The Perfection Review: A Shamelessly Trashy Thriller in Fine Formal Clothes

✯✯✯✯½

I got introduced to Richard Shepard’s work one afternoon in college when HBO decided to run Oxygen, a thriller he made back in 1999 about a kidnapper (Adrien Brody) who emotionally browbeats a cop (Maura Tierney) into confronting the darkest corners of her nature. I only saw the film the one time, and there’s a lot of little details that have escaped me in the 15-ish years since I randomly turned it on. I couldn’t even reliably tell you whether or not it’s a good movie. But something about watching the mom from Liar Liar being forced to haltingly confess and explore her love of sadomasochism kind of forces you to put the remote down and forget about that class you have in an hour. At the very least, it left a mark, and I’ll always respect that.

Not long after, Shepard’s follow-up, the fantastic Pierce Brosnan hitman comedy The Matador, hit the screens and hit hard, establishing him as a darkly comic wit and setting the tone for the rest of his feature output (The Hunting Party, Dom Hemingway). On the whole, he tends to fly under the radar; he’s probably best known for his work on Lena Dunham’s Girls, as well as directing the pilots for Ugly Betty and Criminal Minds. Still, whatever work he does usually manages to stay with me in some small way.

20 years after the release of Oxygen, his new film, The Perfection, is a return to the sort of twisted psychodrama that got my attention in the first place. And where Oxygen left a mere mark, The Perfection leaves a crater.

We start with Charlotte (Allison Williams), fresh from the death of her mother after a decade-long illness. Charlotte is a classically-trained cellist, once the pride of the prestigious Bachoff Music School in Boston. She also, going off the telltale marks on her wrists and the brief glimpses we get of her electroshock therapy, seems to have some mental health issues. With nowhere else to go, she calls her old teacher Anton (Steven Weber), hoping to get back into his good graces. Anton’s happy to have her back, but he’s got a new star pupil (Logan Browning, Dear White People) that Charlotte is very, very worried about.

And beyond the trailer up above, which I embedded early in case you decide to stop reading, that’s all I’m allowing myself to say about the plot. That’s right, it’s a twist-heavy narrative, and now that you know that, a certain number of you are going to be watching this movie at DEFCON 2, second-guessing every choice the film makes in an effort to figure out where it’s going long before it gets there. If that sounds like you, you’re free to bail out right here to give yourself the best possible chance at a blind first run; while I refuse to go into plot specifics, I’m going to be talking about things that’ll make it a lot easier to put the pieces together as you go along.

I don’t judge—I’m one of those people. Tell me a movie’s unpredictable, and it’s not so much a compliment as it is a dare; it’s less about trying to prove anything about myself or the film and more of an anxious compulsion. So even as I was enjoying the film, I was still watching it on my toes, picking up little details that allowed me to stay a step or two ahead of what was going on. That doesn’t matter as much as you might think; it’s a rare pleasure to find a movie that takes you by complete surprise, but I’ll take a predictable twist over a nonsensical one any day of the week. Any narrative that depends on withholding information from its audience should be able to survive its eventual disclosure. By that rubric, The Perfection passes with flying colors; I loved watching its reversals upon reversals play out, even as I called them, and they’re entirely consistent with the film’s established internal logic.

But if that internal logic got any more batshit insane, we’d be entering Salò territory.

Let me be clear: very little about this film’s ambitions are prestigious. It may not appear that way at first; something about setting the film in the world of classical music gives the work an air of sophistication, buttressed by Shepard’s too-formal-on-purpose style (in this case, complete with chapter cards that recall films like The Favourite). At its core, however, The Perfection is a dark, twisted little movie that has a full understanding of itself. It delights in the ways it gradually reveals its lurid nature, even going so far as to use those reveals to comment on the subject matter itself. It doesn’t feel like an accident that Allison Williams’ performance has more than a few echoes of her iconic role in Get Out; combined with Vanja Cernjul’s immersive photography and the steady pace set by editor David Dean, certain expectations are established that the film does an excellent job of unraveling as it goes along. There’s a needledrop late in the film’s third act that all but confirms Shepard’s taking the piss, and at that point, you might be ready to cheer him on out loud. Artful as it may be, The Perfection is not above exploitation, and its meta-textual awareness might be the best thing about it.

Now, smart exploitation is still exploitation, and I have concerns that there’s going to be a not-insignificant portion of the audience that will be deeply uncomfortable with how the film handles its delicate subject matter. Doubly so since the film is completely anchored to feminine experiences, and too few women are getting chances to bring their own perspectives into cinema. (Note: The film’s script is co-credited to Nicole Snyder.) I can only speak personally, and frankly, I wasn’t bothered. But I’m looking forward to discovering more feminist perspectives on the film, whatever side they may come down on, and possibly learning a little more from them.

Having said that, I remain bowled over by The Perfection. Looking over his filmography, Oxygen seems like such a strange blip in Shepard’s body of darkly comic work. But it’s thrilling to see him revisit that nasty little impulse he once had, now armed with a whole lot of confidence and no small amount of humor. If he ever wants to try it again, I’ll be first in line.


All images via Netflix.


Directed by Richard Shepard
Written by Richard Shepard, Eric C. Charmelo, Nicole Snyder
Produced by Richard Shepard, Bill Block, Stacey Reiss
Starring Allison Williams, Logan Browning, Steven Weber
Release Date: May 24, 2019
Running Time: 90 minutes

The Dirt Review: A Safe Story About a Dangerous Band

✯✯✯½

The easy way to look at The Dirt, the new Netflix biopic about 80s shock-rock group Mötley Crüe, is that somebody took one of the most notorious rock acts in the world and made a mostly harmless by-the-numbers biopic about them.

Most of our plucky readership probably understands the biopic formula, but for those who don’t, Patrick H. Willems made the only video you’ll ever need to see on the subject. If you don’t have 35 minutes to spend on watching a video, here’s a quick and dirty version: biopics take the messy life of a person and try to shape it into a neat dramatic arc for easy digestion, which would be fine if a.) the formula wasn’t so overused, with movies like Ray, Walk the Line, Get On Up, Straight Outta Compton, and Bohemian Rhapsody essentially telling the same story with a few differences of varying importance, and b.) if the act of squeezing an entire life into a two hour story didn’t gloss over so many crucial, fascinating details within that life. Point B seems especially prudent in the case of The Dirt; watching it, I felt like you could’ve made at least three movies about the band.

Movie 1 would be about the rise. After the biopic’s standard in media res introductory scene, we meet each band member starting with bassist Nikki Sixx (Douglas Booth), who at a young age distances himself from his mother (Kathryn Morris) and the multiple abusive stepfathers she keeps bringing into their home. In contrast to Sixx, drummer Tommy Lee (Colson Baker, aka Machine Gun Kelly) had a happy and supportive home life and a deep love of hard rock. Guitarist Mick Mars (Iwan Rheon) is an old man compared to these kids, but he’s got a degenerative bone disease that pushes him to go harder than most dudes half his age. Rounding out the group is lead singer Vince Neil (Daniel Webber), a high school buddy of Tommy’s who joins up as a favor to his friend and is really just in it to get laid. Within each other, these four dudes find a groove together and start tearing up the Sunset Strip until a record label (represented here by Pete Davidson at his adorkable best) inevitably takes notice and pulls them into the spotlight. Movie 2 would be about the fall; the band tearing itself apart as the weight of their excessive lifestyle starts to take a toll on them, culminating in Sixx’s heroin overdose. Movie 3 would be about the band’s emergence from rehab as the cultural shift to grunge was right around the corner, and their struggle to stay invested in the music and each other now that everything that made it fun has been taken away from them.

Any one of these stories would be bangers on their own; when you relegate each of them to a single act of a larger story that’s squeezed into an hour and 48 minutes, things start feeling rushed and emotional beats don’t land like they should. The first arena gig for these boys should feel like a big, triumphant moment. Without a good buildup to that moment, however—without a sense of the evolution and trial-and-error it took to get to that point—it’s just kinda there. A lot of such moments are just kinda there, undermining a lot of the film’s dramatic power.

Despite all that, the movie has a lot going for it, starting with a low-key self-awareness that the core story being told is a story we’re all familiar with. This is Jeff Tremaine’s first full narrative feature after something of a soft start with Bad Grandpa. He ends up being an inspired pick, clearly believing in the story he’s telling without necessarily believing it’s a capital-I Important one. Without the pretension that makes many of these biopics insufferable and more vulnerable to scrutiny (the fact that it only briefly acknowledges Tommy Lee’s issues with domestic violence and flat out ignores Vince Neil’s own issues with assaulting women seems a little less questionable when it’s so clearly not going for Oscars), Tremaine is free to make himself comfortable within the well-worn formula and focus on the things he does best. His experience on Jackass and its many spinoffs gives him an intrinsic understanding of the appeal of excess and bad behavior and the power of brotherhood and found family. To that effect, his four leads have impeccable chemistry, allowing the film to partially compensate for its lack of appropriate breathing room and ultimately stick the landing. The Dirt may be a safe story about a dangerous band, but it’s still a well-told and engaging one.


