Acceptable Wonder

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Warner Bros. and DC finally have a good movie on their hands, but that doesn’t mean the movie (or their cinematic universe) is fixed.

Alright, I’ll admit it: Warner Bros. and DC are brilliant.

 

The partnering studio/comic-book company took on the nearly-impossible task of trying to keep up with Disney and Marvel Studios by creating their own superhero cinematic universe. Since its inception in 2013, they’ve had three false starts with Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad. Taking out any discussion of being faithful comic book adaptations and whatnot, those three films stand out as unique failures for being bad on basic filmmaking levels, from unnecessary zoom-ins and collateral damage (Man of Steel), to constant shaky-cam and confused character development (Dawn of Justice), and then terrible editing with unfocused tone (Suicide Squad). Ignoring the childish war for validation between Marvel and DC fans, the bottom line was that these were poorly-made movies that lowered the expectations of fans with every new installment. So now the bar has been set so low, not worst case scenario but low enough, where an action-adventure movie made with the most basic expectations of filmmaking is practically a godsend.

 

Yes, Wonder Woman is a fine movie, occasionally even a damn good one, but the concern is that it’s because on top of its flaws (which are obvious and gaping), the movie has very basic technical elements to it. Basically, we should’ve been getting this quality of filmmaking for the past four years. Director Patty Jenkins (Monster) gets everything off on the right foot with the gorgeous island of Themyscira inhabited by the fearless female warriors, the Amazons. The spunky oddball of the Amazons is Princess Diana (Gal Gadot), sheltered by her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), but secretly trained by her aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright). Diana wants to explore the outside world, which fortunately comes right to her shores when U.S. Army spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash lands on Themyscira after evading German forces as the real world faces World War I. When Steve tells the Amazons about the horrors of the Great War and they turn him away, Diana grabs a sword, a shield, and a powerful lasso to sail away from her home and join Steve on the frontlines saving the world.

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Most of the credit for Wonder Woman goes to Jenkins and her production team for crafting the best looking film of the DC Extended Universe. Everything from the lost paradise of Themyscira to the barren war zone of Belgium looks gorgeous, thanks to Jenkins’s smooth flow of directing scenes and cinematographer Matthew Jensen’s (Chronicle, Game of Thrones) fluid combination of colors that don’t flood the scenes. Jenkins’s is also an impressive director of action, staging a great beach-front fight between the Amazons and German troops with a much more appropriate use of slow-motion and imagery worth of freeze-frames (see Antiope shooting three arrows at the same time…in mid-air). Same can be said for when Wonder Woman makes her grand debut in costume on the German frontlines, where Diana disrobes into the iconic costume and charges into battle blocking bullets. Unlike the previous DCEU films, Jenkins understands that action scenes should build upon themselves with elevating threats and seeing Wonder Woman go from blocking a barrage of bullets to hip-checking a German tank like she’s Malcolm Butler are well-earned displays of heroism. It’s a shame that action goes completely off the rails with the film’s overblown climax that harkens back to the Doomsday fight in Dawn of Justice too much.

 

Like the previous DCEU films, Wonder Woman’s major problem is its story. Written by Jason Fuchs, Allan Heinberg (who went on to write the screenplay), and WB/DC stalwart Zack Snyder, the origins of Wonder Woman is solid with her crafted by her mother and brought to life by Zeus. It’s a typical outcast-to-the-rescue story that’s slightly similar to that of Marvel’s Thor. In fact, Wonder Woman’s main story is an obvious mesh of two of Marvel’s earlier cinematic universe installments: the “mythical being adjusts to humans” elements of Thor and the “superhero faces the realism of human war” elements of Captain America: The First Avenger. Wonder Woman owes a lot of its plot elements to Steve Rogers, whether it be the shadow influence of an evil force on the war or the fate of certain characters at the film’s climax. It all seems a bit too familiar without adding anything new. For all the complaints people have that Marvel movies all looking and playing out the same, Wonder Woman feels an awful lot like a real solid Marvel movie.

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Even the title character has a thing or two in common with Marvel’s Asgardian god of thunder. But where Chris Hemsworth brought a sense of classic Hollywood charm to Thor, Gal Gadot brings a beating heart and emotional weight to the Amazonian princess. She starts off precocious and innocent as she enters the human world, but Gadot really shows how the horrors of war can impact those seeing it for the first time. Gadot really captures the moment where Wonder Woman goes from wholesome untouched metahuman to a true warrior who understands the gravity of war. It’s exactly what the DCEU needs: levity with a strong sense of what a hero sacrifices, and Gadot brings it. She’s got a great partner in Chris Pine, bringing his own classic-style Hollywood charm to Steve Trevor. Pine has always felt like a 50s-era actor that wound up getting big in the new millennium (sans his excellent performance in last year’s Hell or High Water), so he’s right at home being the charming American spy with his his coiffed hair and silver tongue.

