If there’s one thing I can say for 2021, it’s: thank the heavens, at least the movie theaters were open again. Sure, you might still catch a life-altering contagious respiratory illness while packed in with a bunch of strangers all, together, staring up at beautiful faces larger than your house — but in a place the size of my hometown, and me being as vaxxed as one can be, I’ve considered the personal risk as slim as it could be given the state of things. So in the back half of the year, I did see a pretty fair number of films as the filmmakers intended, outside the comfort of home. What follows are cross-posts of the reviews I wrote on my Facebook page from July all the way through the week of Christmas covering almost every theatrical outing (plus, oh yeah, two somewhat notable streaming flicks) that I took in during that span of time. Enjoy!
Black Widow: A perfectly acceptable MCU spy thriller that, in true Marvel Comics fashion, borrows liberally from the canon of the genre. If you were mad before this movie that they offed Natasha in such stupid fashion in Endgame two years ago, the best parts of this movie — the banter, grievances, and bonding among her are-we/aren’t-we family — will make that storytelling decision all the more frustrating. Or maybe it’s just that they should have done one of these a long time ago, and this movie should be Black Widow 3 or something. In any case, bad decisions were made and we only get this one solo outing for Johansson’s Natasha, although in true perpetual storytelling machine fashion they make sure to throw enough new toys into the MCU toybox to keep things going for the next 10 years — and no, I won’t mind seeing Florence Pugh’s replacement-Widow Yelena Belova kicking dudes in the head for however ridiculous-many movies & Disney+ shows they’ve got her signed on for. I will say it kinda stinks that I saw this the day after a truly spectacular episode of the Disney+ Loki show, so by comparison this did feel a bit … ordinary. “Oh, this only has assassinations and car chases and a helicopter rescue and so on and so forth.” On the other hand, given my absolutely crummy focus here in the apartment these days, I appreciated being in a theater where I couldn’t hit the pause button during a tense moment and wander out for twenty minutes to Google something or watch a YouTube video or whatever.
Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins, or, “Snake Eyes Keeps Making Bad Decisions: The Movie” — a film that just about succeeds due to a strong cast playing out motivations that seem plausible enough, and in spite of the fact that a shaky camera and too-frequent cuts make the action just hard enough to follow to be annoying. Like, I hope it was stunt people doing the action most of the time, because if the stars did a lot of this fighting, you really can’t tell due to the way it’s shot. (What you can see is rad enough, though.) Casting Henry Golding is a magic trick designed to keep the viewer just-enough on Snake Eyes’s side for the last twist and final act of the film to work. Meanwhile, Andrew Koji’s Storm Shadow, the good heir to the Arashikage Ninja Clan (as opposed to Takehiro Hira’s Kenta, the power-hungry Yakuza boss, who was exiled from Japan for being … well, a power-hungry asshole), reminds me of watching any of the Batman villain origins in the ’92 animated series — he seems like a swell guy, and if you know the lore you’re waiting for things to keep going wrong for him to push him to the Point of No Return. (Surprisingly, it takes quite a while!) About a half to two-thirds of the way through, the Yakuza-Ninja melodrama collides with a goofy G.I. Joe plot and boy, is it a proper goofy G.I. Joe plot, complete with the named characters (Samara Weaving’s Scarlett and Ursula Corbero’s Baroness) being on-model in look and attitude, and a doomsday weapon so obvious I was half-expecting Destro to turn up with a device ready to harness its awesome power. (Alas, he’ll have to wait for the next movie.)
Honestly, I had a pretty good time — there was cool and entertainingly goofy ninja stuff, surprising twists that hadn’t been spoiled, nifty bits of action here and there — and this movie didn’t make the Baroness into Duke’s brainwashed former fiancee like that first one that I avoided like the plague. Also, when the movie reveals just how long G.I. Joe & Cobra have been at each other’s throats in this version of the story, it was, surprising, intriguing, and naturally nowhere near as long as Hasbro’s been selling us the Real American Hero version of the brand … but it does bring home the depressing realization that these characters started off as old as our generation’s dads, uncles, maybe much older brothers … and now are half our ages. Time marches on! (I did have fun on the way home thinking about how the initial flashback is 20 years ago, which was 2001, and boy, makes you think things that Hasbro doesn’t want you to, like: what were G.I. Joe and Cobra up to during the early years of the War on Terror? Hmm …)
The Green Knight: Dev Patel stars as a somewhat clueless Sir Gawain, a young man who finds himself on a quest because a quest is just something you do when you’re King Arthur’s nephew. Builds character, helps you move up in the family business, that sorta thing. Sean Harris, memorably the sinister Solomon Lane in the last two Mission: Impossible films, is wisened old Arthur, whose Round Table is visited on Christmas by the titular Knight (Ralph Ineson). There the Knight lays out his game: strike me & win my axe, but in a year you have to come to the Green Chapel where I shall return the blow. Patel’s Gawain, largely directionless until Arthur tries to take him under his wing, steps forward and takes (a very particular) sword in hand to lop the Knight’s head off. Unfortunately, the Knight gets up, grabs his head, and that’s the blow that shall be returned upon Gawain in a year’s time — and so, late the following year, pushed along by Arthur, Gawain makes his long, troublesome, miserable journey. Stylized, moody, and creepy, with an unnerving string-heavy score by Daniel Hart, David Lowery’s film is every bit the movie I was hoping it would be — a grimy modern take built on the framework of the original medieval poem that leans into (and sure, somewhat embellishes) the bizarre imagery and mysterious happenings of Arthurian legends and stories. Patel hits just the right note as a constantly flustered and adrift Gawain who doesn’t quite have this whole code of chivalry thing down, which somehow turns the character’s arc upside-down but still manages to keep the structure of the story rolling as normal right up to the final confrontation — which has an interesting (if maybe overlong) twist to it. This is one I’ll happily revisit on home video in several months’ time, perhaps in a double feature with Boorman’s Excalibur.