Watch the trailer here:

Image courtesy of Netflix


Directed by Jeff Tremaine
Screenplay by Rich Wilkes and Amanda Adelson, from the book by Tommy Lee, Mick Mars, Vince Neil, and Nikki Sixx, with Neil Strauss
Produced by Julie Yorn, Erik Olsen, Allen Kovac
Starring Douglas Booth, Iwan Rheon, Colson Baker, Daniel Webber, Pete Davidson, David Costabile
Release Date: March 22, 2019
Running Time: 108 minutes

Review: Characters and Theme Do the Heavy Lifting in Captain Marvel

✯✯✯¾

…hiring Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck to direct a major tentpole superhero film is like getting Jenny Lewis to form an arena rock supergroup to play at Madison Square Garden. After you manage to convince yourself that it’s not a joke, the next question becomes “How does someone as introspective and particular as Jenny Fucking Lewis get interested in doing something big, catchy, and crowd-pleasing?”

[…]

It’s absurd to think that Captain Marvel is actually going to be a reflective indie drama about a young woman trying to make her way in a complicated world as she comes to terms with the Kree being that is fused within her. The core of it is probably going to involve a lot of impressive fighting over a glowing doodad that has the power to remake or destroy the world, set to a big ol’ Brian Tyler score and hopefully laid against a strong emotional spine. Still, putting Boden and Fleck on the job gives everything around that core the potential to be very, very interesting.

Yours Truly, “How Boden and Fleck Changes the Game for Marvel Studios and Captain Marvel,” Deadshirt.net, 4/25/17

I’m honestly shocked at how close to the mark I was on this.

Even as I was making that call, I was mentally hedging my bets. I felt like whatever the married filmmaking team would bring to Captain Marvel had to be different than the stuff that propelled movies like Half Nelson, Sugar, and Mississippi Grind. The game changes significantly when you’re doing tentpoles; a can-do Brooklyn spirit only gets you so far when you have to deal with multiple VFX houses, coordinate with a second unit that shoots your action scenes as opposed to just inserts, take corporate considerations into account, and so many other headaches that get in the way of the art. And that’s before you remember that any work you do for Marvel has to be tied into its greater Cinematic Universe—something that severely dampened the lovable Amblinesque spirit of Ant-Man and the Wasp.

And on one level, it feels like the machine broke them. Captain Marvel is the work of someone who isn’t super comfortable playing to anything bigger than the orchestra halls they’re used to. The action scenes are mostly okay (with one standout I’ll talk about in a bit), but poorly paced; Boden and Fleck try to infuse them with a fluid, unpredictable sensibility, but it comes at a cost the film can’t entirely cover. An example: There’s an early action scene where Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) is fighting off a bunch of Skrull warriors; one of them growls at her in a poor attempt to intimidate her, but Carol mockingly growls back before kicking his ass. That’s a gag that was used in Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy—not that I’m calling foul. But whereas Sommers was smart enough to sell the gag by slowing down the cutting and using close-ups to give the audience a chance to fully absorb it, Boden/Fleck just runs the play like it was an afterthought. Granted, that’s what makes it not, you know, outright theft, but the upshot is it lacks impact—and it’s a problem with all the action scenes in this ostensible action movie. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to rub this thing’s shoulders and whisper, “Breathe.”

There’s other little things that detract from the whole experience of the film: There’s a major continuity error in the first fight that even I, Mr. “Plot Hole Culture Is A Blight On Film Appreciation,” feel compelled to call out (though it’s such a stupid mistake I wouldn’t be surprised if I missed something that explained it) [UPDATE 6/18/19: Without going into detail, I sure did. I’m leaving this up for academic purposes, but feel free to disregard this complaint.], and the alien designs are a little samey, making it difficult to tell one character from another sometimes. As a tentpole, it doesn’t quite hit the spot. It’s mid-tier MCU; plenty good, just not impressive when compared to what some of these films have been able to do within Marvel’s tight constraints. Yet as unimpressive as that core is, everything swirling around it is interesting and flat-out entertaining, keeping this movie heroically afloat. It’s not exactly how I called it, but I’ll sure take it.

Captain Marvel is set in 1995, but we don’t get to Earth until about the end of the first act. We’re introduced to Carol on a distant planet that’s home to an advanced civilization, the Kree. The Kree are locked in a war with the shapeshifting Skrulls, who keep invading and colonizing border planets by disguising themselves as ordinary citizens of the galaxy. Carol—who lost her memory six years prior—is part of a specialized task force led by her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). One of their missions goes bad, placing Carol in the clutches of Talos (perennial bad guy Ben Mendelsohn). Talos is desperate to extract information about possible lightspeed technology from Carol’s memories, alerting her to the whole other life she had on Earth, complete with a best friend (Lashana Lynch) and a very different kind of mentor (Annette Bening). Her escape crash-lands her into a Blockbuster Video, and with the help of a young Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the mission is set: Get her hands on this tech before the Skrulls do, and figure out why she knows so much about it.

The script’s thematic work is smart, building off the talent Skrulls have for impersonation to talk a little bit about identity and perception, how we define being a soldier or a woman. The twists of the narrative are fairly easy to see coming if you’ve studied enough MCU movies (there’s plenty of shared DNA with The Winter Soldier), but they mostly feel appropriate and earned rather than hackneyed. I’ll steer clear of major spoilers, but I’d like to go in depth here: during a spar with Yon-Rogg in the film’s opening minutes, Carol is cautioned by her mentor not to let her emotions get the better of her in a fight. Those who remember Guardians of the Galaxy know that Kree government isn’t exactly considered noble or innocent; those that don’t might have their red flags up anyway because a man telling a woman not to get emotional is usually a sign that he’s a douchebag. Yet the context softens it at first glance; control is important in the study of any martial art, and having this conversation in the second scene of the film, during a spar, suggests to the genre-savvy viewer that Carol’s arc will involve controlling those pesky emotions of hers to become a stronger fighter.

Of course, that’s not what the movie is going for. Now to be sure, “We are better for having emotions” isn’t a revolutionary observation at all; it’s been around since before Gene Roddenberry’s day, and just last summer, Christopher McQuarrie built one of the greatest action movies ever made on that idea. But the way Captain Marvel builds to it draws interesting parallels to how women are seen and treated in patriarchal societies. So even if I saw the twists coming—and though I had some vague feelings, I thought the mystery at the center of the film did a great job of holding its cards close to the vest—it wouldn’t have mattered to me because the film plays fair and it all clicks.

On a related note: This movie started getting firebombed by the alt-right after Brie Larson had the nerve to insist that people other than white men should be part of the film’s press tour. (Which, of course, makes it that much more difficult to say anything negative about the film, regardless of faith or fairness. Thanks, assholes.) But if that didn’t scare the ever-living shit out of those chuds, the content of this film almost certainly would have; it’s critical of patriarchal rule in far less veiled ways than Wonder Woman ever was. The climax even hilariously comes down to the film’s male antagonist essentially screaming for Carol to “DEBATE ME,” a common alt-right discrediting tactic on social media. (And not for nothing, but the whole movie could also be read as an aggressive two-fingered salute to the so-called “Mary Sue” criticism these scumbags just love to fall back on.)

Even beyond what it stands for, however, the film does great work in another crucial area: character. The action scenes may be take-or-leave, but character has always been Boden and Fleck’s strength, and even in a genre that fits them like an older sibling’s formal wear, they’re still delightfully on brand. Larson’s performance is actually emblematic of this. In action, spitting out one-liners and trying to play tough, she’s oddly stiff and subtly over-mannered. (One particular exchange she has with a secondary antagonist feels like it came out of a Wes Anderson film.) Put her in an explosionless room with Lynch or Law or Mendelsohn or Bening or Jackson, and she’s the same brilliant, natural performer you remember from Short Term 12 and Room.

While certain people on the fringes of the main cast don’t get enough material to really make an impression (Clark Gregg, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Gemma Chan), anyone who gets a proper turn at the plate knocks it out of the park. Sam Jackson has an absolute blast playing this younger, more freewheeling version of Nick Fury, and his buddy-cop chemistry with Larson (who previously acted with him on Kong: Skull Island and directed him in Unicorn Store, which is finally getting released on Netflix next month) is on point. Lynch and Law are similarly great foils for Larson, and Mendelsohn makes the absolute best of his typecasting. And as someone who shamefully has yet to check out 20th Century Women, I can’t believe I didn’t realize how much I missed seeing Annette Bening around until I saw her kick an astonishing amount of ass here. Strong character work has always been a part of the Marvel Studios brand, but here it’s the best I ever remember it being, and future Marvel directors would do well to study how Boden and Fleck staged these dialogue scenes. In fact, if Captain Marvel 2 is just these people playing poker and talking shit with no superheroics, I’ll preemptively declare it the best film of whatever year it’s released.

