Tarantino’s Flawed Fairy Tale

Quentin Tarantino is stuck between a rock and a hard place. He’s been adamant in his plans to retire after making 10 films and he just released his ninth feature. He’s talked about his planned retirement so much that he’d likely be mocked if he backs out on it. But if he does step down, there’d certainly be a gaping hole in the world of filmmaking without one of its best and most popular auteurs. And as cool and unbothered as he might look on the outside, Tarantino seems to be feeling the weight of his impending retirement. When the end is near, one tends to think back to the beginning and how everything started. For Tarantino, he looked back on the things that influenced him to become such a devoted student to the art of cinema. Though it’s more than movies that made Tarantino who he is, it’s an entire era of pop culture.

 

Tarantino would’ve been a month shy of his sixth birthday in February 1969, but he’d certainly thrive in his vision of that era of Hollywood. TV shows featured plenty of shootouts and macho dialogue while Paul Revere & the Raiders blasts out of every Cadillac cruising down Hollywood Boulevard. Westerns were king on the small and big screens, Roman Polanski was a year removed from Rosemary’s Baby and cigarettes were as common as sundresses. In Tarantino’s mind, 1969 was the golden age of culture. But all things come to an end. Whether that be his run as a writer/director or the era of 60s entertainment, both things are central to the vibe of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. Some things are at an end, like the careers of TV cowboy Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick’s stuck jumping from show to show playing the villain of the week and chugging margaritas to make the days easier. Cliff lives in a trailer behind a drive-in theater coasting through life and unphased by the changing times. The ragged duo lean on each other as they go through their own personal crises, but Rick in particular feels more worthless as the days go on and doesn’t know where his life is going.

 

 

The same can be said for Tarantino and his new movie, sadly. For all the finesse and style that he expertly displays on screen, Once Upon a Time feels unfinished. It’s not so much missing a point but has one, yet doesn’t reach it in its lengthy two hours and 41 minutes. Rick and Cliff are men who are almost out of time, not getting as much as they wanted in the old days and being asked to change with the times. Tarantino has found himself in a similar situation: one of his chief financiers was publicly disgraced for atrocious behavior (that he apparently stood idly by while happening) and the actress who played one of his best characters called him out for being negligent with her safety on set. And that’s on top of the frequent debates people have about him regarding his treatment of female characters and usage of racial slurs in movies. So here he is, a legend in filmmaking facing the mortality of his career on the verge of leaving it all behind, using the things that inspired him to play out his own mid-life crisis. The set-up of Once Upon a Time was a near-perfect scenario for a fascinating, therapeutic experience of a man using his art to let go of his past hangups and set up the next (or even final) phase of his career. It was all right there…and he blew it.

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Instead, Once Upon a Time is Tarantino hugging his security blanket of throwback style, sexual eye candy and pulp to stay in his comfort zone. It’s as if Tarantino shut his eyes and plugged his ears to imagine a fantasy better than the reality facing him, like a child trying to avoid a lecture from his parents. And it’s not just speculation because the material is blatantly there for Tarantino to dig deeper, especially in Rick’s storyline. Played with an amusing Southern droll by DiCaprio, Rick scoffs at an offer to go to make movies in Italy that would have him to leave the town he fought so hard to get into (before doing it anyway and it rejuvenating his career). He has a conversation with an eight-year-old girl (a delightful Julia Butters) where he breaks down at the realization of his old age. He even shrugs off his most famous scenes of glorious hyper-violence despite having a flame-thrower as a beloved memento. Rick is definitely a stand-in for Tarantino himself and yet with all of this set-up, the writer/director gives little catharsis through Rick’s story and keeps using the style of ‘69 as a crutch. That’s not even mentioning the purpose of Cliff’s character. Cruising through L.A. as Rick’s driver/handyman/hype man, Cliff feels like the man Tarantino wishes he could be. Someone who gets by in life relying on nothing but charm and cultural knowledge. He needs nothing more than a dog and a television as companions in his life, living behind the constant projections of films. Aside from that, Cliff feels like an empty vessel the director wishes he could embody. More disappointing is that Pitt brings nothing unique to Cliff. We know Pitt can play this character effortlessly as he’s done it time and time again, so he just coasts through scenes. The movie itself is similar, like a sports car with no engine

 