 

The thing about all of the positive elements of Wonder Woman, i.e. developed characters, good action scenes, and structured filmmaking should’ve been in the DCEU films for the past four years. If anything, Wonder Woman deadlifts the bar for what the DCEU movies need to be. Patty Jenkins has come in to practically right the ship of the DCEU and her filmmaking standards should be seriously noted. Wonder Woman is not only a reminder of how superhero movies should be made but a platform to build new ideas for superhero movies in the future. Wonder Woman is wholly unoriginally and has big flaws, but its spirit and skill is something that should be (pardon the phrase) marveled.

3/4 stars

Stuck In Neutral

Let’s be honest: we’ve all been very generous to the Fast & Furious franchise. Six years ago with the release of Fast Five, the world saw that Vin Diesel, Paul Walker and the gang decided to shoot the moon and turn their dated racing movie franchise into Ocean’s Eleven for dude-bros. Inexplicably, the world decided to fall in love with Fast & Furious more than they ever had before, and Fast & Furious returned the favor by throwing caution (and logic) to the wind for the sake of action set pieces that would make physics professors pull their hair out. With that said, these movies are actually a lot of fun! It’s taking all of the seriousness forced into modern action movies and chucking it aside for more macho posturing and car chases. Audiences know it’s all stupid and pointless and as humane as a Lil Wayne music video, and yet the franchise has made over $3 billion and counting worldwide. Even with the tragic death of one of its main stars, Fast & Furious is practically bulletproof. So even if we’re on movie no. 8, The Fate of the Furious, can it even be fairly judged anymore?

 
Maybe not, but it doesn’t hurt to try! Episode eight of the Fast & Furious saga has a new hook: Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), the chrome dome charisma vacuum with more emphasis on family than Stitch goes ROGUE! He screws over military badass Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) to work with Cipher (Charlize Theron), a mysterious cyber terrorist who can hack into anything anywhere forever and ever. Cipher seems to be holding something over Dom’s head, causing him to reluctantly steal military tech. It’s up to Hobbs, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) and former enemy Deckard (Jason Statham) to save Dom and stop Cipher from doing some form of taking over the world.

 
It’s important to note that Cipher’s plan is “some form” of taking over the world, since writer Chris Morgan (Furious 7, Wanted) didn’t bother to nail down what exactly Cipher’s point in the movie is. She gives vague exposition on wanting to hold world leaders accountable or something, but it’s entirely irrelevant to The Fate of the Furious. The movie, like all Fast & Furious movies before it, is all about action set pieces, exotic cars, glory shots of scantily-clad women, and close ups of the actors clenching their faces to look serious. The Fate of the Furious certainly hits all of those familiar beats, for better and for worse. Director F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job, Straight Outta Compton) proves his competence with handling the vehicular madness that’s expected of this franchise, but the excitement seems to have worn off. It truly says something about these movies when dozens of “zombie cars” zooming through New York City and a submarine blasting through a sheet of ice isn’t as ridiculously fun as it sounds. It’s nothing bad, but it feels routine at this point. The only option they seems to have left is strapping a rocket to their Dodge Chargers and racing in space (and you know they’d do it). In all honesty, the best action scenes involve Johnson and Statham, with neither of them involving cars or any interaction with the rest of the main cast.


That’s a telling detail and a bit of strange irony to this production, since Johnson and Statham are the two best parts of the movie. Their charisma together and experience in physical action scenes make for great banter between the two and some impressive action scenes. Statham rarely gets to be this loose, so it’s nice to see his comic timing mixed with the infinite charisma of the actor formerly known as The Rock. It’s a big help that they’re in the movie, along with a returning Kurt Russell charming his way through his little screentime. The acting chops of the main Fate of the Furious cast are well-documented as limited, and that’s no different this time around. It seems like a mistake to make Dom the emotional focus of the movie, as Diesel has not made his career off of his dramatic chops. As demonstrated in his other franchise entry this year (xXx: Return of Xander Cage), Diesel thrives when he absorbs the charisma of other actors around him and works off of it. The problem here is that Diesel is riding solo for most of the movie’s 136 minute runtime, having to carry dramatic scenes practically on his own and mostly falling flat on his face. You’d think he’d have a little help from Oscar-winner Theron as the villain, but she must’ve gotten the memo of the limited acting requirement from this franchise and thought it’d be fine to phone in her performance. She speaks mostly in a whisper-tone and locks into staring contests with Diesel, clearly only cast in this movie so Vin could make out with the heroine of the other car-based action movie that beat his car-based action movie in the same year. Rodriguez handles the emotional moments a little bit better, but it requires minimum effort to pull off so it’s graded on a curve. The rest of the cast fill in their roles with little to no effort, and Gibson’s comedy relief getting more and more tiresome. Also, Hollywood needs to stop trying to make Scott Eastwood happen.

