Just to be clear here: I'm not a fanboy.
I really don't care for fanboyism or, necessarily, its practitioners. I think fanboys are to some extent responsible for the terrible quality of our franchise blockbusters these days. Their vocal expectations of fealty to some supposed "canon" inform studio decision-making and stifle creative film-making. And as fanboys become the filmmakers themselves, the results are more often fan-fiction love letters than original or inspired cinema. One can do no worse by a fanboy than to challenge or surprise him in any way with beloved characters or material. Their truest satisfaction is to be justified in their theorizing, not to be shown something new. It causes me great joy that the latest Star War is causing so much suffering among fanboys.
But what if we step away from all of that and look at The Biggest Movie Of The Year™ through vision unclouded by the self-righteous tears of betrayed fandom and instead focus on what is presented on screen? This is what I'm concerned with today.
But as much as I would like to divorce this film from any others that bear the great Lucas seal, I cannot. For this is a film dictated, in many ways, by the follies and failures of its immediate predecessor, The Force Awakens, and its home planet of the Mouse House. These combined influences prove insurmountable stumbling blocks for what could be an incredible film, Star War or otherwise.
This film has only served as confirmation for what I have come to suspect: that The Force Awakens is one of the worst blockbuster films of our time, possibly of all time. It fails to understand established characters while also profoundly neglecting the development or even establishment of newer, more important ones. What characterization choices it does make (mainly with antagonist Kylo Ren) are fatally flawed, then needlessly undercut by the film's daft tone. This is not a foundation upon which a single film can stand, much less a giant trilogy.
But such was writer-director Rian Johnson's task. And to his credit, he manages to introduce and begin exploring some pretty cool ideas about the Force, the Jedi, and the universe of Star Wars (--you know, the reason to have more films at all). Segments involving Rey's training and Luke's inner struggle are by far the film's strongest. The issues I have arise whenever Johnson needs to engage with the haphazard work of Abrams and company, which, unfortunately, ends up being most of the time.
Take Kylo Ren, for example. It's possible that Mr. Abrams was shooting for a complex, layered bad guy that people could try to relate to. What we are given in The Force Awakens ends up being an unstable, unintimidating, unskilled thug. Remember: he is bested twice by an untrained Rey, and is not taken seriously by anyone in the movie--not his master, not the First Order, not the resistance. That is a dangerous path to walk in characterizing your primary antagonist, because the audience is not given reason to take him seriously either.
Rather than start Kylo over from scratch, The Last Jedi tries admirably to lean into his crappy characterization and make it work. And it does, kinda. He can be manipulative when he isn't taken at his word. Perhaps he is aware of his shortcomings. But any advances are immediately erased, because people still laugh when he is in the room. Think: did you ever laugh during a scene with Darth Vader? Kylo is not terrifying when he loses his temper or makes threats because, ultimately, the movie doesn't let him. Its constant humor works efficiently to undo whatever advances are made in character or escalation is made to drama. He is the villain of a children's serial cartoon: bad because he has to be because the good guys need someone to foil, not because of any justification to the audience.
And let's talk about that humor for a moment. Think of one would-be powerful or profound or poignant moment, and there is a joke there to dissipate the mood. We finally meet Luke, weathered and conscience-ridden: he glibly tosses his lightsaber over his shoulder. The Millennium Falcon looks to be in danger: there's a porg squashed against the window to tell us they'll make it out. 13 pilots strike out in a heroic, futile last stand: Poe kicks his foot through the floor because it's just another day at the job. All that is left of the resistance fits into the Millennium Falcon after the events of the film: Poe jokes about Rose being "not dead." Disney is in full conflict-aversion mode, subverting any meaning the film's individual moments might have had, as well as its really cool thematic stuff about the meaning of balance, which must necessarily include conflict. What plays well in a children's narrative does not translate into a film that looks like it wants to generate real stakes for its characters.