Gunpowder Milkshake: Netflix’s recent entry in the John Wick-alike “super-badass crosses & takes on the stylized secret underworld they belong to” genre starts off a little rough — that hat Karen Gillan’s Samantha wears when she’s out assassinating before things go south looks a bit silly, and the world of the film feels bizarrely empty in the early going, and not in a cool way just in a “we didn’t have money for extras” way — but the action is well orchestrated and enjoyably splattery, and once the Righteous Sisterhood of Violence comes together, the movie does as well. We’re introduced to Samantha as a little girl (Freya Allan) being abandoned by her super-assassin mother Scarlet (Lena Headey) for reasons unknown. Fifteen years later, Gillan as Samantha has a one-two punch of jobs go sour (one that’s not really her fault and one that’s definitely her fault), which leaves her A. on the run from two different organizations that employ a lot of disposable henchmen and B. saddled with a grade schooler in tow (Chloe Coleman) who’s mercifully not too sassy or “cute.” (There’s a few recurring bits around the kid, like her repeated reminders about her full age, that don’t quite land, but I don’t think they derail the movie — and Coleman handles the serious stuff quite well.) Scarlet then drops back into Sam’s life just when she needs her, and the two then drag in Scarlet’s old comrades-in-arms (Angela Bassett, Carla Gugino, and Michelle Yeoh), who somehow make the Wick-alike schtick of weapons requisition in a fancy old library work by sheer force of performance; the three are a bit one-note, but they’re the notes the script is asking for, and they make a charming, outsized impression. The plot’s a bit mechanical in a sort of distracting way (one bit that sorta bugged me is, why have two things go wrong to get Samantha burned?) — but the action sequences are in a good way, like an array of finely tuned precision timepieces; the filmmakers keep on offering up new, clever ways to break the throngs of bad, bad dudes. There’s a late first act set piece where all involved start off incapacitated in one way or another and it is a joy; while it never gets that riotously slapstick again, it continues to deliver the bloody goods right ’til the end.
Free Guy: Despite the fact that my interest in video gaming peaked somewhere in the mid-’90s, I still found Shawn Levy’s amiable yet action-packed stroll through open-world shooter-land incredibly charming — perhaps because we’re looking at a lot of it from the perspective of Ryan Reynolds’s Guy, a bank teller living his day-to-day life inside the mayhem-packed world of a multiplayer mission-based shooter. One day, a mysterious girl — Jodie Comer as Millie, a.k.a. “Molotov Girl” — crosses his path and something inside him just clicks. Suddenly, as you’ve surely seen in the ads (they’ve only been running since ’round the Christmas before last), this fella whose whole existence was being a cowering background character during an endless cycle of bank robberies decides — yes decides — he’s gonna do whatever it takes to chase the girl of his dreams, and if that means basically adopting the role of a player, well, that’s how it’s gonna be. Funny thing is, as much as the film does focus an awful lot on Guy and his awakening, as well as his friendship with his security guard pal Buddy (Lil Rel Howery, memorably the main dude’s TSA friend in Jordan Peele’s Get Out), the underlying plot is about Millie and her former gamedev partner Keys (Joe Keery) and how they totally got screwed by Taika Waititi’s loudmouthed asshole game publisher Antwan; Millie’s spent the years since suing the company and searching for the proof that the popular shooter Guy lives in is built on the back of their gentler indie game. I don’t think the ending entirely lands, but there’s a lot to like here — Reynolds’s naive and enthusiastic performance is very funny and endearing, Comer is incredibly charming as her game avatar and her real game developer self, and Waititi’s gags might not quite hit as intended but he does make a villain you really, really want to see get utterly ruined by the film’s end, so that part works. I liked it a lot! And if you can safely make it out the theater to see it, I’d recommend it. A fine time at the cinema.
Evangelion 3.0+1.0: Thrice Upon a Time: Creator Hideaki Anno’s final film in in the Neon Genesis Evangelion series is an often surprising and visually stunning reprise and course correction to previous Evangelion endings. In the wake of the abortive Fourth Impact, Shinji, Asuka, and not-quite-Rei arrive in a rebuilt town where, thanks to human ingenuity and will, things are on the mend — a place where it’s safe for traumatized and withdrawn Shinji to work through the enormity of what he’s responsible for and to find the strength to move past it; this takes a while, at least a half an hour of the film’s ridiculous two and a half-hour running time. But once everyone’s head is finally in the game, it’s time for the final showdown with Gendo Ikari, and for our heroes to kick off Misato’s plan to prevent Human Instrumentality from reaching its climax. As with previous Evangelion stories, there’s a lot of prophecy, mythology, and jargon thrown about, much of it bewildering and seemingly invented on the fly (the site of the final battle, and the things Shinji and Gendo find there, caused me to laugh out loud several times at just how ridiculous they are) — but when it comes right to it the core of the story is simple human trauma, dysfunction, and love, and Anno and company keep the things that operate on that level straightforward and simple to digest. I remember when, in Yoshiyuki Sadamoto’s Evangelion manga, Shinji got mad enough to try to deck his father in the wake of the destruction of Eva Unit-03, and at that time that was startling — Shinji, showing evidence of a spine?! Shock! Thrice Upon a Time lays out moments like that like a freakin’ buffet, “betraying” a quarter-century of precedent to provide the ultimate statement on these characters, and the ultimate solution to the ways they’ve been broken for so long.