 
The Fate of the Furious has its moments and it remains fascinating to see how much money goes into the cinematic equivalent of shoving Hot Wheels into each other. But even on the grading curve of Fast & Furious movies, The Fate of the Furious feels very routine and somewhat uninspired. At least with Furious 7, there was the emotional weight of Paul Walker’s death and the inclusion of Statham to motivate the excitement of the movie. Here, attendance of this movie feels obligatory out of curiosity to see how this franchise is going to keep going. I honestly don’t know what else could be done at this point, but as long as Vin Diesel needs to be relevant, life will keep finding a way one quarter-mile at a time.

2.5/4 Stars

Apocalypse Kong

Have you ever heard someone try to excuse a bad movie by calling it a B-movie? Stuff like Snakes on a Plane, Drive Angry, and The Shallows are dollar-store blockbusters dropped into theaters hoping to scoot by on the cheesiness of their premise and/or the corniness of their execution. “Who cares if they’re poorly shot, motivated without interest, have bad acting, and terrible effects? It’s a B-movie!” What a terrible shaming of the wonders of B-movies. People like Roger Corman, Albert Pyun, David Prior, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus didn’t make B-movies as intentional trash, they put their heart and souls into movies with the tiniest of budgets because they loved movies and wanted to entertain audiences. Even something as legendary as Miami Connection was made with an ungodly love of film. Now, imagine if any of those guys were given $185 million and told to make King Kong relevant in 2017?

 

It would’ve been glorious! And to Warner Bros. and Legendary Entertainment’s credit, they came damn close with Kong: Skull Island. The eighth movie made about the eighth wonder of the world (how convenient!) centers around two government agents (John Goodman and Corey Hawkins) in 1973 post-Vietnam War looking to explore the titular island, a mysterious land in the South Pacific that any ship or plane that’s flown near it has disappeared. The two round up  a helicopter squadron (Samuel L. Jackson, Toby Kebbell, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann), a war photographer (Brie Larson), and a former British Special Air Service Captain (Tom Hiddleston) to map out the island. Things go smoothly until the warm sunset of the island is interrupted by a 100 foot ape that swats down helicopters like flies. Now stuck on the island with little ammo and little options, including a sketchy longtime island dweller (John C. Reilly), the team must brave the unknown of the island.

 

Despite its massive budget and fully-stocked cast, Kong: Skull Island is without a doubt a B-movie, but a damn good one. The notion to have a King Kong movie set in the backdrop of the end of the Vietnam War is ludicrous, but to repeatedly lift the imagery of Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and Jurassic Park and mesh that with that backdrop is so ballsy it jumps from hilarious to borderline brilliant. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) is the latest indie director Hollywood plucked from obscurity to handle their franchises for cool creds on Film Twitter (see Colin Trevorrow with Jurassic World or Gareth Edwards with Godzilla and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story),  but Vogt-Roberts seems know exactly how to merge what studios want and what audiences love. He knows the main focus is pushing out this property and throwing action around him, so he and cinematographer Larry Fong (Batman v Superman: Dawn of JusticeSuper 8300) decide to put impressive effort into crafting the gorgeous Skull Island with sweeping wide shots of Vietnam and Hawaii and some rather impressive scenes involving bamboo forests and a skull-scattered crater. Not to mention the impressive creature designs of the monsters on the island, some of them blending into the environment for surprise appearances. When the big bad beasts do show up, its hard to get the smile off of one’s face. The merger of 70s post-Nam soldiers trying to shoot down Kong while Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” plays in the background is like a dream scenario you have when you’re stoned listening to old metal records, it’s fantastic. There’s a real sense of adventure from film geeks in Skull Island akin the original Jurassic Park, you’re enthralled by every new monster and set piece the movie throws out.

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Skull Island is a beautiful film, if only Vogt-Roberts made some more time to take in his movie. The pacing is the biggest problem of Skull Island, with almost every second of the movie rushed out to get to the next scene. There’s almost never any room for the scenes to breathe and the creatures of the film just pop up without any sense of danger or build-up. You have John C. Reilly giving a very ominous depiction of the “skull crawlers” expecting them to slither throughout the film until their big reveal at the climax. But then DURING the Reilly exposition, the monsters just show up in a cut scene without any hype or tension to them. Kong’s entrance is impressive as it’s shown in the trailer, but there’s that nagging wish that they could’ve built up his presence just a little bit more, like Peter Jackson did in his King Kong back in 2005. Perhaps it was a studio decision to keep the movie under two hours thinking audiences don’t have the attention span longer than that (unless they have capes and superpowers apparently), but the visuals and the monsters (not to mention the title character) really warrant something longer. Hell, I’d sit through an “extended edition” of Skull Island to stick around this world longer.

