Equalizer 2

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The opening hour of The Equalizer 2 promises a messier film than its predecessor. Where before Antoine Fuqua tracked a singular conflict to unveil the monster within affable loner (and ex-assassin) Robert McCall (Denzel Washington), his followup sees McCall through multiple, diverging plotlines before settling on avenging the murder of a State Department ally (Melissa Leo). Fuqua and screenwriter Richard Wenk spend the bulk of the first act not only setting this up, but also incorporating McCall’s newfound calling to equalize into his previously monastic lifestyle. When not brutalizing kidnappers and rapist yuppies, he operates a ride-share, reads Proust, and life coaches a teenage artist caught up in gang crime. Each of these is delivered in the kind of episodic drip betraying the series’ TV origins.

While shapeless, the choice does offer some opportunity to explore McCall’s psyche. Washington’s effortless ability to turn on the charm is woven more intricately with the previously dead-eyed Michael Myers facial tics deployed before. Appraising head-tilts now pair with eye-rolls, knowing grimaces, even the occasional smirk, a distinct personality emerging out of inflicting pain and imparting wisdom. If Equalizer 1 was about a broken man finding new purpose–much in the manner of the John Wick films and the better installments of Liam Neeson’s Dad Revenge cycle–the sequel finds an effort to make himself whole again. A shame, then, how effortless Equalizer 2 makes this. On paper, the escalation is there, beginning with wealth elites assuming victory to gangbangers to, finally, a more lethal threat tied with McCall’s wetwork past. In practice, each is a breeze, characterized in the broadest of archetypes and completely dominated in every interaction. Even when surrounded, or enclosed in a car, Fuqua never frames Washington as anything other than the dominant center of the screen, nosediving any tension–or even any need for the creative violence of The Equalizer‘s box store, slasher movie finale. The result is a boring examination of one man always being right.

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Red Sparrow

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The idea of Jennifer Lawrence poker-facing through kompromat-fueled intrigue has a sleazy appeal to it. Take the persistent news cycle reportage of pee tapes and election meddling, pick an espionage novel to adapt, and populate it with movie stars. Titillation for an audience wanting international conspiracies more exciting than what the pundit class has too much shame to do more than gesture at. Red Sparrow, however, plays things a little staid. Every aspect of prima ballerina Dominika’s (Lawrence) transformation from uncertain waif to femme fatale is portrayed at a medium distance and waist high. The approach vaguely resembles the voyeurism of David Cronenberg or Paul Verhoeven, but director Francis Lawrence and editor Alan Edward Bell are too bashful. In training, when Dominika is ordered to seduce and copulate with a fellow cadet in front of their entire class, everything is cut for the briefest of glimpses before we’re whisked to convenient blocking. This is matched by Lawrence’s performance, her unchanging demeanor as she gropes and grinds the men around neither elicits disgust at Dominika’s exploitation nor finds thrill in turning the tables. When she quadruple crosses and American counterpart (Joel Edgerton) into revealing a mole within the Russian government, we’re not visualizing a system, merely dashing off genre tropes with the blush of Serious Film Aesthetic. Ironically, Red Sparrow best succeeds when it avoids this core: digressions present would-be handlers, both Russian and American, talking about their plans for (and speculations about) Dominika, diced with brief cutaways of the spy going about some task they’ve assigned her. Sometimes it’s reinforcing these dialogues, other times undermining, regularly uncertain as to which until the consequences of her actions are revealed. Rather than the expert seductress the text insists on, Dominika zeroes in how everyone underestimates her, exploiting their certainty in the leverage they have over her.

The Death Cure

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More than anything else, the Maze Runner film trilogy has felt like an expensive demo reel. Plot and theme are all over the place, James Dashner’s source novels junking a perfectly fine, Kafkaesque premise so we could get sequels akin to kid versions of the Resident Evil movies. Perhaps this is why they are so much more fun than Divergent, The 5th Wave, or even mega-hit The Hunger Games. Wes Ball–the only director of any of these franchises to actually steward the entire thing–seems less interested in articulating any sort of triumphant rebellion against tyranny than he is in dropping his cast in a series of incidents to either run towards or from.