I watched the English dubbed version, to hear the franchise stalwarts I’ve been listening to since ’97 — key among them Spike Spencer (Shinji), Allison Keith-Shipp (Misato), and Tiffany Grant (Asuka) — breathe life into these characters they’ve lived with for so long one last time. Most of them put in a splendid performance, as you’d hope and expect after so long; the only weak link, to my ears, was Amanda Winn Lee as the poor bewildered Rei clone. Part of my issue is surely that I’d gotten used to Brina Palencia’s take on Rei in Funimation’s English versions of the previous films, but I was also thrown by the fact that unlike her peers, Winn Lee’s performance doesn’t sound much like how she played the role in the late ’90s, either. I find myself wondering if the near-whisper of Winn Lee’s 2021 Rei is the result of (mis)direction by the voice director or was a conscious decision to try and mask the fact that she can’t quite pull off a character who’s meant to be fourteen anymore.
I find myself feeling that same odd sensation I did when the last volume of Sadamoto’s manga came out in English in 2015 — a feeling like … it can’t really be over, can it? And yet, this time after the credits were done, that familiar music and voiceover promising more fan service did not play. No further Evangelion was promised. Truly, it does seem like once and for all, Shinji Ikari can be at peace. Maybe, then, there’s actually hope for the rest of us.
Reminiscence: I’d planned on staying in to watch this on HBO Max, but then also hit the mall cinema for Martin Campbell’s The Protege instead, but the local AMC had other ideas; while I think I’ve seen the trailer for The Protege in front of every movie I’ve gone to see since Godzilla Vs Kong, somehow they decided, nah, we’re not gonna have it out this weekend. So when my dad decided he wanted to go out and see something, it was either this or revisiting Free Guy — which, don’t get me wrong, I liked, but I was in a mood for something I hadn’t seen.
And yet, Lisa Joy’s Reminiscence is, well, highly reminiscent of a lot of other things. It opens with a growling Hugh Jackman monologue about memory, which immediately brings to mind the years he spent playing knife-handed amnesiac superhero Wolverine. Jackman’s Nick Bannister may not be as invincible as Mr. Best There Is At What He Does, but he is just as much a magnet for bad luck and misery. Nick runs a business where folks can re-experience their fondest memories, for a price; the tech he uses was originally designed for interrogations, but as happens often enough in real life, the free market found its use for it. His troubles begin with the arrival of a stunning woman, Mae (Rebecca Ferguson, the last two Mission: Impossible flicks’ Ilsa Faust), who needs help sifting through her memories to recall where she lost a set of keys. She and Nick become involved, his hard-drinking friend and sole employee Watts (Thandiwe Newton) has a bad hunch that she’s hiding something, and when she vanishes after a couple of months Nick becomes single-mindedly obsessed. The hunt leads to a conspiracy, and plenty of opportunities for Nick to stick his nose where it don’t belong and get roughed up for his troubles — standard genre tropes. Joy’s two-minutes-into-the-future world-building, featuring a soggy post-climate change Miami and New Orleans and a country filled with vets of a recent war at the border, is probably the most interesting thing about the movie. But the near-future setting marked by civil unrest and protagonist who deals in memory recording tech and is also pining for the wrong woman strongly bring to mind Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 tech-noir Strange Days, which I am loaning my DVD of to my dad to see if he thinks I’m right that they’re kinda the same flick. In fact, its hopelessly naive ending aside, I think Bigelow’s movie is the stronger version of this idea. I didn’t dislike Reminiscence, but the final act is a lot of sitting behind Jackman’s shoulder watching him learn stuff, and I feel like the script pulls back from the darkness just a teensy bit too much (is that why folks are comparing this to Spielberg’s Minority Report?). It’s handsome and well-acted, but I expect to have it half-forgotten by the end of the week.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings: Hey, look — we got a shiny new Marvel movie! One that hasn’t been delayed by a whole freakin’ year! Simu Liu takes on the role of ’70s martial arts hero Shang-Chi, the Master of Kung-Fu, trained from a young age to be an ultimate badass assassin by his evil dad. Of course, his comics dad Fu Manchu is A. a totally racist stereotype (Shang-Chi co-creator Jim Starlin was apparently appalled when he read one of those books for the first time in prep for working on the comic), and B. owned by Someboy Else, so here Evil Dad is Tony Leung’s incredibly charismatic Wenwu, the true ruler of long-standing MCU terrorist organization the Ten Rings (the folks who blew up Tony Stark way back in the first Iron Man, setting the entire MCU into motion). I rather liked the rhythm and pacing of this one, as it cuts back and forth between present day shenanigans — as Shang-Chi is dragged from his agreeably average life in San Francisco back into a world of black-clad assassins where a burly dude with a cyborg blade-arm called Razorfist (Florian Munteanu) makes any sort of sense — and the story of what happened to his mom (Fala Chen) and why Shang-Chi fled from the Ten Rings as a teenager. The action is overall quite good for most of the runtime (no quick-cuts or shaky-cam here!), and the comedy courtesy of Shang-Chi’s best pal and fellow valet Katy (Awkwafina) and a certain someone you might not see coming if you haven’t had it spoiled yet is plenty amusing. Strong performances all around and a certain feeling of restraint when it comes to obvious CGI nonsense for much of the running time make this higher-tier Marvel product, though the big crazy threat at the end is a bit “well, that’s kinda neat, but a bit unsatisfying” — like how Black Panther loses a bit of steam when the big fight between T’Challa and Killmonger turns into a Playstation cutscene, only a bit moreso. I’m just saying, when you’ve built up all these personal conflicts over the past couple of hours, once that’s all resolved the final stretch does feel a bit like going through the motions, though the epilogues and teases at the end did feel plenty worthwhile. Despite a final act that felt like an obligatory descent into studio/universe formula, I really liked most of it, and wouldn’t mind giving it another go-round later on this Labor Day weekend.
