I Got Five on It

Writer-Director (among other things) Jordan Peele is perhaps the most sought-after creative in film and television from the past decade with nearly every piece of work he puts his name on being an instant-hit, a seat that is well-deserved in my opinion. So Peele is not particularly someone who needs folks running to his defense, yet nevertheless I feel so particularly protective of Us when it comes to its place in his rise from tv comic to producer who has no trouble fast-tracking any project he chooses to back. Despite being a smash hit like his debut feature, Get Out, it didn’t get any of the endless awards attention that its predecessor received and all of its successes financially and critically feel dwarfed by the giant splash Get Out got… out. Particularly, there’s a contingent of the audience that found the movie’s logic or themes either hard to parse or not entirely as well-baked as Get Out.

Which is of course where I step in and confess that I am glad I rarely care what movies are about. It is definitely the case that Us is about something – class is the major target for the picture and Peele is intelligent enough to make that impossible to even folk like me trying to avoid it – but the major reason that I consider Us so astronomically better than Get Out is just so much more simpler: it’s scarier. And I mean honest to God, make-the-horror-creep-up-into-your-conscious frightening. Get Out is definitely scary and smart and funny, but it has training wheels on and a devotion to being a message movie that Us has little use for. Instead, Peele looks to flex out all the stylistic attributes of horror movies he’s been practicing in a career of hilarious parodies throughout the sketch show that boosted him to household name status, Key and Peele.

The story all of that style is in service to belongs to Adelaide Wilson (Madison Curry as a child, Lupita Nyong’o as an adult and speaking of awards this should have received… Nyong’o’s snub was among the biggest frustrations of the last Oscar season) as she takes a trip with her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) to Santa Cruz. This bothers Adelaide intensely from a dark moment in her childhood experienced on the famous Santa Cruz Boardwalk that we have revealed to us bit by bit. Just after she opens up on the experience to Gabe, the lights go out in the house and just outside the front door stands a foreboding nuclear family in crimson. When they make their way into the vacation home and corner the Wilsons near the fireplace, they are revealed to be doppelgangers of each member of the family and that’s only the tip of the scope behind what’s going on in Us which just expands on that instant mix of fears between an unknown entity so familiar to you and the violence of having your domestic space intruded upon to something just so much more draining.

From there on, it’s a mix between the cinematographer Mike Gioulakis’ shadows of a living nightmare as the family are terrorized by their own villainous mimics, all three supporting actors giving their own version of a guttural non-verbal performance while Nyong’o’s own Red communicates to us with a gnarled whisper as she moves in unnervingly unnatural ways. Alongside the way the makeup truly distresses Nyong’o, Duke, Joseph, and Alex’s faces to just sap the humanity out of their doppelgangers’ faces, matching well with their primordial body language and vocal utterances. Which makes it all the more impressive that the central family (and we shall later see the rest of the supporting characters encounter) deliver two distinct performance styles: one character that is of course frustrating and flawed in all the human ways and the other being latching on to one particular trait of that character with a tenacious viciousness that propels the Tethered being – for that is what the doppelgangers are referred to – to its violent acts in a natural way.

But Us doesn’t simply get to being one of the scariest movies in a long time simply be being a perfect acting showcase for every cast member’s range. It has jump scares, perfectly timed ones with Nicholas Monsour’s pacing giving it just the right amount of pregnancy to make us jolt the way a calibrated shock should make us (and indeed the fact that my initial viewing of Us had the best audience possible – tuned in the way a great horror movie audience should be and freaking out proper – makes me nostalgic for the days of full-house opening weekend theater viewings). It has disturbing images as I brought up just the way that alarming dark red of the Tethered’s uniform costumes by Kym Barrett looks in the darkness of the Wilson’s home especially when punctuated by the rare scenes of bloodletting. The mixture of those dark blacks and reds is a big part of what brings Us this heavy mood that all the best horror movies are expected to be thick with.

Us practically drowns in that mood, only bobbing for the surface with Peele’s characteristic ability to add some dry humor to the proceedings that also let us appeal to the Wilsons as characters (Gabe’s obsession with his boat being a notable connection to that class theme while also a Chekovian device). Because Peele is such a horror buff – the very first shot of the film includes video cassettes of Night of the Living Dead, C.H.U.D., and A Nightmare on Elm Street visible; Thriller and Jaws appear on t-shirts; the location is consciously the same as The Lost Boys; a deformed character is almost certainly named after one in The Hills Have Eyes; and there are so many visual quotings of horror classics – he knows exactly the right ingredients to appeal to the home invasion thriller that this starts off as and then lets the disorienting existential horror of facing your cruel self expand like hot air to at least a scale that is just inescapable and leaves the characters trapped.

Probably the most notable element of the filmmaking that lets these chills slide down smoothly is Michael Abels’ score, indulging in all of the stock horror sounds like the screeching strings and thumping drums without feeling too much like a generic score. Particularly the manner in which it adopts a leitmotif out of the Luniz song “I’ve Got 5 on It” to turn its key down as low as possible so that the beat just translates to an occasional shudder and makes for the perfect punctuation to most of the scares to come once Us goes full-throttle throw its lightning pacing.

