has much grief for) giving a soundscape to illustrations of Red in heroic form share a back and forth between how one person might shed any humanity in dealing with losing someone and another might use storytelling and comforting associations to mourn softly. As Mandy’s shirts imply, she is also the metalhead between the two of them so it’s safe to assume Cosmatos gave Mandy the same tastes as himself.

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It’s an authorial cycle that doesn’t lean towards a complete answer but the ambiguous way in which Mandy maintains that its eponymous character remains involved and arguably a prime mover of the story allows every aesthetical device to be something that informs Mandy’s personalities and likes (despite Riseborough giving a significantly more interiorized performance than anyone save for Duke), probably the most defined character in a movie that’s mostly archetypes.

That’s just me, though. Any positive reading of Mandy seems like one I can dig and overall, it’s a film that refuses to bore me and just wants to be the biggest and most ambitious version of a violent revenge story that it can be. There’s no denying Cosmatos has plenty he wants to say within it – the fragility of male ego (though the fridging of Mandy makes it hard for me to call it a feminist movie), the delusional nature of personality cults if not religions generally, and the true purity of metalheads vs. hippies – but he doesn’t really need you to take those things out of the movie with you. All he wants you to do is take these words to heart:

“When I die, bury me deep, lay two speakers at my feet, put some headphones on my head and rock ‘n’ roll me when I’m dead.”

(wisely refraining from crediting the verse to convicted murderer Douglas Roberts)

*I am willing to shoot to death anyone who tries to claim Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 comes even close.
**I am for the record still very very angry we will never hear his scrapped Blade Runner 2049 score.

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Credibility for its Incredibility

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It’s petulant of me to be so hung up on the reception of Incredibles 2, which as of this writing has a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and an 80 on Metacritic, as being insufficient to what the movie accomplishes. I have yet to encounter a person who thinks the movie is bad and the worst that I’ve heard is “it’s fine but not as good as the original”. But I do have an inclination of what kind of person is more reserved for their praise for Brad Bird’s sequel to the 2004 animated superhero film The Incredibles and what they look for in movies is frankly different than what I look for.

This is not necessarily to state that the very existent flaws in Incredibles 2 are not to be taken seriously. After all, cinema is to many a storytelling medium first and the sloppiness of Bird’s screenplay in terms of thematic drive and character arc is not nothing. There’s even an explanation for what might have caused such a lapse in narrative delivery: the unofficial story regarding Incredibles 2 taking 14 years to exist is that Bird did not really want to make the movie*. There’s more to the unofficial story, such as the slightly suspicious suggestion that Bird was forced to make the film due to Tomorrowland‘s underperformance (though the screenplay was announced as started a month BEFORE Tomorrowland‘s 2015 premiere). There’s also the official story that Bird was under the impression that he would have one year more of production than he actually got and when Toy Story 4 was pushed back from a release date of 15 June 2018, Incredibles 2 was placed into the empty slot and fast-tracked (Bird has since suggested that he has enough unused material from this motion to make a potential third film, though I doubt he’s in a rush).

So what was Bird able to come up with in that short amount of time? Returning back to the exact spot The Incredibles ended on where the Parr family prepares to face-off against the underground drill driver The Underminer (John Ratzenberger). Strongman patriarch Bob aka Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) is able to cause enough collateral damage during the fight to remind us just why superhero activity was still illegal at the end of the last film, which is just the perfect arena for the telecommunications magnate Deaver siblings to enter – super enthusiast pitch man Winston (Bob Odenkirk) and lackadaisical tech genius Evelyn (Catherine Keener) – and suggest a campaign be done to convince the government legalize superheroics again, picking Bob’s stretch wife Helen aka Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) as its face.

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This takes a definite blow to Bob’s ego as he’s left to the domestic demands of raising three children with their own issues: invisible teenager Violet (Sarah Vowell), speedy Dash (Huck Milner), and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile) who is quickly discovered to have a revolving door of powers from flame manipulation to multiplying to laser eyes to dimension hopping to shapeshifting and on and on. It’s apparent Bob does not prove to be as flexible towards house-husband life as Helen did and the presence of a mind-controlling supervillain known as the mysterious Screenslaver taking up most of Helen’s attention means it’s a new world Bob has to traverse alone.