So, why are people still fine with these movies? I mean, on the one hand, you love what you love and that is (and should be) good enough. But I mean people saying they are good good, not, "it was fun but, yeah..." And I think the answer is, to some extent at least, fan expectations and conditioning. We cannot abide saying it wasn't the best ever, so we make it so in our minds. But I think that is a lacking explanation. The truth is, these films are simply being made of parts that do not, and I would now say, cannot work. And that isn't simply the fault of the filmmakers, although they are not totally absolved. Let us also look squarely at Disney, who apropos of nothing willed these films into existence without the planning needed for such a gargantuan undertaking as they have outlined.
Consider this: JJ Abrams only pitched his idea for Episode IX two weeks ago. Pitched. A trilogy-capper which is arbitrarily scheduled for release in 18 months. I would submit that such is not the amount of time needed to conceive and realize a functioning story of this scale. But for us, the filmgoing public, Disney says it is. Because that institution is now no longer interested in the telling of stories or the creation of magic, or even in pretending that it is. Its focus is the mere accumulation of property and exploiting it through commodification. It has gambled that no one for as long as their are people on this world will tire of Star Wars, and so any product it makes with that branding need not be of any particularly rigorous quality.
It is at this, not unexpected turns for Luke Skywalker, that fanboys should be upset about. As for me? I don't now particularly care what happens in another Star War. If over the course of two films characters cannot be created that engage me in an emotional or intellectual way, I do not know that my time is well-spent in furthering my perusal of that series. Such did not have to be the case, and Heaven knows Mr. Johnson tried to make it otherwise, but a sound structure cannot be made from material already on fire.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi features Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, and Kelly Marie Tran, and is rated PG-13 for fantastical space violence.
Written and directed by Rian Johnson
I love me a good scary movie.
When I say that, I mean, "I love scary movies that are good." Which, unfortunately, can be difficult to find. Horror is probably one of the more prevalent genres in film right now, and for good reason: a serviceable horror movie can be knocked off for just a few million dollars, and almost always has a great rate of return. But with so many entries, it is also easy for overall quality to dip. Which, as a fan of good scares more than the genre as a whole, means I don't usually go out to many.
But It looked different, to an extent. For one, it comes from Stephen King's "golden age," rubbing shoulders with classics like Salem's Lot, Carrie, and The Stand. And even though it features a clown, that most tired of all cheap horror tropes, it's marketing seemed to focus more on atmosphere and story elements more than just "Hey, look, we have a clown." So I decided to check it out.
It is the story of a group of teenage friends trying to get to the bottom of the mysterious disappearances that have been happening in their town, since the adults seem not to really care.
Although It does feature what is probably the most famous of all horror clowns, the film itself is actually pretty atypical, at least in terms of genre horror. For starters, it is long, clocking in well over 2 hours. This proves to be a tremendous boon: it means we are allowed much more time for exposition and actual character development than your typical 90-minute found-footage shocker or possessed-doll-runaround. There are wonderful moments of levity throughout, which, due to the film's breathing room, feel organic and not shoehorned in. It also means the film's scares are slower and, somehow, seemingly more numerous than what genre audiences are used to, which creates something of a unique viewing experience.
You've probably heard by now about Bill Skarsgård's Pennywise. Although little more than a personification of evil, Pennywise still feels like a character, which is the second key ingredient of this film's success. Basically any horror movie has a similar antagonist, and for the most part, they all feel the same: one poltergeist or porcelain doll is as good as the next. They are "scary" because they are supposed to be, not because there is anything in the film that earns them the distinction. Skarsgård makes watching Pennywise a strange kind of delight, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining or Klaus Kinski in Nosferatu the Vampyre. Working from the deficit of hackneyed genre expectations, he is able to portray something subtly more than just insensate evil. In addition to his immediate threat to characters we have come to genuinely care about, Skarsgård conjures a level of the uncanny that is genuinely unsettling.
The final element that makes It work, and work well, is the Losers Club. It could have been a losing bet indeed to rely on a cast of children to carry a horror film of such mass, but they are more than up to the challenge. The group of boys is delightfully rendered, but it is Sophia Lillis as Beverly who steals the show.