So it’s the tools rather than the message that truly engages me with Us, something that is the case for most pictures. It is impossible to pretend that the same broad strokes Peele and company take to give us a pure work of terror aren’t the same broad strokes that embolden its message on class and the violent divide it brings (again… it uses “I Got 5 on It” as a leitmotif and one of Nyong’o’s first scenes as Red involves her croaking a dark fairytale about a shadow receiving worse than table scraps in attachment to her body) and so you cannot take one without the other and I’d claim that Us is all the richer for having that depth beneath the surface (literally given the descent to a crypt-like tunnel that makes up the third act). It’s even understandable that Lupita Nyong’o’s ability to play both monster and hero and the unexpectedly twisted way in which Peele’s writing moves around those roles within the third act truly gets to play both sides of that presentation, including the fact that Nyong’o’s delivery of a late monologue that is in my opinion the weakest moment of the film salvages some of atmospheric cruelty of the whole picture. In any case, it’s not what I come to Us for or what I exit it praising most. I don’t care where the Tethered come from or why they are doing what they do. I only admire the way it all combines – Monsour’s cutting, Abels’ score, Gioulakis’ shadows and framing, and Nyong’o’s performance – to a heartpounding balletic climax at the end of a particularly draining horror movie experience, one that lost very little of its initial power when I saw it in theaters with a likewise frightened crowd when I re-watched it in the blackness of my living room alone.

Come Back Again to Here Knows When

You can’t accuse My Bloody Valentine of not getting straight to the point: it opens with a dialogue-less sequence of two miners walking through a damp and dark mine shaft until one of them decides to stop walking and removes her miner’s uniform to reveal herself as a blonde busty woman in underwear. The other guy gets more and more foreboding in his refusal to remove even his helmet and that foreboding vibe turns out to be prophetic when he grabs the woman in the middle of her seduction routine and shoves her right into the pointy end of a pickaxe he stuck on the wall behind her. Oh, what’s that? I’m forgetting the Valentine aspect. Not to worry, the woman happens to have small valentine heart over her left breast, all the better to have a target for that pickaxe to poke through as she screams us into the title card.

Of course the movie would have to promise sex and violence to function satisfactorily as one more slasher of arguably the most prolific year of that subgenre’s run: 1981, the year of The Burning, Hell Night, The Funhouse, Dark Night of the Scarecrow, and to top it off the best Friday the 13th movie: the one that introduced us to Jason Voorhees proper. Except those are all American productions and it does not do to forget that Canada was just as involved in the unholy beginnings of that craze as we yanks were, given Black Christmas‘ existence pre-dates fellow inaugural slashers The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Halloween and even matches up to their masterpiece status. My Bloody Valentine is a bit more humble than either of those three giants but director George Mihalka executes just about all the standards we expect of a slasher picture with no less an admirable turn of skill as any of the other 1981 greats (ok, maybe The Burning leaves it in the dust).

Those standards living in a fairly average screenplay by Jack Beaird (writing his first of two 1981 Canadian slasher pictures, the other being uncredited work on Happy Birthday to Me) about the suitably named town of Valentine Bluffs on the country’s east coast. It’s a small mining town with very little things for its fellas to unwind with after long day’s work in underground and that means that most of the young miners are looking forward to the Valentine’s Day party to come that weekend, the first celebration of the holiday in twenty years. Turns out that the dark memory of a tragic mining accident trapping five miners during that romantic holiday supersedes having “Valentine” in your name, all the moreso when Harry Warden – the sole survivor of that tragedy, whom we only see in a gas-helmeted miner’s outfit identical to what we saw at that tawdry opening and performed by Peter Cowper – took a year later to violently murdering the two mining supervisors whose negligence led to the explosion that trapped him with the co-workers he was forced to eat to survive. Warden left each supervisor’s disemboweled heart in their own candy box with a threat to continue his reign of terror if the town dares to throw another Valentine dance as he was taken away and institutionalized.

And no sooner than when a town volunteer Mabel (Patricia Hamilton) begins decorating the Union Hall for such a celebration does Mayor Hanniger (Larry Reynolds) and Chief Newby (Don Francks) receive a similarly bloodied up candy box with a horrifying human heart in it and a note promising to fulfill Warden’s legacy if the dance does not get called off. But the young miners and their girlfriends have no idea and pay no mind to the adults’ firm insistence of the dance’s cancellation, least of all Hanniger’s son TJ (Paul Kelman), the lead miner Axel (future sitcom animator Neil Affleck), or Sarah (Lori Hallier) as they are much too busy dealing with the love triangle when TJ went west and left Sarah behind to be picked up by Axel before TJ’s dejected return.

Now this all certainly sounds like nothing special in comparison to the legacy My Bloody Valentine had since left behind as one of the major non-franchise slasher films (discounting a remake in the late 2000s, but that’s a story for another time), but there’s reading about what’s going on and there’s actually sitting in with it all. My Bloody Valentine is most distinguished in its unorthodox choice of location as half of it takes place in the rec room of the central mine where the youngsters all decide to throw their party without the authorities’ knowledge or within the mine itself as they are to be stalked and killed by either Warden or somebody imitating him. But it’s the selection of the shooting location – that of Sydney Mines in Nova Scotia – that truly gives that atmosphere more verisimilitude as it’s one thing to build together a dreary set but it’s another thing to shoot within those decrepit mines, creepy in their own right and inviting shadow and tension in the way it winds or feels set to collapse at any moment*.