The Death Cure makes the most of this. Two films of setup, including a double-cross from the primary romantic interest (Kaya Scoledario), arrive at determined Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) plotting a suicide mission into a gentrified fortress city to rescue his buddy Minho (Ki Hong Lee) from perpetual torture/harvesting at the hands of corporate lab coats. Like any heist or breakout flick, the plot unfolds along the group’s prep work and a smooth infiltration, before watching slip-ups and coincidences threaten calamity. Thomas’ crew then fragments into no less than five distinct threads, each built around a different genre conceit: car and foot chases, gunfights, even a Terminator-esque sequence built around avoiding a murderer with a gun. Nothing ever gets lost in the shuffle, each of the players getting their moment to shine, the film daring you to pick favorites. Two obvious choices: Lee as Minho and Rosa Salazar as rebel (and the thankless task of secondary love interest) Brenda. Minho is lithe and assured–when he finally breaks free, he moves like a bullet at his captors before throttling them like a track star Schwarzenegger; Brenda, meanwhile, plots an entire escape route from dystopian cops, ramming their cars with a bus before trudging out to face a blockade with only a flare gun. Ball ropes the audience in with pans and tracking shots putting you in a moment where you go from watching the Runners, to even pursuing them as they leap out a 30-story window, plummeting into a pool far below. Long after the post-apocalyptic details fade from memory, it’s the thrill of watching young people endangering themselves for survival that sticks.

Rampage

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As far as gaming adaptations go, Rampage is easy enough. Already borrowing from Atomic Age horror and kaiju smash-’em-ups, the games are relentless id. Pick a monster, wreck a city, fight the military, gobble up the populace. Rinse, repeat. Tapped for a pre-summer release meant to tide moviegoers before the blockbusters arrive, Brad Peyton’s movie comes alive most when it leans in to this gleeful misanthropy. Even saddled with a focus-grouped script which reiterates the close bond of Special Forces-turned-primatologist Davis (Dwayne Johnson) and mutating, rapidly-growing albino gorilla George for the attention-addled, there’s an impression no one involved likes people very much. Davis is protective, occasionally kind towards pupils and associates, bystanders, basically anyone he has an obligation to. Stripped of that, he spits invective at horndogs, feds, even the troops. A second act built around maneuvering George and two other monsters to disaster flick-friendly Chicago is capped with Davis articulating his distaste. In flashback, Davis describes George’s mother being butchered so her parts could be used for ashtrays and how he guns down the poachers responsible. Even at his most puppy dog loveable and charming, the Rock can’t seem to shake a casual contempt for his fellow man. He’s only along on this nonsense for his CGI animal companion.

With that as their emotional core, Peyton and his writer’s room seem to take cues from the more glib, knowing end of 80s horror scripts. An early fight between a team of black ops heavies (led by quasi-star Joe Manganiello, an anti-Johnson) and a massive wolf could easily have been inspired by Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont’s The Blob remake. It sets up, then flippantly pulps, an antagonist to establish the stakes, not giving a fuck about formula. Rampage then spends the bulk of its time–when it’s not hiding the budget behind grainy night-vision or tracking its stars avoiding the monsters–escalating this kind of Michael Bay callousness. Man and beast alike are ripped apart, impaled, devoured, even squashed under debris in a brazen subversion of  MPAA ratings.

The Shape of Water

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Watching The Shape of Water post-Oscar win, it’s easy to see the film’s Academy appeal. Period piece, shot with the same studio lot artifice typifying 1950s Hollywood, with a heavy dose of characters appreciating entries in the 20th Century Fox classic film catalog, Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy is as escapist as it gets. This puts the film at odds with a premise that, on paper, stresses taboo and danger. The burgeoning romance between mute cleaning lady Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and a captive, ersatz Gill Man (Doug Jones) is set in a backdrop of Cold War intrigue. The creature is yanked from South America by a fed (Michael Shannon)–who thinly masks his thuggish, crude sexuality with nuclear family trappings–for vivisection in the government lab Elisa scrubs daily. Meanwhile, a Soviet spy (Michael Stuhlbarg) has divided loyalty between humane scientific curiosity and cool, impassive orders from the Kremlin.

Elisa and the creature’s courtship occurs in broad strokes: she sneaks in and offers hard-boiled eggs, teaches sign language and plays records; he shows curiosity and occasionally shows magical healing properties. Del Toro never characterizes the relationship beyond this, his subjects’ interior lives buried under plot (Elisa’s early, pre- meet cute routine shows her masturbating in a tub, but the only time we get her fantasizing is a sequence where she and the creature sing and dance to “You’ll Never Know”). Instead, the romance is framed more from the perspective of Elisa’s closeted friend (Richard Jenkins), an old painter blackballed for his interest in men. He meets Elisa’s beau when he’s recruited for a breakout, remarking on the glistening, muscled fish-man: “He’s beautiful.” Fascinated, he spends the remainder of the film depicting him in paintings: a black & white of Elisa and the creature in a nude embrace is the closest the film dares approach the Freudian imagery of Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon.