Which is a shame because Once Upon a Time has plenty of high-grade mechanics to make it run smooth. For one, it’s got the most high-profile cast of his entire career ranging from Hollywood legends (Bruce Dern, Al Pacino, Kurt Russell) to modern-day stars (DiCaprio, Pitt, Margot Robbie) to reliable supporting actors (Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Damian Lewis) to a plethora of young starlets (Margaret Qualley, Dakota Fanning, Maya Hawke, Harley Quinn Smith). But as with the themes of the movie, it’s a lot of ammunition that don’t leave the clips they’re in. There are a few standouts: Qualley makes for an alluring hippie dream girl that catches Cliff’s eye, while Fanning has an amusingly droll standoff with Pitt. Dern is in one scene, stuck in pajamas playing a cranky old man, and yet has more presence and impact than 90 percent of the supporting cast. That includes Robbie who, despite playing Sharon Tate months before she was infamously murdered, is useless in the final product and has little to no impact on the story proper. She represents the bright-eyed coming generation of Hollywood stars cut down by the darkest side of the flower generation. Too bad Tarantino takes that chance to do something with her story and jettisons it for a goofy, ultraviolet finale. It’s a wonder if Tate’s family was ever concerned about Sharon’s depiction here considering she’s nothing more than a spirit floating through Tarantino’s dream. 

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Again, this doesn’t take away from the craftsmanship Tarantino and his team put into the movie. The re-creation of Hollywood, from the cars to the clothes to the movie sets to the restaurants, is impeccable. His Hollywood is something truly lived in and detailed. The soundtrack is top-notch as well, maybe the best one of the man’s filmography with classics songs all following a consistent, breezy groove. That vibe is shared with the pacing of the movie, never rushed but never sluggish. It’s all laid out naturally without being forced on the audience. His pension for long takes of extended dialogue gets tiresome after a while, but mines a few gold nuggets here and there. All of those moments involve DiCaprio in one of the funniest performances he’s ever given. There’s of course the classic Leo charm that’s amazing never gotten stale in his near 30-year career, but the sense of Cliff having a mid-life crisis allows Leo to turn pathetic moments of emotional vulnerability into comedy gold. Even in the fake western show he’s acting in, DiCaprio remains compelling.

 

Now of course not all of Tarantino’s movies have had to make some kind of commentary on his status of life or the eras he depicts. He’s all about fantasy and the joys of fiction, that’s the entertainment of his films. But whether it’s because he blew a grand opportunity to do something self-reflexive or because there’s so much talent here given so little to do, Once Upon a Time ends up boring and hollow. It’s pretty on the outside but missing purpose. On the basis of sheer entertainment, all the atmosphere and style feels routine. As much as Tarantino has grown as a cultural craftsman, he’s starting to stagnate as a storyteller and covering his ass with style. His story is incomplete and missing a true punch to it, no matter how much he tries to distract audiences with a vibe. But let’s be optimistic. Let’s give one of the most unique storytellers of the last 25 years the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say that if he’s bowing out after his next picture, he’ll send himself off with one of the best stories he’ll ever write. A man known for his shootouts and violence has to go out with a bang, right? He couldn’t have taken this and so many other experiences throughout his fame and learned nothing at the end of it all, right? He can’t stay in his deteriorating dreamland forever…….right?

2.5/4

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Sommartime Sadness

Grief is obviously a touchy subject to tackle with the medium of film. In most cases, film is meant to be entertainment for people to take in. It doesn’t always have to be flashy action blockbusters or goofy comedies, but film can easily be structured with simple topics. Grief can be complex, deeply-rooted and sometimes inexplicable so that can’t always be solved with a structured film narrative. Not to say it could never be done as movies like Manchester by the Sea, Don’t Look Now and Jackie have tackled grief in different ways. One recent movie that tackled grief head-on was Ari Aster’s 2018 supernatural debut Hereditary, which focused on how dark emotions and impulses can be passed down and warped into something horrifying. Aster took an open wound of family tragedy and kept picking at it until the supernatural hell the movie’s family suffered was matched by the gut-wrenching emotional hell they brought on themselves. Hereditary portrayed grief as a winding, punishing labyrinth of madness that sunk its subjects deep. A little over a year has passed and Aster has tackled grief again in a longer, darker and somehow better film.

 

Midsommar follows Dani (Florence Pugh) stuck in a loveless relationship with Christian (Jack Reynor) and constantly second-guessing her worth to him. When she suffers a shocking family tragedy and becomes emotionally numb, Christian invites her to come along with him and his friends to a secluded commune in Sweden for a summer festival. Josh (William Jackson Harper) is fascinated by the festival’s ancient culture while Mark (Will Poulter) is fascinated by the amount of pretty girls in white dresses waiting to be deflowered. Dani, however, feels that something is off with the locals’ behavior and isn’t quite sure if she and the gang belong here. As the sun stays shining in the sky and the rituals become stranger, Dani and company’s true purpose at the festival becomes more obvious and more frightening.