Added on top of that is just the hangout vibe that the cast of youngsters naturally sink into in their many scenes together, most notably Keith Knight (who just stands out so well with his magnificent moustache), Cynthia Dale, and Alf Humphreys. It’s not like they’re particularly performing on a dramatic level, but the casual chemistry between all of them – whether drinking at the bar, shooting jokes as they walk out the mine elevator, or just sitting around at the central party – adds that sense of real working class presence to this small-town setting. And they are of course aided by characterizations and dialogue that give no particular depth as complex human presences (this of course hurts most in the sequences involving the TJ/Sarah/Axel triangle) but allows them at least the dignity of responding to the discoveries that something horribly wrong is going on appropriately, particularly compared to other slashers that take years for their hapless victims to realize mayyyyybe a psycho killer is on the loose.

These are major enough strengths to allow My Bloody Valentine the ability to survive much of its notorious suffering at the hands of the MPAA, attempting to censor as much of the “bloody” in the movie’s title as possible, but the fortune of living in 2021 (I mean, one of the few) is that we have by now a blu-ray release by Shout! Factory that properly gives a 2K restoration to the original negative most of the previously cut footage that was added to a 2009 Lionsgate Blu-Ray release** (which honestly looked way too rough in the earlier blu-ray) allows us to indulge in the wonderful low-budget raison d’etre of slasher cinema: fake gore effects. And some pretty good ones too: an eyeball poking that would certainly get its due homage in the remake, the afore-mentioned piercing of a woman’s chest from behind, an awesomely gruesome moment where a body drops with a noose around its neck that instantly decapitates upon becoming taut from gravity, and so much more. It’s altogether impressive what this tiny Canadian production was able to put together as the savage spectacle was the subgenre was meant to be.

And it should be proud of those tricks just as much as the rest of the tricks Mihalka and his crew do to make an adequate slasher picture, from the measured usage of low-lighting in those creepy underground tunnels to the occasional usage of a broad angle when the tension is finally broken by the murderous miner popping up to claim another victim (including an opening usage of a canted angle that disorients us with what is already a pretty abrupt interruption to the sex – in fact, while we ARE in the company of horny 20-year-olds, I don’t think there’s another moment in the film as risqué as that striptease – and the violence). My Bloody Valentine is certainly part of an unsophisticated subgenre that came out right at its most blatantly mercenary era, but it constructs an example of that subgenre with elegance and care to its assembly that makes it a point of pride to many of the modest fans and connoisseurs of that subgenre. And being one of those connoisseurs, I gladly declare to cheers upon it for being such a reliable little piece of horror cinema I can return to.

*Funny enough, the owners of the mine where the film was shot ended up cleaning it before the production team arrived, to their absolute dismay. The set had to be filthied up proper to fit the ominous ambience that Mihalka and the producers were aiming for. Still there’s a big difference between a fake mine stage and a real one that maybe had to have some makeup put on it.
**One of the more grim murder sequences, whose aftermath we still see and frankly resembles a similarly cut up sequence from the same year’s Friday the 13th Part 2, is believed by Mihalka to be lost forever and so he accepts the restored uncut versions as the closest to his vision.

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.

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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…Are the Same That Burn Crosses.

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I like to think of myself as a formalist. And Spike Lee’s latest film BlacKkKlansman is by most angles formally and aesthetically sound, with a brilliant leitmotif by Terence Blanchard that varies in tempo and key depending on the mood and tone of a given scene and radically propulsive editing by his regular Barry Alexander Brown. I mean, it would have to be at least some amount of aesthetically distinct to win Lee the Best Director award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Rarely do I find myself put off by the actual content of a film if the film attached works extremely well as cinema and Lee has long proven himself one of the most adept directors in utilizing cinematic tools to amplify his attitude and using his vast knowledge of film history as one of the industry’s resident scholars to turn the medium’s ugliness against itself.* I frankly think BlacKkKlansman is a movie where he accomplishes this, so I do walk away thinking it’s a good movie.

But – and this is where I have to admit Lee is infinitely more qualified to tell how angry is “angry enough” when it comes to the United States’ atmosphere of racism – I don’t think BlacKkKlansman is angry enough and that’s disappointing to me.

To my knowledge, the script was originally written by Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz until Spike Lee joined last September, apparently rewriting a part of the script with Kevin Willmott (who worked with Lee on his previous film, Chi-Raq). The parts Lee and Willmott rewrote are easy to pick out and I’m not sure they outnumber Wachtel and Rabinowitz’s contribution. For there are moments that full of an unmistakable charge towards racism in America (particularly the lecture prologue on the scientific proof of white supremacy by an unflattered Alec Baldwin feels entirely like something I’d expect if I saw C.S.A.: Confederate States of America and only its being preceded by a famous shot in 1930s cinema is what prevents me from assuming it’s all Willmott), but there’s also a lot of neutral summarizing of the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel).

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In 1972, he was recruited into the Colorado Springs Police Department and eventually roses from the records room to working as an undercover attendant of Black Power figurehead Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins)’s local speech to initiating his own investigation into the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan just by lifting up his office phone, calling local chapter president Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), and proclaiming his hate of all non-Aryan races in the earshot of everyone in his office, including fellow officers Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) and Jimmy Creek (Michael Buscemi). Flip meets on Ron’s behalf face-to-face with the chapter, including the intense paranoiac Felix (Jasper Pääkönen), while Jimmy is recording the encounters and Ron continues to correspond with the Klan over the phone, eventually reaching National Director Grand Wizard himself David Duke (a brittle-yet-prim Topher Grace in his non-Ocean’s-movie career-best).