The places Bird’s script goes with this are not very revelatory, including the Screenslaver as an antagonist playing by the recent Walt Disney Animation Studios handbook. There’s a messier handle on communicating whatever themes Incredibles 2 wants to carry, with a lot less incisive commentary on domestic life or its characters (Violet has her own larger conflict that’s part of Bob’s arc, Dash doesn’t really have one except “bad at math”). But it does introduce to us a large amount of superheroes and a bigger world of ramifications than the effective interiority of the first film, effectively scaling upwards in an unwieldy fashion, so the somewhat sloppy manner doesn’t really bother me nearly as much as it should.

Plus, I think the movie is across the board funnier, even when it’s clearly padding the running time with jokes: every scene with Jack-Jack’s now increased role is an absolute delight whether his screen partner is costumer Edna Mode (Bird himself voicing her) or a wily raccoon. There’s a sequence in the middle of the film that’s an obviously bad move on Bob’s part but gives us plenty of cringe humor for Violet. The next generation of superheroes are made up of a variety of gag-ready powers and personalities (including a beautiful exchange regarding the concept of “uncrushing”). Not to say that The Incredibles wasn’t an enjoyable chuckler, but its humor is of a drier sort. This got a whole lot of chesty laughs from yours truly.

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Anyway, if Bird’s disinterest in Incredibles 2 as a project clearly affects the story, it does not affect the actual craft of the film and that’s where the real excitement comes in for yours truly. Pixar, much like any other household animation studio (possibly moreso), has made a name out of slowly improving the technical aspects of their animation. The Incredibles, being an aesthetic particularly based on rejecting photorealism for simple cartoonish character designs and an aesthetic based on 60s pop culture flatness, are a challenge to that ideology and yet Incredibles 2 expands on every single aspect a Pixar film can expand upon: a variety of shot scales, lighting, and image depth explored without losing one inch of the caricaturization of its worlds inhabitants. And it’s certainly not style for style’s sake: a city-sweeping montage set against the Screenslaver’s distorted monologuing earns a gothic noir tone specifically for how the cynicism in its voice plays well with the metropolitan shadows.

A moment followed by the infamous strobe sequence fight scene, which is the unfortunate source of pain for photosensitive viewers but also the moment the film is proudest about Erik Smitt’s lighting, blasting images of dizzying monochrome swirls against silhouettes of action poses, so intensely that it’s hard to imagine it not distressing the viewer in a visceral way, whether or not they suffer from epilepsy. And it’s only one of the many creative action setpieces Bird takes a joy out of constructing. The most popular one: a race to stop a rogue train that brings out all the possible stops for a speeding Elastigirl, looking for new ways to force her contortions and obstacles to make a viewer catch their breath with the speed in which she zips and bends and twists in fluid sweeping wide shots that editor Stephen Schaffer can hardly look away from. It’s a heart-stopping sequence that certainly explains Bob’s egotistical jealousy of his spouse’s capabilities as a superhero, while also establishing that Elastigirl is just so much more fun to watch. My personal favorite is Jack-Jack’s mini Looney Tunes showdown against a raccoon, a kneeslapper distracting us from the primary story arc for a moment yet bouncing as many powers out of a hat as possible for Jack-Jack to get the Raccoon’s eyes wider and wider. Hell, the supporting cast of next-generation superheroes transparently exist to give the Parrs a new source of challenges, particularly Voyd (Sophia Bush) who creates portals that make for interesting antithetical combat to Violet’s force-field defenses.

In general, I think the complaints of those who walked away disappointed and the accolades of others like me who were fascinated with the film come from the same modus operandi: if Bird was going to have to make this movie, he was going to try to make it big. The reason The Incredibles worked so brilliantly as a story was its ability to intimately alternate between its function as superhero tale and domestic drama and Incredibles 2 tries to do that and admittedly fumbles a lot. It can’t accomplish this as smoothly because Bird is interested implying a larger world now: more focus on the worldview of superheroes than how its affects the Parrs, more focus on establishing a gallery of supers rather than giving them the same depth as the Parrs or even family friend Lucius “Frozone” Best (Samuel L. Jackson). But it succeeds at making the world seem wider and promising the potentials of visualizing every single nook and cranie of that world with its craft, filling it with style and bombast. Even Michael Giacchino has found ways to turn his already iconic score into a brand-new snappy soundtrack for the picture (there’s a snare-kick early on during the Underminer bank robbery that got me ready for anything). So if The Incredibles surpasses as a construction of fiction, I still think the choice is clear which movie functions better as popcorn cinema overall and I frankly might go as far to call Incredibles 2 the best Pixar film since Inside Out. Sometimes, more IS more.

*Indeed, this clear reluctance to make Incredibles 2 is a large part of why my expectations for it were pretty low.