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Those who thought the 127-minute runtime of Hereditary was lengthy should approach Midsommar with caution and patience for its own 147-minute runtime. Though 90 percent of the movie stays in the grassy, sundrenched field of the commune and there are plenty of long stretches of uncut silence, Midsommar mostly holds interest throughout its duration. Aster brought multiple tricks up his sleeve to hold an audience’s attention, ranging from warping images in the background of scenes to abrupt sound edits to the bits of creepy imagery scattered throughout the commune. The creepy setting of commune itself (shot in a secluded section of Hungary) mixed with the smiling but stoic nature of the villagers are both spooky enough to keep the audience waiting for the other shoe to drop and the sinister nature of the festival to come to light. There’s definitely bloodshed and horrific imagery in Midsommar but it’s also frequently beautiful thanks to the costume designs, set decoration, Pawel Pogorzelski’s gorgeous cinematography and the folksy score by The Haxan Cloak. There’s also Aster steady and fluid camerawork knowing when to use space to capture the scope of the village and when to hone in on the personal horror his characters face. 

 

While that set-up is very similar to that of The Wicker Man, the mystery of the commune doesn’t overshadow Dani’s character development. Like Hereditary, Aster equally balances the half-supernatural, half-slasher horror with the drama of Dani’s mental state and how her personal trauma plays into the events at the commune. Dani’s grief keeps coming back into the plot and influences it more as the movie goes on. For all the blood spilled and the creeping death in the air, Aster’s focus is on Dani and what she gets out of this village.Whereas Hereditary sees a woman losing her family through grief, Midsommar sees a woman trying to find a family in the darkness and the light. It’s not worth getting mixed up in the ancient lore the commune follows as it merely brings Dani and company closer to their fates. Every character here doesn’t get the most precise form of poetic justice when they meet their fates and only the Mark character seems lost, more fit for a corny Friday the 13th sequel than something like this. As funny as the occasional bits of humor are, it does feel slightly out of place in Aster’s game of manipulation through grief. 

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It’s all anchored by Dani herself in an incredible performance by Pugh. She understands that grief is not a showy performance playing to the crowd in the back, instead it’s being an emotional void to keep from completely breaking down. Pugh goes through the ringer Aster lays out for her and never once loses focus of her own character’s story. It’s actually best exemplifies when she cries: she doesn’t flood her cheeks with tears but instead takes heaving breaths between every scream that she makes sure the movie can hear. She practically vomits her soul when Dani’s trauma comes back to light and it’s impossible to look away from her. Reynor also does a solid job taking the typical dopey male boyfriend stereotype and at least giving a bit more dimension. He’s a victim of the madness in Midsommar but at least he isn’t completely oblivious to it. Harper is playing a more subdued version of his character on The Good Place but thankfully he’s not overtly nerdy. As misplaced as the sex-hungry comic relief character is, Poulter somehow makes it work and gets some actual laughs.

 
Looking back, Hereditary now feels like the easier prologue to Aster’s main event. Midsommar is like a genius contradiction: it’s long yet flies by, it’s a beautiful stage to play out such dark themes, it’s eloquently composed in its layout of shocking material. Aster has somehow found a way to do something he had already done exceeding well before and do it better without the troupes of a horror movie. The story and character arcs are so intriguing that it doesn’t need the mysticism or supernatural elements that Hereditary had to stay engaged with it. Aster is now officially one of film’s most engrossing ringmasters, it’s a wonder how he’s going to top Midsommar or what he can do next. If someone can make harrowing grief so thoroughly entertaining, what else can be done with something else?

4/4

Last Call

Even before Anthony and Joe Russo ran their first reel, Avengers: Infinity War had a lot of problems. Not only did the movie have to adapt one of the most mystical and visually-striking comic series in the Marvel canon, not only did it have to bring together all of the popular superheroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe into one coherent and enjoyable narrative, not only did it have to payoff a seemingly-random post credit scene from six years ago with a giant purple alien wanting to slide into death’s DMs….but they had to tell people that it was going to be two movies. Due to the size and scale of the source material, not to mention cutting up screen time between over 20 main characters, the Russo brothers had to split the grand finale of the MCU’s first decade between two movies (with the next installment out next year). That would be enough of a challenge, but then Marvel Studios had to go ahead and tell everyone about it. So that’s the biggest rub: with everyone knowing that Infinity War is only Part 1 and that whatever happens is only the first half of the whole story, how do they give any weight or meaning to anything that happens in the movie?