Of course it won’t be, but there’s plenty of hope for a better sequel: there’s a surprisingly tense chase scene set in the file room of a secret USAF base that suggests the filmmakers have their suspense fundamentals down and could probably top themselves with a stronger second unit. Technical credits are otherwise solid across the board; Ben Davis’ photography is often gorgeous. Andy Nicholson’s production design does a great job recreating the mid-90s LA we remember from movies like Speed, True Lies, and Face/Off. And Pinar Topak’s music is…there, honestly, but I give her points for occasionally breaking out a fake Rhodes keyboard like all the great 90s TV dramas did at one point. It’s ultimately another thing emblematic of Captain Marvel as a whole: It doesn’t connect like I hoped it would, but the inspired elements around it point to a very interesting future.

It feels good to be mostly right.


Watch the trailer here:

All images via Marvel Studios


Directed by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck
Screenplay by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck & Geneva Robertson-Dworet
Story by Nicole Perlman & Meg LeFauve and Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck & Geneva Robertson-Dworet
Produced by Kevin Feige
Starring Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law, Lashana Lynch, Annette Bening
Release Year: 2019
Running Time: 124 minutes

TV Review: Homecoming is a Powerful, Paranoid Demonstration of Everything That Makes TV Great

✯✯✯✯✯

Despite sharing the same basic principles, television is a curiously different beast than cinema; the difference between is subtle but important. Cinema is projected on a big screen, while television is displayed in a living room. Cinema overwhelms you. Television is intimate. Cinema, on the whole, gets in and out. Movies over three hours long are not unheard of, but they’re rare; cinema’s made to be experienced in a neutral space with other strangers in the dark. After enough time, such an experience begins to test your patience. On the other hand, because television is made to unfold in the comfort of your home, it has more room to meander a little bit. It still has to feel experiential, or like it’s otherwise going somewhere—something that’s easier to mess up than you might think—but there’s room to stretch if the storytellers know how to use it.

Nobody understands this better than Sam Esmail. Esmail was a small-time indie film director who was writing a feature script and realized he could extend his main story over multiple hours while telling several other stories within the universe he created. Esmail managed to sell Mr. Robot to Universal and shortly thereafter found himself on a very short, very prestigious list of game-changers that helped to evolve our understanding of what television is capable of.

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Homecoming is his victory lap, and boy does it look impressive on paper: His lead is Julia Roberts in her first ever role on television, backed up by a killer mix of veteran character actors (Bobby Cannavale, Shea Whigham, Sissy Spacek) and exciting relative newcomers (Stephan James, Alex Karpovsky, Hong Chau). Esmail didn’t create the show; it was adapted from a popular podcast written by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, who serve as head writers and co-executive producers here. However, he does direct every episode, and the themes he plays with here—memory, paranoia, a healthy distrust of capitalist institutions—will feel familiar to fans of Mr. Robot. It seems like it’d be pretty hard to mess up, and sure enough, Esmail and company deliver. Still, I didn’t expect a thriller this complex, this focused, this emotional.

Roberts plays Heidi Bergman, a therapist who works at Homecoming, a sort of halfway house purporting to ease the transition to civilian life for soldiers coming back from war. When the show picks up, she’s in her first meeting with Walter Cruz (James), a charming, self-aware soldier who’s ready to do the work and get back to his old life. There’s an immediate bond between the two, and it seems that in any normal situation, Heidi would be perfectly positioned to help him face his demons. But this is not a normal situation: Homecoming is a privately owned venture from the Geist Emergent Group, overseen by Colin Belfast (Cannavale). Heidi wants to help people like Walter. Colin only seems interested in “data,” and since he’s representing a big corporation, we know that can’t mean anything good. That much appears confirmed four years later when we find Heidi working as a waitress in a run-down local diner, living with her mother (Spacek), and dodging questions from a Department of Defense investigator (Whigham) looking into a complaint filed against Homecoming about a soldier being kept in the program against his will.

First thing’s first: Roberts came to play. Resisting the urge to coast on her movie-star charms, the Oscar-winning actress delivers a nuanced portrayal of a quietly complicated woman who got in deeper than she could reasonably comprehend and is just trying like hell to keep moving. It’s her best performance in years, maybe even the best in her entire CV.

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Interestingly enough, Esmail’s influence on this performance can be felt in the context of Homecoming‘s whole ensemble. The writer-director is known for his idiosyncratic compositions that put his actors in the corners of his frames rather than front and center (more on the visual aspect of Homecoming in a bit), but he doesn’t get a lot of credit for just how strong people seem to perform on his watch, or how he can use the look or baggage of an actor to manipulate an audience’s expectations. In session, Heidi radiates a familiar confidence and charm that makes it clear why people would open up to her. It’s easy to want someone like her in your corner if you were dealing with post-traumatic stress. Yet outside her office, in her 2022 scenes, there’s a fragility and naivete to Heidi that Roberts plays with astonishing precision. Every decision she makes, be it reasoned or reckless, is easy to understand and connect with…and Heidi, you’ll learn, can be very, very reckless.

Esmail deploys the rest of his cast in a similar way. Bobby Cannavale seems to be playing the kind of slick, antagonistic creep he’s done so well in the past, but there’s a deeply pathetic figure underneath his bluster that Esmail and Cannavale do a dynamite job of illustrating for the discerning viewer. Meanwhile, if you know Hong Chau from her solid-to-strong supporting work in TreméInherent Vice, and Big Little Lies, you may be wondering what the hell she’s doing in a nothing role like Colin’s secretary. You might even be waiting for a twist. When that twist apparently comes, it seems to be exactly what you might have expected…until it suddenly isn’t. You think. Maybe.

On the other end of the spectrum, Shea Whigham, who might be best known for playing loudmouth tough guys, turns in a dialed-down performance as DOD Investigator Thomas Carrasco, a man in a job that sounds more exciting than it actually is. He’s a bureaucrat, a nobody; the guy they send in before they send in the guys who may or may not matter. It’s a thankless job—Whigham wears the mileage all over his paunchy, clumsy body—but Carrasco takes it ever-so-seriously; in the few moments where he knows he’s onto a big lead, you can see that tough guy come out a little bit, and it’s enthralling to watch.

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Esmail shamelessly plays this expectations game with the viewer, but there’s enough substance behind it to make it feel fun and suspenseful instead of twisty for its own sake. Same goes for the other tricks he pulls as the series unfolds; in the past, his visual style has often been critiqued as calling too much attention to itself, taking the viewer out of the story. Though he eases up on some of the more extreme habits of Mr. Robot, there’s still plenty of ammunition for those who aren’t fans. You could almost call it cheeky: Instead of hiring a composer, Esmail opts to drop in pieces of score from other classic thrillers that make the series feel more like a pastiche than its own thing. That music will suddenly cut off without warning, creating jarring, sometimes even comical deflations of tension. And like most serialized dramas, particularly those that drop all their episodes of a season at once, each episode ends with a powerful revelation or twist…but then the camera will linger on a peaceful shot as the credits play, creating a sense that this massive thing happened and yet, life goes on unabated. All of this should theoretically hinder whatever atmosphere Esmail is trying to build; instead, it adds so much, especially in tandem with the work done by his usual collaborators, particularly director of photography Tod Campbell and production designer Anastasia White.

Then there’s the big choice Esmail makes: framing the 2018 scenes in TV standard 16:9 and the 2022 scenes in 4:3 (a choice influenced by Xavier Dolan’s Mommy, according to Esmail). Obviously, there’s a method to the madness; the question is, does that madness distract from the story being told? Personally, I thought it felt a bit showy; it’s hard not to when constantly switching between a ratio that takes up your whole screen and another that puts large black boxes on either side. Still, the method is made clear during a late-season episode in a single shot that I physically felt, one that made me stand up and holler. Distracting? Maybe. But absolutely worth it.

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It ultimately comes down to the scripts written and/or supervised by Horowitz and Bloomberg. Given some distance, some of the reveals of the mystery are a little out there, but that barely seems to matter. It’s wonderfully paced, parceled out over ten tightly focused half-hour episodes, each one giving you plenty to digest before moving on to the next. The season as a whole feels nicely contained, giving you just enough of a tease for the already-ordered second season without the experience feeling incomplete.

And boy does it work on an emotional level. I’ve yet to mention Stephan James’ performance; he’s the big, beating heart of this show, and his outstanding chemistry with Roberts allows Homecoming to hit heights that you wouldn’t think a paranoid psychological thriller could reach. It speaks volumes that the last episode of the show deals less in dramatic revelations (though it still has one or two) and more in the resonating effects of everything the characters have learned from their experiences; that the show doesn’t end on a bombshell cliffhanger (though there is an important scene after the credits of the last episode) but on singer/songwriter Iron & Wine quietly, emotionally pleading for the viewer to “Remember me.” Characters matter here, and there’s a sense that Esmail, Horowitz, and Bloomberg have empathy for even the most broken among them.

If this was a movie of any length, be it two, three, or even five hours, Homecoming wouldn’t work as effectively. It’s a powerful demonstration of everything television does best, and it demands to be experienced for yourself.


Watch the trailer here:

All images courtesy of Amazon Studios.


