There will be some spoilers in this review, but I will attempt to keep them to a minimum. It’s virtually impossible to review this movie without incorporating some spoilers. The movie begins as a meta-commentary on itself and the impact of the franchise on the culture following the release of the original trilogy–as well as the video games and other media associated with it, including the animated shorts. The filmmakers don’t shy away from some self-mockery as well as some lighthearted jabs at the fans and in particular the fans who seemed to miss the point the first time around. It’s a strange tone to set things off with, but it certainly works in the sense that it serves as a far better tool to keep Thomas Anderson meek and under control. There’s perhaps no better method of gaslighting than to make the object of the manipulation feel like they’re being ridiculous, childish, or absurd in clinging to things they believe to be true. By transforming Neo’s memories into something trivial like a video game, regardless of how exceptionally well-crafted or profound, The Analyst erodes the will to latch onto those memories as such. The unconsciously manufactured amalgam of Agent Smith and Morpheus–developed by the enslaved and subdued Thomas Anderson–was an interesting touch, as was the obvious cry for help represented by the modal in which the character was evolving. In the context of the narrative, it worked surprisingly well. It helped that the performance by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II was spectacular, displaying both remnants of the character previously performed by Laurence Fishburne and wry humor derived from self-awareness that he wasn’t the character. There were several things to enjoy about Resurrections, but it sometimes felt like a bit of a rushed mess, like too much story was crammed into altogether too little time. It could have benefitted, I think, from expanding on certain elements that seemed to have been glossed over, and making it into a longer movie or a two-part release. The only alternative would have been to skip over pieces of the narrative that weren’t provided with adequate exploration for my tastes. The presence of The Exiles, the takeover of The Matrix by The Analyst from The Architect and the subsequent purge, the war in the machine cities, the post-Revolutions history of Zion, and various other components felt like they were given short shrift. Getting right to the action was probably necessary, though, and the filmmakers still managed to squeeze as much exposition as they could into the time they had available. Overall, like the original Matrix film, it successfully tackled social commentary with the same aspect of nuance embedded within a superficial lack of subtlety. I appreciated that about the original and appreciated it again in this fourth installment. I particularly enjoyed the pointed reference to self-image vs. the image other people see, concerning Neo and Trinity hidden behind vastly different outward appearances. I also appreciated the allegorical aspects Wachowski incorporated regarding processing grief and dealing with loss. All in all, there’s enough of the old to provide those sparks of nostalgia, and there’s enough of the new to make it feel like it isn’t simply a rehash of what was already done. Unfortunately, taken as a whole, the old and the new don’t mesh together as well as they could. While some of that was an obvious storytelling flourish by the filmmakers, I can’t help but feel like some of it was a failure.
The best–and simplest–way I can think of to describe this movie is that it’s essentially John Wick with more humor and perhaps a bit more heart, as well as a far more unlikely hero. It’s that unlikely hero, portrayed by Bob Odenkirk, that also makes Nobody feel more down-to-earth and believable, even though it is far from being either of those things. Hutch Mansell initially appears as a broken, downtrodden suburban father and husband, with a routine that erodes his sense of self and–more importantly–his sense of self-worth. As it turns out, this is merely a role he’s been playing for years, a character he’s adopted and immersed himself within, sleepwalking through a life that’s been designed to keep him sedated and subdued. After a burglary in his home appears to have led to his daughter losing a kitty cat bracelet, Hutch begins losing his facade of suburban normality. Dipping his toes briefly in something that reminded him of his old life, it seems like it just wasn’t enough, as a bus ride home from the anticlimactic confrontation with the burglars provides him with an outlet for pent-up frustration. The subsequent fight taking place on the bus showcases a man who has been out of practice and separated from his former life of violence by more than a decade in a visceral and altogether realistic way. Muscle memory and a lifetime of training for precisely that sort of confrontation manifest in his capacity to take a beating and keep on going, but his years of banal and mundane accountant work has taken a bit of his finely-honed edge off. From that point on, the movie descends into a series of violent and violently amusing set pieces that never once disappoint the viewer. Comparisons to the John Wick films are appropriate, as are comparisons to the Ben Affleck vehicle, The Accountant, but Nobody maintains originality and a quirky narrative that sets it apart from other films with similar themes. It’s worth the price of admission, just to reach the final scene when Odenkirk is joined by RZA and Christopher Lloyd in what plays out as a thoroughly ridiculous but equally entertaining ballet of violence and brutality. Learning that some of this story derived from experiences in Odenkirk’s life, wherein he suffered two separate break-ins within his own home, one of which concluding with the trespassers locked in his basement, allows the story to take on a whole new level of authenticity. Writer, Derek Kolstad, and director, Ilya Naishuller, worked together spectacularly well in crafting a story that’s both compelling and darkly hilarious.