2017: Movies

 

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Death Note

Propulsive and unapologetic, Adam Wingard’s Americanized Death Note finds beauty and terror in teenagers gaining God-like status and still losing control. Light Turner’s use of the titular book (which allows him to kill anyone whose name is written into its pages) goes through phases, burning through personal vendettas before encouraged to enact bloody vengeance on larger-scale bad actors. Rather than follow the popular storytelling model of other Netflix originals, wafting along on retreaded plot beats, Wingard barrels forward, exploring its premise–and the sociopolitical response to same–through pure momentum, expecting audiences to keep up as its messy protagonists get drunk on power, then come crashing down.

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King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

The movie that basically cemented the idea I’m never ever ever going to see eye to eye with the zeitgeist when it comes to movies. Guy Ritchie’s loving pisstake/British caper comedy version of modern fantasy epics takes the loose template of Zach Snyder’s DC movies (which, to be fair, means it’s overlong by at least 30 minutes), exploding it into a series of snappy, funny montages. The storytelling is timed to the blustery, bullshitting exchanges of friends and colleagues, pulling a fast one on a bunch of dimwitted fascists alongside a Hero’s Journey. Also: DEATH DEALER!

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Headshot

Iko Uwais seems to be modeling his career on Jackie Chan’s. Rama in The Raid films and Ishmael in Headshot are both fundamentally decent men thrust into insane circumstances which demolish their bodies. Ishmael’s arc even broadly recalls the plotline of Chan’s Who Am I?, though writer/co-director Timo Tjahjanto constructs a more personal threat for the amnesiac ex-assassin. Fights progress on psychoanalytic terms, going from impersonal grunts to fellow enforcers and hitmen from the same syndicate, onto an extended, brutal confrontation with the crime boss who kidnapped and tortured them into brainwashed killers. Damaged past aside, Ishmael’s firmly rooted identity allows him to endure body-shredding violence to destroy the source of his trauma.

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Raw

Jumbled metaphors and frustrated angst are all over Julia Ducournau’s cannibal film. Justine, a vegetarian, enrolls in veterinarian school to get into the family business, only to eat meat as part of a hazing. This has the unfortunate effect of triggering a craving within her, spiraling her life out of control. Where other films might make this progression obviously linear, Raw instead spreads into all aspects of the freshman’s lifestyle. Every interaction Justine has in the film, from casual chats with classmates to the gaudy humiliation parties to lusting after her gay roommate, is filtered through the act of consumption. Other students are equally carnivorous, enacting their wills onto others for their own pleasure. Justine’s expression is a literal expression of her own conformity. To that end: her older sister, Alexia, serves equally as guide and tormentor, driving Justine to pursue her urges, then humiliating her for it.

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Blade of the Immortal

100 movies in, Takashi Miike is at once settled into a groove and still pushing himself. Blade of the Immortal is bookended by two bloody, apocalyptic battles, swordsman Manji (Takuya Kimura) cutting through waves of mooks. The latter fight juggles four conflicting groups, enemies becoming tentative allies and going at each other’s throats again as the fighting ebbs and flows. Miike makes it look effortless, with blocking and editing expressing clarity and momentum, condensing Hiroaki Samura’s epic manga into 141 minutes that breeze by.

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Detroit

Marketed first and foremost as austere docudrama, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit instead hews uncomfortably close to the grimy verisimilitude of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Generations of social movements giving backdrop to the ever-tightening focus of the Algiers Motel murders, pushing through to zero in on one man’s escape from trauma into community. Consequently, as the stakes get more personal and human, the threat becomes more abstract.  While Detroit‘s obvious villains are the trio of white, racist cops, using the pretense of law & order to brutalize black men (and a pair of white women, for being around black men), the literal army which passively looks on with mild disgust, along with John Boyega’s self-preserving security guard, are harbingers of the social structures which will permit this and countless other atrocities.