 

In a word: Thanos. The intergalactic, purple-faced, multi-chinned, wannabe-god first introduced at the tail-end of The Avengers finally makes his presence known in the 19th feature film in the decade of dominance held by Marvel Studios. And six years later with endless teases, boy howdy does he make his presence known. Motion-captured and voiced by Josh Brolin, Thanos finds himself burdened with glorious purpose: to balance the entire universe by wiping out half of its inhabitants from existence. He plans to use his mighty Infinity Gauntlet and the six Infinity Stones to power his “mercy,” as he describes. He already has the purple Power Stone and now looks to collect the rest from a cavalcade of caped crusaders: the blue Space Stone from Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), the green Time Stone from Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Wong (Benedict Wong), the yellow Mind Stone from Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), the red Reality Stone and the mysterious Soul Stone. Thanos’s malicious intent garners the attention of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Captain America (Chris Evans) and his team of exiled Avengers, Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and the city of Wakanda, Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and the Guardians of the Galaxy, especially Thanos’s jaded adopted daughters Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan).

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Since Marvel was at least smart enough not to further damage the movie’s merit by putting a Part 1 at the end of the title, Infinity War’s greatest challenge is merely standing on its own two feet. A great control in this experiment is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, a pointless first installment in a two-part finale that mostly spins its wheels to get to the actual conclusion of the story. Thankfully, Infinity War is a solid standalone installment in the MCU that gives its audience an enjoyable and high-stakes adventure before saving its sequel-baiting for the final moments. Kudos to the Russo brothers for giving such a stacked cast of characters all something to do and a purpose for being in the movie outside of fan service. For such a huge movie with basically three climactic action scenes going on at the same time, the Russos shoot the blendings of CG and live-action surprisingly well without too much shaky cam and with a focus that doesn’t jerk the audience between perspectives. The movie’s art direction and production design also take full advantage of the movie’s cosmic settings in outer space and on Thanos’s spaceships, merging the universes of Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy with Marvel’s Earthbound heroes. And even with all the cosmic lasers and monsters, many of the fight scenes here are surprisingly well-choreographed fistfights (seriously, Thanos looks like Manny Pacquiao in his prime going toe-to-toe against the Hulk). All of these elements make the 149-minute runtime fly by and don’t make the movie seem bloated or overdone.

 

Despite this movie’s advertising billing Infinity War as an epic event, it seems like the movie can’t commit to that promise. A problem with some of the recent Marvel movies is a stubbornness to let go of the laughs with certain emotional scenes being cut off by a quick or lame one-liner (see Thor: Ragnarok for example). Infinity War has that same problem, as many of the first-time interactions between the likes of Doctor Strange and Spider-Man or Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy are used for jokes that can pull the audience right out of the movie. On top of that, the script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who wrote all three Captain America movies) can’t find the right pacing rhythm. The movie rarely takes time to slow down and have its characters recognize the weight of the scenario. It’s mostly just show up, suit up and throw hands, which leaves little room for great character development. The likes of Iron Man, Gamora, Star Lord and Thor get the best of the writing character-wise and while everyone else has a presence in the movie, they end up as bit players in the background when all is said and done.

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But with all the big names and big guns on display, Infinity War does have one essential main character: Thanos. His characterization and impact to the story could’ve broke the movie down before it even started but right from the get-go, as he walks across the corpses of fallen enemies, he stands as one of the MCU’s finest villains, let alone one of the finest comic-book movie villains. He’s incredibly imposing in his presence, Brolin’s deep growl matched with his lines is a good combination of intelligence and evil, and the movie doesn’t overstate how righteous he thinks he is. Thanos believes he is doing the universe a favor by committing genocide, but he’s not cackling like the Joker when he takes an entire planet and shoots it at Iron Man (a wonderful visual, by the way). Thanos is the best character in this movie, and it’s easy to see how much Brolin enjoys the subtleties of playing him. He may be in a motion-capture suit (also impressively done) but Brolin clearly envisioned the universe around him in all the green screen and really liked every second of being in it.

 

Not every member of the Avengers gets character development here, but it seems like the movie gives time to right ones. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora in particular play a pivotal role, being Thanos’s adopted daughter and all. She seems to give Thanos the most cause to reflect on his actions and Saldana gets very emotionally invested in it. Same with Chris Hemsworth’s Thor who, without spoiling anything, takes a great deal of loss in the movie and it’s clear his brutish armor is starting to rust away. Downey Jr., the flagship star of the MCU, also has great emotional weight on Tony Stark being that he took a great bulk of trauma from his first encounter with Thanos six years ago. It’s understandable as to why he’s more stressed and emphasizing the threat of the movie than his typical joking self. On the flip side of that, Chris Pratt can’t seem to turn off the goofy Han Solo-esque schtick and get into the events of the movie. Tom Hollland’s aggressively teenaged Spider-Man also does not belong in the events of Infinity War, while Sebastian Stan’s Winter Soldier, who’s been such a focal point of the MCU for the past four years, merely seems like an afterthought addition to the cast. There’s plenty of faceless monsters for the Avengers to fight, but not enough screen time for them to establish their investment in the movie.