It’s worth mentioning right away that I have always been a fan of David Lynch’s admittedly flawed adaptation of Dune from 1984. I saw that movie on cable television sometime in the mid-1980s, and though I didn’t understand a lot of what was going on, I found myself captivated by everything happening on screen. I couldn’t have been more than eight or nine years old at the time, so I clearly hadn’t read the novel yet. It was, in fact, the impact of that barely remembered movie that influenced me to read the novel later in life. Since then, I have read and re-read the original six novels as well as almost all of the supplemental books written by Frank Herbert’s son, Brian, and Kevin J. Anderson. Dune is something I can’t seem to get enough of, and it all started with a young boy seeing the confusing experience unfold on an old box television. I’m also somewhat fond of the 2000 miniseries John Harrison directed for the Sci-Fi Channel, though substantially less so than the version provided by Lynch. I’ve seen multiple versions of the 1984 release of Dune, owning it on VHS and later on DVD and Blu-ray, with collector’s editions that included multiple cuts of the film. There are a lot of things to love about the 1984 adaptation of Dune, from the dark tones to the dialogue ripped directly from the novel, and the overall aesthetic from set design to costumes and makeup. There are also a lot of things to dislike about it, most notably the significant deviations from the source material and the condensed narrative that ignores some of the most important components and sidelines numerous characters to the background. For most of my life, I expected Lynch’s vision, as corrupted as it was by studio interference, to be the best possible version of Dune I’d ever see on the screen. I was wrong. As soon as I heard Denis Villeneuve was going to direct a two-part adaptation of Dune, I knew something I’d wanted to witness most of my life was finally coming to be. After seeing Arrival, Villeneuve’s adaptation of the Ted Chiang short, “Story of Your Life,” and the spectacular sequel to Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, Blade Runner, I knew there was no other director who could bring Dune to life with any chance of successfully capturing everything important. His previous movies like Sicario and Prisoners were good, and they showcased an impressive directorial talent, but it was Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 that blew me away and made him one of my favorite directors. Having seen his vision for Dune, or at least the first part of the narrative terminating as Paul and Jessica meet up with the Fremen, I felt like a childhood dream had finally come true. Everything about this movie was more than I could have hoped for. Though it lacked the directly adapted dialogue Lynch brought over from the novel, it more truly captured every beat of the story in a way Lynch’s vision didn’t even attempt to approach. Timothée Chalamet’s performance as Paul Atreides is nuanced and captures the fear Paul experiences in response to the changes he feels in himself as well as the visions of a future he’s horrified to witness. More age-appropriate to the role than Kyle MacLachlan was, he captures the youth and aborted innocence of the young Atreides. Similarly, Rebecca Ferguson captures the role of Lady Jessica Atreides spectacularly well, portraying a woman torn between two worlds and two vastly different sets of loyalties. The rest of the cast is no less fantastic in their designated roles. Each individual proved themselves to be capable of thoroughly projecting their characters with such quality that I never once felt like I’d have preferred the original cast. I look forward to experiencing more of the performances from Zendaya (Chani), Josh Brolin (Gurney Halleck), Stellan Skarsgard (Baron Harkonnen), Dave Bautista (Rabban Harkonnen), and Javier Bardem (Stilgar) when the second half of the epic story hits the screen in 2023. The cinematography was jaw-dropping at times, and the sets and landscapes were captured with vivid detail that made the experience of watching the movie an immersive one. The score provided by Hans Zimmer was the most surprising aspect of the movie, incorporating hints of the score TOTO provided for the 1984 adaptation of Dune. At no point going into this had I anticipated that there would be such a respectful nod to what had been a stellar score, one that I still consider one of the best I’ve had the pleasure of hearing. I will spend the next two years eagerly anticipating the release of the second half of Dune, and I will also spend that time daydreaming that Villeneuve gets the green light to direct an adaptation of Dune Messiah.