 

Perhaps that extended time could be used to flesh out some of these characters. You might’ve noticed I haven’t used any of the film characters’ names when detailing the plot, but that’s because it’s not needed. All of the characters are mostly one-note, not going any deeper than basic stereotypes. Hiddleston’s the charming British one, Larson is the pretty girl in a flattering tank top, Goodman’s the mad scientist, Hawkins is the nerd, Jackson is the stiff military man, Reilly is….well he’s crazy John C. Reilly. But the funny thing is, all of it actually helps the movie. It works because of the actors playing them bring enough charisma and are invested in the world around them that they become likeable. Tom Hiddleston’s cold charm makes him a surprisingly strong leading action man, Brie Larson could spin gold out of lint and does so here, Tony Kebbell and Jason Mitchell are fun to watch as supporting players. Though it’s a real shame to see Samuel L. Jackson back in his “shut up and give me my paycheck” mode of acting despite being given the “avenge my fallen comrades” story arc that propels most of the movie.

All of the faults of Skull Island seemingly fall the wayside if you understand exactly what the movie is: pure schlock with a pure blockbuster budget. But whereas Hollywood has done this before, Skull Island has an enthusiasm and spirit to it that makes the entertaining factors of the movie come front and center. The benefits of being a B-movie is that it can get away with crazy ideas that can be fully developed, almost makes one wish Hollywood would let their blockbusters be a little crazier and less mandated.

3/4 stars

Blaze of Glory

Pop quiz: how do you end a superhero? I’m not talking about killing a superhero, I mean taking a character the world knows and loves and simply saying “alright, show’s over”? How do you send off a figure with so much baggage and so many travels behind him? Regardless of what you come up with, it’s never going to be clean. Whether it’s having him disappear into the sunrise or having him quietly admit his faults with a slow dance, there’s no easy way to drop the curtains on a comic book hero at the movies. And if anyone is the antithesis of easy in the superhero movie universe, it’s most definitely Wolverine. Marvel’s brooding blitzkrieg of rage and self-loathing has been as fused with pop culture in the last two decades as the adamantium that coats his skeleton, so you can imagine that he’s not going away quietly. But just because we’re sad to see Wolverine go, that doesn’t mean he’s leaving unscathed.

Logan’s title star (Hugh Jackman) is now in the year 2029 as a grey-haired lumbering shell of his former self stuck near the border of Mexico driving around drunk prom teens and bridal showers. His claws ache, his healing is practically gone, and he’s only getting by with copious amounts of liquor. He’s also caring for Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who deteriorating mental state causes his telepathy to go haywire unless he’s heavily medicated and monitored by an albino mutant tracker (Stephen Merchant). But then Logan has an unwelcomed passenger; a young girl named Laura (newcomer Dafne Keen) who doesn’t talk much but lets her claws speak for her. It turns out she has a lot in common with Logan, and he has to protect her from a secret organization looking to mass-produce mutant soldiers.

Props go to co-writer/director James Mangold (Walk the Line) for managing to successfully shift Logan from the samurai shuffle of Japan in 2013’s The Wolverine to the dirty, grim, sunsoaked American south of Logan. It would be easy to call Logan more of a Western than a traditional superhero movie, but that depends on your definition of a Western. Logan’s definition of a Western is much closer to the blood-dripping excess of Django Unchained than The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. From the opening scene onward, every action scene hits like a sledgehammer to the chest with limbs severed, blood splattering walls, and Logan’s claws visibly piercing the heads of multiple bad guys. It’s glorious overkill, even if it loses some of its fun by the film’s climax and when Mangold has trouble having the camera keep up with the rapid choreography. Not to mention the god awful scenes when Professor X has seizures that causes everyone to become paralyzed and the cameraman to have a stroke. But even amongst the shakey cam are some truly gorgeous shots by cinematographer John Mathieson (Gladiator, X-Men: First Class) and Mangold does capture the emotionally hefty moments throughout. Once the movie slows down and gets to catch its breath, Mangold finally lets the audience see the wheezing, limping man that Logan is and how dire the situation is. That’s when the audience is reminded why this movie is a big deal.

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Unfortunately, the audience has to wait an hour to feel that purpose. Before then, they sit through a surprisingly rushed first half hour where the film’s setting is lazily set-up and characters are awkwardly introduced. The film also enjoys its R-rating with curse words abound and not just from Logan (a cussing Patrick Stewart is a wonderful Patrick Stewart, FYI), but doesn’t leave for any clever dialogue and instead some rushed exposition. The first hour of Logan has its moments and builds the interesting elements of a story, but it’s so rushed and forced that you just want the movie to take its time. It’s almost aimless, but the rest of the 137-minute movie finally starts to tell why Logan is in this predicament. This isn’t just another adventure Logan is reluctant to take on, this is Logan on the verge of death trying to find the tiniest reason to get up in the morning, let alone flex his claws. It’s such an emotional ramp up that you almost think the first half was for a completely different movie. In fact, it’s the comic book elements from the X-23 and Old Man Logan storyline that distract from the emotional core of the movie. You just wish that Logan would stay as far away from the comic books as possible and feel more like its own special salute to this character that Jackman put so much of his time and effort into.

