Justice League

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Whatever your opinion on Zach Snyder’s previous two Superman installments, they were approached thoughtfully. Man of Steel charted a stranded god, finding his place on Earth and coming up wanting. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was mankind’s response to that god’s very existence. Both proposed humanity as selfish, inchoate, teetering on the edge of oblivion, and distracted by the infotainment of 24/7 cable news–and then tried to absorb its alien savior into that scheme (all the more clearly defined in the second film’s extended cut). This was matched by Snyder’s skewed, stylized violence: Superman (Henry Cavill) didn’t just float into the air, he sonic boomed. Similarly, Batman (Ben Affleck) lurked like Alien and terrified even those he rescued, while Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) shrugged off building leveling blows with a smirk. Furthermore, these figures experienced the world through hallucinatory tableau, their internal head spaces seamlessly integrated with reality. Their very presence had gravity, warping the world around them.

The latest DC film, Justice League, takes shears to these operatic trappings. Snyder’s industrial/metal fantasia aesthetic is still there–but robbed of its timing and oomph. Dream sequences are absent. Concrete buckles and craters, but this never results in anything seismic. The film’s getting the band together plot–where Batman tries drafting Aquaman (Jason Mamoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and the Flash (Ezra Miller) into a group to fight a coming alien invasion, following Superman’s death in the previous film–never examines any potential tangent, leaving a half dozen or so story and thematic ideas dangling (spinoff hooks, likely). The most intriguing of these is Batman’s guilt complex expanding to include Superman: he spent the entirety of the Batman v. Superman attempting to murder the Last Son of Krypton for misguided, reactionary reasons, only to watch his nemesis sacrifice himself for the greater good. Here, Affleck’s Batman drinks frequently and goads his fellow heroes into attacking him, even goes off on a suicide run against vampiric parademons. The notion he might be orchestrating the League not only to atone for his betrayal of Superman the martyr, but as a Rube Goldbergian attempt to end his life has the potential for a fascinating bit of comic book melodrama.

Like everything else, though, it goes unexplored. Dialogue is interjected to keep proceedings superficially chummy, likely input from co-director Joss Whedon (credited only with the screenplay). Conflict is frequently undercut or written out in the following clip. These characters don’t even interact with the world much: they show up to rescue the odd civilian, but if these mortals react at all it’s one-note gratitude, summarized in a closing monologue that aims for Hallmark sentiment. Their presence is treated as banal.

The result of this is a film which operates more like a TV pilot, and a cheap one at that. Actors are lit in ugly, orange tint, while rear-projection-esque green screen gets overused in action sequences to the point of tedium. Given this is the format popularized by Warner Bros.’s rival superhero factory Marvel, I’m curious to see how much of this is down to Snyder himself, studio notes demanding the production ape the competition, or Whedon, who helped shape Marvel with his two Avengers movies. Whatever the case, Justice League is a step back, the weirdness and danger of Snyder’s deities replaced with plushies and safety blankets.

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Blade Runner: 2049

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Humanity in Blade Runner 2049 has become sketchier. We’re told of famine and nuclear disaster, shown perpetual gray daylight and tiny, cubic domiciles. Who is a person and who is a replicant is distinguished only by which one is more overtly servile. The few confirmed people we see in 2049‘s narrative are either feeble or monstrous. They are a species teetering on the brink of collapse, while their physically perfect servants run the rat race. Ryan Gosling’s K is one such rat, a replicant blade runner tracking down and assassinating less obedient models. The snapshot of his life indicates a routine of consumer consumption and a kind of play-romance with his AI girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas). The money he makes from his wage slave job as a robo-Pinkerton allows him to buy gadgets that give Joi more freedom, and encourage her to grow beyond the boundaries of her programming. She tags along on K’s latest case, involving a miracle replicant child, a plutocrat with a God complex (Jared Leto) and his lackey (Sylvia Hoeks), and crotchety Blade Runner protagonist Deckard (Harrison Ford) getting drunk in the ruins of Vegas. Along the way, she expands the boundaries of their relationship, leaving the safety of her domestic cage and synchronizing with a prostitute to bring physical intimacy to a relationship which was originally a one-sided transaction.