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Les Incroyables!

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Out of the four animated pictures Brad Bird wrote and directed, The IncrediblesThe Incredibles is my least favorite. But of course, Brad Bird is of an incredible (pun not intended) animation case where every single film he directed could fit a favorite spot for anybody and not get a blink from me.* Although, one has to admit it took the world maybe a tiny while to recognize that, as his masterful directorial debut The Iron Giant was a massive box office as a suspected result of Warner Bros. Feature Animation failing to market the film after clashing with Bird and trying to force him to add more “marketability” to it. Clearly that experience embittered Bird enough to take his ball and go to Pixar Animation Studios – then already earning its brand recognition as the high water-mark for contemporary animated storytelling – where he already had a friend in co-founder John Lasseter from their education at CalArts.

That ball happened to be a pitch on a domestic drama between a family of superheroes developing personal anxieties, developed by Bird to eventually become the full concept of a post-superhero society outlawing the superpowered crime-fighters for their collateral damage and the family’s attempts to conform into a mundane suburban existance with their relocation and government-mandated identities. And that family is the Parrs: made up of cocky child speedster “Dash”iell (Spencer Fox), teenage invisibility-and-force-field-capable outsider Violet (Sarah Vowell), stretchable housewife worn thin Helen (Holly Hunter), strongman Bob (Craig T. Nelson) whose weakness is midlife crisis, and baby Jack-Jack to round it off. The character and family metaphor behind all of their powers is impossible to miss, but it’s certainly not 2-dimensional. Their home life is in fact the very core of the narrative and grants it thematic richness, especially in terms of Bob’s painful nostalgia for old times and Helen having to deal with it. Back in the day, Bob and Helen were among apparently beloved superheroes, the two of them known as Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl respectively. And we’re introduced to this and other facts in an opening sequence that’s a rolling Rube Goldberg machine of setpiece after setpiece (with subtle expositional setups) while Mr. Incredible keeps himself busy with non-stop crises just before a big night, just before Bird masterfully brings the momentum to a screeching halt as the government pulls its shutdown in comedic black-and-white newsreels slowing us down to see the dead-eyed Bob fifteen years later with the story proper.

When it first came out in 2004, we just at the very cusp of superheroes carving out their own reserved spot in the annual cinematic discussion. They had an increased presence in the wake of the X-Men and Spider-Man successes, but we weren’t yet at the post-2008 surge into a pop culture environment where superheroes have now become an overwhelmingly permanent fixture on mainstream cinema. Back then, The Incredibles had earned the immediate fanfare that Bird desired from audiences and critics, generally considering it to be just another knock-out in Pixar’s early run of masterworks, but that doesn’t acknowledge what’s most fascinating about The Incredibles as a project was how distinguishable it was from the rest of Pixar’s output at the time.

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Not least of which in the visual design of the film, with Bird already coming to the studio with a conceit of the movie taking place in a world reminiscent of the 1960s and having Lou Romano and Ralph Eggleston give us a world of sleek shape-based metropolises that embody the pop art of that long-gone era of the idealized nuclear family, right down to Tony Fucile and Teddy Newton’s character designs. In general, the ending credits of the incredibles have a bold “POW” to its aesthetic that works as a cheatsheet to what the movie was going for, but those are flat silhouettes against the brilliant dimension given to the solid-block-without-feeling-blocky human beings (thanks also to some wise lighting conceits like a whole lava dining room demanding fiery chiaroscuro close-ups and silhouette wide-shots).

They look like comic strip illustrations that are given definition simply by the fact that they are 3-dimensional, like Mr. Incredible’s linear jawline and exaggerated torso. It’s a precursor to the later Lasseter-era Walt Disney Animation Studios CG films of the 2010s and a boon to the animated format Bird indulges in for this movie considering how it dives headfirst into the idea of being a cartoon than anything else Pixar made to that point. Pixar’s preceding release for instance, Finding Nemo, came bragging (very deservedly) about the photorealism of its water animation even if (very textured) cartoon fish were inhabiting that ocean. There is no room for photorealism in The Incredibles, the aesthetic wants to simplify everything from the trees to the cars to the chairs (and yet still finding room to make a costume designer’s home extravagant). And it’s because of that simplicity, the way it looks dynamic without demanding much from the eye, that The Incredibles feels like it held up the best out of any of pre-2010s movies. It certainly has a few shots (mostly moving or involving background “extras”) that feel paper-thin but it mostly retains the same sort of power 14 years since its release.

