Retro Review: THE DARK KNIGHT

In honor of the 10th anniversary of the release of The Dark Knighthere’s my original review, unedited. This review was seen as so negative at the time that I received death threats serious enough to report them to the police.

Someone get the Batman a lozenge.

Of all the improvements that Christopher Nolan has made from Batman Begins
(and there are many), Batman himself (and his stupid, stupid raspy voice) seems to have gone unfixed. If anything, Batman has taken a step back from his center stage role in
the first film and allowed much more interesting characters like The Joker, Harvey Dent and Jim Gordon to claim the spotlight. And in many ways, that’s an improvement in itself.

Nolan’s second Batfilm almost doesn’t even feel like a sequel – it feels like a reboot. Gotham City, presented in Begins as the only major American city ever founded on a soundstage, now has an outdoors. It feels like… a real city, which makes sense, since it was all filmed in Chicago. And that realness extends beyond the exteriors; for the first time in a Batman movie I felt like I understood what being a Gothamite was like, and I felt that the city was a once glorious place in a bad time, as opposed to the almost Boschian depiction in previous films, including Nolan’s first. This is Gotham City by way of The Wire.

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THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS: Nature, Nurture, Neither, Both

What makes you you? What are the things that create the person you are? Are you created by the sum of your genes? Is there a genetic destiny that exists beyond our control, that will send you down a path no matter the circumstance?

Or are you created by your circumstances? Does the environment in which you were raised have a greater impact? The question, when boiled down, is the familiar head-to-head battle: nature vs. nurture.

A trio of triplets offer a unique look at this question, as each of them was adopted out at six months, and they spent the first 19 years of their lives not knowing they had a sibling, let alone two who were identical at the DNA level. In 1980 two of these three met through strange coincidence; when they appeared in the newspapers their third brother had the shock of seeing himself – twice! – on the front page. Then they were three, and there was an automatic bond. These three identical strangers took to each other, filling gaps in one another they didn’t even realize had been there. You might think that discovering there are two other yous in the world would make you feel less unique, less special, crowded in. But for these three it seemed to be the moment that set them free, that allowed them to be who they should have always been. They soon discovered remarkable similarities about their lives – they were all wrestlers! They all smoked Marlboros! They all liked older women! – and basked in the glow of pre-internet viral fame.

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ANT-MAN AND THE WASP: Come On, Get Happy

We used to have record albums (the old man yelled at the cloud). LPs, they were called, for long play. When bands made LPs they did something called sequencing, which was putting their songs in a specific order intended to bring the listener for a journey. You weren’t supposed to skip around the LP, and there was no way to shuffle the songs, so you would drop the needle at the beginning and listen through until the end. It feels archaic today, the idea of sitting down and listening to an album in full (and getting up to flip it over in the middle!), so archaic that it has become retrohip, and even Hot Topic sells vinyl LPs. But I think that with the heyday of the LP and the heyday of albums behind us, we have also lost the heyday of sequencing.

Good sequencing would build over the course of an album side, getting up to a crescendo of intensity and pace, and then perhaps pulling it back for a sonic palate cleanser. Think about Rubber Soul, by The Beatles (UK version) – side one ends with Michelle, with its French cabaret feel, and side two opens with a blast of zany country as Ringo sings What Goes On. That creates the space needed for the band to go in a totally different direction with Girl, which has a Greek folk sound. By putting the Ringo country song in between these two European love songs The Beatles create an experience for us that transcends the individual songs.

In 2018 Marvel Studios has accomplished a major feat of cinematic sequencing. Opening the year with Black Panther they got us revved up, excited, triumphant. Then came Avengers: Infinity War, which ends on one of the all-time down notes (for post-Beneath the Planet of the Apes blockbusters, anyway). But that isn’t the finale – the album isn’t over – and so they’ve wisely programmed Ant-Man and the Wasp right afterwards, giving us a small breather, a little bit of space before leaping back into the fray next year.

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WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR: Did Mr. Rogers Fail?

Did Mr. Rogers fail?

This question hangs heavy over Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a movie that is thankfully less of the hagiography I expected and more an examination of one man’s attempt to make a difference. But did he? I’m not just pulling that out of thin air – very early in the movie one of his friends asks that very same question.

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THE FIRST PURGE: A Searing Howl Of Exploitation Anger

The First Purge is a searingly angry film, a scifi movie whose subtextual messaging is so barely subtextual that the film plays less like an alternate future than a prescient look at the day after tomorrow. The film is a howl of rage not at an imaginary Purge but at the slow and deliberate genocide being visited upon black and brown families in our country today, right now, a genocide carried out by cops and ICE and broken social service systems that not only devalue black and brown suffering, but possibly sees it as a perk.

If that’s a big statement to make about the fourth Purge movie, the fourth Purge movie is a big statement. As the blazingly political fourth film in a series, The First Purge is filled with the DNA of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, a movie that modeled its ape uprising scenes on footage of the Watts Riots. As a die-hard Apes fan this is not a comparison I make lightly; I don’t think The First Purge is as good as Conquest (screenwriter James DeMonaco is definitely no Paul Dehn), but it’s a descendant of that movie, and like Conquest I think The First Purge will play stunningly to future audiences who won’t quite be able to believe a movie this nakedly political and angry was also an exploitation quickie.