No Time To Die: It’s official — the odd-numbered Daniel Craig Bonds are the good ones. (They also happen to be the ones with the good theme songs; Quantum‘s theme is terribly unmemorable, and I always felt like Sam Smith’s SPECTRE theme was trying too hard to capture that classic Bond flavor after Adele’s “Skyfall” nailed it so perfectly. Billie Eilish’s theme here is low key and moody, but it does perfectly match the the tone of the movie around it.) I was taken aback by the two hour and forty-three minute running time when I heard about it, but the movie actually flies right by — the reason it’s so long is because it’s got a lot of plot to unroll, and as it does so it stops for a lot of car chases and shootouts, none of which overstay their welcome too much. It’s the end of an era, so there’s a lot to wrap up — a happy ending to unravel (Bond had exited the last film hand-in-hand with Lea Seydoux’s Dr. Madeleine Swann), an old friend to be reunited with (Jeffrey Wright as Bond’s long-standing CIA pal Felix Leiter), a new Double-O to throw a wrench in the works (Lashana Lynch’s Nomi), old foes to fight (SPECTRE returns with a new plan to crush the world — and Bond) and a new foe to introduce and pit all involved against (Rami Malek’s scarred, smug Saffin). Craig’s Knives Out co-star Ana de Armas briefly turns up as a CIA agent under Leiter teaming up with Bond’s during an episode in Cuba, and she brings some great life and energy to the proceedings; that energy is missed later on in the film, as a lot of the rest of the movie is grim people snapping at each other. (Ben Whishaw, returning as ever-hassled MI6 quartermaster Q, does mitigate this a bit by being frustrated with everyone in a funny way.) Still, that isn’t to say there aren’t moments of wit and levity, including one stunning groaner of a classic-style post-kill quip from Bond near the end. Lots of easter eggs in here to pick out for Bond aficionados; mostly odds and ends worked in from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (mostly the film, but as I understand it the film’s a pretty straight adaptation of the book) and You Only Live Twice (in this case, mostly from the book — working in li’l bits from the novel that up ’til now still hadn’t found their way into a Bond film). A few reviews I’ve read have complained about the ending, and I’m obviously not going to spell it out here — but I am going to say I didn’t see this cycle ending any other way. Was it worth the extra year-and-a-half wait? I don’t know about that, but I’m glad it finally came out, and I honestly think I might see it again on Sunday, for real.
The Last Duel: The ever-prolific Ridley Scott (an eighty-three year-old man who has two movies in theaters one month after the other, which is just crazy — House of Gucci is out in five weeks — and at least two more on-deck), directing another medieval drama with all the grime and splendid, gory battle scenes that entails — this one set in fourteenth century France, concerning the circumstances of the final sanctioned duel in that country. Matt Damon is Sir Jean de Carrouges, whose wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer) is raped by his former comrade in arms and friend Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver). As Le Gris is favored by local overlord Count Pierre (Ben Affleck), de Carrouges is forced to appeal to a higher authority: requesting a legally sanctioned duel before King Charles VI (a grinning, always-amused Alex Lawther — one of two standout performances that inject a bit of welcome levity, however bleak, into the proceedings). The tale is told in three chapters, each relating events from the perspective of one of the three leads — and where things feel pretty straightforward as de Carrouge’s perspective is relayed, the further accounts muddy up not the details, but some of the morality at play and the character of the persons involved. de Carrouge’s story presents him as a good man done wrong, with Le Gris as the architect of his suffering over many years. Le Gris’s tale clarifies the true architect of de Carrouge’s suffering (Count Pierre just doesn’t like him, and de Carrouge’s behavior in the face of all his woe doesn’t help), but shows us the foul deed for the first time, which is damning enough. Marguerite’s story, then, just damns everyone and everything — the two men, society, all the power structures in place — it’s all a mess. At least to my mind, de Carrouge is worth rooting for by the end only because his victory means Marguerite isn’t going to burn to death. Of course, while so many of these people as portrayed in the film are foul, Affleck’s Count Pierre stands out as the most grossly corrupt, but entertainingly so — my favorite Affleck performance has always been pompous Ned Alleyn in Shakespeare in Love, and this has that same energy. Comer also delivers a striking performance, particularly with so much of it being expressions and reactions the audience is invited to read one way and then another as the story spirals (and while some scenes are clearly reshot for later tellings, a lot of them aren’t — they just read differently on the second or third pass given what you now know). Not what you’d call “a fun time at the movies,” but a sturdy and well-acted indictment of the evil that men collectively do with some thrilling action thrown in for seasoning. Worth a look.