 

Speaking of Jackman, some actors do superhero movies for a multitude of reasons (money, career revitalization, desperate ploys to relevancy). But Jackman has always cared about Wolverine, taking so much time out of his life to make Wolverine a true character more than a toy. And in Logan he takes a bow the way a true actor does, by leaving it all on the screen. Jackman aches and breaks in the role, showing more raw emotion in Wolverine than ever before. Equal parts pain and macho power, Jackman truly understands the development of Wolverine throughout these movies (timelines be damned) as someone who has no more guard left to put up. He truly sends his version of Logan off with proud salute to the character and the fans who’ve stuck by him.

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He also leaves some room for his supporting players. Patrick Stewart is great as always, with a fouler mouth and somehow a kinder soul to Logan. Stewart also says that he’s done with the Xavier character, so it’s nice that he gets to bring a little more aged agitation to the role before he exits stage left. And then there’s Dafne Keen, mostly mute throughout the movie but uses her cold but curious stares (and some expressive eyebrows, by the way) to speak volumes. She’s a good mirror for Logan’s character and gives him the reason for his explosive catharsis, along with being very capable of handling animalistic rage (when her claws come out, she becomes the star). It’s a shame that Stephen Merchant gets wasted here, as someone who could’ve brought some great dark comedy to the movie.

Despite the presence of a cocky Boyd Holbrook (Gone Girl, Narcos) with a gold tooth and robot hand and a slithering Richard E. Grant (Dracula, Corpse Bride) as a sinister experimental doctor, there doesn’t seem to be an intimidating antagonist in the movie. Both characters are more plot motivators to get to Logan’s last stand. There’s no threat in Logan and very little sense of heightened tension. The movie’s action goes 150 mph from the get-go that you wish it was spaced out a little bit more to add more heft and awe to the impressive but, by the end of the movie, routine climax. As much as I enjoy someone’s head getting blown off, it really hits home if its sudden or cleverly built-up. To bring up Django Unchained again, that movie’s shootouts work so well because Tarantino spaces them out so far between each other to build anticipation for it. It’s great that Logan goes all out with its action and when you first see it, it’s absolutely sublime, but there’s a reason you save your special attack on Super Smash Bros. for the last life.

Maybe this is my fault, maybe I succumbed to internet hype machine and expected Logan to be a perfect movie. Or maybe I misread the reviews and the fan hype: Logan is a perfect WOLVERINE movie, but that does not mean it’s a perfect movie, period. Logan is an absolute trainwreck, a speeding, flaming, bloody bullet that’s crash landing is as worthwhile as all the bodies it went through to get there. It goes too fast sometimes, its punches get numbing after a while, and its manic energy is sometimes too much to properly capture. But it’s impossible not to salute Logan for diving head-first into absolute carnage and going all-out with the violence and the gloom. No matter the scars or damage there is to the final product, you take Logan as it is: one last hurrah from one of the most iconic movie characters of the last two decades and the man so utterly committed to that character. Mr. Jackman, we salute you and you blood-soaked knuckles.

3/4 stars

The Power of Peele

2017 is turning out to be weird year. We have a crooked real estate tycoon with our nuclear launch codes, Katy Perry going from lesbian teases to pseudo-woke club pop, and in the film world, we now have TWO M. Night Shyamalans. Now while the original M. Night used his movie in 2017 to make a two-hour pitch for an Unbreakable sequel, the new M. Night has used the horror/suspense genre as a platform to comment on the inherent and ever-present racism in modern America. But then again, uncomfortably and cleverly confronting racism is nothing new to the new M. Night, better known as Jordan Peele.

 

The Emmy-award winning co-creator/co-writer/co-star of Key and Peele takes his first big solo step into the movie business with Get Out, his directorial debut and first as the sole writer of a screenplay (following last year’s Keanu). It follows Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a black photographer going on a road trip with his white girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), to meet her parents. When they get to the secluded suburbs, Chris meets the too-friendly surgeon dad (Bradley Whitford), the too-inquisitive psychologist mom (Catherine Keener), the too-creepy sports brother (Caleb Landry Jones), and the far too-polite servants (Marcus Henderson and Betty Gabriel). He then meets the family friends, all-white of course, who can’t stop reminding Chris that he’s black (the old former golfer tells him how much he loves a certain popular black golfer, the fashion designer lets him know that black is “cool” again, etc.). Even when Chris finds another party guest of his color (Lakeith Stanfield), his rather prissy clothing and demeanor is very off. But thanks to a tip from his friend from home (LilRel Howery), the truth is more horrifying than he ever imagined.