These lengthy asides promise to turn an otherwise sleepy noir (and unnecessary sequel) into a fascinating expansion of its predecessor’s ideas about sentience and personhood. Unfortunately, Denis Villeneuve doesn’t seem as interested in these ideas as Ridley Scott in his Alien prequels (or even Tron: Legacy, another 30-plus year sequel to a movie that didn’t need one). Once K’s story finally intersects with Deckard, 2049 ceases any pretense of exploring machine consciousness, as the narrative becomes about Ford’s deadbeat dad reuniting with his symbolically important kid. To hammer home how little care is shown towards the story they have, Villeneuve and his writers fridge Joi, to set up a punchy climax that resolves just enough to leave room for a sequel or two.

IT

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It (or, as the end credits helpfully tell us, IT: Chapter One) begs the question of what we are looking for in horror films, let alone adaptations. Do we want something that strips down a story’s essence, using an emotional core to power a delirious, artistic interpretation? Or do we want an austere re-telling of the printed word, professionally managed? Andres Muschietti’s adaptation of Stephen King’s killer clown opus picks a third path: meandering approximation, coupled with nostalgic dog-whistling. Telling the childhood portion of the book, Muschietti fixates on barely pubescent boys and their hangups (a mullet-sporting bully with a switchblade invites comparisons to another King coming of age tale, Stand by Me). The group gossip and mock, joke about their dicks one moment and sheepishly ogle the lone girl the next, their attention divided between having enjoyable summer adventures and a child-snatching evil which has blanketed their town in a kind of dreadful ennui. While its primary form is a flamboyant clown (Bill Skarsgard), Pennywise is implicated as a catchall for America’s various sins (the racism and genocide of colonialism, particularly), with a side order of the vicious gossip of small town living. He also takes great interest in terrifying Sophia Lillis’ abused, yet assertive Beverly; if only because she shows the least fear of him, having already experienced what pain (physical and emotional) men are willing to inflict on her.

Such broad scope in a horror film begs for praise, yet It: Chapter One never earns its marks. The film is surprisingly weightless for the gravity of horror it aims for, jumping between the staid slow burn of Western J-horror remakes or cartoon hysterics and flying Dutch angles straight from the Sam Raimi playbook. Yet, Muschietti doesn’t have the tense pacing for the former, nor Riami’s comedic timing for the latter. Instead, he accumulates and rearranges scenes, incidents, and motivations from the source, burns screentime on a bathroom-cleaning montage set to the Cure, and insists on roping in last minute subplots that go nowhere and accomplish nothing. (The bully, for instance, becomes Pennywise’s minion in the final act to chase the kids into his lair…despite them already setting out to rescue one of their own.) Adding insult to boredom is Pennywise himself, a seemingly all-powerful demon who repeatedly fumbles easy kills. The film’s favorite attempt at terror is to lure one of the child actors away with an obvious trap. The lead’s younger brother and a member of the bully’s clique suffer gruesome fates, but the main ensemble (all seven of them) manage to slip away despite falling for the same trick multiple times. Such inept, listless plotting (and slavish devotion to the source) reveals a lack of vision. A more daring filmmaker would have narrowed focus, excising bits and bobs of scenery that work better in the page than on the screen. Maybe even brought a sense of escalation to Pennywise’s actions by offing one or two of the mains (or at least done something other than jump scares). Instead, we’re given a two-hour shrug that invites us back for more in a couple years.

Paradise

 

JobWillins put up a preview screening of his Prometheus/Alien: Covenant fan-edit over the weekend, cutting two fascinating duds into something closer to a passable Ridley Scott film. Paradise (taken from Prometheus‘ original title) tells its constituent films in tandem, mixing in deleted scenes and promo shorts, altering music cues, eliminating redundant moments and trimming (if not, entirely excising) each plotline’s most idiot ball scenes. No biologist attempting to snuggle up to a penis-headed cobra or Billy Crudup looking into a leather egg because a crazed robot told him to here! More importantly, the edit lends a sweep and scope merely assumed in Scott’s films. The narrative uses the conversation between synthetic David (Michael Fassbender) and his creator Weyland (Guy Pearce) from Covenant as chapter breaks, connecting that initial spark of devious, calculated intellect to the resentment, fascination, and desire to create which would follow.