Season 1
Created & Produced by Eli Horowitz & Micah Bloomberg, based on their podcast
Producing Director: Sam Esmail (all episodes)
Executive Producers: Chad Hamilton, Julia Roberts, Alex Blumberg, Matt Lieber, Chris Gilibert
Starring Julia Roberts, Bobby Cannavale, Stephan James, Shea Whigham, Alex Karpovsky, Sissy Spacek
Release Date: November 2, 2018
10 episodes, approx. 30 mins. each

Review: The Predator: Autism is Magic

✯✯

(Spoilers—and some triggering ableist language—follow.)

Regarding The Predator as a whole film: Picture yourself telling a story. Some are better suited to storytelling than others, but it’s a good bet you know the basics of telling a story; there are beginnings, middles, and ends, there are details you set up and then pay off, there is a clean thread of logic that you run along from start to finish.

Now imagine telling that story while you’re trying to run a five-minute mile.

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That’s the short of The Predator‘s issues. The sharp, badass dialogue, clever ideas, and funny reversals that Shane Black (Iron Man 3The Nice Guys) made his bones on in the second act of his career are there, but it’s directed and edited like he’s running for his life. If I were to summarize the film’s setup in a way that captured the experience of watching it, it would look like this:

So there’s a battle up in outer space and a portal opens and the ship being attacked goes through and crash-lands on our planet and over in Mexico Boyd Holbrook is trying to snipe some cartel guys with his team but then the alien ship crashes and the alien which is a Predator by the way you know what a Predator is anyway the Predator kills Boyd’s teammaates but he gets out alive along with some Predator tech that he sends to his PO Box for safe-keeping before he’s taken to be interrogated by the Army who wants to put a lid on alien activity but he’s a chump who doesn’t pay his bills so the post office sends it to his estranged family’s house and his autistic son thinks it’s a video game meanwhile Sterling K. Brown runs a government facility that’s keeping an eye out for Predators and he brings in super-smart biologist Olivia Munn who’s good but Brown is super arrogant and kind of evil anyway the Predator that killed Boyd’s team is still alive and it escapes from Brown’s facility and Munn runs after it at the same time Boyd and a group of section eights including Trevante Rhodes Thomas Jane and Keegan-Michael Key decide they want a piece of this Predator too and when they find out Boyd’s son has the tech that the escaped Predator is looking for things get super real.

Can you follow that? Maybe, but it’s uncomfortable, maybe even panic-inducing, right? That’s what happens when the storyteller barely has a grip on the story he’s trying to tell, likely because he’s distracted. “Running” is the example I use because the film is edited breathlessly, yanking you from one scene to the next without giving you time to soak in what’s happening or learn more about who these people are. Then once the film gets into its third act, it’s clearly out of breath and contorting under all the lactic acid coursing through its veins, and it just completely loses the plot. You get chunks of it between heaves as if it’s recalling a half-remembered fever dream: “Global warming…Twinkies…evolution…big hunt…shoulder mounted cannon blows the guy’s own head off…Predator dog…blinded…pet…” The movie doesn’t so much end as it collapses in a puddle of sweat and possibly vomit. Was it enjoyable? Maybe. But it’s exhausting and hell if you understand what exactly happened.

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This is all uncharacteristic of Black’s work as a director; he’s never struggled with pacing and clarity like this before. There’s a couple of factors I’m tempted to blame—studio interference, general disengagement with the material—but it would all be Monday morning quarterbacking and I admire him too much to blindly cover for him. Point is, this movie sucks, and if that was all there is to it, I’d pad this out for another 400 words with some talk about the solid acting (Sterling K. Brown is a standout, one of Black’s finest villains) and the surprisingly inconsistent cinematography by Larry Fong (Zack Snyder’s go-to DP) and call it a day.

But this is Cinema From the Spectrum, and if you haven’t heard, there’s an autistic character in here that plays a big role in the story being told. Consider me behooved to talk about it.

It’s like this: Rain Man came out in 1988 and I think it’s safe to say it’s been informing the media discourse about autism ever since. Ray Babbit had fairly low emotional intelligence and was barely able to function in society, but he had a hidden knack for math that his brother was able to use/exploit to their advantage. You have to remember that this is a time when autistic people were just “retarded” and were dealt with by locking them in an asylum and writing them off beyond paying the bill every month. Rain Man hasn’t aged well for people like me or my friends, but I’d argue that it was instructive early on. It made us visible and empathetic; it got the ball rolling. I think there’s good in that.

We just haven’t moved beyond that initial template, as demonstrated by Robert Downey, Jr.’s immortal “never go full retard” monologue in Tropic Thunder:

 

 

Downey’s character is a celebrated Australian actor who knows how to game the system for accolades and has gone so far as to permanently dye his skin and take on a “black” vocal affect in search of his next award. The scene is meant to satirize actors who take dramatic “other” roles that “raise social awareness” because they want a cookie an Oscar. (The repeated use of the word “retard” is in line with that. Neither Ben Stiller nor Downey’s characters are meant to be seen as good people.) Now I go back and forth on whether it’s society that influences our art or vice versa, but I think this scene also reflects how first-world societies want to see people who are disabled, be it emotionally, mentally, or physically. They can’t just be disabled; they have to have some sort of special quality that “redeems” them, something that makes them even with the rest of society.

Autism is becoming a point of obsession with Hollywood lately. In recent years we’ve had an explosion of stories where high-functioning autism plays a role, including The Accountant (which I love*), the ABC series The Good Doctor (which I don’t), and the Netflix series Atypical (which I haven’t seen). That’s not counting shows and films where the word “autism” is never mentioned but the implication is obvious, such as The Big Bang Theory and Ramin Barani’s take on Fahrenheit 451. (Incidentally, the fact that they never call it autism allows these movies/shows to get away with some terrible portrayals of it, but that’s for another time.) In most cases, when a character has autism, it’s balanced out with savantry. Christian Wolff from The Accountant is a math wizard. Shaun Murphy from The Good Doctor has a brilliant mind for medicine.

(*I suspect I’m in the minority within the autism community on this. When the film first came out, I wrote a review that summarized my feelings on why it was such a good take on autism despite leaning on stereotypes. I think it might be time for a revisit to see if my feelings have evolved; I might even write up a more in-depth breakdown in the future. Keep an eye out for it.)

Like with Rain Man, these stories aren’t necessarily terrible on their own. When you put all of these portrayals together, however, a pattern emerges, suggesting that if we’re not savants, we’re not worth shit. Bob’s Burgers actually called this out perfectly in its very first episode (though as far as I know Tina Belcher isn’t meant to be autistic):

So yeah, add Jacob Tremblay’s Rory McKenna to that list. When he’s introduced, he’s dressed in a neat button-down shirt and slacks in some kind of lab where everyone’s playing chess. A couple of bullies pull the fire alarm, which causes him to shut down while everyone files out because loud noises bother him. Those bullies approach him, knocking over chess sets, looking to eat some “ass burgers,” but they walk away after realizing Rory can’t fight back and there’s no fun in it (this beat’s a little hazy in my mind). The fire alarm ends, Rory gets up, and—to a twinkly piano-and-strings accompaniment, the kind of arrangement used every time a composer wants to say “THIS PERSON IS SUPER GIFTED Y’ALL”—arranges all the chess boards the way they were.

Let me nitpick this, bearing in mind that I’m drawing from my own experiences and there may be others on the spectrum who identify more with how Shane Black put this scene together.

  1. Autistic people do often have a problem with loud noises, but—again, speaking personally—it’s tied to our comfort in peaceful, orderly environments. I actually just had a fire drill at my job; when the shriek of the alarm hit, I flew backward in my seat and yelled “SHIT,” my hands immediately flying to my ears; not my proudest moment. In the scene, Rory’s hands kinda float to his ears before he starts stimming.
  2. Any teacher worth a shit would make sure Rory was out the door with his fellow classmates, but we can let this go out of respect for dramatic convenience (and frankly, it’s not implausible that Rory’s teacher isn’t really worth a shit).
  3. Rory’s bullies snarking about “ass burgers” is definitely something that dickhead middle schoolers would do, so that gets a pass.
  4. I can buy into Rory putting the chess pieces back the way they were, but it’s presented as something that we should be impressed with—and it is impressive. But that’s where I start having problems.

See, considering what comes later, I can see why Black opted for an outsider’s perspective on autism (as opposed to trying to get us inside Rory’s head) for this scene, which is empathetic towards Rory’s social struggles and deeply impressed with his preternatural talents—which ultimately include a knack for understanding the language and the tech the Predators use. But in doing so, he makes it a little harder to understand and thus identify with Rory, and he kind of misses one of the bigger points of our struggles with neurotypical society, one that a more aware script might have been able to tie into the film.

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During a break in the action, Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn) mentions to Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) that some see autism as the next step in human evolution. Right away, I realized where this movie was going; sure enough, during the third act, the big Hunter Predator that kills and replaces the regular Predator midway through challenges all the surviving humans to run from him if they can, and that “McKenna” will be their leader, as he’s “their greatest warrior.” Is he talking about Quinn, the guy who’s been leading a team to fight back against the Predator invasion and doing a fairly good job of it? Nope, he’s talking about Rory, who’s been able to communicate with them despite being a human child.