Dune (Part One): Denis Villeneuve, whose two other sci-fi flicks I’ve either liked (Arrival) or adored (Blade Runner 2049), attempts to scale the heights that have defeated so many other filmmakers in the past — and I think succeeds rather admirably, though in terms of my own enjoyment I think it winds up somewhere between the other two movies. For those not familiar with Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel, it is the far future and navigation of interstellar travel is only possible through the use of a drug called “spice,” which is harvested on the planet Arrakis, a.k.a. “Dune.” Control of Arrakis has been held for nearly a century by House Harkonnen, who are, how shall we say, “real pieces of work.” As part of a complex gamble to change the interstellar political landscape, the Harkonnens are forced to give up their claim and control is ceded to House Atreides, led by the fundamentally decent Duke Leto (Oscar Issac). Unlike the vile Harkonnens — led by Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård), monstrous in form and deed — Leto seeks to make peace with Arrakis’s native population, the Fremen. This goal becomes key to House Atreides’s survival, when the imperial plot is sprung and the Duke’s concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and son Paul (Timothée Chalamet) are forced to flee for their lives and take refuge among the natives. As the film only adapts the first half or so of the book, we only begin to see Paul come into his own — but the book is the story of his coming of age as he seizes control of interstellar destiny; the film has had an excellent box office weekend, so barring catastrophe we should be due to see that destiny unfold on screen in a few years’ time. Villeneuve’s Dune is something to behold, presenting the viewer with sights so vast it’s little wonder that the filmmaker was mifffed about WB offering access on HBO Max on day one. Even though we all know full well that every last frame has been touched and retouched by computers, the world of Dune is bereft of them, and therefore all the tech has a tactile quality that makes it feel older, nostalgic almost — so many buttons and switches being pushed! I love that. There were scenes, though, looking over the massive compounds on Arrakis that had been ceded to House Atreides where I found myself thinking a few splashes of color couldn’t hurt.
The casting is like the best possible version of old-school Wizard Magazine fan-casting — these actors, by and large, embody the key traits of the characters on the page. Chalamet does look the part of a skinny, troubled Child of Destiny. Ferguson’s always playing worried-looking women with secrets. Jason Momoa is basically our current modern embodiment of rough-and-tumble charisma, and he brings it all to bear as Atreides swordsman Duncan Idaho. And Skarsgård’s version of the Baron Harkonnen is the actor in his “powerful asshole” mode cranked all the way up and with the knob ripped off. (As a minor point, David Dastmalchian seems perfect for the slimy Harkonnen Mentat, or living computer, Pieter — but while I distinctly recall the character making enough of an impression for me to loathe him in both Lynch’s movie and the original novel, here he’s just another rando Harkonnen jerk. I expect part of that is to do with the script, but there’s also a weird uniformity of look to the Harkonnens in the film, all bald and pale-skinned. I’m extremely curious who Villeneuve’s planning to cast as Feyd-Rautha, memorably portrayed by Sting in the ’84 film, and what kind of look they’ll give him.)
I expect I do need to give this another watch; around the time Paul & Jessica go on the run, I found myself expecting the movie to end in another fifteen minutes … and then another fifteen minutes … and then maybe another fifteen minutes. Without knowing full well when the telling was going to end, the last stretch of the film seemed to go on forever — it’s not that it wasn’t enjoyable, but my brain was distracting me the whole while with an inner monologue of, “And then they meet the Fremen and it’s over, right?” Now that I know, I think I’ll be able to relax and enjoy the ride a bit more during a second pass. Whether or not that’ll be in the theater, I’m not sure; Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho is coming up this week, and actually, I’m half tempted to give No Time To Die one more go. But I will say, absolutely, if you’re able, see it on a big screen if you can.
(Unless you’re one of those folks with, like, one of those screens that takes up whole wall. Then maybe HBO Max’ll be fine.)