Detroit

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Despite marketing and the tagline “It’s Time We Knew,” Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit doesn’t even remotely aim for the austere, respectable docudrama expected of it. A prologue sequence animating Jacob Lawrence’s Migration series, spliced news footage, and a couple re-enactments of key moments in the early goings of the Motor City’s ’67 riots establish a backdrop of violence inflicted upon a people. Before long, the focus narrows on the Algiers Motel murders, where three black men were killed while motel guests were tortured and humiliated during a police raid (in search of an alleged sniper). It’s here where the film’s drama revolves, tracking the collision of the cops and National Guard with the victims and a security guard named Dismukes (John Boyega). It becomes the story of the riots in micro: black men venting their frustration at an unjust system, only to incur the disproportionate wrath of a society that already views them as subhuman.

Initially, the violence is played as usual bad cop tactics: rough up suspects, force confessions, extreme measures, the same old drill, Bigelow framing scenes with an eye for contrast (particularly black skin against brightly-lit backdrops). Will Poulter’s slithery lead officer Krauss delights in the control he exerts over the (black) men and (white) women, content to order abuses when not shooting fleeing suspects in the back. Men then start getting dragged into rooms for faked executions. The very real threat of death is imminent: one would-be corpse is shoved into the floor, a Smith & Wesson 10 pressed into the floor beside his skull (the lighting, paired with dark skin and brown decor in the background, almost makes the weapon look white). Though the cops treat this as a game, the film never wavers from the vantage point of the motel guests. Closeups are uncomfortably intimate: bloody, bruised, tear-stained faces, pressed against faded wallpaper, blown up to fill the screen. Their terror is all that matters. When a miscommunication causes the cops’ game to become real, the horror escalates as the cops amp up their brutality to cover their tracks. In that regard, Bigelow and Hurt Locker/Zero Dark Thirty collaborator Mark Boal have effectively used the docudrama trappings to recreate the raw verisimilitude of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

The film’s real horror, though, is silent, monolithic. Time after time, Detroit presents us with indecisive onlookers. Guardsmen and state police verbalize their disgust at the proceedings, but refuse to intervene because it would be an inconvenience. A homicide detective “recommends” charges against Krauss for an earlier shooting, but lets the man back out on the streets. Dismukes cozies up to the white authority figures for survival. Stepping into the motel and witnessing the brutality, he watches, passive. In a token gesture at aid, he takes one man aside to instruct him to comply. Ultimately, he chooses self-preservation. The real-life investigation into the murders suggested the actual person may have taken part in the abuse itself; the character, and Boyega’s performance (a mostly silent figure, eyes darting for an out), is vastly more sympathetic, but his inaction is all the more damning.

Dunkirk

 

mv5bmzuyntq3ndg0nv5bml5banbnxkftztgwnzcyndy4mji-_v1_sy1000_cr0013711000_al_German soldiers are conspicuously absent in Dunkirk. There’s a character in one of the three entwining, parable-like narratives who might or might not be German (playing a double-entendre with the title of the beach segments: “The Mole”), but full-uniform Nazis barely exist in physical form. Instead, Christopher Nolan treats their presence as an abstract: the roar of gunfire ripping through hulls and bodies; leaflets falling on the titular French city; the horrific, deafening whine of approaching Luftwaffe, bombing and gunning down shivering, panic-stricken Tommies. They aren’t an army, but an all-consuming specter, a chilling reminder from the past threatening to push people into the sea. Tellingly, one character intones to another, shell-shocked one, “There won’t be a home if we allow a slaughter across the channel.”

To that end, Nolan not only centers the retreating British, but hones in on their psychological state. The three stories–a private waiting rescue on the beach, a mariner who volunteers with his son and a hired hand to aid the evacuation, and one of the Spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy) sent to protect the ships and soldiers–are told in concurrent non-linearity. Action is not relayed spatially or tactically, but emotionally. Montage is used often to portray characters experiencing the same traumas of war (drowning in a sunken ship is a recurring one) simultaneously at different points in time. While Nolan and editor Lee Smith treat this as an effective tension-builder, particularly when paired with the booming sound design and Hans Zimmer’s Shepard tone score, the way characters and situations align also taps into the collective mindset of people fleeing violence and nationalism in search of a home.