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John Wick: Chapter Two

John Wick 1 is about a man who, when robbed of healthy outlets for his grief, falls back into what’s clearly an addiction. Keanu Reeves’ (ex) retired hitman can’t stop feeding his anger and need for adrenaline rushes. He chose to leave so he could marry and settle down, but the craving was still there. John Wick 2 deals with the man back in the life he left, the toll it takes on his mind and body. Wick is put through a gauntlet after being strong-armed by an old acquaintance to pull off one more hit. The assault comes from all sides, in varying shapes, sizes, and motivations, battering and bloodying the anti-hero. The film does what sequels do, taking a singular idea and exploding in a million new directions. Its lead, however, strips down even further to something elemental, until he’s going through a blood-stained hall of mirrors, asked to contemplate his soul. The world Wick is in complicates itself, inventing rules and masking its inherent savagery in the language of upper-class sophisticates (guns are talked about like they are wine, for instance). He’s able to navigate it, but getting out has made him less tolerant. All he wants is to ventilate the craniums of everyone who won’t leave him and his dog be, even if doing so burns down what remains of his life.

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Get Out

Equal parts jokey inversion of horror tropes and utterly devastating, Get Out stresses all-consuming danger. Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris doesn’t have conversations so much as get subjected to them. His white girlfriend’s parents, brother, and various friends stage well-meaning liberalism while demeaning him through invasive words and touch, before using hypnotism to subvert his very identity. Jordan Peele’s directorial debut moves on micro-aggressions against Chris and dismissals of his lived experience, the Armitage household becoming a monument to an entire system designed to exploit the African-American body.

Also Liked: Dunkirk, Rough Night, Logan Lucky, Catfight, Free Fire, Baby Driver, The Void, Good Time, The Villainess, Brawl in Cell Block 99, Colossal, Atomic Blonde

32

It’s my birthday, and I decided to do something a little different, so I put together a list of formative movies from my misspent childhood. Not all of these are even good, but they’ve all impacted me one way or another (.gif sources listed where I could find them):
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1. Mr. Mom (1983, dir. Stan Dragoti): apparently watched this a ton when I was little. Would even crash carts into others at the grocery store and say “I have right of way”–I was a little shit. Superficially, it’s a movie about realigned masculinity (Michael Keaton learning to parent, etc.), the decline of the Big Three and the American industrial sector/organized labor, Reaganomics and all that. John Hughes, who wrote the script, doesn’t seem to particularly care about any of that, though, beyond as a vehicle for delivering jokes, most of which is forgettable. Keaton is what really makes this worth watching. The rest of the cast is ‘eh’–Terri Garr and Christopher Lloyd are wasted, everybody else is static –but Keaton is perfect. Right in that range of having a comedic bite to a guy who, objectively, is being a shitty person, and is charismatic enough to make him likeable enough you want him to become better…so when he does you actually give a shit. Oh, and he punches Martin Mull, and who HASN’T wanted to do that?
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2. Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster (or Ebirah, Horror of the Deep if you want the original title) (1966, dir. Jun Fukuda): My gateway into Godzilla specifically, Toho monster movies and Japanese cinema generally. Also a King Kong script, repurposed when Toho lost the license (Godzilla, for instance, is infatuated with the lone woman in the group). Jun Fukuda also isn’t half the director of Ishiro Honda: sets and costumes are noticeably cheaper, and original monsters (a giant lobster and condor) are boring. He does, however, hone in on a childish sense of adventure (spies! thieves on the lam! teenagers at dance-offs!) and shocking levels of monster violence. So, in that regard, it was perfect for someone watching a movie in pre-K, when one of the other kids brought in a VHS.
 