Last Night in Soho: I think this might be my favorite flick out of Edgar Wright’s filmography thus far, bearing in mind that I’ve still never seen Shaun of the Dead and it’s been forever since I’ve given Hot Fuzz a spin. Thomasin McKenzie is Ellie Turner, a small town girl obsessed with the sound and style of the ’60s who moves to London to begin her studies at the London College of Fashion. When dorm life becomes a bit too much, she moves out to rent a bedsit from elderly Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg, in her final role). During her first night there, Ellie finds herself whisked back into the London of the ’60s she loves so much, following the life of a young woman named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) as, like Ellie, she pursues her dreams — in Sandie’s case, becoming a singer — and becomes entangled with charming Jack (Matt Smith), the manager she hopes will make those dreams come true. But while Sandie and her then-cutting edge style are an inspiration for Ellie at first, Sandie’s tale very quickly takes a darker turn, dreams turning to nightmares — literally, for Ellie. The trauma of dealing with horrors fifty-some-odd-years old every night bleeds into Ellie’s 21st century life in disastrous ways. It’s quite obviously a movie that takes the “big city tries to chew up a young person from the country” story and finds a way to heighten, to multiply it with this haunting from the past, but it’s also very clearly about avoiding romanticizing the past — every era has its demons that we sweep under the rug when crafting retrospectives and our mental pictures of days gone by, and poor sensitive Ellie, who loves spinning her vintage vinyl, is trapped in the unique position of seeing nearly first-hand just what happened to one young woman who aspired to be one of those folks with their voices immortalized on one of those LPs. McKenzie is an immediately charming and sympathetic lead, a perfectly cast wide-eyed innocent contrasted against the creeps and snobs she finds herself largely surrounded with; I will say, however, that Wright and company do lay the “predatory big city” thing on a bit thick, though it makes sense to create an environment that Ellie will defnitely want to escape from into the neon-lit past. Taylor-Joy’s almost otherworldly features I think make her perfect as this, at first, fantasy figure to Ellie; she’s so striking, a Frank Quitely visage with an intense Andy Kubert gaze, and she plays that desire-turned-demand so hard that in the early going that success seems inevitable, even if you already know from the marketing that it is all, somehow, going to go so horribly wrong for her. (I struggle to imagine the version of the film where she plays Ellie, as was apparently the original plan.) Smith is well used; he gives off a much smoother charm than he did in his three seasons on Doctor Who, but ah, the ugly rage he unleashes in moments is very familiar, albeit used to far less righteous ends. There’s not a wrong note played by any of the cast, and Wright uses stars of the fabled ’60s to great effect — the aforementioned late Dame Diana Rigg gets to really sink her teeth into what at first seems a minor role, and Terence Stamp turns up as a creepy old bloke who gets under Ellie’s skin. It’s a sharp, clever, and thoughtful supernatural thriller that sticks the landing on every tonal gear-shift it makes. Is this the best movie I saw in October? Quite likely! Strongly recommended, folks.
The French Dispatch: Well thank the heavens, the new Wes Anderson film finally showed up in Joplin this past weekend. Anderson wheels out all his familiar players for an ode to the journalism of The New Yorker; his analog for the magazine is the titular supplement to a Kansas newspaper, which — I don’t know if this is intentional, but the contrast in locales does evoke how much The New Yorker seemed to have arrived from another planet when I thumbed through my parents’ copies of the magazine as a kid, living in a trailer in Kansas in the ’80s. The film is presented as the contents of The French Dispatch’s final issue upon the passing of its founder and editor Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray, who does appear throughout). The funniest, I think, is the first proper story (there is an introduction of sorts to the setting of the film, the town of Ennui, narrated by Owen Wilson on a bicycle that features some great sight gags and pratfalls); Tilda Swinton as writer J.K.L. Berensen presenting her profile of Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro), a convicted murderer (decapitated two men in a bar with a hacksaw!) who becomes an art world sensation having painted an abstract nude of one of his prison guards, his muse, Simone (Léa Seydoux). There’s a scene where his former cellmate and art dealer, played by Adrian Brody, is presenting Rosenthaler’s work and how he plans to sell it to the art world to his uncles and business partners (Henry Winkler and Bob Balaban, making minor but welcome appearances) that was both amusingly absurd and, in the current climate of all this nonsense around NFTs as a big phony boon for art sales/obvious money laundering, also felt realistically mercenary in its take. I was less in love with Frances McDormand’s Lucinda Krementz covering — and getting a bit TOO involved — in a student protest led by Timothée Chalamet’s Zefirelli and Lyna Khoudri’s Juliette, though it did have its moments; if any of The French Dispatch felt a bit Wes Anderson-by-numbers, I think it’s this episode. But the film ends with a bang, as Jeffrey Wright’s food critic Roebuck Wright appears on a talk show (its unnamed host played by Liev Schreiber) to relate his tale of how an article about the culinary stylings of the Ennui police force’s legendary chef Lt. Nescaffier (Stephen Park) turned into an adventure following the kidnapping of the precocious son (Winston Ait Hellal) of his host the Commissaire (Matthieu Amalric), leading to shootouts and a car chase through the narrow streets of Ennui. (The chase is rendered in animation to suggest being presented on the comics page and is an obvious Tintin homage.) The whole segment has a couple of strong, well-observed asides that Wright delivers magnificently, and moments where Anderson’s stylization adds just the right deft touch to the storytelling — where you’re reminded that his bag of tricks aren’t just flash for show. Indeed, I’ve seen reviewers say the whole film is built out of an amalgamation of Anderson’s entire stylistic toolbox, and it’s not entirely wrong — it feels, even more than his previous works, that his whole host of clever tics are the ornate matted frame around this set of tiny portraits — but there is a depth to these portraits that one might miss by fixating on the familiar greebling of the frame. Fictionalized though it may be, and set in heightened fantasy versions of towns here and abroad, Anderson is presenting a loving homage to a particular kind of voice and storytelling, and reminding us how much better the world is for these kinds of voices in it, telling these kinds of stories. And yet, as my dad and I found it in the Joplin multiplex with only two showings a day on the flippin’ weekend alongside a dozen or so showings of the Clifford The Big Red Dog movie it is Anderson’s voice — the dead-center framing of his actors, the deadpan humor his cast uniformly delivers with aplomb, the split-screens and cross-sections and captions and intentionally weird & cheesy model shots — that I find myself most treasuring.
(And I did remember to mention it is really very funny, right?)