I’d been seeing a whole lot of hype about the Korean mini-series Squid Game on Netflix for a while before I took the time to watch it for myself. I hadn’t been dedicating much if any, time to watching movies or television shows for what turned out to be quite an extended interval. I have to say that Squid Game was a damn fine way to return to watching a series. While the overall narrative isn’t entirely original, its various components are assembled in such a way as to create a rather unique and exciting experience. Hugely reminiscent of Battle Royale, Squid Game incorporates elements familiar to fans of The Running Man, Tzameti, Series 7: The Contenders, and the old BBC series The Prisoner. While mingling all of these diverse elements–as well as other sources of inspiration–it transforms itself into a captivating and largely unpredictable story that retained this particular viewer’s attention throughout. Primarily following Lee Jung-jae’s Seong Gi-hun, we’re introduced to a man living a life of regret and poor decisions but who is, at heart, a genuinely decent guy. It would be easy to suggest he’s a degenerate gambler and a deadbeat father, but there’s a whole lot more to him than that, and it’s quite clear that there’s a stubborn streak of optimism and desire to do right that motivates him along the way. When presented with a mysterious opportunity to potentially change the course of his life and keep his daughter nearby, Seong Gi-hun accepts a fateful invitation that will certainly change his life forever, assuming he manages to survive. Along with 455 other people, including his childhood friend Cho Sang-woo (played by Park Hae-soo) and a pickpocket he only briefly encountered, Kang Sae-byeok (played by Jung Hoyeon), the numbered contestants wake up in a large auditorium, wearing jumpsuits. The collection of mostly strangers are greeted by armed and masked workers who carry out the commands of the even more mysterious Frontman. Led to the first game of the challenge, the sinister reality of their situation becomes terrifyingly real and the remaining contestants must determine whether the potential reward outweighs the all-too-real risks associated with the games they’re expected to play. It’s all but impossible to write anything more than this without giving away spoilers. I don’t know if I should even worry about that, knowing how popular the series happens to be, but I’m sure there are plenty of people still sitting on the fence and uncertain whether they should watch the series, and I can’t help but say that they’d be making a mistake by not settling in for the series. When the sixth episode concludes, only the most inhuman of us would be left unmoved and devastated. Consider that a fair warning, that you’re going to hurt while you’re watching the events unfold, helpless to do or say anything to change what we’re witnessing. The only thing I found disappointing in the whole nine-episode series was the final moments of that concluding episode, and that wasn’t enough of a disappointment to sour how I feel about the show as a whole. As a commentary on the predatory and toxic aspects of capitalist systems, Squid Game succeeds where plenty of other movies and series have failed to elevate the conversation. The mysterious Frontman says it best when he suggests that the goal is to give the 456 contenders an equal chance, where the outside world made equality a virtual impossibility.