It’s not just mood and tone that the craftsmanship of The Incredibles gives to itself, it’s also strong storytelling. Despite the bright red tights of the family zipping through the exotic volcano location with futuristic Bond villain lair for a good part of the second half of its efficient 115-minute runtime, most of the first 45 minutes mutes its colors to zombie greys and whites for his insurance office or unexciting browns and faded greens for the Parr household. The very difference in energy once Mr. Incredible sets off on an hired adventure that the rest of his family must confront/rescue him about is night and day, mirrored by the climax of the family’s tense relationships with each other before they find themselves working together.

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And it’s not just visually, Michael Giacchino’s feature breakout as a composer yielded one of the most beloved Pixar scores, a blasting fun John Barry homage (Barry originally being offered the part) informing the pulp attitudes of its adventures and the mysterious element of Bob’s early attempts to keep his superheroing secret from his family, but it’s not even present for much of the first half save for a perilous attempt at reliving the glory days with partner-in-crimefighting Lucius “Frozone” Best (Samuel L. Jackson), until the secretive Mirage (Elizabeth Peña) approaches him with an assignment and the music begins whispering dreams of valiance building until up to the full bombast of the rest of the score. And the Oscar-winning sound design like-wise just fills the florid island environment within which the Incredibles chase and battle with the expected bird calls and forest brushes and alarming gunshots, but the powers of the children in particular get this unreal quality of quick pitter-patter for Dash’s speed (met in one brilliant surpise with a xylophone cue that may be my favorite moment in Giacchino’s score) and Violet’s force-fields augment and distort the dialogue taking place within them with a flanged muffle.

My word, The Incredibles is such a fully-realized work of art that I find it impossible to find elements not to exhaust regarding it, barely having time to recognize the A-game of the entire voice cast with some playing to their expected strengths (Hunter, Peña, Jason Lee as a role I feel like describing in detail would be a spoiler even for a movie this old) and some filling side-lined characters with charisma (Jackson and Bird himself as the superhero’s tailor Edna Mode). Or unpacking the further observations it makes about government or society, including the film’s infamous skirting with Objectivism (though Bird claims it was unintentional, I find the reading valid though I can’t say I consider The Incredibles to be Randian). There are so many angles to look at The Incredibles for and almost all of them are ones that demand your admiration that when I call back to the opening of this review acknowledging it is my least favorite of Bird’s animated features, I hope my enthusiasm for it illustrates just how much further we have witnessed Bird ascend.

*Ideally from anybody, but it seems like Incredibles 2 is sadly getting a very muted dismissal as “good but not as good”. Watch this space later for me to get back to that. And the general consensus appears to be that all four animated projects are superior to Bird’s two live-action films, the phenomenal Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and the forgettable Tomorrowland.

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You Can Check Out Anytime You Like, But You Can Never Leave

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Hotel Artemis is not the sort of movie I’d like it to be and it becomes a lot less of that sort of movie the more it progresses on. And yet, there’s nothing about Hotel Artemis I can call outright bad. On the contrary, it is one of the earliest joys I’ve had of what is turning out to be a surprisingly great summer. It’s just very clear that writer-director Drew Pearce – making his feature directorial debut after writing credits for Iron Man 3 and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation – had a different idea of the potentials of the plot hook than I did and I don’t think what he does is much more interesting. No matter, he does what he wants to very well.

What that plot hook is: Based deep in 2028 Los Angeles with legendary secrecy (despite a hilariously eye-catching neon sign on the roof of its building), the Hotel Artemis is run by a very frazzled and agoraphobic nurse (Jodie Foster) as a penthouse medical refuge for criminals of several varieties, with the only other major staff member being her burly bruiser of an assistant, Everest (Dave Bautista). And from here, the concept could easily lend itself to a shaggy treatment at mundanity to the extraordinary premise – certainly one I would think in high demand from the popularity of the John Wick franchises’ Continental line – with a revolving door of in-patients bringing their own troubled stories without much interaction between them, but Drew Pearce has decided to things in a much more straightforward narrative line where the pieces are specifically arranged to have a large consequence by the end of the movie.