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So for a studio-mandated, contextually-required first half of grand finale, there’s a great sense of relief knowing that Avengers: Infinity War is as good as it is. There’s a lot of moving parts and some of them stall, but the essential pieces keep the motor running smoothly. It’s action-packed and more grim than the previous installments, never boring or overbearing. A superhero orchestra playing the right notes for an entertaining night out. The biggest problem though is that it is obviously a “Part 1,” leaving whatever risks it takes stuck with an asterisk on it needing to be solved in the next movie. That next installment will prove whether or not the entire journey was worth the investment or not but if it’s the latter, at least we got one good ride out of it.

3/4

The Truth About News

The newspaper business. People know about the first word but often forget about the difficulty of the second word. The newspaper does its damndest to deliver the important news of the world to the general public, but it still needs business to pay its hard-working reporters and circulate to newsstands. News needs to sell papers just as much as it needs to be informative, not as a means of capitalism but sustainability. Of course there’s the concern of certain news stories being too shocking or revealing that it might scare people away, especially people with money. Imagine having a story so shocking that it could literally unravel over 30 years of trust and prestige built by the American government, and said government is practically holding a newspaper hostage until every other newspapers promises to betray their duty and not report news. Which word does one protect: the newspaper or the business?

 

This is the debacle of The Post, a poignant and powerful look at the tug of war between a newsman and a businesswoman. The former is Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), editor of The Washington Post who is tired of the Post playing second fiddle to everyone from The New York Times and The Washington Daily News with better stories than his reporters offer. The latter is Katharine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep), the publisher of The Post who jumped into job after the paper’s previous publisher, Katharine’s husband Phil, committed suicide in 1963. It’s now 1971 and Kay is about the take the company public on Wall Street to ease financial worries when longtime friend and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) tells her one night that the Times is going to run an “unflattering” story about him the following morning. The story is the infamous leaking of the Pentagon Papers: 7,000 pages of classified government secrets detailing how the Vietnam War was a lost cause but America would rather send men to their deaths in Army helmets than admit defeat. Bradlee is pissed that the Times got the scoop and wants his reporters to find the pages for follow-up coverage, while Graham is struggling to make her voice heard in boardrooms full of stuffy businessmen determining what’s best for business. Bradlee’s reporters (Bob Odenkirk, Carrie Coon, David Cross) are getting closer to finding the papers and pulling back the curtain of the White House even more, but Graham and Bradlee butt heads over if the Post can handle being on President Nixon’s hit list if they publish more stories.

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There are two obvious comparisons to be made with The Post: 1976’s All the President’s Men detailing Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting of the Watergate scandal, and 2015’s Spotlight about the Boston Globe’s crack team of investigators revealing years of sexual abuse by priests of the Catholic Church. Those two movies focused more on the reporting side of journalism, the muckrakers who spent months on end chasing dead-end leads and chipping away at the facts to find what the world needed to know. While The Post does highlight the tireless effort of reporters Ben Bagdikian, Meg Greenfield and Howard Simons, it’s more about the chains that profitability holds on newspapers. Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s tight script expertly balances the obvious need to report the truth and the equally-obvious fear of the government effectively shutting-down the Post after ordering the Times to stop publishing stories about the papers. Also unlike Spotlight and President’s Men, The Post is a much flashier version of the story courtesy of director Steven Spielberg. While The Post is no blockbuster spectacle, Spielberg’s love of background spotlights and the faded color palette typical of serious Spielberg movies from cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan) are ever present. Whereas the filmmaking of President’s Men and Spotlight were more grounded, The Post is a glossy Hollywood production. Fortunately, Spielberg is well-aware of the material he’s working with and leaves most of his eccentricities at the door. The filmmaking doesn’t distract the audience from the story being told and the drama isn’t blown out of proportion, it’s presented for the audience to feel the weight of the story.