And I’ll admit, it makes some sense; again, Rory’s a very impressive individual. But he’s treated as a sort of prize, a kid valued for his gifts and not for his personality or strategic intellect. Again, on its own, it’s not that bad; in fact, Black and Tremblay find some moments to give Rory something like a personality, including one of my favorite lines in the whole film:

Traeger (Sterling K. Brown): I bet you can’t get the door to that spaceship open.

Rory: That’s reverse psychology. I can do that too: Don’t go fuck yourself.

But whether or not you feel like that’s good enough, it’s ultimately part of a decades-long pattern of autistic characters who suffer from huge social deficits that are “balanced” by valued intellectual gifts. Here’s why that matters: A recent study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology suggests that people with Autism Spectrum Disorder are four times more likely than neurotypical individuals to struggle with some form of depression. As someone who lives with depression, I can partially vouch for that study, and I can tell you that people who are depressed don’t often think about what they can do well, even when we see a movie that tells us if we’re deficient in some areas, we make up for it in others.

People tell me I’m a great writer. That’s nice, I guess. But I also have to worry about reaching out to friends and family, speaking appropriately to them, not oversharing, mingling at parties and not disappearing into my phone all the time, staying calm when things don’t go my way, looking presentable, keeping a neat space, dealing with people who don’t have patience for me, and so many other things that neurotypical adults seem to just do. When all that is missing, tell me, why should my skill behind a keyboard matter?

When I see a movie like The Predator, I don’t think about how my knack for writing could balance out such deficits.

When I see a movie like The Predator, I think about how nice it must be to have a gift that makes me so important I’m thought of as the future of the human race.

When I see a movie like The Predator, I’m reminded that I’m all deficits.

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And it’d be so easy if I could just blame Shane Black or Fred Dekker or Jacob Tremblay (as if I could fully blame an 11-year-old kid for not being up on political issues within the autism community) or really anyone involved in the production for this. But ultimately, I’m not sure if they even realize they’re supposed to know better. This is all part of the pattern reflecting our society, where autism is widely seen as something that would be a net negative if not for whatever gift the autistic person in question has. Consider Autism Speaks, which is pretty much THE non-profit when it comes to Autism Awareness. As much as they’ve raised “awareness,” AS has done just as much to stigmatize autism in ways subtle (their logo: a puzzle piece, meant to suggest our fixation on logic but actually implying incompletion) and overt (their mission statement up until 2015 involved finding a “cure”). Even if they’ve changed course, I’ve yet to see an apology from them—which I believe is more than owed, especially considering how much money they’ve made off us, and would do so much to eradicate the stigma that AS has built up over the years.

Maybe I’m just making excuses for a writer/director I’ve always looked up to; ultimately, nobody made Black and Dekker write an autistic character into their script. But well-intentioned as they were, they were still clearly influenced by a larger narrative that really doesn’t understand how autism works. And maybe that’s why I’m so hesitant to work up a frothy outrage about this; because I’m still figuring it out myself, alongside so many other people. We think of autism as a trade-off, losing what’s seen as basic social and/or self-care skills to gain talent in some other intellectual area. But if we’re really the future, then it’s not going to be because of whatever random thing we do well, but because of how we do what we do. The Predator shows interest, but never really examines that; instead of showing our unique mental processes as a positive, it’s awed by our magic tricks, pitying our hangups with everything else.

This ultimately stems from the same place that every other issue with the movie comes from. The Predator is in such a rush to tell its story that it’s not paying attention to the things that matter. And when you’re not paying attention, everything else might as well be magic.


Watch the (restricted) trailer here:

 

Images copyright 20th Century Fox.


Directed by Shane Black
Written by Shane Black & Fred Dekker
Produced by John Davis
Starring Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Olivia Munn, Sterling K. Brown, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen
Release Year: 2018
Running Time: 107 minutes

A Simple Favor Review: Noir Comedy Finds Paul Feig At the Top of His Game

✯✯✯✯½

Up until now, I’d call Paul Feig’s film career “admirable.” His breakout film, Bridesmaids, is a bonafide classic to be sure, but his subsequent genre experimentations with women, hysterical as they can be, have been more interesting than entirely successful, mostly because he only seemed to have a surface appreciation of the genres he was working in. The Heat is a great comedy but a so-so cop actioner. Spy is a great comedy but only a decent spy thriller. Ghostbusters ’16 is a great comedy but not much of a blockbuster event. Again, though, this is more than any major studio was willing to do with female leads, and even if I think the resulting films could’ve been better, they were strong enough efforts to make me a fan.

Now Feig pushes himself a little by fusing his comic sensibilities with neo-noir. The result is a little lighter than the trailer might lead you to believe, but the effort pays off dividends. A Simple Favor is a twisted comic mystery that will keep you on tilt; it’s Feig’s best movie by a mile.

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A Simple Favor takes us into upscale suburban Connecticut where we meet Stephanie (Anna Kendrick), a widowed mother who lives off her late husband’s life insurance. Stephanie is the kind of high-energy parent who volunteers for anything and everything at her son’s school, alternatively impressing and annoying the other class parents. When she’s not shamelessly belting out “Mambo No. 5” in the car, she pours her free time into vlogging, sharing her wisdom and gluten-free cookie recipes with the other moms who troll the internet, likely with a glass of red wine in their hands.

Enter Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), who seems like she was genetically engineered to be the anti-Stephanie. Whereas Stephanie goes out in tasteful dresses and has gotten into the habit of replacing her “F” words with “fudge” and putting money in the “Oopsie” jar every time she slips up, Emily wears men’s suits that she tends to shed at her whimsy, swears in front of her kids, talks shit to her boss, and is somehow both openly intimate with and hostile to her husband Sean (Henry Goulding, Crazy Rich Asians) in the same moments. Stephanie takes an immediate shine to her, and the two of them connect so hard, it’s not long before Stephanie is sharing some of her absolute darkest secrets with Emily. Stephanie goes as far as to consider Emily her best friend, even though they’ve only known each other for a few weeks before Emily asks for the titular “simple favor”; pick up her son from school and hold on to him until she gets home from a crisis she has at work.

Emily drops off the face of the planet immediately after that, and Stephanie’s world shifts. She finds herself getting uncomfortably close to Sean, and because there’s nothing more suspicious than a man with a missing spouse who keeps hanging out with some other girl, the cops start bearing down too. Under these and other pressures, Stephanie starts looking into Emily’s disappearance for herself, only to find that she may be in way over her head.

One of the more difficult aspects of critiquing a mystery is that they benefit from their, well, mysticism, making it tricky to talk about why something works as well as it does. A Simple Favor is spoiler-proof in the sense that you could read a Wikipedia summary of the plot and still get something out of seeing the movie. It’s absurd, but that’s what makes Feig so perfect for it; he finds the humor of the situation without ever treating the characters themselves as a joke. It takes no effort at all to just kick back and enjoy the ride with every last insane turn it has to offer; as such, it feels wrong to break down any of those turns in-depth to those who don’t know what they’re in for.

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One thing I feel comfortable saying is, whether by design or not, some of the expectations of neo-noir are weaponized against you as the twisted and complicated natures and histories of the three leads begin to unravel. None of these characters are necessarily good people, but they’re all astonishingly likable; the potential cosmic judgment for their actions is simultaneously dreaded and respected as the movie poses questions about how the facades we put up for the world hide our pains, and how our obsessions can damage us beyond repair. Credit Anna Kendrick and Henry Goulding for being able to charm breathable oxygen out of the ocean; of course, don’t forget Blake Lively, who creates a character that instantly sears herself into your memory.

Feig, however—working from a script by Jessica Sharzer and a source novel by Darcey Bell—deserves his share of love too. Aside from being one of the best actor’s directors working right now (his dialogue scenes here are as sharp and maybe even sharper than they’ve ever been), he’s also stepped up his technical game in a big way. John Schwartzman is Feig’s DP here, and they utterly nail the vibe of upper-class suburbia while getting some of the nicest compositions of Feig’s career—including an iconic intro shot of Emily walking through a rainstorm as a loose umbrella blows past her in slow motion, telling you everything you need to know about who she is within five seconds. Even Theodore Shapiro, AKA the guy who scores the Adam Sandler movies, steps up and delivers some impressively solid incidental music that compliments the atmosphere without overwhelming it. To be fair, Feig still doesn’t have much of a grip on shooting exciting action scenes—there’s a car chase late in the second act with some sloppy geography that I suspect could’ve even been cut entirely—but the editing in general (by Feig’s longtime collaborator Brent White) has a nice, breezy flow to it that cuts right to the quick of the story being told.

If there’s any problem to be had with this movie, some of it might be in that rhythm—I found myself occasionally pulled out of the movie by how it paces certain sequences—but more of it would probably be in the ending. It ultimately feels just a little easy, yet it’s not at all unsatisfying and certainly not unreasonable. I already admired Paul Feig; A Simple Favor points to the absolute best version of him, a director that I want more of as soon as possible.


Watch the trailer here:

All images courtesy of Lionsgate.