House of Gucci: I would say our November Ridley Scott historical drama is far more enjoyable than our October one was; and yet, the interesting thing to me is that there are very easy parallels between the two, as both are very much concerned with high-class struggles of power, trust, and a woman’s place in a patriarchal bullshit society — even though, in this case, the woman in question is a little less sympathetic. Lady Gaga stars as Patrizia Reggiani, who we meet as a young secretary working in her father’s trucking firm. She is invited to a fancy rich-people party where she happens upon awkward, bookish Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver); after catching his surname, she makes a very determined effort, over some time (days? weeks?), to win him over. When she succeeds, he is disinherited, as his father Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons, always a welcome sight on film) is certain that Patrizia is just a gold digger. However, not long after their wedding, Maurizio’s uncle Aldo (Al Pacino, doing one of his Big Al Pacino performances) decides he’d like to bring them back into the fold, especially with his own son Paolo (Jared Leto, barely recognizable under 20 tons of goofy prosthetics and putting on one hell of a “we make-a the pasta!” accent) having proven to be a bit worthless. What follows from here is a couple of hours or so of very entertaining, soapy bids for power with, at the story’s core, a woman who wants it all and a fella who, it seems, would have been much happier with much less power and far less responsibility — but, once the die was cast, it’s not like he was gonna turn back and throw it all away. Gaga’s magnetic screen presence keeps a familiar story compelling — yes, these portrayals are based on real people, but this kind of amoral social climbing arc is far from a unique tale in both fiction and reality — and Driver makes for a charming affable nerd who eventually finds his steel, though maybe a little too late. Leto steals every scene he’s in; this is probably the first time I’ve seen him in a film that is quantifiably better for his presence, even if he’s playing it a bit cartoonishly. Indeed, I think it’s just how broad the film plays these persons and events that keeps it fun despite these real life events culminating in tragedy. If I have any quibbles with House of Gucci, it’s the way that the compression of events occasionally caught me off-guard; I couldn’t quite tell where the ’80s turned into the ’90s, so the sudden hiring of a hitman that could mark the beginning of the film’s final act threw me for a loop (so, when are we now?), and I think at least one of the pop tunes in the film’s soundtrack was used in a spot that worked for the narrative beat but where, uh, I don’t think that song existed yet. Never mind the fact that the film states that our story opens in ’78 when the real life Patricia and Maurizio married in 1972. All in service of the compressed timeline, sure, but finding this out after the fact does add another layer to the temporal confusion. Thing is, these little weird slips were the only things that really threw me out of the film; otherwise, two hours and thirty-plus breezed by happily, held aloft by the twin powers of star charisma and scenery chewing. I totally would understand if you’re not interested in tales of backstabbing among the rich and famous in the Year of Our Lord 2021, but as someone who’d very much love to blast most of the folks on this planet with a net worth over a certain threshold into the sun, I still had a good time with it. Not the best the year’s had to offer, but quite good!
Ghostbusters: Afterlife: Boy, there’s actually a lot I liked about this, but I don’t think it totally comes together quite right. Decades-later legacy sequels are the cheapest of nostalgia tricks: to the right demographic, just the right word, the right music cue, and the right character turning up at the right moment can bring out an overwhelming feeling of tearful joy — “Chewie, we’re home,” anyone? — but it’s also a naked ploy for that demo’s hard-earned cash, both in terms of movie tickets but also twenty tons of tie-in merch. The thing is, sometimes the love and craftsmanship distracts from that seedier side and you end up with a widely beloved crowd-pleaser. In this case, I think they over-egged the pudding — it’s not enough that this film’s story is all about unfinished business from the ’84 film, but legacy director Jason Reitman (son of the first two films’ Ivan Reitman, who of course serves as a producer here) fills the screen (and his script) with too, too many odds, ends, and too-cute references from the first two flicks. (He’s not the only one; this film’s composer probably should owe most of his fee to Elmer Bernstein’s estate.)
The story follows a hard-on-their luck family who wind up leaving their city lives for the middle-of-nowhere Oklahoma; Carrie Coon’s Callie, behind on her rent, is left with no choice to to whisk her two kids away to her late father’s spooky old farmhouse. Dad turns out to be the late Harold Ramis’s Egon Spengler, and the reason he was out here has to do with the aforementioned unfinished business with — well, I won’t spoil that. The younger of the kids, Mckenna Grace’s Phoebe, has her granddad’s offbeat personality and love of science (and, oddly, his glasses as well); honestly, that actress, as that character, is the best part of the movie — funny, emotionally real, and Phobe’s clear joy of discovery as the story unfolds is infectious. Her friendship with fellow misfit Podcast (Logan Kim) — and yeah, the kid is never given any other name — is also a lot of fun. Less fun is the older Spengler kid, Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard as Trevor, whose entire deal in the movie is him crushing on carhop Lucky (Celeste O’Connor), who herself seems stuck in the Ernie Hudson role of being the underdeveloped Black member of the core cast. Coon’s Callie herself is a bitter and unpleasant character to be around, snarky and dismissive in a way that isn’t fun or charming, but just seems mean; her only good scenes are those with Paul Rudd, doing his charming and funny Paul Rudd thing as the younger kids’ summer school teacher — and also serving as The Guy Who Remembers What Happened In Ghostbusters. (So, basically the projected audience identification character!)
Honestly, most of the flick from around the time Phoebe meets Podcast up to a bit of the way into the final act is fairly enjoyable, if not funny or especially thrilling. That last act, though, is soured by undercooked rehashes of the original film and a few mind-boggling misfires (which, again, are spoilers, so I won’t get into specifics) that are only tempered by two quite winning post-credit scenes. While I wasn’t as down on this as I thought I’d be, I still feel like it’s not quite worth a trip to the cinema unless, like me, you’re just looking for an excuse to hit the multiplex. It’ll be fine on TV, at the end of a SyFy holiday weekend Ghostbusters marathon.