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The M. Night comparisons are valid because as both a writer and director, Peele has very similar approaches to playing out scenes. He wants you to feel uncomfortable right from frame one, but he’s great at pacing and building up suspense for when the rug gets pulled out from under Chris. He utilizes tight-shots of faces so the audience feels Chris’ the crippling shock and the fear in his eyes. He’s also very patient behind the camera, taking time to carefully build scenes and roll out the tensions like he’s knocking down a line of dominoes. He may have sadly succumbed to a jump scare or two (these days, who hasn’t?), but the violence he brings to the climax is pretty satisfying without overdoing it. Peele’s story and dialogue also remains sharp, clearly expressing modern racism as polite pandering and envy. Rose’s family and friends are envious of Chris’ body type, his intelligence, his eye for culture, if only they behaved like them they could all get along. Peele’s idea is more of a nightmarish version of cultural assimilation and it propels the first half of the film’s 103-minute run-time. Even when the movie shifts from the racial satire to a full-on survival horror movie, it still runs at a solid pace. Sadly, Peele suffers from a much-maligned Shyamalan trait of the underwhelming finale. There’s no god-awful all-in twist that sinks the whole boat, but Peele just seems to end on a whimper rather than a bang. Still, unlike Split, the journey was involving enough to excuse a slightly disappointing ending.

 

Peele also gets a cast willing and able to roll with his wild ride. Daniel Kaluuya makes for a fine lead actor, charming his way through the tension and fully fleshing out the character of Chris. He uses the emotionally-heavy background of Chris provided by Peele’s writing to make him feel lived-in. Bonus points for him holding his own with a rather sinister Catherine Keener and the eternally nerdy Bradley Whitford. Get Out thrives with its smaller parts, including the always-reliable Lakeith Stanfield, LilRel Howery as the comedic relief, and even Stephen Root pops in to spout some ominous dialogue that works for the atmosphere. Even Allison Williams, the ever-spunky narcissist of Girls, really leaves a lasting impression in her all white jumpsuit and a hunting rifle.

What makes Get Out so impressive is how the two kinds of movies (racially-charged satire and suspenseful horror) that Peele is going for really gel together. It’s not one movie awkwardly shoved into another, they both meet each other halfway. If he can hold onto (or better yet, expand) on his writing talent subject and experiment more the next time he’s behind the camera, he could really cement himself as eye-catching filmmaker. The lesson he could learn from M. Night Shyamalan is a valid one and something all filmmakers should take to heart: it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters. If the story laid out is worth sticking with, it makes the ending all the more satisfying. Jordan Peele is on a new journey, and Get Out is him blazing a trail to success on his terms. Don’t be scared by Get Out’s title, stick with Peele.

3.5/4 stars

Shyamalan Gives Up

M. Night Shyamalan is a frustrating filmmaker. Part of it is because out of the 11 films he’s directed in 25 years, only two of them could be categorized as “good” and the rest have been bafflingly bad. But the other reason is that, truth be told, M. Night is actually an interesting director. His visual style builds atmosphere at a steady pace and creates mystery without the slightest hint of it being forced. He’s a unique filmmaker, but a godawful screenwriter. Not only does he keep writing the same stiff and overlong dialogue in all of his movies, but his stories only have two functions: ridiculous concepts that never works at all (Lady in the Water, The Visit, After Earth) or interesting ideas with poor execution (The Happening, The Village, Signs, The Last Airbender). It really is sad to see a director with obvious talent be muddled by a bad script, and it’s even worse when it’s the same guy. Since he’s moved away from big budget studio projects and into the arms of low-budget horror guru Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Production, one would think he would have a little less pressure on him and more elbow room to focus on a more well-crafted story…….Nope.

 

Split follows three girls (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula) kidnapped and held captive in an underground bunker. Their captor? Dennis (James McAvoy), an imposing neat freak claiming the girls are meant for something greater. There’s also Patricia (James McAvoy) a composed homely housewife, Hedwig (James McAvoy) a mischievous nine-year-old, and 20 other individuals inhabiting the body of Kevin (James McAvoy) with multiple personality disorder. The girls await the arrival of the 24th personality, an entity called “The Beast” that will use the girl as fodder for feasting unless they find some way to escape.

 

For those keeping track, Split falls into the latter category of “interesting idea with poor execution.” Shyamalan, again the sole writer of the script and story, does his magic of building a creepy and mysterious atmosphere throughout the movie, never trying to over explain the film’s antagonist and keeping his others as simple as possible. He knows the focus of the movie is the mystery and keeping the audience guessing. The problem is, the mystery itself is rather tedious and doesn’t go into anything deeper than mommy issues. Even when “The Beast” makes his appearance, it’s nothing more than McAvoy doing an angry ape impression with some CGI veins added on to make him look scary. Shyamalan doesn’t have the time to make him more compelling or interesting. Any interest in Kevin comes from the detail McAvoy puts into his performance, not the writing itself.