 

Further making The Post an event is the presence of Meryl Streep. Ever since her speech at last year’s Golden Globe awards calling out Donald Trump and announcing her support of protecting journalist, practically all eyes have been on the acting legend and her performance in the movie. Now we can breathe sighs of relief because Streep is in top form here, fully embodying the dual-persona Kay Graham had to take on at the time. In front of the Post’s board members, Graham was patient and unphased by the subtle sexism of her male colleagues. Even if she’s talked over in conversation or talked down to, she keeps a brave face and is able to establish her own presence in every room she walks into. Privately, she’s still a touch unsure of herself as a publisher in the middle of the Pentagon Papers controversy with friends in the Nixon camp (especially McNamara in a heated confrontation). She knows publishing stories about the papers is the right thing to do, but she’s pressured into fearing for how Washington elites might feel about the Post adding to the damage of the Nixon administration, lessening the worth of the paper and her family legacy (her father bought the Post in 1933). Graham is the underdog of the story and Streep plays her without a hint of asking for sympathy.

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The rest of the cast basically revolves around Streep, but that doesn’t mean they slack off. Tom Hanks, America’s dad in Hollywood, is a fine choice for the Bostonian grump of Ben Bradlee. It’s actually fitting for smiling everyman Hanks to spend his golden years playing hardened bossmen cracking wise while national history is going on in the background. Even more impressive is the supporting cast: Bruce Greenwood, an expert supporting actor who’s played everyone from John F. Kennedy to a captain of the Starship Enterprise, is incredibly compelling as a man simply stuck in the middle of the worst possible situation a high-ranking government official could be. Despite him actively trying to close the leaking of his own handiwork (McNamara commissioned the Pentagon Papers), he’s not a villain but more of a victim of the incompetence of past presidencies fully-experiencing an unprecedented situation. For the rest of the cast, it seems as if Spielberg has spent the last decade watching every great TV show and picking out who made the best impressions in the smallest amount of screentime, hence solid performances from Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, Carrie Coon, Sarah Paulson, Alison Brie, Bradley Whitford, Jesse Plemons and Zach Woods.

 
If it weren’t for the political and cultural context, The Post would probably not be as big of an event as it currently stands. It would be a simple reminder that Steven Spielberg remains untouchable as one of the greatest film directors in film history, he knows how to pick his actors and said actors bring their A-game on screen. But now, it is a much-needed reminder of the delicacy newspapers take in informing the American public. There is a crushing pressure to find the sources needed for a story and frivolous work that goes into researching and crafting a story. But even after a story is done and a newspaper is ready to go out, there is still that final moral dilemma of “is this story right,” meaning right in terms of accuracy and right for the readers. In the era of #fakenews, The Post is a reminder how no matter what (or who) the circumstance is, journalists know when to cut the crap and make the country eat its vegetables. It’s meant to show how the effort of listening and taking a stand against lying can be the start of something more, something greater. The best example of this is The Post’s ending scenes: The first being a recorded phone call with President Nixon sounding stressed from the Post’s further investigation of the papers, and the second being a security guard investigating a break-in at the Watergate Complex, the kickstart of the Watergate scandal.

3.5/4

A Good Man Makes A War

If you listen closely throughout all the gunshots, torpedoes, bombings, and ocean waves crashing on the shores of the beach in Dunkirk, there’s one sound that’s a constant throughout the movie: a ticking clock. Whether there’s a moment where young British soldiers are staring out into the ocean wondering if they’ll ever make it home or when those same soldiers are desperately trying to escape a sinking ship, the seconds are ticking away in the background. What’s it counting down to? A victory? A loss? An attack? A death? It’s rare that something as simple as a tiny ticking sound is basically the centerpiece to a $150 million dollar war movie, then again it’s made by the same guy who used a spinning top as the “gotcha” moment of a summer blockbuster that made over $800 million.

 

That man is producer/writer/director/movie theater enthusiast Christopher Nolan, now on his 10th feature film after covering every possible major-movie genre from crime thriller to superhero action to intergalactic sci-fi philosophy. Since he’s not likely to ever try a screwball comedy or whimsical animation, the only thing left for him to do was a war movie. Thus we have Dunkirk, the story of how over 300,000 English soldiers made a desperate escape from the titular beaches in the north of France after being surrounded by German troops in 1940. Instead of rallying together for a last stand against the enemy, a group of soldiers (Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Harry Styles) do everything from using an injured soldier to weasel their way onto a medical ship to stealing an abandoned fishing boat just to find a way home. It’s not like their higher-ranking officers (Kenneth Branagh, James D’Arcy) have any better plans, almost certain the enemy will break through the remaining blockade and any moment. All the soldiers have left to rely on are a handful of Spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden) and civilian boats piloted by loyal citizens of England (Mark Rylance, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney) to protect and save the soldiers.