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Indeed, we end up visiting the Artemis during one of the most volatile times in recent L.A. history as a riot rages on its streets and that violence threatens to break into the walls of the Artemis itself. Indeed, it’s already inhabited by a French assassin and a weary bank robber who have a tense romantic history, going by the codenames of their rooms: Nice (Sofia Boutella) and Waikiki (Sterling K. Brown), respectively. Nice is in the Artemis for a purpose she’s keeping close to the chest while Waikiki’s wounded cohort brother Honolulu (Bryan Tyree Henry) has inadvertently threatened their lives by robbing a courier’s pen holding treasures that belong to the powerful and dangerous Wolf King of Los Angeles (Jeff Goldblum in a reveal that would have packed much more punch if the trailer and poster had not already spoiled it), who we learn has a more petulantly aggressive son named Crosby (Zachary Quinto). And just in general, spoiling all the fun is an obnoxious misogynistic arms dealer codenamed Acapulco (Charlie Day), not really having much stake in what occurs but derailing things just by sticking his nose in where it doesn’t belong and spitting harsh words towards anybody who enters the same room as him.

Early on, we see how easily the Nurse keeps herself from being rattled from these sort of complications she considers routine to the 22 years she’s spent there – a personal soundtrack (“California Dreamin'” makes an early appearance and if there is a third element to make The Mamas and the Papas references hat trick, I missed it) as she preps areas and a confident reliance on strict rules, like no guns, no non-members, no insulting the staff, no killing the other patients and some others, all enforced sternly by Everest. But as we can quickly discern, Hotel Artemis is set on a day when all the rules are about to be broken, some of them in ways the Nurse was not expecting. Drew Pearce does a very solid job keeping all the pieces moving towards the climax he was aiming for with the help of Paul Zucker and Gardner Gould’s snappy cutting bouncing in between rooms treating each one as its own narrative, resulting in a well-constructed boil where these characters each with their own pressures end up responding to those pressures in turbulent fashion. There are certain plot threads that come back full circle and some that don’t, but it’s a tight enough script that every development feels like a threat and those that don’t blow up in the characters’ face feel like a result of their smart decisions or a manner of coincidence that Pearce sells.

And what makes it work just as well as Pearce would like it to is a cast that doesn’t seem to have a single false note within them. Certainly, the grand majority of them are simplistic archetypes like Boutella’s femme fatale, Bautista’s cynical tough guy with a heart of gold and three different flavors of hot-headed wreck between Henry, Day, and Quinto (five if you include early cameos by Kenneth Choi and Father John Misty), but they all play those archetypes like a fiddle and everybody has tremendous timing with each other. I’m pretty sure there’s only a single scene shared between Bautista and Day where they share one line each and it’s effortless how perfectly the characters get on each other’s bad side. In any case, it does feel like the film is aware the only characters that actually have dynamic to them are Waikiki and The Nurse and the decisions Pearce makes for the third act are very aware of this, so it’s not a surprise that Foster gives the best performance in the movie (Brown and Goldblum battle for second place for me), playing the Nurse as a bundle of nerves who attempts at professionalism are the only think keeping her from breaking down. It’s clear early on all suppressed emotions that take beat by beat to let her guard wear itself out – once again Zucker and Gould do marvels of blunting this by cutting in blown-up memories of a beach – and it’s no surprise that we’ll learn all about what pains The Nurse by the end of the film.

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And yet all of this waxing about how well put-together Hotel Artemis is as a shallow but fun diversion narratively without acknowledging the most important character, the Artemis itself. Production Designer Ramsey Avery crafts two entirely different worlds where the outside of the building is graffiti’d rubble on flaming streets signaling the world’s collapsed while on the inside, the Artemis’ carpeted walls and aged bronze suggesting it’s merely on the way out with cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon lighting and coloring the screen with a melancholy whiskey brown darkness to both suggest Everest should probably change the light bulbs soon and that the Artemis belongs to a time long gone. Chung’s framing also favors the remnants of class respite that doesn’t seem to exist anymore except in nostalgic memories, like the mirrored bar taking up the majority of space for Waikiki and Nice’s discussion in it or Waikiki brandishing a gun in the smallest corner of a shot that is mostly a Hawaiian greeting card. Despite being inhabited by smooth plastic white screens and machines reminding us that the future’s already invaded, the characters of Hotel Artemis mostly yearn stylistically for an age long before any of them were ideally born (I can’t imagine these characters being older than a single digit age during the 1960s and 70s that the film tries to emulate), perhaps best embodied in Lisa Lovaas’ costume design for the Wolf King like some affluent Long Island vacationer, complete with leather sandals.

So, it’s a good time that wraps itself up a bit too neatly for my tastes (I would love to see a further series on how the Artemis continues on, but the box office take doesn’t seem to promise a franchise) and is a bit too dedicated to providing a full-on narrative than to live in the world Pearce and his crew have invented. That’s fine. I still don’t have any trouble recognizing that my disappointment at its approach is outmatched by the thrill I had with its trashy thriller sensibilities. Hotel Artemis is not devoid of issues but it seems to survive them just as easily as its namesake survives a night of in-patients and out-patients.