Baby Driver

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Edgar Wright seems to have conceived Baby Driver as an exercise in editing and choreography. The film, a musical comedy about a doughy getaway driver named Baby (Ansel Elgort) trying to get out of the game, is cut with crackerjack timing. Gunshots, car crashes, even the sound of footsteps in a chase are set to the beat of a soundtrack heavily flavored with classic rock, golden oldies, and soul. Baby himself reflects this motif: suffering from tinnitus and vaguely traumatized by memories of his dead mother, he obsessive-compulsively collects music and ipods and makes mixes based on diegetic sound. This OCD extends to his approach on the job, rewinding his playlist or even tuning the radio to get an exact needle drop before burning rubber. Smartly, Wright constructs his action around Baby. The odd establishing shot or bird’s eye cutaway aside, his actions are always shown from the passenger seat or passing by some brief, stationary point–the frenetic, Michael Bay school of editing used to make us witnesses to something bizarre and amazing.

Unfortunately, Baby is little more than a vehicle for Wright’s technical skill and fanboy expulsions. Quirk aside, his traits and motivations are straight lifted from Walter Hill and Michael Mann: a singular-minded professional committed to some personal vision of his life (including a subplot where Baby courts a sing-song-voiced waitress, which carries shades of James Caan in Thief, seeking a wife to complete his American Dream). Unlike the characters Baby emulates, however, he is passive, loaded with motivations but no motor. The kind of gritty crime films Wright is harking back to were about weird loners driven to succeed, often at great personal cost. Dragged into one last job, Baby is given ample opportunity to upstage and subvert the colorful, aggressive personalities around him (Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Sky Ferreira, and Jamie Foxx most memorably). Yet–even when flat-out presented with an option to walk away–Baby chooses to allow the plot to unfold, disappearing into so much background noise. He isn’t a character, but a prop–helpfully underlined by Elgort’s portrayal, leaning on an inconsistent Elvis drawl and inexpressive pucker-face. Action and motivation rarely align, based the need to ensure the film gets us to the next spin on another stock heist-movie situation. As loving mixtape to the kinds of films Wright loves, Baby Driver is excellent. As a film, it’s all hollow, incomplete notions from someone showing off how good they are without putting in the necessary work.

Life

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Astronauts on the ISS capture a probe returning from Mars, which contains an alien. Their delight soon turns to horror when “Calvin”–so named by adorable schoolchildren as part of a public relations stunt–reveals itself a rapidly-gestating amoeba with a slasher mentality. The resulting carnage sets off decaying systems and a frantic struggle for survival, where Life submits audiences to a procession of unsettling sights and sounds: a woman drowning in her EVA suit after a coolant tank ruptures; Jake Gyllenhaal, wide-eyed and anemic, mumbling out a suicide plan; Ryan Reynolds coughing blood in zero-g as he’s devoured from the inside out (fodder is a role especially suited to him); and, of course, the creature itself, always moving, morphing, and hungry. Its ultimate form resembles a cephalopod with a Komodo dragon snout.

Daniel Espinosa’s film might charitably be considered paying homage to Alien (and borrows music cues from Prometheus), but its flourishes are less gothic than they are sadistic. For all the grace in Calvin’s forms, the emphasis isn’t on this inhuman entity, but the damage it can inflict, particularly to the flesh. There’s even a poor mouse, strapped in like a submissive in the same lab housing Calvin, its purpose seemingly a light snack when the creature inevitably busts loose. If anything, Life has more commonality with the kind of video nasties which lined the shelves back when Blockbuster was ubiquitous. Immediately springing to mind are titles like Xtro or Charles Band’s Parasite–which Espinosa lifts a shot from, when the crew discover something writhing within the pant leg of one of their own. Films which appropriated Alien‘s visual ideas about penetration and birth for the singular purpose of pushing the boundaries of makeup effects and good taste.

Here, that sort of nihilism gets a Hollywood sheen, complete with some accomplished effects work. Actors appear, effortlessly, to float through the confines of the set, while the creature is oily and tactile. Espinosa also hones in on the theme of containment. Key moments are framed from the viewpoint of characters watching from behind a pane of glass, a sleep pod’s door, or a hatch’s porthole. Calvin is locked inside a glass box within a sealed room for observation. Every action the crew takes, often at the recommendation of a CDC officer (Rebecca Ferguson, who starts as another Ellen Ripley, only to be reduced to a shrieking nonentity) is to ensure this wall of separation remains as the creature attempts to break free. When those walls go down is precisely when the tension ramps up, as the humans attempt to kill or outmaneuver the seemingly unstoppable Calvin. Over and over, Life arrives at chaos and death, presenting situations where our attempts at control invariably fail. While its beats are overly familiar and telegraphed (Gyllenhaal practically spells out the film’s twist ending), there’s something refreshing to a film this committed to human folly.