Directed by Paul Feig
Screenplay by Jessica Sharzer, from the novel by Darcey Bell
Produced by Paul Feig & Jessie Henderson
Starring Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Goulding, Andrew Rannells, Linda Cardellini
Release Year: 2018
Running Time: 117 minutes

Review: Sierra Burgess is Sweet, Different, Funny, and Also a Loser

✯✯✯½

Sierra Burgess is a Loser finds its titular character (Shannon Purser) caught in a Cyrano de Bergerac situation after her school’s resident mean girl Veronica (Kristine Froseth) gives Sierra’s phone number to humble football player Jamey (Noah Centineo), claiming it as her own. Jamey, who goes to a different school, starts texting Sierra thinking that she’s Veronica, and Sierra finds herself going with it; at first because the truth is too awkward, but then because the truth is too scary. Once she learns that Veronica’s trying to woo a college dude, Sierra (a regular victim of Veronica’s) comes to her with an offer: tutoring on college-level subjects in exchange for help with keeping the lie going.

A teen romantic comedy that asks you to root for a lead that’s catfishing her love interest can be a tough sell, but Purser’s on home turf here. As Barb on the first season of Stranger Things, she took a character who was kind of a drag on the page and infused her with a tragic soul that propelled her into pop culture iconography and scored her a well-deserved Emmy nomination. It doesn’t hurt that we don’t see a ton of women like her on-screen—tall and full-figured, she’s immediately distinguishable from most actresses her age, which would probably be an advantage in a culture that didn’t promote “thin and small” as the feminine ideal. (A culture, if we’re being real, that’s driven by scumbags who regularly prey on women.) Sierra Burgess has a little bit to say about such a culture, and Purser happens to be a perfect figurehead for its message. She brings a curious, appealing swagger to the lead character, starting the movie by regularly shaking off the vicious barbs that her classmates throw at her while she tries to keep her head down and get into Stanford. She’s fairly confident (in her skills, at least) and lightly funny, easily setting an appealing pace for the film.

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Of course, soon after Jamey starts texting Sierra, the armor she’s built up comes clattering down as the two of them fall into an easy, pleasant rapport. Purser’s great at making you see why Sierra keeps this charade up long after any reasonable person would hit the brakes and come clean, but more impressive is how Purser charts Sierra’s gradual breakdown throughout the second half of the movie, brought on by the stress of maintaining her lie. Just about everyone in on this hare-brained scheme knows that it’s a horrible idea. In the script, Sierra’s best friend Dan (RJ Cyler) serves the primary function of constantly reminding Sierra how messed up this is, and it works mostly because Cyler does a similarly great job of giving Dan an appealing personality outside of his nagging, and partly because what Sierra’s doing is really messed up.

The cast comes through for this, even if their characters feel more than a little arch. Veronica’s meanness, in particular, seems unrealistically shallow at first; once the movie gets to dive into her family life, her bitterness starts making sense, and Kristine Froseth begins to light up in turn. Surprisingly, the film’s script, written by Lindsey Beer (who’s currently attached to a number of high-profile properties according to IMDB) starts to put a little more weight on the burgeoning friendship between Sierra and Veronica rather than the burgeoning romance between Sierra and Jamey (not that the romance is ever sidelined). It’s to the film’s benefit; Purser and Froseth are excellent together, and the film’s meditation on self-respect—how we often seem to have it when we don’t, how important it is to learn the difference—feels more honest for it.

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It’s not the only interesting decision on display. Director Ian Samuels, making his feature debut, veers away from the typical visual grammar of a teen movie for a more rugged look, with lots of handheld shots and a color palate that tends to favor darks and fluorescent yellows over typical bright colors. He and DP John W. Rutland aren’t shooting this for glamour; they’re trying to capture an unromanticized version of high school life, the way kids like Sierra might see it as opposed to how someone dealing with the pressures of adult life might fondly remember it. The vision is supported by the mostly down-to-earth sets used; there’s a plainness to it that feels refreshing and gives everything a nice sense of verisimilitude.

That verisimilitude works against it sometimes. A couple of key plot beats feel weirdly rushed, particularly Sierra’s first text conversation with Jamey; it’s beyond me why anyone would think they could build the whole foundation of Sierra’s absurd scheme on three text messages and a spoken claim that they texted all night, but at least it makes up ground later on. (The texting sequences, in general, are well done; Samuels foregoes the overlays that have become popular in portraying texting, choosing to communicate incoming texts entirely through shots of the phone. This helps him nail the natural anxiety and uncertainty that comes from having text conversations with someone you really like.) Things eventually get surprisingly brutal in a way that feels wholly earned, but the wrap up from that feels too neat, partly because of that rush. You get a film that tries to present itself as something a little different than your average teen romcom and tries to show some of the heavy emotional consequences of the ill-advised game these kids are playing, but in the end, it can’t really commit. Still, the effort is admirable and very appealing, absolutely worth your time if you’re a fan of teen movies.


Watch the trailer here:

All images courtesy of Netflix


Directed by Ian Samuels
Written by Lindsey Beer
Produced by Thad Luckinbill, Trent Luckinbill, Molly Smith, Rachel Smith
Starring Shannon Purser, Kristine Froseth, RJ Cyler, Noah Centineo
Release Year: 2018
Running Time: 106 minutes

Peppermint Review: Jennifer Garner Actioner Sours on the Tongue

✯½

Peppermint opens with a crane shot in a parking lot with a lone car in it. It’s bouncing, and we all know what that means…that somebody’s probably getting murked in there because this is a vigilante action film and that occasionally means playful visual puns. For a single clever second, as the camera closes in, we see a silhouette that looks a lot like two people copulating. But soon enough, a head gets slammed against the window and we cut inside to see Riley North (Jennifer Garner) struggling with some gangbanger before capping him in the head.

This is fine. It’s a solid opening statement, actually. We tend to watch vigilante movies to see a brutally wronged person rise up and take vengeance on the people that wronged them, and in a good, basic vigilante movie—one that doesn’t care to question that nature of vigilantism—the patterns of buildup and release at work are similar to sex, right down to the small gushes and geysers of blood that punctuate the action. Pierre Morel’s Taken is the platonic ideal of this. It’s patronizing as hell—any movie about a father wrecking house to get back his daughter from sex traffickers who kidnapped her because she didn’t listen to him is bound to be at least a little patronizing—but that doesn’t make it any less satisfying to see Liam Neeson steamroll over these bastards. Not just because he’s credible, but because his antagonists are shockingly believable, as uncomplicated and repugnant as they are.

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As a film critic, there still things I feel I can be better at. One of them is following The Ebert Rule, which I hold dear in theory: “Judge the movie for what it’s trying to be, not for what you want it to be.” Peppermint isn’t trying to make any profound statements on vigilantism or do anything special; its thesis is “Hey, remember how cool it was to see Jennifer Garner beat the shit out of people? Let’s see some more of that!” It’s a strong thesis. Still, when Garner’s on-screen shredding dudes like Enron documents and all I can think about is what this might look like if Coralie Fargeat or Michelle MacLaren or even Robert Rodriguez was directing, something has gone terribly wrong.

Because let’s be clear, the problem with this movie is definitely not Garner. She’s heroic, not just in the sense of the role she occupies, but in just how appealing she is in it even as everything seems to be going wrong around her. There’s a reason people stayed loyal to Alias as it got decreasingly coherent and sane, and there’s a reason why an Elektra spinoff was tried even when most people felt like Daredevil didn’t work. Garner can go, and even after ten years cooling her heels and doing strong, consistent work in melodramas and family films, she’s still got the stuff. It’s a hoot to watch her mow people down. It’s downright wonderful to hear her growl her plan to a bad guy when he thinks he’s got her cornered: “I’m gonna blow a hole in your fucking face, and then I’ll improvise.” Maybe Morel counted on all that to carry the film. It sure plays like he did, and he was deeply mistaken.

Maybe it would’ve been better if it was simpler. Not that it wasn’t already simple: Garner’s Riley North watches her family get gunned down by a cartel after its leader, Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba), gets wind that her husband was pitched on robbing him. Garcia’s got cops, lawyers, and judges on his payroll, so even though Riley IDs them, the shooters still get off and Riley gets coldly written off as a crazy bitch while they laugh. So this Girl Scout den mother disappears for five years and comes back as an utter beast on the anniversary of her family’s death, ripping and tearing through Garcia’s seemingly endless crew of mooks in a whirlwind 24 hours.

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Simple. Awesome. All you need. Too bad about all the extra stuff that’s thrown haphazardly into the first act. After the opening scene, we flash back five years to show Riley with her happy, but struggling family (Jeff Hephner as Chris, Cailey Fleming as Carly). Both parents are working to support themselves to live in an upper-class neighborhood that looks down on them. There’s a rival den mother in Carly’s Girl Scout troop that has it out for the Norths; she does a fairly shitty thing that draws people away from Carly’s birthday party, and on top of that, Riley’s boss forces her to work late, all of which leads to the last-minute birthday trip to the carnival that ends in Chris and Carly’s deaths. There’s ample evidence in the film, supported by the chain of events that leads to Riley going on the run, to suggest that the system of financial oppression that Riley was caught up in was just as responsible for her family’s death as Garcia’s gang. If it’s a little Palahnuik-esque in a bad way, it’s at least more interesting than “the brown people did it, kill them all.”