Halloween Kills picks up on the action only minutes after Halloween (2018) rolled credits. As Dylan Arnold’s Cameron walks home, upset with himself and wallowing a bit, he comes across Will Patton’s Officer Hawkins where he lies bleeding on the pavement as he’d been left to die in the final third of the previous installment. Though Hawkins appears to be dead at first, he is soon revealed to be clinging to life. We are treated to a surprisingly well-produced return to Halloween (1978) in a flashback that shares the concluding events of that night from the perspective of a younger Hawkins and his partner. In this, we discover that Hawkins has cause to feel no small amount of guilt over the events of that night 40 years before. We witness further events of that night, encountering children having an altercation before being sent home by police roaming the streets in search of Michael Myers. One of those children will be a familiar character to discerning viewers of the older Halloween. We meet up with Tommy Doyle (now played by Anthony Michael Hall), Nancy Stephens’s Marion (returning to the character for a fourth time in the series, though only the second in this internal timeline), and Kyle Richards’s Lindsey (reprising her role from the 1978 classic) at a bar where open mic night is in full swing. While I would have enjoyed seeing a nod to The Curse of Michael Myers, with Paul Rudd returning to portray Tommy Doyle, I was nonetheless pleased to see so many performers returning to roles they played in 1978 and 1981 respectively. This includes Charles Cyphers returning to take on the mantle of Leigh Brackett yet again. As emergency services race toward Laurie Strode’s burning home, Jamie Lee Curtis’s Strode shouts a desperate plea that they let it burn. If they had heard her and heeded her request, the movie would have turned out quite differently. A single firefighter falling through the floor into Strode’s trap basement provides the means for the still breathing Myers to remove himself from his imprisonment below the house. Carnage ensues in a scene that pits Michael against a group of firefighters, in which the killer’s prowess is displayed to be anything but diminished. This is something we experience more than once in this movie that has rarely, if ever, been incorporated in a slasher flick. In Halloween Kills, we are treated to one-against-many conflicts that are typically antithetical to the slow, methodical stalker and prey relationships we often expect from such stories. The Michael Myers of this movie is more a force of nature than we’ve come to expect, capable of bursts of intense violence directed, rather than toward singular targets, at groups of people. An economy of brutality is on display with murderous efficiency, as Myers dispatches multiple opponents with expedience and ruthlessness. I went into Halloween Kills with the expectation that it would suffer from middle movie syndrome, being the second of a planned trilogy of sequels following the events of Halloween 40 years before. What I experienced was more like The Empire Strikes Back than The Two Towers, a self-contained narrative that–while it is designed to carry the plot between beginning and end of the trilogy–manages to satisfy my needs as a standalone experience. The performances are spectacular, the kills are savage and visceral, the soundtrack/score was superb, and the story unfolding for the characters as Michael makes his way through Haddonfield toward his natural destination is a vivid enough assortment of threads as to make for a worthwhile tapestry. The sheer brutality of Michael’s murders is almost enough to distract the viewer from the underlying theme of fear spreading through a community primed for terror and harboring a certain tension just beneath the surface for nearly half a century. This explodes in a predictable fashion as the residents of Haddonfield create the conditions wherein Michael is able to thrive and flourish, feeding–as he seems to–on the very anger and horror being amplified by the mob mentality spreading like wildfire throughout the movie. A bit of dialogue near the end of the movie manages to sum things up nicely. When Hawkins expresses his regret at having made this possible by not letting Michael die back in 1978, Laurie Strode corrects him and explains that this is her fault, that her fear of Michael’s return has been allowed to spread and fester like an infection in the otherwise quaint community. I know that I am certainly looking forward to the release of Halloween Ends next October, and I truly hope a whole lot of you are as well.