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Christopher Nolan is, above all else, a technician. He prefers practical effects over CGI, he uses IMAX cameras to shoot on 70 millimeter film, he researches the physics of space and wants his sets to actually spin for scenes. He doesn’t want audiences to watch movies, he wants audience to be IN his movies while sitting in their seats and he’ll do as much as he can to make that happen. Dunkirk is no exception, it might actually be the most immersive movie Nolan has ever made. Right from the opening frame, Nolan puts the audience right behind the soldiers walking aimlessly through an abandoned small town seeing the enemy propaganda showering over them. Then guns go off, and Nolan makes you run with soldiers with proper use of handheld camerawork. But Nolan knows when to hold his camera for the audience to take in the same vision as the soldiers are: lines of soldiers standing in the sand waiting for a ride home or a bomb to be dropped from the sky. Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar, Her) juggle handheld and standard camerawork effortlessly, using the handheld sparingly to let the audience inhabit the fear and anxiousness of the soldiers. But even with his stoic shots, Nolan doesn’t stick with the standard. The audience gets to hang off the side of a British Spitfire plane in the middle of a dogfight and the inside of a sinking rescue ship as the water is filling the lower deck with soldiers clammering over each other. He even puts the audience underwater, asking them whether or not a soldier should drown in the ocean or reemerge into an oil fire to be burned. No matter the scenario, Nolan wants the audience right in the line of fire, not to nauseate people but put them in the mindset of the characters.

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One of the key elements of Dunkirk is its atmosphere. No, Dunkirk is not a typical World War II rally cry movie. From the get-go, there’s the feeling of dread and hopelessness in the movie. It’s as if every character involved knows he’s going to die. It’s never actually said, though, as Nolan’s screenplay is very sparse with dialogue but the action does all the talking. It’s easy to call Dunkirk a bleak movie, but it doesn’t hit the audience over the head with muted colors or overtly dour music. Even with the imagery of men swimming aimlessly in the ocean or one soldier simply walking into the ocean in defeat, it simply adds to the tension of the movie. Not only is there that constant ticking in the background, but Hanz Zimmer’s score that builds a creeping sense of danger to each scene. Zimmer mostly goes for a slow burn, almost recreating the sounds of the metals in the bombed ships breaking with loud but low-pitched horns and haunting choir vocals in the background. And even though the colors of grey and dark blue are prominent throughout the movie, the colors don’t dilute the movie. On top of that is a strong use of natural sunlight and practical explosions to make the movie more realistic. Dunkirk prides itself on being as realistic as possible, not overly dark or reaching for heroic patriotism.

 

With a sparse script like this, one would think that acting and character are not essential qualities. While the movie is less about the acting and more about the action involved. The actors are more so vehicles for the audience to see the plot move forward. Granted, no one here is phoning it in. Whitehead, Barnard, and Styles are merely pawns, but the stress and fear on their faces is legitimate. What they deal is moral complications, abandoning their comrades or forcing their fellow soldiers to be the one to stick their head out into the line of fire. The rest of actors fill their roles in fine, no one’s looking for an Oscar but are merely bit players. The human element of the movie comes from Rylance and his two young passengers as three English citizens simply doing the right thing for their country. Even after they pick up a soldier (Cillian Murphy) who survived a u-boat attack whose visible shock is reason enough to turn back, they go forward accepting the terrible circumstances. Rylance, always a man of softer emotions, brings the most humanity to the movie when it’s needed.

At 106 minutes, Dunkirk flies by like a bullet in a battle. Like the wounds of war, Dunkirk stays with you. It feels like an old school war movie made with the ambition of a true craftsman. People will debate where Christopher Nolan stands in the pantheon of modern filmmakers with his ties to blockbusters. Is he a true filmmaking auteur or just knows how to pick crowd-pleasing blockbusters? Is he the next Kubrick or the new Spielberg? He’s Nolan, a technician who sees the potential in applying artistic craftsmanship to the size and scope of blockbuster movies. The only franchise that Dunkirk is promoting is human history, and for someone to make that as exciting as Spider-Man and Wonder Woman is a true feat. Dunkirk and its different screening formats are examples of the power of film. Does that sound corny? Sure, but it’s nice to see and talk about a summer blockbuster made with the same hope for the medium of film that the Allies had that helped them win the war.

4/4

Wright’s Killer Track

In the mind of Edgar Wright, music and movies go hand in hand. The British writer/director has become one of film’s culture most adored auteurs not only for his clever writing, creative comedic directing, and unabashed love for pop culture, but his incredible detail combining the action of scenes with the pumping energy of music. Everything from police paperwork to beating up an elderly zombie can be made special with the right music in Wright’s mind. So of course, an action movie about a getaway driver who only functions by listening to music constantly would be Wright’s passion project for the last 20 years. Most of the high points of his movies have been the musical montages that act as lively interludes to keep scenes going, like mini-music videos that cap off plot points. So why not make a nearly-two hour music video?