Most of this material is presented in the cleanest manner and I mean completely clean, like two steps away from Wikipedia summary if not for the liberties the screenplay takes with the story. Not just how matter-of-fact Lee’s direction of moments like Ron’s beginnings in the records room or his mingling with local black student union president Patrice (Laura Harrier), but how absolutely unwilling it is to delve into the complications of the matter. Flip says some vile things to Ron while undercover, some of them to his own face, and there’s never a doubt on the film’s mind that Flip’s aggression is all a game. Despite the Chief of Police claiming in one scene that Ture is a threat to the peace, Stallworth insists in one scene that he is not and the Chief accepts that he is not. The police force depicted here are all unconflicted good guys except for one character by Frederick Weller who exists solely to be booed and jeered as the “bad apple” in the force. In general, despite Patrice’s only major contribution being somebody Ron has to protect and occasionally explaining how racism is institutionalized, the film refuses to confront Ron’s desire to battle the system while being unfortunately a part of that system as it arranges for its depiction of the system to be altruistic. The only disorganization comes from the buffoonish and dumb hicks that are the resident KKK, an approach that feels like the sort of white liberal reassuring I would not have expected from Lee.

I don’t want to lay this on the feet of the white co-writers necessarily. I know that Flip’s Jewish identity was an invention of theirs and a mid-film monologue regarding his feeling of assimilation among white people is one of the few times Flip gets to register as a complex character with his own arc, though it is unfortunate that the entire arc gets contained to one scene. Mostly, it just feels like the main priority was just putting together the episodic investigation with only a few avenues for it to truly become a Spike Lee joint, which it does the more and more it leads to its own finale after a wandering middle where the pieces shuffle inch by inch. That it doesn’t seem interested in talking about racism ingrained in the police force is unfortunate, but I’m gonna assume the man who made Do the Right Thing knows all about that anyway.

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Anyway, the “Spike Lee joint” material pops in every now and again after that Alec Baldwin rant (which mind you has terrific editing to imply how flustered and foolish even the most “learned” person can be when all of his mistakes are public). Enough to outweigh the bland stuff, if not in quantity then in quality. Ture’s speech is superimposed by beautiful black faces in chiaroscuro lighting as he verbally tears down perceptions of ugliness towards black people, making us see exactly what inspiration Ture sees in his fellow peers. The most powerful cue of Blanchard’s theme appears at a cold reveal involving a Klan shooting range, defiant and sad at once. Most impressively, Harry Belafonte delivers an account of the horrifying Jesse Washington lynching in 1916 in gruesome detail accompanied by photos while cross-cut with the Klan watching the infamous Birth of a Nation and celebrating the Gus lynching scene, defiantly condemning one of the foundational motion pictures in cinematic history and its acclaim and legacy.

And yet it only feels like bits and pieces have that fiery soul to them rather than the whole movie and even while it ends on its most impassioned moment, involving a direct wake-up call to remind us that a few prank phone calls and averted cross-burnings did not stop racism and violence from remaining in the US, it’s of a ballsy unwieldy move involving archive footage and a static final shot that feels dynamic in its message that some might call the messy side of Spike Lee. Personally, I wish the entire film was that kind of ballsy messiness (after all, I don’t doubt we’d still have moments I loved most with that don’t give a fuck attitude). It’s the most galvanizing moment the entire movie has contextualizing the story with the current atmosphere and it’s impossible to ignore the message from that moment, misfire or not. Maybe Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting both spoiled me, and I can’t pretend a movie led by this kind of performance from Washington (who has clearly inherited his father’s confidence) is boring, but I was not expecting the filmmaker who had been fighting these battles before Boots Riley or Daveed Diggs had to be pulling some of his punches.

*Matter of fact, now that I have that down, I’m thinking BlacKkKlansman would make a worthwhile double feature with Inglourious Basterds, which has similar observations and practices towards cinema. Ironic given the notorious feud between Lee and Quentin Tarantino.

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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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And Freedom Tastes of Reality

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So given how I rage-quit the dare my best friend and I made to read E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey books very early and thus never made it into its literary sequels, I can not tell you how much of the James’ screenwriter husband Niall Leonard retained into the script of Fifty Shades Freed, the third film in the main trilogy (a second trilogy of the story written by James from a different perspective existing). I am going to assume all the spousal disagreements that make up the early turbulence in protagonists Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and Christian Grey’s (Jamie Dornan) marriage and honeymoon, including Christian’s unambiguous possessive nature to Ana as his wife, most notably Grey’s frustration to the point of unprofessionally barging into her office to demand why the hell she didn’t take a new email address with his last name for the business. And if that IS the case, then I’m going to assume it is at worst Leonard’s writing or at best only James Foley’s mishandled directing that gives this less of and “this is something Christian has to grow up about” attitude and more of a “will she or won’t she” attitude which is absolutely troubling, since it is one of the areas where Christian has no grounds to be such a baby about it.