Some have even gone so far as to say that, because of its cast, It is this decade's Stand By Me. I think the cast is certainly capable of reaching that height, but the film itself is not. For all its subtleties of horror and structural integrity, its thematic elements of staying together and whatnot are always pretty on-the-nose, and Beverly is reduced, a little needlessly, to the damsel-in-distress. The film does not, in the end, transcend its boundaries as a horror film, but I do not think that is a bad thing. What we are given is an epic of terror with fully-realized characters and outstanding performances, and I would be perfectly happy if more movie-of-the-week horror outings followed more closely in that suit.
So I say, definitely check out It if you are into that kind of thing, but maybe don't if you're not, and look for Bill Skarsgård to join the ranks of great all-time horror performances.
It features Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Wyatt Oleff, and Bill Skarsgård, and is rated R for swearsing and general clown-related horror and violence.
Written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman
Directed by Andrés Muschietti
Welcome back! In this installment I'll be having a look at Edgar Wright's new film, Baby Driver. And let me just say, it has pretty much saved what has been for me a fairly lame summer movie season.
Baby Driver is the story of Baby (Ansel Elgort) who is, appropriately enough, a driver, specifically of getaway cars for a local crime boss (Kevin Spacey). I think that's all I will put here, for now at least.
To jump right in, the film is basically constant fun. It is full of really excellent car chases (like you'd expect), but that is really only where the movie begins. Edgar Wright has made his name in mashing up disparate genres, and this film is no different, really, although I wouldn't call it purely a genre mashup. Mr Wright has decided to make this story about a guy with tinnitus who uses music to drown out the constant hum. And music, therefore, becomes this film's chief stylistic tool, and even a primary engine in driving the film forward.
Mr Wright here teaches a master class about curating and employing a soundtrack. The music he uses is not simply a mixtape of classic tunes like might be featured in certain Marvel franchises; each selection is carefully woven into the structure of the movie starting at a script level. The music is the one common language the characters (deaf, young, insane, whatever) all share in this world, and it all culminates in creating what is essentially a feature-length choreographed dance with guns and automobiles. Some people (sometimes rightly) have issues with highly-stylized films, claiming an undue emphasis of form at the cost of substance. Here, the form is often the substance, or, perhaps better put, the substance is often the form. Mr Wright uses music as a crucial diagetic element and structural tool. Without its music we would have a perfectly serviceable heist movie; with it, we have something special.
But the film does not use its music as a crutch to mask underdeveloped storytelling. If Baby Driver's beating heart-rhythm is music, its soul must be its characters. Everyone in this film is a delight--even Mr Elgort, who you might only know from bad teen weepies, and especially Mr Spacey. Mr Wright's gift is to take "stock" characters--thug, kingpin, wistful waitress--and make them lovable (or at least enjoyable), relatable, and original in their own way. Their chemistry as an ensemble, and particularly that between Baby and Debora (Lily James), is simply a treat, and lays the sturdy foundation upon which all the film's stylistic flourishes can successfully build.
So I say, definitely go see Baby Driver. Spider-kid and Despicable 3 can wait for an evening when you have nothing else to do. Something like Baby Driver is a rare summertime treat best enjoyed fresh.
Baby Driver features Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, John Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza Gonzalez, and Jon Berthal, and is rated R for some swearsing and general mayhem.
Written and directed by Edgar Wright
I'm just going to come right out and say it, I think you should see this movie.
It Comes at Night is probably my favorite straight-up horror movie in a long while. That statement might not sound like very much on the surface, since admittedly a lot of horror isn't really my thing. But this film has much less in common with whatever iteration of Annabelle they were showing a trailer for than the casual audience member might think, which for me is a really, really good thing.
The film is the story of a family living in isolation in the woods to protect themselves from a deadly illness, and what happens when a stranger asks for help for his family.
What follows is straightforward enough on the one hand to not need further analysis on my part. It is solidly constructed, well-performed, unrelentingly atmospheric stuff. But on the other hand, this film raises far more questions than it answers, which I love it for.
So much of what I don't really dig about many horror films is how thoroughly explained they are. Say there is a ghost. By the end of the film we have a whole backstory for the ghost, know how it operates, what its plan is, etc. The only real open end is often a kind of obligatory, often unearned "But wait!" zinger after the resolution that loses any wait it might have had because we have forgotten the surviving protagonist's name. This after the trailer we saw thoroughly explained anything we might have wanted to know as well as where and of what type the jump scares would be.