If you’re unfamiliar with We Need To Do Something, I recommend that you sift through my earlier blog posts for my review of the novella by Max Booth III. Published in spring of 2020, Max’s We Need To Do Something set an unexpectedly appropriate tone for a year that frequently included the term “shelter in place.” Deeply disturbing and claustrophobic, the novella got under the skin of almost everyone who read it. It was no surprise that the screenplay Max adapted from his novella managed to capture attention. Now we have the opportunity to watch the result of more than a year of hard work from Max and the cast and crew involved in the production. We Need To Do Something is a tale of a dysfunctional, broken family taking shelter in a bathroom as a tornado warning precedes a massive and destructive cataclysmic event taking place in the world outside of their confinement. Trapped by a fallen tree, the family bonds dissolve as panic sets in. Revealed in flashbacks, we learn that the daughter, Melissa, might have something to do with what begins to feel more like the end of the world than merely a storm. To say that Sean King O’Grady captured the foreboding atmosphere and quirky humor of the story is an understatement. I sincerely believe he’ll have a lot of attention after this particular movie makes the waves it surely will. I don’t doubt Max had plenty of input on set as an Executive Producer, and the screenwriter of the project, but it required a quality director with vision and attention to detail no matter how much consultation the writer provided. Largely a single-location shoot, the set was an important character in and of itself. The bathroom where the family found themselves trapped as a storm–and whatever else–raged beyond the walls needed to be perfect in its way. The art department nailed the bathroom design. Pat Healy’s performance as the angry, alcoholic father, Robert, is eerily well done. Vinessa Shaw captures the humor and sympathetic nature of Diane, the mother who, desperate to hold everything together, had been planning to leave her awful husband until the storm forced them into captivity. The true stars are Sierra McCormick and John James Cronin, Melissa and Bobby, respectively. The two of them portrayed siblings so well as to make one feel as if they’d been living together for years. Melissa was brought to life as a confused, terrified teenager wracked with guilt over the witchcraft she’d performed with her girlfriend, Amy, and the belief that they’d been responsible for everything happening. Bobby was believable as the equally adorable and annoying younger brother, so much so that the events are no less heartbreaking and painful than they were when reading the novella. While the production wasn’t at all what I’d pictured in my imagination, it triumphantly came to replace the things I’d seen in my mind’s eye while reading the book more than a year ago. I can only imagine how proud Max Booth III must be, having seen his vision brought to life in this new way, with such spectacular quality. It’s especially gratifying, I suspect, to have seen the “good boy” scene played out on screen. Anyone who has read the novella will know precisely what I’m talking about. It’s truly the turning point of the story, where the reader/viewer realizes there’s something horrifying taking place. We all need to do something, indeed. We Need To See This Movie!
This review was originally written in July of 2015
Ex Machina starts off slow but remains compelling from the beginning through to the end, and it managed to prove itself to be easily the most well-written and well thought out story to touch on this subject matter. Chappie was entertaining and sort of sweet, Age of Ultron was exciting, but Ex Machina was the best and most honest exploration of artificial or emergent intelligence I have witnessed on screen. Everything from the introduction of Ava, through the process of getting to know her as she is put through a protean sort of Turing test by a gifted coder, to the intense and chilling (but somehow still understated) climax of the film is insanely captivating. The interactions between the relatively naive Caleb (the programmer) and the erratic and controlling Nathan (his boss and the man who developed Ava) fluctuate between bizarre and somewhat friendly but with an ever present sort of tension that builds as the narrative continues. The true star of the movie is Ava herself, portrayed by Alicia Vikander…and she most certainly shines in her role, showing that it might not be the best idea to strive for human emotional development and sexuality when working towards AI. Elements of the movie definitely take a cue from Bladerunner…questions of identity, what it is to be human, and how far we might go in simulating humanity when creating a new form of life…in addition to exploring all too common human issues like insecurity, desire, and mistrust. I want to say more. I want to discuss specific points in the narrative, but I don’t want to include any spoilers. I hope that you’ll see it for yourself. There is no doubt in my mind that this is one of the best science fiction movies I will see in a good long while, and I believe you will feel the same if you take the time to watch it.