Not that he has as much of one over how he tries desperately to keep Ana locked away in their luxury condo (missing any ounce of character in how it was originally shot and designed in the first movie in this trilogy), but at least in that case, their lives are actually in danger as they are targeted and stalked by Ana’s former boss, Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson). Yes, indeedy, Fifty Shades Freed is one step closer to transforming its shoody material into good-bad movie territory now that it has that “returning antagonist comes back in psychotic supervillain” mode and Leonard’s screenplay is also – to its very little credit – significantly more focused on this prevalent threat on the characters’ lives, weaving well enough in between Hyde’s presence and the couple’s accommodation to newfound married life. Still it’s not quite there when Foley is still intent on turning this movie into an over-sincere delivery of issues that simply can’t be taken sincerely even by the author who acknowledged them as her “midlife crisis, writ large”.

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Foley’s direction can be felt as unsmiling no matter how ridiculous the moment: the significant increase in amounts of sex scenes (which at least indicates that they finally get why the hell these stories sold, though the vanilla framing and cutting of it and even the easy “quick google search” version of the kinks they take part in like the ice cream scene keep it from being anywhere near arousing), the attempts at thrilling moments like the slowest and least exhilarating car chase scene I may have ever seen in a major motion picture. There is only so fast one can go in rush hour traffic but Foley and the editor has magically found a way to make it surpass that as its own form of suspended time and space where the only true adrenaline coming from the moment is Dakota Johnson childishly stating “I’m a race car driver”, one of the few moments where the fun actress seems to be having in the role leaks out into the role totally undeterred by the total creep she is trying to evade.

Ah yes, Johnson. This is once again a performance where she cracked the code of giving these movies a camp performance that can take everything happening to Ana and Christian here seriously enough to make them feel like stakes while still fully aware of how ridiculous the circumstances seem to be for this couple. She has less reinforcements this time around given that the majority of the screentime is between her, Dornan, or Johnson with occasional pop-ins by Luke Grimes as Christian’s younger brother or Arielle Kebbel as the architect hired to fix up the married couple’s new house. And by “fix up”, it apparently means “completely tear down the mansion and rebuild the glass house from House on Haunted Hill over its grave and also flirt openly with Christian to Ana’s consternation”. None of which seem to catch up with Johnson’s cue (Kebbel is close enough but her screentime doesn’t last too long).

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Least of all, Dornan who seems to think the response to the material is to take only so much more seriously enough to demand he now have slightly more expressive faces from the fixed glares he began with and that’s… a choice. The night and day between the two lead performances get in the way of any possible chemistry they might have as screen partners. They’re simply not acting in the same movie, let alone being on the same page. Needless to say, I end up preferring the movie that Johnson is acting in.

No need to hold them too accountable because it seems like there was just never much space for the movie for anybody to act like people. The characters are just existent to facilitate the multiple sex scenes that Foley and company just seem utterly disinterested in (shall I state that the very last shot and cut is a door closing just as sexytimes is about to happen?) written as though Leonard is an alien trying to figure out the most literal inelegant way that they can move from “this issue popped up regarding this cute person who is smiling at you too much” to “well, I guess we can just sweep that quickly under the rug” with just dialogue and a scowl. That Hyde ends up the conflict with the most staying power seems to just be on account of that having more pieces moving (including – *le gasp* plot twists) than Ana being angry at Christian’s texts. The second most-present conflict enters deep enough in the movie to qualify as a spoiler, but suffice it to say, it only sticks around on account of the rich multi-billionaire who has enough money to buy ten lifetimes of Chipotle acting like his life is thoroughly ruined by this development and taking it out on Ana because if there’s one thing this series established, it’s that Christian only knows how to take out his frustrations on women.

It’s apparent by the finale montage of “highlights” in the entire trilogy that the film is convinced we were highly invested in the domestic happiness of a couple that can’t even decide on the exact type of house they want. I’m very certain for some audiences, they probably were. It is also my understanding that many members of the BDSM culture find it to be a harmful portrayal of their practices without a single thought to how trust takes part in it. I can’t say the Fifty Shades trilogy gave me much more than a downward spiral into the idea that sex can be utterly mundane if you try hard enough and there is no floor to that.

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I Can’t Hear Myself Think

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Film criticism – at least in the form of deciding on what a film does right or wrong, regardless of your admission to subjectivity – is an inherently narcissistic practice as is and when it comes down to deciding that the filmmaker in question really doesn’t get his own movie, that just makes things even more narcissistic no matter how subjective a work of art is and “la mort de l’auteur” aside on a work where you are decidedly not an authorial voice. And yet here I am, where my first thought about A Quiet Place every time it pops into my head is how director & co-writer John Krasinski (who also stars in it, lest we forget he’s an actor first and foremost; his fellow co-writers are Bryan Woods & Scott Beck) missed the extremely thin but notable line between making the film the simple yet effective monster movie thriller that it is and an exploration about the trespassing shock of noise in the midst of an atmosphere of silence.

That line is Marco Beltrami’s musical score.

It is not precisely a bad musical score, but it is not a very great one – resigning itself to telegraphing all the normal horror movie beats in unsubtle fashion – and I can imagine (and have encountered) those who have come out A Quiet Place finding it to be great in spite of that score, I can not imagine someone walking out finding it to be a strength or not thinking A Quiet Place would be better without it. It sucks away most of the tension like a vacuum that comes from the characters having to keep totally quiet, leaving only the basic literal tension of “most people if not all people do not want to get eaten by giant slimy CGI crab-monsters whose bodies are apparently made out of armored cochleas”. Which is still something, but a lot less experiential or immersive of an experience. And indeed, much of the praise for the film comes from the idea that it could immerse the audience into a conscious silence, but that was unfortunately not the entirety of my experience for the film (in fact, I’d say horror movies are exactly the kind that make audiences want to respond with “oh no” and audible gasps the moment something bad occurs. Which is exactly what went down in my theater, ignoring how the person I accompanied the theater with was trying to crack jokes and yeah I’m probably never watching a movie like this with him again).