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3. Cobra (1986, dir. George P. Cosmatos): Sylvester Stallone’s Beverly Hills Cop is full of ridiculous, future shock snarling and violence, coupled with weird little character bits (cutting pizza with scissors and the matchstick). Everybody in it is delirious and sweaty and so very 80s. What’s not to love about this movie?
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4. Adventures in Babysitting (1987, dir. Chris Columbus): Probably the first “one crazy night” movie I remember watching, a genre I’ve only become more fond of. Even the bad ones have an economy of storytelling to them which makes it hard to absolutely hate them, because you aren’t forced to either leave or sit through 3 hours of it (superhero movies, I’m looking at you). And Adventures is the good kind of one crazy night: a fun cast of archetypes given a simple goal, complicated by increasingly insane obstacles. What starts as a simple jaunt into the city to pick up a friend becomes a life or death chase from mobsters, climaxing with a small child clinging for dear life on the side of a glass and steel skyscraper. Also manages to, on the side, make a really great blues musical number.
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5. Blade (1998, dir. Stephen Norrington): Speaking of superhero movies, I can space my viewing of Blade out by years, and still recite it almost line for line. Can’t even remember any of the Marvel movies minutes after seeing them, which should say everything. Before anyone chimes in with “nostalgia goggles” or whatever bullshit, I’m going to say this: most great movies are built around a single, strong idea. Blade does this so well, and most other entries in this genre are so bad at it, that it almost boggles the mind it did it before the genre went big, did it well, and yet no one bothered to replicate it. That that single idea–of a nigh-unstoppable, impossibly cool, angry, nihilistic half-vampire commando’s unceasing quest to purge the world of bloodsuckers–invariably centers around star Wesley Snipes might be the answer why. Snipes’ physique and face (perpetually behind those badass shades) dominate the screen. His voice commands attention. He’s buffered by capable character actors and a no-bullshit script from David Goyer, but it’s unquestionably his show. This is a movie with a star and it lets you know it–Avengers has Robert Downey Jr., but the sarcastic wit he brought has been exaggerated, then sublimated into Whedon dialogue and so much franchise noise (and who else do they have? Chris Evans? Fuck off). Blade gives you this solid image, every mannerism and one-liner etched in marble. In a genre built on perpetual, ephemeral hype, it gives you something eternal.
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6. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990, dir. Steve Barron): There’s a lot I could say about this movie, but most importantly it doesn’t talk down to its audience. It juggles some goofy, cartoon hijinks and family friendly moralizing, but is also a movie about disaffected youth, the effects of violence on bodies, and about the very human need for healthy social attachments, but is surprisingly subtle about this. Like, the most ham-fisted this movie gets is when Splinter sagely intones about fatherhood or shouts at the Foot Clan kids about the Shredder exploiting them (and the movie earns that shit, so it doesn’t feel ham-fisted). Dialogue elsewhere is watching these characters bond and converse, either confronting or dancing around their conflicts (both external and internal), without anyone ever telling you exactly what they’re doing. Absolute favorite part remains the truck-start scene between Donatello and Casey Jones, which is just a gag-heavy version of literally any Michael Mann scene: it establishes the way those characters relate to each other and their playful antagonism, but it’s layered into a scene that is: a) the two of them fixing a beat-up old truck, b) having a fannish, “who would marry who” conversation about Gilligan’s Island, and c) playing a game where they insult each other alphabetical order.
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7. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991, dir. James Cameron): Would watch this at a family friend’s house, sitting next to their dog while the adults played euchre or pinochle. It opens with Linda Hamilton narrating about the time-travel premise and the war against the machines, and then you see skulls getting crushed under a metal foot. Cameron just loads the movie with these arresting visuals, all while telling a story about a robot becoming the best dad possible in a world full of broken people. Even better: it’s a great showcase for Arnold Schwarzenegger, revisiting and reexamining his and Cameron’s iconic cyborg slasher as a portrait of emerging humanity. He sheds the sunglasses and motorcycle in tandem as he acquires expressions and slang from his charge, often repurposing in unintended ways like a dorky dad. Easily the best father/son movie of the 90s.
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8. The Thing (1982, dir. John Carpenter): Best movie on this list, though it took me two viewings when I first encountered it to appreciate its genius. Quintessentially Carpenter in the way it depicts two kinds of collectives battling for supremacy: one a group of raggedy, burnt out men in over their heads on the edge of the world, a leader emerging in Kurt Russell’s indomitable, individualist MacReady; the other a walking, seething viral infection with a hive-mind mentality patterned after a rapist’s. That it’s also one of the great special effects movies, and a big-budget studio movie built entirely on a mounting, inescapable sense of dread is just icing on the cake.
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9. Robocop (1987, dir. Paul Verhoeven): Still can’t believe my parents let me watch this as a kid. Shockingly violent, even (more) today, and increasingly, frighteningly relevant. A biting satire, a rumination on the effects of mechanization on humanity, a religious metaphor, a science fiction film about Theseus’ paradox, a damn good action movie, Robocop is a movie that’s all of those things and none of them. Every time I sit down and watch it, every time I discuss it with anyone, I pick up something new. The one constant though, the thing which stuck with me, whether it was when I had the simple, childish, reptilian brain glee of watching Alex Murphy get back at the gangsters who executed him or now that I’ve been thinking about that movie for over 25 years: it’s Peter Wellers’ face, the contorted pain he exhibits in Murphy’s death. It is utter pain, in response to both the physical sensation of gunfire and the cruelty of Boddicker’s gang (acting, itself, as an extension of the corporate machine which infects its fictionalized Detroit). In a very real way, that movie instilled in me from an early age both a value for human life, and a respect for how easily it can be taken away.
Here’s to another year of being alive. Take care out there.

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.

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.