But nah, the brown people did it. And considering that, maybe it needed to be a little more fucking complicated after all. I’m just saying: You might have John Ortiz being his classy self as a pragmatic but well-intentioned cop, but that doesn’t mean I’m not picturing the hundreds of other Hispanic actors who had to take a deep breath and think about their families and their dreams before they walked in to audition for Cartel Goon #2 while a rallying cry of “Build the Wall” got passed around White America like joints at a DMB concert.

BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE! Riley’s taking anti-psychotic medication. Anything interesting done with that? Nope; at least not beyond giving Morel and editor Frédéric Thoraval an excuse to make a bunch of flashy Tony Scott-style cuts. Is that for the better? Probably—the world might not need another “IT’S ALL IN THEIR HEAD” narrative—but it’s still a loose thread that promises something more interesting than what we actually got. How about the loathsome defense attorney that tried to bribe her into shutting up? Killed offscreen. We watch her kill the judge who threw out the case instead; he’s an asshole to her, sure, but we’re apparently meant to take that as the sign that he’s on the take and thus deserves her vengeance. There’s also a bigger cartel leader that Garcia’s answering to; he shows up to make a threat, allude to Garcia being a small fish despite pretty much owning the city, and he’s never heard from again.

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There are so many little details here that could point to a much more interesting movie, and instead of following these threads—hell, instead of using them to enrich the environment of the film—Morel charges bull-headedly past them and into two big twists. There’s a third-act heel turn that’s only there to a.) try and shock you, and b.) represent the corrupt cops the characters keep talking about. But before we get to that nonsense (because that’s what it is, utter nonsense), there’s the out-of-nowhere revelation that Garcia has a young daughter of his own. She shows up to make Riley hesitate before ganking Garcia after a successful raid on his compound, thus giving the heretofore unstoppable Riley a proper end-of-act-two setback, and then she figures prominently in the third act as she forces Riley to ponder the vicious circle of I’m just kidding, she disappears and Garcia doesn’t even mention her during the final showdown. It’s telling that the best scene in the movie (and the one that got the biggest reaction in my theater, for what it’s worth) is Riley meeting back up with her rival from her old life because that’s the one damn antagonistic relationship that was properly set up and paid off. Chad St. John (London Has Fallen) is the credited writer here; if his actual screenplay doesn’t resemble this so-called product, he should be allowed to whack Morel and every producer attached to this mess with his belt as recompense for the damage to his name.

How am I supposed to believe in any of these people? How am I supposed to be satisfied with their comeuppance when they all seem like ugly cardboard cutouts for Garner, the LeBron to this movie’s crew of useless Cavaliers, to mow down for our amusement? The movie might not be interested in being anything more than revenge porn, but by missing so many obvious openings, Morel seems to flaunt his disinterest in digging into his material. In a more entertaining film, that would be okay; admirable, even. But action, like sex, demands a satisfying payoff. Peppermint doesn’t even realize it went limp midway through.


Watch the trailer right here.

All images courtesy of STX Films.


Directed by Pierre Morel
Screenplay by Chad St. John
Produced by Gary Lucchesi, Tom Rosenberg, Richard H. Wright
Starring Jennifer Garner, John Ortiz, John Gallagher Jr., Juan Pablo Raba, Annie Ilonzeh
Release Year: 2018
Running Time: 102 minutes

Review: The Happytime Murders is Exactly the Movie You Think It Is

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Look, if you saw the trailer, what else would you be expecting?

In fact, at the risk of being obnoxious, I would question the necessity of a review for this movie if not for the fact that it’s a passion project that’s kinda getting its ass kicked by critics. Some were even deriding it as the worst movie of the summer, probably because they haven’t yet gotten around to Action Point (which is well-intentioned but painfully immature), Breaking In (which is boring and shockingly racist), or Gotti (CRITICS PUT OUT THE HIT, DECIDE FOR YOURSELF). I mean, I don’t want to step on any crotches here; if puppets making crass dick jokes while running through a bog-standard buddy cop movie that doesn’t seem interested in making any strong points pisses you off that much, then who am I to call you crazy? Okay, you’d think a passion project would be more than this, but some people are motivated to make high art that highlights uncomfortable but important truths about ourselves and our society, and some people just want to make puppets swear at each other and snort sugar like cocaine.

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Welcome, then, to the world of The Happytime Murders, a world where humans of all races, genders, creeds, and sexualities have come together to crush those dirty fucking puppets under their bootheels. Your guide to this world is Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta, the puppeteer behind The Muppets’ Rowlf the Dog, Pepe the Prawn, and The Swedish Chef), a disgraced puppet ex-cop (the first and last) now working as a private eye out of a rundown office alongside his faithful secretary Bubbles (Maya Rudolph). A case he’s working on behalf of puppet vixen Sandra (Dorien Davies) leaves him entangled in a massacre at a puppet porno shop that claimed four puppet lives, including the life of a puppet who used to work on the groundbreaking puppet TV show The Happytime Gang. Other cast members start dying, and Phil is forced to team up with his drug-addicted human ex-partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to try and catch this deranged serial killer, whose potential victims include Phil’s former lover Jenny (Elizabeth Banks).

If you’ve seen even a handful of cop movies, you know how this goes. Pissed-off captain? Check. Suspension at the end of the second act? Check. Armed standoffs with human shields? Check and check. Brian Henson didn’t come to blow your mind; the only twist here is that these are puppets acting out the turns, not for any great reason besides Brian Henson thinking it’s funny. It’s a world where puppets and humans live together, but there’s no thought put into what that world would actually look like. It’s a world where puppets are second-class citizens, but it doesn’t use that sociopolitical setup to make any powerful observations about how we’re dealing with our fellow Americans in the real world being treated like second-class citizens.

It’s important to note that I’m not marking any of this against The Happytime Murders. Frankly, the film’s interest in being little more than a 90-minute Funny or Die sketch works to its advantage. It knows what it is. It knows that this is a world that’s impossible to take entirely seriously, thus making it impossible to be heard if it ever wants to get onto a soapbox and preach about, say, the evils of racism. Therefore, it stays in its lane and just tries to make you laugh; if you want to get edgy, you can say this makes The Happytime Murders more socially responsible than the last R-rated cop movie set in a fantasy Los Angeles, Bright.

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Will it make you laugh, though? Well, that’s always the rub with comedy. I’ll say this (mild spoilers): Early in the movie, it’s revealed that Connie Edwards has a puppet liver. Her drug addiction? More like a sugar addiction, since her puppet liver allows her to ingest the ultra-concentrated sugar that usually kills humans but gets degenerate puppets super high. At one point, Edwards starts monologuing—earnestly—about how having her puppet liver strands her between worlds; not quite puppet, not quite human. Now if you’re a nerd who’s bothered by the fact that human-compatible puppet livers are a thing even though the insides of these puppets, whenever we see them (which is very, very often), appear to be entirely fluff, then maybe stay the hell away from this movie and save yourself the cringe. But if you’re laughing your ass off just thinking about Melissa McCarthy having a puppet liver, then buddy, your ride is here.

That’s what keeps The Happytime Murders above water for me: It’s lowbrow and easy, sure, but it’s completely earnest and sincere about it. Brian Henson might shoot the film more like a traditional studio comedy and not like, say, Walter Hill in his prime, but it’s hard to hold his focus on performances against him when his cast of puppeteers and humans are stepping way up. Bill Barretta, in particular, does fantastic work as Phil Phillips, getting the burned-out sick-of-this-shit PI character down cold, down to the little gestures and under-the-breath mutterances. In turn, Melissa McCarthy is playing the same role we’re used to seeing from her, but she easily squeezes more juice out of it, and she bounces well off Barretta’s puppeteer work. These two do a great job of keeping you engaged as the film runs through a mostly predictable mystery and various hit-or-miss gags. While it’s not an ideal situation, it sure doesn’t hurt to watch.

At the end of the day, The Happytime Murders is harmless adult fun, and I feel like it was designed to be harmless adult fun. The usual issues apply when it comes to “harmless” comedy: no movie that played it safe was ever truly great. Still, with a couple of exceptions (Crazy Rich AsiansNever Goin’ Back), it’s been a fairly grim August in film and in life, and a hassle-free bit of raunch carries its own appeal in such times. Such compliments might be backhanded, but the thing about a movie that doesn’t suck is, well, it doesn’t suck.


Watch the trailer here:

All images courtesy of STX Entertainment


Directed by Brian Henson
Screenplay by Todd Berger; Story by Todd Berger & Dee Austin Robertson
Produced by Brian Henson, Jeff Hayes, Jason Lust
Starring Melissa McCarthy, Bill Barretta, Maya Rudolph, Joel McHale, Elizabeth Banks
Release Year: 2018
Running Time: 91 minutes

Mission: Impossible – Fallout Review: Tom Cruise’s Most Intense, Emotional Mission Yet

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I like to think of the first three Mission: Impossible movies as a Goldilocks trial.