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Anyway, the way one gets that A Quiet Place wants to be that little “cut the silence with a knife” picture is how the sound mix consciously accentuates isolated elements of the sound as disruptive enough to make a fellow whose survival depends on it jolt just a little bit. You don’t make that kind of decision if you don’t want sound and its absence to matter in a picture like that and it’s impressively done outside of Beltrami busting in at often-unnecessary moments.

It also wants to be a movie about the importance of parental responsibility where hopelessness surrounds the world completely (as this is indeed a post-apocalyptic film where those monsters have consumed the apparent majority of the human population and establishes that with dry, desolate rural terrains) or the strength of a family in a time where guilt and finger-pointing seem to be the easiest paths to choose in a time, focusing on a nuclear family fluent in American Sign Language made up of engineer/farmer (maybe? this is a movie of ambiguous visual clues to tell us about the way life is here) Lee (Krasinski) and his wife Evelyn (Krasinski’s real-life wife Emily Blunt) and his three children Beau (Cade Woodward), Marcus (Noah Jupe), and their eldest and deaf daughter Regan (real-life deaf actress Millicent Simmonds, following her brilliant debut in the apparently underseen Wonderstruck) and their struggles to keep things together in the wake of an opening scene tragedy that sets up stakes in a violent manner (violent for a PG-13 film, you understand).

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Such stakes that one would of course wonder what makes the decision for Evelyn’s apparently imminent pregnancy not look like a very very bad idea to the family* a little over a year after that opening scene (the movie takes place over two days after that scene), but nevertheless there they are preparing for the potentially noisy and definitely painful arrival of a baby into their “shut up or die” apocalypse world and it’s certainly something the actors prove to be qualified to portray with all the weight necessary to make this matter. Simmonds especially the resultant self-recrimination and frustrating lack of dialogue with his father without the slightest bit of overplaying it, given her knowledge on how to express her emotions without needing audible speech to do so.

Anyway, I guess my overall attitude on that family drama side of the material is likewise a “it’s not great, though it’s not bad either” element. Most of the emotional heavy-lifting has to be performed by its cast in the first place and it looks like at the very least Jupe is more interested into turning any moment of threatening danger into a moment of unmoving dread and fear (which he does very well). It’s perhaps the fact that the movie’s competent and frequently impressive thriller setpieces overwhelm the idea that it could ever be more than an early pre-summer thrillride and in a way, I don’t see why it should want to be more than that. I mean, even the complaint I had at the beginning of this review is more towards its function as a thriller than its possibility of elevating itself beyond genre cinema. And even with Beltrami as a handicap and a less-damaging-but-still-contrived series of character decisions and actions in the final act, A Quiet Place is directed very horror-movie-consciously in framing and pacing by Krasinski to pass itself as a worthy exemplar of popcorn cinema just before the season where we will get that dread-esque popcorn moviemaking by the dozen.

*I believe Demi Adejuyigbe said it best “why y’all fuckin during an apocalypse anyway“.

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Ocean Man

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There’s gonna be something weird about finally writing about The Shape of Water after it had won its Oscar, as though I’m raining on somebody else’s celebration since I don’t have much happy things to say. But, I plan to eventually review every Best Picture winner and I need to get this out of eventually. And I may as well be happy that Guillermo Del Toro, decidedly one of my favorite filmmakers working today, is finally receiving the recognition he deserves. It’s just not for a movie I have much love for and I’d argue it’s his most ordinary movie yet, which is a hell of a claim for a Gill-Man romance.

Besides Terry Gilliam, nobody stacks up rejected projects like Del Toro. The man collects them like Pokémon. And while the scrapping of Silent Hills and At the Mountains of Madness certainly hurt more, the hurt for his proposed romantic Creature from the Black Lagoon remake is still searing right there in my heart, so when the trailer for The Shape of Water came out earlier in 2017, I was pretty much giddier for the project than I’ve ever been for a Guillermo Del Toro film in my life. And then when it was announced at the Venice Film Festival that it won the Golden Lion, I was even more sold than I’ve ever been. “They gave their top prize to the movie where Sally Hawkins fucks the gill-man?!” I exclaimed to my friend in excitement when I found out.

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So, when I walked out of the movie nowhere near as ecstatic as the folks I saw the movie with, it may very well be a part of my expectations not exactly being met (FULL DISCLOSURE: It may also be that I was suffering a numbing amount of after-work migraines in the film and chose unwisely to join them at a 10:10 pm screening), but I hope I can express well enough – against the tide of praise – why The Shape of Water only occurs to me as fine rather than great. I mean, fine should not be the way I feel after I got my romantic Creature from the Black Lagoon remake that I’ve been wanting for so damn long.