 

That said, Shyamalan’s directing is the best its been since The Village. Thanks to some help from cinematographer Mike Gioulakis (It Follows), Shyamalan’s directing emphasizes the gripping terror of not only being held prisoner, but being taken for a reason that is borderline madness. The way he shoots the underground bunker is also helpful, showing how claustrophobic and hopeless the area of the cold concrete floors and the faded gray and brown walls surrounding our heroines. Shyamalan sees the setting more like purgatory or waiting on Death Row. His typical use of actor close-ups are also effective here, adding to the unease of the situation and waiting for the tension to boil over. Shyamalan never goes for gratuitous violence for shock value, but he builds Kevin to be a ticking time bomb that, before the disappointing reveal of “The Beast,” keeps the audience on the edge of their seat.

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It’s nice to see actors motivated in a Shyamalan movie. McAvoy is a revelation, jumping between the personalities set before him as he remains an intimidating enigma throughout the movie. Even as Hedwig, awkwardly dancing to dubstep music, is scary to watch as you wonder when this unstable maniac is going to snap. His three captives are all fine actors, especially Taylor-Joy (after a fantastic debut in last year’s The Witch) as the final girl in the show. There’s genuine fear in all of their eyes and they don’t over exaggerate the fact that they’re playing teenage girls.

 

The movie mostly coasts in its near-two hour runtime, nothing great but nothing really bad, just something mildly interesting. But then there’s the film’s end credit scene, because even M. Night Shyamalan movies need end credit scene nowadays. The film ends with customers in a diner watching a news reporter about Kevin (referred to as “The Horde”) being on the loose. One of the patrons mentions that she hasn’t heard anything this crazy in nearly 15 years, when some guy in a wheelchair was arrested for committing a serious of crimes. When she can’t remember the name of the guy, the camera pans across the diner countertop and a voice is heard answering the question.

 

“Mr. Glass”

 

Yup, that would be Samuel L. Jackson’s character from Shyamalan’s other great movie, 2000’s Unbreakable. And who is the one who answered this lone diner patron’s question? None other than David Dunn (Bruce Willis) the invincible protagonist of that very same movie, leading to a set-up to the long-desired sequel to Shyamalan’s twist on superhero movies. So, in summation, Split’s entire existence was meant as a pitch for an Unbreakable sequel, a two-hour equivalent to a Marvel post-credits scene that sets up the next movie.

 

To me, this was infuriating. To sit through two hours of buildup, suspense, and character development only so Shyamalan could pitch a sequel to one of his most beloved films. If this is the case and Kevin will be the supposed antagonist to the Unbreakable sequel, he could’ve been easily explained in this supposed sequel instead of wasting the audience’s time in an entire other movie. The more egregious thing about it is that because Kevin’s character isn’t entirely interesting when his origins are finally revealed, he could’ve been explained much better or more succinctly in the Unbreakable sequel instead of wasting time introducing these three girls where two of them won’t be seen again and the survivor not really doing anything to damage or have impact on Kevin.

It’s an insulting cop out for an underwhelming movie, meant to negate whatever flaws Split has and make the audience think the movie is memorable simply for the twist. Sure, The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and even Shyamalan’s bad movies are memorable for their twists, but the former two movies are memorable for their characters, the directing, the story, and the journey it takes audiences. Even something like The Happening is hilariously misled enough throughout its runtime to be watchable.

 

Not only does Split itself have an underwhelming ending in general, but the end credits scene feels like a middle finger from Shyamalan telling us that he’d rather crawl back and soil the memory of one of his best movies than attempt to make another original movie. It’s cheap, desperate, and rather sad for a filmmaker that remains one of Hollywood’s few interesting filmmakers. Maybe if Shyamalan took the time to create a more satisfying conclusion or a more interesting lead character, the end of Split would be more tolerable. It’s a simple lesson that applies to film: it’s the journey, not the destination.

1.5 out of 4 stars

The Broken American Girl

 

I found it very fitting that a trailer for the live-action Beauty and the Beast movie played before Jackie, considering that Pablo Larraín’s biopic of former First Lady Jackie Kennedy depicts the former first lady much like the character in Disney’s beloved fairytale. Oh, but I’m not talking about the whimsical, good hearted Belle who sees the good in even the ghastliest creatures. It seems that Mrs. Kennedy has much more in common with the Beast: someone cursed for his own ego, living in a cold and empty palace with a reminder of his woes kept in a case always in his presence. While Mrs. Kennedy was certainly not a furry monster with horns damned by an enchantress’ curse, her wealthy upbringing and glamourous interpretation of life as the First Lady certainly fueled the confidence in her smile. But after a quarter of her husband’s head was blown to bits inches away from her on November 22, 1963, the White House that was her castle became an icy, vacant tomb of what her life was and she couldn’t escape the sorrow of her loss, whether it be the vacant chair in the Oval Office or sitting right next to her husband’s casket mere hours after trying to collect bits of his brains off of a car. But don’t worry, she made sure everyone knew she and her family remained every bit as perfect as she (or the American people) wanted them to be. In a way, Jackie Kennedy believed in beauty in the most beastly time of her life.