Brian De Palma jumped on the first movie and crafted a stone classic, if only for that oft-imitated vault sequence. De Palma’s film was a swervy, paranoid popcorn thriller that got lambasted long after release for having a plot that was, well, impossible to keep up with. In other words, too hard.

So enter John Woo and the second movie, a pure action vehicle for Cruise with a plot that borrows heavily from Hitchcock’s Notorious. It was Woo indulging in some of his worst excesses as a filmmaker and while it’s no small amount of fun (especially if you’re a fan of Woo’s), it was rightfully derided as one of the dumbest blockbusters of its time. Too soft.

Then J.J. Abrams cracked the code with the third movie. He brought it back to what made the TV show work—team-based shenanigans, steering slightly away from being a pure Tom Cruise vehicle in favor of an ensemble model—and rooted it as deep in character as he could. M:I–3 kept the nature of its big threat vague but confined the real menace to our heroes in middle managers with personal grudges, people who shouldn’t normally be a problem, people that spy films tend to cast aside. Frankly, it was better for it. I’ve spoken to people who have big, understandable problems with the third movie, but for the most part, it was Just Right. Abrams moved on from the director’s chair, but Bad Robot stayed involved and Cruise built off that film.

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Frankly, there’s a whole series to be written about the evolution of the Mission: Impossible film franchise. Suffice to say for the purposes of this review, after the third movie, the films kept going in a positive, character-based direction. Slightly echoing 3Ghost Protocol had a bad guy and an evil plot to foil, but the real villain was technology, screwing over Ethan Hunt’s team at every chance, forcing them to lean on each other. When Christopher McQuarrie took over with Rogue Nation, he built on that with a narrative that was borderline distrustful of any authority that treated agents as disposable. It’s almost like the last three films have been trying to tell us something in defiance of nearly every serious spy narrative and even some of the less serious ones (*cough cough* Bond): That the people in the field matter just as much as the mission.

With Mission: Impossible – Fallout, McQuarrie comes back for a franchise-first encore as writer/director to bring that subtext to the forefront of the narrative and flash it right in the viewer’s face. The narrative directly addresses Ethan Hunt’s nigh-pathological inability to sacrifice innocent lives for the greater good, and the resulting film is a success beyond even my wildest expectations.

Whereas Rogue Nation felt like a heist film at times, with Ethan Hunt having a solid grip on the situation no matter how dire it might get, Fallout has the team constantly on the run after Ethan chooses to save the life of his longtime friend Luther (Ving Rhames) instead of securing three plutonium cores from the remains of the Syndicate, whom the IMF crippled in the last film but couldn’t quite finish off before they could reform as “The Apostles.” The Apostles have the ability to weaponize those cores in 72 hours, so Ethan’s team better run like hell to get them back. A constant refrain in the film is that the team needs to do some crazy thing, but they often don’t know how they’ll do it until they get there. These guys are constantly hanging off a runaway train that’s coming up real fast on the edge of the cliff and you can hear the panic in Ethan’s voice as he keeps slipping and screaming “IT’S OKAY IT’S OKAY I STILL HAVE THIS I THINK” and it’s absolutely exhilarating to watch.

If that was all there was to it, though, it’d be little more than a fun action movie. McQuarrie, long underappreciated before this movie apparently (and deservedly) got him on the radar for Man of Steel 2, knows so much better than that. The first scene of the film is a dream sequence that quickly reintroduces Ethan Hunt’s wife from the third movie, Julia, played once again by Michelle Monaghan. We last saw her in a quick cameo at the end of Ghost Protocol, revealing that she had to fake her death and go into hiding after Ethan went back into the field. The dream sequence none too subtly expresses Ethan’s intense regrets about essentially ruining Julia’s life; putting it up front colors every decision Ethan makes about his teammates and the potential collateral damage around him. When he says, and then quietly repeats “I won’t let you down” to his teammates during a crucial action sequence, it’s coming from a part of him who knows just how capable he is of doing so. Suddenly, all the dangerous, borderline insane shit Ethan does to complete his mission without getting anyone hurt just feels like a way to drown out the voice in his head that keeps telling him he’ll always be a failure. (Knowing that many of these stunts were performed by Cruise himself with no safety nets in place becomes…interesting in that light.)

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Then there’s the supporting cast. Hunt’s unwanted partner in this mission is August Walker (Henry Cavill), a CIA-assigned watchdog ordered to get the plutonium back on his agency’s behalf and kill Ethan if he should step out of line. As an antagonist, Walker makes for an interesting counterpoint to Hunt. Like Solomon Lane (Sean Harris, making a return here looking haggard and wild-eyed compared to his unsettlingly sleek look from the last movie), he’s a calculator; he’s willing to live with collateral damage for the sake of a successful mission. Unlike Lane, he runs hot, often charging into situations without thinking them through, and if that sounds familiar, you’ve been paying attention. If Lane is the diametric opposite of who Hunt is, Walker is the guy Hunt could’ve been if one or two things were different, the guy Hunt probably wishes he was on one occasion or another.

On that note, Rebecca Ferguson returns as Ilsa Faust, pursuing the plutonium for her own mysterious reasons despite being essentially freed from the spy life in the last film. Simon Pegg is also back as Benji Dunn, as is Alec Baldwin as IMF Secretary Hunley. Of course, they all give fantastic performances, but it’s significant that there are no real new additions to the team this time. All of these people have a history with Ethan. All of them are in a position to get really hurt by him, at least in his mind. Ilsa, in particular, is so closely aligned with Ethan’s personality that he feels a particular kinship with her, maybe even more than Julia; suddenly, his haunting concerns about his former wife give his refusal to follow Ilsa to “freedom” in the last movie, and the ways he tries to discourage her in this movie, a brand new context. “Fallout” doesn’t just refer to the consequences of Ethan’s decision at the film’s onset, it refers to his general fear of destroying others with his baggage. There’s an emotional struggle with the self that’s playing out in the background behind the “Go get the nuclear material before it violently reshapes the world as we know it” struggle that you’re paying to see, giving Ethan (and, in turn, the film as a whole) a deeper, more vulnerable, more relatable sense of humanity than ever. Mind you, this series wasn’t exactly lacking for humanity to begin with.

Not that the stuff you’re paying for is a letdown. For a 147 minute monster, this is some of the leanest filmmaking I’ve seen in an action movie, save for maybe the John Wick movies. The comparisons going around to Mad Max: Fury Road might be a bit unfair; this movie isn’t nearly as relentless. McQuarrie and editor Eddie Hamilton (returning from Rogue Nation) aren’t afraid to go quiet and take their time through small, personal beats that break up (and ultimately support) the big, loud chaos of the action. But none of it feels superfluous; every moment on screen supports a future moment or brings further context to a previous moment. I wouldn’t cut a damn second of this thing nor would I want to. I wouldn’t add to it either; when the end credits hit, I felt so satisfied I literally didn’t know what to do with myself, opting to stand in the lobby like an idiot for several minutes while I tried to work out how the hell Christopher McQuarrie did that.

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Oh, the action scenes. I don’t quite know how to describe them except to say you’re not prepared. I was privileged enough to see this on a big IMAX screen, and if you can afford it, you should too. The fight scenes feel astonishingly brutal and immersive—and not just because of Cruise. Part of the reason Cavill does so well here is that he’s maybe the only guy in this franchise I’ve seen whose physical performance could credibly stand toe to toe with Cruise’s. Much has been rightly made about the moment Cavill “reloads” his arms in the much-publicized bathroom brawl; rest assured, that’s only a hint as to how intense he is. Between that and Cruise’s apparent wish to die on a movie set, these scenes are next level. There’s a HALO jump in the movie you might have heard about; one take, no CG, just Tom Cruise being Tom Cruise, and a cameraman and stuntman brave enough to follow him.

Yeah, that happens at the top of the second act. Try to imagine how they steadily build on that and ramp up to the finale, and then ask yourself how the hell Cruise managed to only break a leg while filming this movie.

Fallout is already a miracle, and I haven’t even gotten into Rob Hardy’s (Ex MachinaAnnihilation) cinematography, Lorne Balfe’s (The Crown) score, or some of the excellent sound design on display—particularly the way the score will drop out for some action scenes to really emphasize the raw impact, while one other scene is set entirely to score without sound effects to emphasize its ethereal and horrific qualities. There are so many elements of this movie that demand praise, but it’s that quiet personal hook that I keep coming back to, the one that cuts through the gimmickry and playfulness of the franchise and gets at some of the realest shit I’ve ever seen a nine-figure tentpole actioner so much as attempt to address.

J.J. Abrams figured this series out when he shifted focus to the human side of Ethan Hunt. Three films later, Cruise and McQuarrie have utterly perfected it. Blockbuster filmmaking doesn’t get better than Mission: Impossible – Fallout.


Watch the trailer here:

All images courtesy of Paramount Pictures.


Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie
Based on the TV series created by Bruce Geller
Produced by Tom Cruise, Christopher McQuarrie, Jake Myers, J.J. Abrams
Starring Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson
Release Year: 2018
Running Time: 147 minutes