An example: the only reason a film like The Birds has any impact at all is because it goes entirely unexplained. Tack on an explanation and you have a mad scientist B-movie, notwithstanding its brilliant sequences and pointed commentary. Leave it out and you have a social horror masterpiece. Explanations only work when they are themselves more horrifying than the events they caused--something like Psycho comes to mind.
There, I think I've mansplained that enough. For the time being.
It Comes at Night takes a different path than many of its contemporary horror brethren. While its story, as far as the characters are concerned, does find a resolution (and real human resonance to boot), the rest of the film just won't be boxed up. Writer/director Trey Edward Shults ventures into an imagistic dreamland time and again that begs for multiple viewings and (re)interpretations. We are invited to both participate in and offer psychoanalysis of the microcosm of self that is the solitary home in which we spend the film's runtime. It is as much about teenage loneliness and emotional anxiety as it is a study of post-modern naturalism and the bounds and limitations of society. All these elements meet under careful yet free-ranging direction. Its ideas truly are the focus rather than a thematically-minded afterthought, and the result is something that deeply terrifies without repulsing. Or mansplaining.
So I say again, go see It Comes at Night. And if you're sad that I didn't say anything about The Mummy, don't worry, I'm brewing something up as we speak. But priorities first.
It Comes at Night features Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough, and Kelvin Harrison, Jr, and is rated R for general horrific stuff and a little swearsing.
Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults
It looks as though summer is upon us, which of course means it's blockbuster season. And while you'll have to look elsewhere for commentary about anything stemming from a comic book, I'm happy to here present a look at Sir Ridley Scott's latest addition to the Alien world. In short, I found it to be generally satisfying, although I am left with some lingering potential reservations about the future of the franchise.
Alien: Covenant follows some 10 years after the events of 2012's Prometheus, and indeed is in many ways a direct sequel to that film. A colonization ship is brought off its course by a cryptic signal, and naturally parasitic mayhem ensues.
I'll first talk about what Covenant does well, and for this writer one of the chiefest of those things is to make Prometheus have some sort of purpose. I was happy with this, because I really wanted that film to work, and it has only become more of a disappointment as time has gone by. But Covenant does much to right its younger brother's course.
This feeds into another element of what these two films do right, or at least work toward. I think that the premise of Alien (1979) only really works once. One reason it is one of the great horror films of all time is that is not reproducible. The only reason Aliens (1986) works is because it pivots from horror to more straight-ahead action. Prometheus and now Covenant have tried to take the series into more classic sci-fi territory, mainly dwelling on questions of creation and the origins of life. I think Covenant does this better than Prometheus (mainly due to less muddled storytelling) but I also think a single, concentrated dose would work better.
That said, Covenant tries harder to be more of a horror film than Prometheus did, and it has some pretty great sequences. But it also fights the temptation of veering into self-parody at times. After all, at this point we know exactly what a xenomorph can do, and the process by which anonymous crew members are weeded out. And I would say that one of the film's greatest weaknesses is the general forgettableness of those crew members. It is difficult if not impossible to develop truly meaningful characters in an action-orient ensemble film like this without relying on simple stereotypes, but other films in the series at least succeed in developing some sort of affection for their victims. Here the film is almost entirely populated with redshirts.
As I said at the beginning, though, my biggest reservation (and that word might be too strong) about the film is about what Fox and Sir Ridley plan to do next. Because the film does bring up some really fascinating and chilling ideas about life and creation. But I fear that those ideas have the potential to undercut much of what makes the good Alien movies good, and even what makes the bad ones Alien movies. Such is the risk with prolonged film franchises, though, especially one built on such a lean, singleminded premise as an incomprehensible, uncanny space monster. Overall, this singular installment works, often quite well, and helps improve its predecessor. But taken in the context of the rest of the series, I'm not sure that its charted course is quite needed.
Alien: Covenant features Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, and Danny McBride, and is rated R because it's an Alien movie why do you need to ask.
Written by John Logan and Dante Harper
Directed by Sir Ridley Scott
This isn't a great trailer but it's the not-redband one, if you aren't into that kind of thing.
by Chase Harrison