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Hokey Religions and Ancient Weapons Are No Match for a Good Blaster at Your Side, Kid.

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I don’t think I would be wrong in identifying Solo: A Star Wars Story as the safest picture the franchise has ever seen, but it’s still a bizarre statement to make in the face of its remarkably disappointing financial run on top of other matters. Namely, it is very easy for one to ask the question “who is this for?” regarding Solo, not necessarily because we don’t know who the target audience for this four-quadrant blockbuster is. It’s because frankly nobody asked for it and the response to its announcement has always been very muted reluctance at most. That it’s doing dire work at the box office is more a shock simply because you don’t normally expect “bomb” to appear in the same sentence as “Star Wars” rather than because excitement was in the air.

Anyway, I called Solo safe and I’m sticking by it. After all, it is directed – after much internal strife – by Ron Howard, a director especially known for his lack of a characteristic style unless you call being unable to smooth out an episodic narrative structure a style. And Howard reliably performs that dysfunction here, though he’s not helped by any means with father-and-son team Lawrence and Jon Kasdan’s screenplay. It’s a script that was clearly built off of “well, we have several checkpoints we will have to arbitrarily connect the dots to” in regards to the early life of breakout Star Wars character, the cynical smuggler Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich): his meeting of hairy Wookie co-pilot Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and slick gambler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), the famous Kessel Run performed in 12 parsecs, the acquisition of his famous ship Millennium Falcon, and a hell of a lot of time devoted to the shiny die that you may or may not have noticed the hanging on the Falcon’s dashboard in the original trilogy.

None of these were particularly things we needed to see and yet they’re spread out in the screenplay over the length of three years in the young man’s life. By which I mean that the first quarter happens where we see Han and his thief partner Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) attempt to escape the grasp of their shrimp gangster overseer Lady Proxima (Linda Hunt) but Qi’ra’s quick re-capture leads Han to try to join the Imperial armed forces in the hopes of earning enough to return to the industrial planet of Corellia and break Qi’ra away from its clutches followed by a big leap in with the title card “THREE YEARS LATER” and the rest of the movie just continues on from there in the form of clunky chapters – a train heist, a mine heist/droid revolt, and a good ol’ bunch of fourth act showdowns – sifted through without anything resembling structural elegance.

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But already Star Wars fans come to a brief roadblock on how to take Solo: A Star Wars Story – they’ve turned Han, previously an ambiguous mercenary archetype with little more to him than that, into a young romantic driven by lost love. For indeed, his desire to reunite with Qi’ra is the driving motivation behind every decision he makes for the rest of the film as he and Chewie tag along with a motley crew of thieves made up of wise quickshooter Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), his lover Val (Thandie Newton), and their four-armed alien pilot Rio (Jon Favreau). And that romanticism is a pretty bold shift in characterization to make for one of the most beloved characters in one of the most popular franchises, especially coming from Lawrence Kasdan who is a long-time resident of the Star Wars creative force since 1980. And I have to admit the likeliness that original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were intending to take this sincere earnestness a little more tongue-in-cheek than intended interests me much more than the predictable emotional beats Howard hops into with straight-faced director after Lord and Miller were unceremoniously fired*. But there is a bright side to this: for one thing, it makes it a lot easier to shed any previous associations with the icon and approach the story as its own thing which I’d assume is the best line of inquiry for any Star Wars fan that doesn’t just go to these movies for the unbearably winking fan service (which is present in Solo, including an overabundance of sequel hooks littered all throughout the final minutes. One surprise character cameo only pushes the Disney Star Wars productions into becoming a new Marvel Cinematic Universe).

It also relieves Alden Ehrenreich of any need to attempt mimicry of his famed predecessor Harrison Ford, instead of inputting his personal charm and effortless boyishness as he leads a pretty bubbly ensemble. Glover himself is attempting mimicry of Billy Dee Williams and is getting it right on target. Suotamo, in his second go-round in that fur suit, has already gotten a good hand at the body language Chewie demands while Harrelson is another stand-out in a nitty gritty reluctant mentor, Newton gives tension as an aggressive moll, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge brings excitement as a very vocally conscious droid. Honestly, the only weak links are the inert Clarke and the unbearable Favreau (who is saddled with the most unspeakable word sandwiches sold as “jokes”) and otherwise the cast is the biggest reason to bother with Solo: A Star Wars Story.