Except I only got it after sitting through an hour of Guillermo Del Toro’s Crash. I mean, it’s a significantly better version of Crash as directed and co-written by an actual talent and it’s theses about race and society are not as patronizing as Paul Haggis’. But they’re arguably as shallow and distanced, with little interiority afforded by Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay to some characters (ie. Octavia Spencer once again having to do the heavylifting for his character with a pretty much one-sided portrayal of a dead marriage displayed 90% via monologue) and used mostly as just more window-dressing to setting the film in the racially, gender-wise, and diplomatically messy time of America on the verge of the Civil Rights. And while the argument could be made that The Shape of Water is in the end not really about these observations, it doesn’t really assuage me when Del Toro and Taylor devote more screentime to these surface level themes than the “fish-fucking” that people like to praise the movie for. And I know Del Toro is intelligent enough to work with these concepts.

That’s a lot of talking about the script without actually establishing what The Shape of Water‘s story is. The straightforward premise of The Shape of Water is how Elisa Esposito (Hawkins, a Mike Leigh alum who I’m always ecstatic to see in movies), a mute janitor for the US government-contracted Occam Laboratories, witnesses them bringing in a mysterious monster (Doug Jones, Del Toro’s reliable monster man) at the height of the Cold War insisting its danger and the potentials of winning the space race from studying the creature. And how after a time, Esposito and the Asset (as it is referred to in the film and credits) come to fall in love to the point that when the authority on the research of the Asset, Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon playing an unchallenging part he can do in his sleep, though that doesn’t detract from how far he excels at it), eventually orders its death for dissection, Elisa and her friends craft up a plan to rescue and release the Asset.

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It’s pretty much fairytale stuff here and Del Toro is more than aware of that in Paul D. Austerberry’s production design of the early 1960s as a drowned-in green caricature of urban and domestic ghosts left over from the likes of American Graffiti which feels like the least creative design of Del Toro’s career since Hellboy, frankly mundane and even within the transparently sinister laboratories and the unglamorous period settings – or in the very calm and paternal delivery of the narration like lulling somebody to sleep by Richard Jenkins’ character, Elisa’s best friend and closeted advertising artist Giles (who is both the best performance in the film and the most shaded of all the characters arguably, given his very own subplot in regards to an infatuation he has and the depression brought about by the state of his career).

And yet The Shape of Water takes its sweet time trying to correct its course on tone between self-conscious social commentary, government thriller, monster movie, or broad romance and Del Toro for the first time can’t perform this function without every scene transition feeling thudded and sudden (including a huge gap in the developing relationship between Elisa and The Asset that feels rushed because of how overstuffed the social commentary makes The Shape of Water), which is why it’s no surprise that when the movie finally dedicates itself fully to thriller once Elisa and her friends decide to take action for The Asset’s survival. It’s much more focused and tighter at that point and even does more to earn the swooning final beat of the whole film than any of the slightness that inhabited the first half of the movie.

That The Shape of Water catches its footing the more it progresses as a narrative is a good portion of why it doesn’t distress me as much that I came away kind of disappointed. There are more than a few inspired elements within the film even before I feel it sticks the landing, like Alexandre Desplat’s tender score inputting delicate passions and vulnerabilities to underscore the characters’ living situations, the way that Giles is an unabashed movie fanatic which can’t help feeling informed by how much of a cinephile Del Toro is (sure, it’s part of what makes the movie overstuffed but it at least feels… real), and of course to say nothing of the wonderful texture and sleekness (slimy but not disgusting) of the monster suit Jones dons as The Asset, living and breathing and moving on its own terms and brought to life even further by post-production effects that surge lights through its body to shape a divinity into the creature and make him fascinating and scene-stealing with big round cutesy eyes to sell it as… well, a fish out of water while Jones moves with apprehensiveness and curiosity at the world around him.

It’s not a total loss, that’s just a fact. But I’d rather had a wholly great film like Del Toro has often given me than a halfway good movie. Still in the end, Del Toro will be ok and will hardly care what I think about the movie that got him two Oscars, the success of which probably ensures less adversity in his developing projects as he had faced all throughout his career. And he’s had more than enough great movies not to lose an ounce of good will from me just on account of The Shape of Water. Most of all, there’s no real context by which I could claim Del Toro was really… uninspired. The man loves making movies and feels like everything he makes comes from a labor of love. Just sometimes that doesn’t result in something every single one of his fans dig and that’s a-ok. We could do worse with our passion projects sometimes*.

*I say as I side-eye Mute.

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Cured of My Will to Live

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So, here’s a thing: it’s already hard enough to get your ass up out to the theater to watch a movie you honestly don’t want to watch. Who wants to waste their time and money like that, right? It’s even more difficult when you’re in my previous position with Maze Runner: The Death Cure where I kept having to re-schedule the opportunities around my work and opportunities to see that movie do not come easily because it is 2 AND A MOTHERFUCKING HALF HOURS LONG, got damn. And yet, here I am having finally seen it and so very eager to get this franchise wrapped up that I started typing the moment I got home from the theater.

And I do have some words of praise to afford the filmmakers: first off, to actually seeing the franchise all the way to the end right at the cusp of when young adult dystopia material was reaching at its end, particularly in the wake of the Divergent series’ decision to give up. Several young adult franchises involved splitting the final book in their respective literary source series into two movies unnecessarily as has been the fad since Harry Potter‘s films and this is something Maze Runner did not choose to do, to my significant esteem. I suppose this decision may have been less spurred by narrative integrity than by the fact that as of the time Maze Runner: The Death Cure has been released, it has been a little under 2 years since The Divergent Series: Allegiant underperformed and a little over 2 years after The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 underperformed, a death knell to the type of material The Maze Runner operates in. But that circumstance is also why the tenacity of the filmmakers impresses me almost as much as the fact that they have been financially rewarded for their faith. And particularly since it’s no big secret that gap of time was prolonged by the unfortunate injury of lead actor Dylan O’Brien during filming, at which point the studio decided to hold off until he could recuperate properly because nobody needs to die while making a movie.