This review was originally written in July of 2015
On the surface Lost River is a devastating portrait of urban decay after the housing collapse, delving into the virtually empty remnants of what were once thriving Detroit neighborhoods…but it ends up being so much more than that. Ryan Gosling proves himself to be perhaps more talented as a writer and director than as an actor, which is an impressive feat considering just how good he really is as an actor. As grim and heartbreaking as the story is, there is a sense of stubborn hope and refusal to give up threaded throughout the narrative. In the desolate and unsettling environment and conditions in which the movie takes place we find Gosling displaying intense imagination and creativity as he weaves a story that is as much dark fantasy as it is drama. Matt Smith (yes, that Matt Smith, The Doctor) portraying a deeply unstable and psychotic antagonist taking control of the neighborhood is fantastic opposite Iain De Caestecker (probably best known for his role in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) in his role as a son desperate to help his family survive by stealing copper from the abandoned buildings around where they live. Christina Hendricks (Saffron from Firefly) is amazing as the mother driven to extremes trying to keep her home and her family together. Honestly, I can’t think of anything I disliked about this movie and I am damn glad that I took the time to watch it. Gosling’s writing and directing are about perfect, the acting is superb, the filming locations manage to get under the viewers’ skin and create an atmosphere that truly works with the beautiful score to enhance every aspect of the story that’s being told, and the cinematography is so well done that it really draws you in.
The final installment of the Fear Street trilogy from Netflix had some weaknesses, but it was an overall satisfying conclusion to the story. In a sense, it was like two movies in one. As Deena restores the skeleton of the witch, Sarah Fier, she finds herself transported back in time to the colonial community of Union, where she experiences the final days of Sarah Fier’s life through her own eyes. We discover that the history everyone had taken for granted throughout the previous two installments is not the reality of what happened during those fateful days in 1666. Sarah and Hannah Miller–much like Deena and Sam in 1994–are lovers in a time when it was most certainly less socially acceptable than it is today. Jealous men of the village spurned in their advances, use this forbidden love as justification for cries of witchcraft and devilry. It just so happens that there is witchcraft afoot, but Sarah and Hannah are, of course, innocent. There was a satisfying moment in the story when Sarah determines that she will bring the devil down on the citizens of Union in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Already condemned for practicing witchcraft, she feels there’s nothing to lose. Instead, she discovers the truth of who is behind the apparent curse afflicting the village before she is captured and hanged by the overzealous Union residents. It’s this discovery that brings us back to the present of 1994–and the latter half of the movie. Deena, Josh, and Ziggy–along with the custodian, Martin–craft a desperate plan to bring down the real witch and end the curse that’s afflicted Shadyside for more than 300 years…hopefully, saving Sam in the process.
Where the first installment of the Fear Street trilogy paid homage to the pivotal slasher flicks of the 1990s, Fear Street: 1978 devotes itself to crafting a tale reminiscent of classic films like Friday the 13th, The Burning, and Sleepaway Camp. Desperate to save Sam’s life–and perhaps her soul–Deena and Josh turn to one of the only survivors of the massacre at Camp Nightwing, hoping to discover any clues that might assist them. To discover what–if anything–can be done, they experience the tale of that horrible July as shared by the traumatized sister of one of the victims. The filmmakers did an excellent job of capturing the summer camp slasher aesthetic throughout this installment of the Fear Street series. It felt both authentic and immersive. I was impressed. We discover more of the mythology associated with the witch and the curse afflicting Shadyside, and there is some fantastic creepiness in the caves beneath the camp itself. Young campers and camp staff are slaughtered left and right, and there’s no skimping on the violence except where the killing of some of the younger children is concerned. I don’t know if I can claim to be disappointed by that, as it was sort of expected that Netflix wouldn’t go the whole hog on slaughtering children. It sets the stage nicely for the final installment of the trilogy, and I certainly can’t pretend I wasn’t immediately interested in seeing Fear Street: 1666 and discovering just how this tale will end.