This is the balancing act that plays out in Jackie, a grim yet gorgeous character study of an American icon that got the dream and nightmare in the best and worst way. Jackie’s framing device is a journalist (Billy Crudup) interviewing the former First Lady (Natalie Portman) in Hyannis Port, MA for Life magazine in 1963, mere weeks after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. During the interview, Jackie is bitter and standoffish while constantly questioning Mr. White’s intentions and notes as she burns through cigarette after cigarette (though doesn’t want her smoking habits in print). While speaking her mind on everything from policies of the First Lady to the legacy of her husband’s presidency, the movie flashes back to various moments in her time at the White House. It shows the poise and grace of Mrs. Kennedy’s televised tour of the White House in early 1962 and the nights she danced to classical music with her charming husband. The main focus of the flashbacks kickoff on that fateful day in Dallas, with Jackie in her iconic pink dress holding her dead husband in her arms while her face and skirt have splashes of his blood on them. Even with her husband dead, she’s already planning a funeral with the same gravitas and pageantry as Abraham Lincoln’s. Surrounded by confidants including brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), longtime friend Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), and a priest (John Hurt), Jackie tries to comprehend how she wants her husband to be remembered by the public and how to conduct herself after the love of her life is gone and if she ever loved her life at all.

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It would be easy to paint Jackie in the narrative of “grieving widow trying to be strong.” Larraín has that in his film, but it’s such a miniscule part of the story that it goes by nearly unrecognized. Instead, he sees more anger in Jackie than grief. She wants the public to see her shaken demeanor and somber face next to her husband’s coffin as punishment for the immense pressure and scrutiny they put on her and her family, practically blaming the people for JFK’s death (“They put him on ‘Wanted’ posters,” she says before rolling out JFK’s casket off of Air Force One). She’s also angry that after all of the effort to present herself as perfect as porcelain, all she gets in return is a dead husband and kicked out of her presidential palace. At the end of it all, she wonders who she did any of this for: her husband, herself, or the American people? It’s fascinating to see Jackie appear fiercely protective of her husband’s legacy one minute, micromanaging where he’ll be buried and how many horses will be carrying his coffin through Washington D.C., to drunkenly sulking around the White House in old dresses while a vinyl of Camelot plays in the background (because ain’t irony a kick?). It’s questionable as to how much of the scenes are fact or fiction, but Noah Oppenheim’s script is more about the ethics and morals of Jackie’s dilemma and letting the real events inform each decision. The movie as a whole is visually stunning thanks to cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine dimming the colors in the movie with a hint of gray. There’s also a good combination of sweeping wide shots of the barren White House or the JFK funeral procession and closeups of the characters under constant emotional stress, boosted by Mica Levi’s haunting string section in the film’s score. It’s Terrence Malick meets David Fincher, and it works surprisingly well.

But you know why you’re here: Natalie Portman…….HO-LY LORD. Portman is a force as the First Lady, capturing every possible side of Jackie’s personality at the time: the fiercely protective wife demanding the world honor her husband like he was King Midas, the broken-hearted lover grieving over the loss of her Prince Charming, the unsure rich girl on the verge of having the lavish lifestyle taken away from her. The most interesting segments of Portman’s performance is when she questions her own worth and her own direction. She speaks to the priest (in a great performance by Hurt) about wishing she could’ve married a baker or a store owner, questioning if all of the comfort of her life has been worth anything if it could go away so suddenly. Portman has the fragility of Jackie down, but turns that into a jaded form of rage as she tries to control something entirely unstable. Even through her tears, she controls each scene. And then the interview segments the journalist (Crudup, also exceptional) where she continuously snipes about what the American people deserve to hear about the assassination and how she coped with it all. Portman shows the layers of Jackie on full display and masters every single one. While it may not be as complex and disturbed as her Nina Sayers in Black Swan, her performance in Jackie marks another peak for her career and one of the best acting performances of the year. To complement that is a well-rounded cast of supporting performances from Skarsgaard, Hurt, and Crudup all giving ace performances. But this is Portman’s show and she owns it.

Jackie avoids the pitfalls of typical biopics by playing around with the order not only of the scenes, but of its title character. The movie lays out Jackie’s character like pieces of a jumbled puzzle, piecing bits together not exactly in the right order but regardless comes together at the end. When Jackie ends, I felt as if every possible question about Jackie Kennedy Onassis has been answered even if the movie is not a complete look at her life. But maybe that’s what one moment can do to one’s life, as corny as it sounds. After all, it shook an entire country, perhaps even an entire world. Imagine what it did to one person?
4 out of 4 stars