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JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM Review – Same Shit, Different Dinosaur

This review contains spoilers

Jurassic World: The Fallen Kingdom is so dumb it would have voted for Trump. It’s a movie so dumb that its own premise doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it only gets worse from there. The script, by noted bad filmmakers Derek Connelly and Colin Trevorrow, pulls back from the wanton cruelty of the last film but still is entirely incapable of showing the slightest amount of heart. The Jurassic World films are simply sociopathic.

Director JA Bayona at least brings visual chops to the film, unlike Jurassic World, which was flat and boring to look at. Bayona seems to have studied Spielberg frame by frame, and many of the film’s best sequences – the end of the first act island escape, for instance – has the look of vintage Spielberg. But it doesn’t have the feel; Bayona is utterly unable to evoke the actual emotion and joy that Spielberg gets into every frame of his adventure films. Bayona’s Spielberg stuff is a simulacra, a golem of Spielberg that walks and talks but has no soul. Continue reading “JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM Review – Same Shit, Different Dinosaur”

HEREDITARY Is The Camp Classic Of 2018

This contains full spoilers for Hereditary

Stephen King famously dislikes Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. As I watched Hereditary I thought a lot about King’s problems with the portrayal of Jack Torrance in that movie: “When we first see Jack Nicholson, he’s in the office of Mr. Ullman, the manager of the hotel, and you know, then, he’s crazy as a shit house rat. All he does is get crazier.”

There’s something similar happening with Toni Collette’s Annie in Hereditary. By the end of the movie she’s a raging crazy person in boots and a nightgown, but it’s not that much of a distance from where she starts out at the beginning of the film. Now, I know that’s part of the point – much of what writer/director Ari Aster is doing in this movie is talking about the transmission of generational trauma – but what this means functionally is that Collette, and the movie around her, very quickly get to 11 on their amplifiers. This is a movie that gets broad very fast, and as a result I spent a lot of time not quite sure if I should be laughing as much as I was.

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SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY Review

Solo: A Star Wars Story is a trifle. Solo is a puff pastry of a movie. Solo is a lark. But none of those things are inherently bad, and in fact they’re kind of refreshing. In the main Star Wars saga we get movies about the big, dramatic moments in galactic history. In Rogue One we got a movie about a small but vital moment in galactic history. In Solo we get a fun heist with some enjoyable double crossing and reversals that has plenty of connections to the larger Star Wars universe but that is more interested in exploring small parts of relationships rather than big pieces of canon.

It definitely feels like a prequel, but not to Star WarsSolo ends in a way that seems to be setting up a major storyline for some future media (a sequel? A cartoon? A series of comics? Masters of Teras Kasi 2?), and it expands out the criminal underworld of Star Wars enough to offer space for all sorts of other spin-offs. There is always a small universe problem plaguing the Star Wars films – everybody talks about the same six planets, after all – but I actually think Solo carves out enough new space (and illuminates existing space in enough interesting ways) to give the Star Wars universe a little extra breathing room.

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DEADPOOL 2: Filth, Violence And… Kindness?

This contains full unmarked spoilers for Deadpool 2.

Deadpool 2 is maybe one softball game away from being a perfect X-Men movie. Strip away the fourth wall breaking, the filthy humor and the ultraviolence and you’re left with a story about a group of misfit mutants coming together to be better people than they can be alone, and to save someone from becoming the worst version of themselves. Along the way there’s tragedy, there’s action, there’s death, there’s teen romance, there are timeline shenanigans and there’s heavy-handed anti-mutant sentiment from villains representing Christianity/conservatives. It’s been almost twenty years since the X-Men first appeared on a movie screen and only now, in this weird jokey side franchise, is their spirit being honored appropriately.

But why would you want to strip away the fourth wall breaking, the filthy humor and the ultraviolence? They’re vital parts of what makes this movie work, and the absurdity and silliness are rivaled only by the movie’s weird pairing of intense violence and sweet kindness. And you know what? I think that kindness is also a thing that Deadpool 2 gets right about X-Men stories that few of the previous films in the sprawling and weird franchise bothered with.

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DEAR WHITE PEOPLE VOL 2: The Best Since M*A*S*H

M*A*S*H has to be the greatest TV show based on a movie. I know there’s likely a big contingent who will go to bat for Buffy the Vampire Slayer – which I love love love – but the difference there is that Buffy the movie didn’t quite work, and Buffy the TV show got to improve on the original. But M*A*S*H? The movie is a classic, yet the show somehow manages to be better and more iconic than the movie (I fully expect some pushback on that from Altman diehards. Fair enough!).

Dear White People on Netflix is closer to M*A*S*H than Buffy; it’s based on a 2014 movie that’s quite great, but the TV version manages to take everything worked in the movie and make it even better. Season one was sort of the Evil Dead 2 of Dear White People – a retelling of the events of the movie with included aftermath – and it was a phenomenal achievement. Creator Justin Simien, who wrote and directed the movie, inherently understood the Netflix binge model, and the show’s format follows one character per episode, with all the stories colliding in the finale. He did this better than Arrested Development season 4’s much-heralded experiment, which I think fundamentally failed. Dear White People focuses on one character at a time, but it doesn’t eliminate the others; it’s sort of the Marvel Cinematic Universe model of TV storytelling, where characters can and will cross over in their individual stories but the focus is always on the episode’s lead.

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