 

Baby Driver, Wright’s first feature in four years, takes place on the streets of Atlanta and opens with an excitable young man jamming out to The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in a suped-up Subaru. Don’t be fooled by the fresh-faced exuberance of Baby (Ansel Elgort), as he’s merely waiting for his crew to run out of the local bank with the loot and drive them through the streets at breakneck speed. His secret weapon: the tinnitus in his ears forces him to listen to music constantly to drown out any high-pitched ringing, but also makes him incredibly proficient at drifting between cop cars and maneuvering through traffic. This makes him the lucky charm of Doc (Kevin Spacey), a local crime boss Baby owes a major debt to. While he’s worked many jobs with Doc’s crew, ranging from the eternally romantic Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez) to the hair-triggered nutjob Bats (Jamie Foxx), Baby finds something more when he falls in love with the angel-voiced waitress, Debora (Lily James). But just because Baby wants out of the game doesn’t mean Baby gets to walk away from the game.

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On a surface level, Baby Driver is a very simple story. It’s the classic crime story of the lone rogue who’s never been cool with a life of crime and just wants out. But just when he thinks he’s out, cue Al Pacino in The Godfather: Part III. Usually Wright’s stories aren’t as straight-forward as they seem, there’s always something else going on in the background. Baby Driver is probably one of the more traditional stories of his career, no great plot twist or background commentary throwing the audience for a loop or defying expectations. But like other Wright movies, it’s more about the presentation than the product itself, and Baby Driver is certainly his most ambitious show to date. Somewhere between an inverted jukebox musical and a long-form music video, Baby Driver has nearly every scene perfectly synced-up with the eclectic soundtrack, which ranges from Beck to The Damned to Young MC. When the film rolls out its opening credits to Baby strutting down the street like Gene Kelly dancing to the title of Singin’ in the Rain, the street comes alive accentuating each little pip in Baby’s step. Wright’s editing duo of Jonathan Amos (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) and Paul Machliss (The World’s End) cut gunshots, car drifts, and even the mildest head tick to the beat of the drum. It’s a cute gimmick and impressive to see done at near-feature length, though it loses its luster near the end of the movie and it can become disorienting after a while.

 

But even without the gimmick, Baby Driver is still a damn good time. The action set pieces are fantastic thanks to their stripped-down nature. Mixing the cracking soundtrack with driving sequences not overly-cut while remaining fast-paced allows for continuous propulsion throughout the movie. At just under two hours, the movie flies by with almost zero filter distracting from the main story. That’s mostly in part to the great cast fully invested in the need for hammy action-talk and Wright’s typically funny dialogue. For this being Wright’s big American debut (Scott Pilgrim being technically Canadian), some of Hollywood’s best wanted in on the party and don’t disappoint. Jamie Foxx has never been such an impressive combination of menacing and funny before, leagues more impressive than his turn as Electro in the embarrassing Amazing Spider-Man 2. Kevin Spacey is a fine crime boss despite not leaving that much of an impression. The MVPs are the one-two punch of Jon Hamm and Lily James: the former as the smoldering henchman that brings the most charisma to the movie, and the latter being the sultry, 50s-era damsel that woos Baby. In fact, Hamm himself plays somewhat of a grizzly older James Dean wannabe. Oddly enough, the weakest member of the cast is the lead. Elgort certain has the energy and the young baby face (no pun intended), but his own moments of smoldering intensity seem like a joke that the movie isn’t in on. He’s also not bringing enough charisma to be fun to watch and looks like a pouting elementary school kid when he’s trying to be serious. Elgort is in an awkward position where’s he too old to be a cutesy teen heartthrob and yet still has the face of a Degrassi cast member. In his defense, he has some strong chemistry with James that culminates in a rather romantic scene where the two chat in a laundromat connected by Baby’s earbuds.

It’s tempting to call Baby Driver Edgar Wright’s worst film, and yet it’s all the more shocking that it’s still a great movie. While it may be missing Wright’s quick-witted British humor and wackier plot elements, it’s still another showcase for one of Hollywood’s best directors alive. The technical prowess and attention to detail that Wright exudes is on display now more than ever, it’s almost the central focus of the movie. It’s certainly a film that requires repeated viewings to repeat every detail for film fans, along with being a breath of fresh air for summer action audiences. Wright has officially arrived in America, and his future is as open as the road Baby and Debora dream for themselves.

3.5/4 

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

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