Spider-Man: No Way Home: Boy, that was a lot of movie. Jon Watts’s third Spidey flick starring precious web-slinging boy Tom Holland in his sixth big-screen outing as Peter Parker pits our hero against a cruel world, where J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons, keeping up the amazing blowhard energy) has outed him as your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man. With the release of this knowledge throwing life into disarray for him and his friends Ned (Jacob Batalon) and M.J. (Zendaya), he winds up at sorcerer & fellow NYC-based hero Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch)’s doorstep, and the two ultimately decide to wipe Peter’s superhero identity from everyone’s minds … except that Peter starts trying to throw in little exceptions here and there and the spell goes wrong — and starts to drag new folks from across the multiverse who know Peter Parker is Spider-Man into their world. And the way pretty much every Spidey flick works, that’s all the major villains we’ve seen — certainly if you’ve laid eyes on the marketing you’ve seen Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus, Jaime Foxx’s Electro, and Willem Dafoe’s mugging, cackling Norman Osborn/Green Goblin all back in action again with slightly tweaked looks. The mission from then on is containing them and sending them home to their fates — but, as Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) suggests to Peter, why not try helping them instead? It’s what the thing’s about — worrying only about yourself and your problems, or using your gifts to try and help others where you certainly can. That’s what’s so clever about the conceit — they managed to turn the big multiverse fanservice story celebrating almost two decades of Spider-Man movies into a mediation on the core idea of Spider-Man: you know how the saying goes, “With great power there must also come …”
Like Holland’s previous Spidey adventures, one of the real strengths of the film is the chemistry between him, Batalon, and Zendaya — it’s just fun to watch these actors, as these characters, bouncing off of each other — and Watts and the writers clearly know this, so even when Ned & M.J. can’t be in the heart of the action, they’re still in the periphery, worrying and trading quips. The action is as eye-popping as it comes, and not just due to the intervention of Cumberbatch’s reality-bending Doctor; I still remember being agog way back when Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 came out and you had what felt like a massive superhero fight pitting Tobey Maguire’s Spidey & James Franco’s Harry Osborn against the Sandman and Venom; the set piece at the end of this flick is to that what that was compared to, say, Superman’s fight against the Kryptonian renegades in Superman II. The threshold for spectacle has been raised up pretty high by the last decade of special effects-laden hero films, and this one’s up there. That said, the way this ends gives me hope that the next time we see Holland swinging his way across the New York City skyline, it’ll be in a more down-to-Earth Spidey adventure. I think this version of the character has probably earned that. In the meantime, if this has been on your radar at all for the past, oh, however long Marvel & Sony have been hyping this, you should probably see it — pretty sure it’s not going to disappoint.
The Matrix Resurrections: Yes, it’s another many-years-later sequel — almost twenty years in this case. At least this one has one of the co-creators at the helm, Lana Wachowski directing from a script she co-wrote. And she’s in on the … I don’t know if joke is the right word, but the entire first half hour or so is an extended riff on nostalgia, re-creating old things, and the corporate desires that lead to something like this movie coming about. If you’re feeling cynical about this sort of thing, all involved here are telling you, they get it. They’re right there with you. But this is not a cynical exercise. No sir, this is a co-creator, eighteen years after she helped kill off her beloved heroes, deciding to give them another, better destiny. Neo (Keanu Reeves) is alive again, and once again living the life of programmer Thomas Anderson in a world that looks much like our own, today. New resistance heroine Bugs (Jessica Henwick) and a new incarnation of Neo’s old mentor Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) seek to bring him back to the fold, to reunite him with his true identity despite the efforts of his therapist (Neil Patrick Harris) to keep him on the blue pill. And of course, deep down, what Neo really wants is to be reunited with Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) — who is similarly living an ordinary 21st century life, with no memories of her leather & shades days of glory. Yes, there are larger stakes and intriguing developments and big ideas thrown around, but they are dwarfed by the core question of the film: can Neo & Trinity finally live happily ever after?
The weirdest thing about Resurrections is that it does seem to expect you the viewer to have a reasonable recollection of the events of the three films — and god, I think the only things I remember from that last one are the mech suits and the shot where the machines are running off with Neo’s body at the end. I sincerely doubt I’ve seen any of it since ’03. Wachowski is smart enough to provide hints and snippets of footage from the earlier films to jog your memory along with Neo’s — but I also think as long as you buy into Neo & Trinity’s story (and even without their memories restored, Reeves & Moss’s chemistry sells them as lost soulmates) you don’t *need* to sweat the details. I do think the fights aren’t quite as good as those in the earlier films, a bit too chaotic and messily filmed, and there was one villain reintroduction that was utterly baffling. Just — what is that guy doing here, and why does he look like that now?
All that said, overall I liked it quite a bit. I liked a lot of the little philosophical details of conversations, sci-fi touches of world-building here and there, Reeves’s tired and slightly lost and bewildered performance, the way one particular foe returns and is used throughout (and the way the recast actor doesn’t seem quite like the guy, right up until he starts fighting — and then it’s like, oh yeah, there he is!) — lots of good stuff in here, even if a couple of notes fall flat.