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I would say it is the world-building as well. For sure, there is a pretty wonderful amount of production design going about, like a giant luxury spaceship doubling as the den of bloodthirsty gangster Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany, replacing Michael K. Williams sadly) or the implication of Corellia’s involvement in the creation of the galaxy’s fleet of spaceships. And in some cases, that world-building has a full-on involvement in the spectacle: that train heist is easily the best moment in the whole film, where the bandits are on a mini-Snowpiercer unstoppable snow locomotive and stepping into it from different angles dealing with different obstacles, cut with utter frenzy by Pietro Scalia. And the Kessel Run sequence is no slouch either, utilizing the looming entity of the Empire as a fire under the ass of a chase sequence trying to use the freewheeling physicality of space for comic book pulp.

Again, I WOULD say it’s the world-building, except that Solo: A Star Wars Story heartbreakingly looks like hell as some idiot shot the film’s interiors with a murky lack of lighting obscuring characters and a sense of blocking that doesn’t seem aware of the objects in the frame and dared to slap Bradford Young’s name to this. Chewbacca’s entrance is the worst of these things, where the very “Hey it’s Chewie!” close-up where he roars into the camera and is “recognized” is botched by having not lighting on his face at all. It’s just watching undefined shadows and blotches on the screen occasionally*.

The concept of a space opera that just can’t bother looking good, especially with one of the best cinematographers working today in its arsenal, just feels offensive. It is the least a movie as forgettable as Solo could do and it nearly gets so well done with imaginative set, costume, creature, and CGI designs all around but none of that means much if you can barely see it. It doesn’t register a lot of confidence on its makers’ part. Somebody must have told them the odds.

*Between Lord/Miller getting booted for making a comedy and the burial of Star Wars: Detours, Lucasfilm is starting to feel like fan service gatekeepers.
*No less a reliable name than Bilge Ebiri swears it looked better in its Cannes premiere and it’s the theater projections that are messing up and I sincerely believe his experience except… y’know projectors don’t suddenly retroactively light sets and actors.

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Make It Rain

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I haven’t seen any of the Sharknado films*, but the vibe I get is that it’s self-aware in a smug way and trying too hard to appeal to the so-bad-it’s-good crowd. And that strikes me as obnoxious and unaware of what makes the appeal of a movie that’s so-bad-it’s-good: it’s not that the movie’s aren’t trying to be good on the assumption of a camp factor they haven’t earned, but that they are trying so damn hard that we can’t help admiring their chutzpah. It’s the same sort of vibe I get from Samurai Cop 2 casting Tommy Wiseau as its villain. You don’t cast Tommy Wiseau without trying to cheat your way into camp cinema cred and I apologize to the memory of Samurai Cop as a film I hold dear to my heart, but I didn’t feel like bothering with its 24-year-later successor.

I almost got the fear early into The Hurricane Heist, Rob Cohen’s latest action thriller. It was very quickly relieved by the fact that the same thing that made me wonder if they’re going to try too hard also made my friend and I laugh our heads off in the theater.

It was a CGI skull superimposed in the middle of a hurricane sky.

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You see, Cohen is not new to making trash movies that have somehow turned into fine ironic entertainment. His very last film before this was the tawdry teacher-student sex film The Boy Next Door and my, would that have been quite a hit in the 1990s. Instead it’s a diamond in the rough of 2015**. And it’s hard to believe the people involved in that film were oblivious to the sheer lunacy of their screenplay but there wasn’t a shred of detachment from the execution of that film without letting the audience in on the fun as well. The Hurricane Heist is probably also aware of how utterly dumb it is, but it doesn’t want that to stop you from coming for some sincerely ridiculous “watch it with your friends while drunk” material, starting from that CGI skull (and let me tell you, this is not the last time we will see it).

The skull hurricane happened to be terrorizing the huddled children Will and Breeze Rutledge shortly after witnessing their father being killed by debris in a heavy Category 5. The incident left a distinct impact in each of them as they grew up into Alabama Good Ol’ Boys: Breeze (Ryan Kwanten) has become a functioning alcoholic taking care of their pops’ electrician garage, the only thing he has left to remember his pop. Will (Toby Kebbell) has become vengeful enough against the forces of nature to become a meteorologist who drives a high-tech version of the Tumbler from the Dark Knight movies. Will spend his whole runtime functioning as a harbinger of doom for the latest storm kicking up in the way of his hometown, declaring it pre-emptively as an off-the-charts Category 5 and trying to convince his headstrong brother to evacuate with the rest of the city.