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OK, and now with all that young adult adaptation background that I am very ashamed to have at my disposal, I can actually praise Maze Runner: The Death Cure for something actually within the text of the film itself: not only is it better than its predecessors – a low bar to clear – it might possibly be a decent watchable movie. That claim requires many caveats: to begin with, you have to have watched the first two movies because there is no hand-holding flashback or recap opening the film and – welcome in the wake of the exposition vomit that made up the scripts of Maze Runner and Scorch Trials – most of the movie is spent in actual narrative momentum with a clear objective in mind. That objective being, after the final moments of Scorch Trials where the evil corporation WCKD who accidentally invented desert zombies (zombies that don’t really appear as much in Death Cure except within the bookends) kidnaps several friends of our hero Thomas (O’Brien), he and his team arranges to break into WCKD’s walled metropolitan safe haven to specifically save Minho (Ki Hong Lee). Specifically Minho. I mean, sure there’s other folks that they mean to rescue but they only wanna mention Minho.

OK, I’m going to admit at this point while I’m getting snarky that while I’m sure The Death Cure pays off significantly to those who have been invested in the struggles of Thomas, his right hand man Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Frypan (Dexter Darden), and Brenda (Rosa Salazar). As I’m sure anybody who followed the last two movies could figure out, I was not at all and while I concede that the movie does very well to collect all of the threads of the story and tie them into a neat conclusion, it ain’t my jam. For one thing, the kids’ acting got worse with the way they try to escalate and intensify their responses to each situation with puppy dog attempts at gruff exclamations of “shit!” and this is shoved in our faces when Brodie-Sangster has an arbitrary development to his character that feels nothing more than mean-spirited. He does little else with it than bark at other characters often and hyperventilate because Newt – like pretty much every other ally – doesn’t really have a personality beyond “is loyal to Thomas”.

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It’s also shoved in our faces when the group’s mission is made complicated on the sudden romantic implication between Thomas and fellow Glader Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) that seems hella outta nowhere, especially considering how sex-less the first Maze Runner pointedly was about a girl living enclosed amongst boys and how little time they spent together in The Scorch Trials before Teresa was revealed to be a turncoat for WCKD. That the heroic group is apprehensive about Thomas’ desire to find some good in her again despite accepting the mid-film reveal of an easily guessable previously-thought-dead* murderous villain who apparently changed between movies from a violent psycho into a brusque senior rebel to look up to with few objections is just one of many inconsistencies that I rolled with because I wanted this movie to wrap up.

These threads are also the subject of an ending that really wants to sell you on the gravitas of the situation by suddenly taking stakes at the last minute that were barely on the ground before (though it ends on a much more hopeful note than that sounds) and add that to uncompelling performances from actors who are empty presences at worst and at best given little to do except Aidan Gillen’s evil militaristic Janson (which is essentially Gillen playing the same slimy contemptible piece of shit he built his career out of playing) and I’m just not here for the story, y’all. Power to those who are.

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But if you’re watching Maze Runner: The Death Cure for the visuals of director Wes Ball and the cinematography of Gyula Pados, well… it’s actually a pretty good-looking movie. We’re not talking Deakins here, but the setting of the majority of the film in an area of urban ruins and sleek cold reflective surfaces as in the central Last City where WCKD centers itself gives Ball and Pados a lot of room to play with light and shadow to give Death Cure a more mature chilliness than any scene of young looking late 20-year-olds with guns could possibly have. In general, the design of The Last City feels like the modern response to the city from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, a desperately authoritarian and insincere industrialization of survivalism all proven by how tall and closed-off the towers are. It’s not revelatory at all since we already had a feeling the makers were getting better within the sweltering desert heat of The Scorch Trials, but it’s impressive set-building and it does tell us what was the answer to The Maze Runner‘s visuals all along: keep Ball and Pados the fuck away from trees and grass.

A much more enjoyable benefit to yours truly: the action setpieces are all not only coherent and impactful, they’re also unhinged in a manner akin to the Fast and Furious movies. The central “break in and break out” heist of The Death Cure involves several “are you crazy?” type of stunts and actions on the parts of the characters that clearly would have killed any person in real-life physics – including a crane swinging a bus full of children by its front grill over a wall – and it’s the most joyous and alive the franchise has ever felt to me. And this isn’t something The Death Cure takes its sweet-ass time getting to: it opens on a kinetic grounded train heist that makes for great enough popcorn spectacle in the early months of the year.

So… is this enough to say I like Maze Runner: The Death Cure? Not really. Given how much I unexpectedly gave T.S. Nowlin’s final screenplay for the franchise, I’m starting to feel I spoke too soon in claiming it’s a decent movie. But it does recognize the job it has in closing out a franchise and establishing a brand new environment to blow to smithereens in its climax. And it sets its mind on completing that job no matter how messy it gets and for the franchise’s perseverance, I do admit admiration growing in seeing it finally reach the end of its own maze.

*I am aware that the character in question was revealed to be alive in the third book that this movie is based on, but I am not sure that his “apparent death” was as ludicrously severe as this character’s was.

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