Transformers: The Last Knight

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The Last Knight, Michael Bay’s fifth installment in the Transformers movies, represents a baffling step backward. Age of Extinction was an exhausting, punishing affair, but was grounded in a single group of people thrust into insane circumstances. The Spielbergian conceit punched up by Bay’s vulgar expulsions, humanity represented through the lens of possessive father Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), drafted into a conflict between the Autobots and (primarily) an unholy alliance between corporate America, CIA assassins, and a cosmic bounty hunter. The Transformers themselves were no longer background fixtures but active participants: psychotically broken zealots in an eternal war, defending and/or being disgusted by the sweaty, seething meat vessels that populate the front line. Bay communicated a fundamentally nihilistic world, where Yeager’s family and Optimus Prime’s Autobots were, at least, able to find a sense of belonging with one another. It, along with Pain & Gain, formed a diptych which could be considered the closest Bay has gotten to self-reflection in his films.

For the follow-up, Bay and his writers concoct a scenario where Prime confronts/communes/gets corrupt by his creator, an alien robot broadly resembling a gorgon crossed with Maleficent. Prime is redirected towards destroying the Earth he had fought for so hard, so long. The idea’s a good one. As Chris Ready pointed out in his Age of Extinction review, Prime is confronted with the military-industrial complex and plutocrats (literally) profiting off the bodies of his comrades. His disgust palpable, he vowed to kill the humans responsible. Here, his swayed allegiance is a visual representation of those feelings taking hold, casting off any held ideals.

 

Unfortunately, The Last Knight shreds any sense of perspective, roping in bit players from the previous trilogy, while piling on more new ones than audiences can keep track of, let alone care about. Mostly, the film seems to operate as a vehicle for Michael Bay to have Anthony Hopkins deliver grandiose exposition and spit venom at anyone who mildly annoys him (the scenes between Hopkins and a self-described “sociopath” robot butler, including a car chase where the pair deliberately endanger human lives to escape pursuit, are among the film’s best). Prime’s heel turn–which ate up a significant chunk of the marketing–is given only a setup, which isn’t discovered until moments before its resolution: the middle is papered over by another global chase for another calamitous MacGuffin between warring groups of dysfunctional oddballs.

In some ways, the gaping lack of Optimus is intended to be the point. Their leader having blasted off into space on a suicide mission, the Autobots are stuck being bored in a Montana junkyard between scavenging excursions. They pass time bickering and smashing cars, menacing the humans who have taken them in. Yeager is able to keep them from going too far, but without Optimus there isn’t any discipline. This excessive nastiness can be (and is, mostly) fun, yet the lack of confrontation can’t help but underwhelm. The similarly-themed Fate of the Furious was able to mine a similar ‘franchise patriarch vs. extended family’ premise for the kind of delirious pileups one typically associates with Bay (i.e. hacked cars self-driving themselves off a rooftop). Given his own opportunity, it’s odd the director passed up the opportunity to stage his own version.

Prey

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Arkane Studios’ Prey reboot operates, like a great many first-person games do these days, in the visual and mechanical shorthand of Bioshock. An insular, seemingly idyllic, Art Deco society crumbling under an internal assault. A hero(ine) lead around by voices speaking in their ear. System Shock-derived gameplay centered on mind/body altering technology that can be crafted to a player’s style. Audio logs. Alternate histories. Tough to kill enemies. Ethical and philosophical quandaries (at least, an attempt at them). There’s some nifty zero-G sequences, a discordant electro-synth soundtrack and even some sidequest flavoring from Chris Avellone, but the frame is all over the production.

For its part, Prey offers up what it calls an “ecosystem” of alien creatures for your amnesiac researcher/test subject to fight or flight from. Wispy and covered in what looks like oil, the Typhon aren’t so much an ecosystem, though, as they are an invading force broken down into specialists. Some patrol, others stalk prey or infest an area, while some varieties focus on turning the environment or other people against you. So far, so usual. One in particular seems to exist to float around gracefully, ejaculating gold ether all over the place, and now we’re getting somewhere. Then, elemental variants of the former types crop up, and we’re back to familiar territory. The plot expects us to find these creatures mysterious and elegant–we’re told how amazing they are–yet their rote abilities, behavior, and appearances suggest otherwise.