This just happens to coincide with the treasury drop-off of $600 million set to be shredded, looked over by haunted agent Casey Corbyn (Maggie Grace) and her zen Irish partner Connor Perkins (Ralph Ineson). Casey just wants to get these done quickly to prove herself capable of handling official responsibilities again, Connor’s calm demeanor has something to do with the fact that he planned to use this opportunity to rob the Treasury of that doomed money with no intent of harming a single individual in the building. And so he enacts his plan almost immediately and while there is little understanding as to whether or not he was aware he planned this theft in the middle of a huge-ass hurricane, he was definitely aware that Casey was no longer in the building as she went off to grab Breeze so he can repair the Treasury building’s generator.

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I say again, Connor was aware that Casey was no longer in the building and thus not among the hostages his heist team rounded up. And yet he still started his plan without that important detail. Shenanigans lead to Casey returning with Breeze to a welcome of gunfire in the stormy grey rain. While Casey is able to evade capture, Breeze is apprehended and forced to work on the generator so that Connor’s hacker couple, Sasha and Frears (Melissa Bolona and Ed Birch), can continue their hacking into the vault. Connor also needs Casey’s IPad to open it, which we as an audience are aware he simply needs to dig into, like, an inch of shredded bills to find. Y’know, Connor may not have figured his plan all the way through.

The overly complex presentation of a story that does not need to be this damn complex is only one layer where The Hurricane Heist brings joy to my heart. There are wild creative decisions all around, like the fact that Sasha and Frears are dressed like this is a night at the club or Will’s constant response to a physical threat by the robbers by using the strong tropical winds in his favor. At one point, he just throws a bunch of hubcaps down wind with unconflicted success in impaling several of Connor’s gang with them. At another instance, he swears to Casey they’re safe using sports equipment to remain tethered to a mall while their assailants are sucked into the focused cyclone. Meanwhile, Casey and Will are fucking SLAMMING onto the building’s roof and don’t die somehow. This movie does not give a damn about the physics except insofar as they could provide a ridiculous outlet for Will to thwart the villains without having to use a gun.

Meanwhile, this is also a movie very much aware of the fact that it’s set in Alabama despite being shot in Sofia, Bulgaria and not having a single Southern American in its main cast. The artificiality of the film’s Southern identity is like a wall for it to smash through. The sole yankee is Grace and everybody else is just doing their best mock-up of a shit-kicking cowboy. Except Ineson, but IS doing an understated imitation of an Irish accent and that’s the most sedate part of his performance. His brilliantly tragic work in The Witch would have convinced anyone he’s above this sort of work, but Ineson just doesn’t care: he’s channeling Nicolas Cage-esque tension, repeating unconvincingly that he’s not a violent individual before cursing and snarling at everyone that his plans are ruined including, yeah, at one point cursing the Hurricane face-to-face (again, this character does not appear to be smart).

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Nobody else gets close to Ineson’s level, though Ben Cross from that most Southern of films, Chariots of Fire, tries playing every inch of a ruthless hick sheriff stereotype. And Kebbell is just about the source of any possible urgency the film has, constantly having a look on his face like whatever he’s about to do is a terrible idea but doing it anyway because the movie says so. It’s only more amusing that the points where the film’s pace slow down most are “character moments” between Will and Casey as they give a heart to heart while urinating outside IN THE MIDDLE OF A HURRICANE or take a lunch break to discuss the distinction between peanut butter and tuna fish sandwiches WHILE WILL’S BELOVED BROTHER IS IN DANGER.

I mean, it sounds contradictory to say that this film is proud of its own stupidity but I can’t help feeling like Cohen and company saw the potential to take this film off the rails and took it. And while its craft is not the stuff of masters, Cohen’s editor Niven Howie is certainly intent on presenting the action in a manner that can accidentally wow the right sort of viewer. This is an ambitious movie: one that wants explosions, dwarfing storm clouds, overwhelming overcast rains, destroyed models wherever it can fit them (showing Cohen’s heart is in the best place), and climactic truck chase involving the heroes jumping between them like they’re in a Western. And probably most ambitious of all: this is a film that presents the utopian concept of southern folk who are explicitly proud supporters of climate change theory AND the second amendment.

I wish one of those things was characters shooting guns at the hurricane to stop it, but we can’t have everything. Sometimes, it just takes the simpler things in life to satisfy me.

*Holy shit, there are 6 of them bitches.
**Not to imply that 2015 wasn’t an amazing year for movies because it actually was.

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