Capsule Reviews: July 2021—Recent Releases

Gunpowder Milkshake

About halfway through Gunpowder Milkshake, the Stereolab classic “French Disko” appears on the soundtrack. “This world’s essentially an absurd place to be living in,” sings Læticia Sadier. The lyric seems like a commentary on the film’s fictional world. The song comes right after a car chase featuring an eight-year-old girl in Karen Gillan’s lap, with the girl doing the steering and Gillan barking orders (“HARD LEFT!!!”) and operating the pedals. And that’s not even the most absurd thing we’ve seen in the film so far.

Gunpowder Milkshake is entertaining enough. It has a stellar cast: Gillan and Lena Headey as mother-and-daughter contract killers; Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh, and Carla Gugino as a trio of assassins masquerading as librarians; Paul Giamatti and Ralph Ineson as heads of criminal syndicates. There’s a lot of action, much of it impressively inventive. Unfortunately, it suffers from a lack of originality in plot and form: it often feels like a remake of Léon set in the world of John Wick and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. But then again, if you’re watching it at all, you’re probably getting exactly what you expect.

Directed by Navot Papushado. Starring Karen Gillan, Lena Headey, Chloe Coleman, Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh, Carla Gugino, Paul Giamatti, Ralph Ineson. ★★★

Old

Watching Old often feels like riding an ancient, rickety steam engine that threatens to derail at any moment. Thankfully, M. Night Shyamalan keeps it on track.

That’s not to say that Old isn’t fifty pounds of goofy in a two-pound sack; it definitely is. But the cast sells the material, Shyamalan showcases his visual trademarks as much as possible, and the setting provides plenty of eye candy. I’m not sure the third-act reveal (it’s not really a twist) sends the message people should be hearing right now, but I guess you can’t have everything.

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Starring Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Alex Wolff, Thomasin McKenzie, Abbey Lee, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Ken Leung, Eliza Scanlen, Embeth Davidtz, Emun Elliott, Alexa Swinton. ★★★

Black Widow

Natasha Romanoff’s first (and likely only) solo outing features plenty of explosions and people jumping off things; what else do you expect from a Marvel movie? But it’s the character interplay that makes it worth watching, with Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh (Midsommar), David Harbour (Stranger Things), and Rachel Weisz painting a portrait of a profoundly dysfunctional surrogate family. They’re not exactly The Americans, but they liven up a plot that often feels like Bourne-by-numbers.

But like Gunpowder Milkshake, you’re probably watching it for the cast and the action, not the plot. And the screenwriting team—which includes WandaVision showrunner Jac Schaeffer—manages to find room for some insightful gender commentary.

Directed by Cate Shortland. Starring Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, O-T Fagbenle, Ray Winstone, William Hurt, Olga Kurylenko. ★★★

A CLASSIC HORROR STORY

For about half its running time A Classic Horror Story looks like it’s going to be as depressingly generic as its namesake, following as it does horror movie characters doing horror movie things in a horror movie setting.

Then the twist comes, and I’ll give it this: it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a conceit this clever.

Too bad “clever” doesn’t actually end up meaning “good.” The film’s two halves never mesh coherently and give the impression that they belong together. Sure, the visuals are pretty, in an A24 sort of way. The violence is fairly effective, considering it’s happening to people we don’t give a crap about. (The filmmakers seem to think “is pregnant” and “comes from Bristol” constitutes character development.)

It’s not a total waste of time, but there are probably a thousand movies on Netflix you should watch before this one.

Directed by Roberto De Feo and Paolo Strippoli. Starring Matilda Lutz, Francesco Russo, Peppinno Mazzotta, Will Merrick, Yulia Sobol. ★★

THE GREEN KNIGHT

If there’s one word I’d use to describe David Lowery’s treatment of Arthurian legendry, it’s dense. There’s no way I can unpack The Green Knight to the extent it deserves in a capsule review, and I don’t think I have enough insight in me to say something about it that hasn’t been said before. So I’m not even gonna try either.

What I am going to say is this: it’s a common critical cliché to call a work a “meditation” on a concept or a theme, but in the case of David Lowery’s The Green Knight the comparison is more than apt. Its slow pace gives the audience a lot of room to think about what Lowery might be trying to say about stories, heroism, and Lord knows what else.

Alternatively, you could just let the lush visuals surround you and transport you to the age of chivalry, and/or bask in Dev Patel’s performance as Sir Gawain.

I reckon August is a bit early to start praising a film as “best of the year” but The Green Knight sets the bar very high.

Directed by David Lowery. Starring Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Barry Keoghan, Erin Kellyman. ★★★★

 

TV Good Sleep Bad #42: “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Ulysses 31”

Elwood and Lackey bring you another no-singing, no-dancing TV Good Sleep Bad extravaganza! This month it’s the musical cult classic Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (it happens to be what Lackey’s girlfriend watches!) and the obscure French-Japanese animated series Ulysses 31.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

The circle is complete. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker finds J.J. Abrams returning to the trilogy he kicked off five years ago, and the result is…a hot mess, to be honest.

Admittedly, two and a half hours isn’t a lot of time when you have to introduce three new humanoid characters and a few highly-merchandisable non-humans, re-introduce two legacy characters, resolve two films’ worth of dangling plotlines, and provide some sort of tribute to the late Carrie Fisher. So Abrams wastes no time in establishing the basic plot, which boils down to the search for Emperor Palpatine‽ (interrobang required), who has…returned…somehow (cue a million diehard fans crying out in rage at Abrams for pilfering the now-decanonized pre-Disney EU for ideas).

Abrams’ strong points are developing characters and establishing mysteries, which is why he was a great choice to kick off the sequel trilogy. His weak point is resolving those mysteries; ask fans of Felicity and Alias if they thought those series ended satisfactorily. (For the thousandth time, Lost doesn’t count because by the time that show ended, he had zero creative input.) So you can probably see the problems coming a parsec away.

Predictably, the things’s a mess. The narrative lurches from set-piece to set-piece, each one more heavily laden with fan service than the last. Rey, Kylo Ren, and Palpatine all now have nearly godlike proficiency in the Force, making their altercations feel like superhero battles. The now-requisite climactic dogfight-in-space, pitting the scrappy Resistance against an impossibly huge fleet of Ginormous Star Destroyers, lacks a sense of true stakes.

As for Skywalker‘s relationship with its predecessor, Rian Johnson’s contentious (but excellent) The Last Jedi…well, Abrams clearly doesn’t approve of Johnson’s twists and subversions and walks them back as much as he can. To his credit, he manages to squeeze out two or three genuine surprises and manages to make them work surprisingly well. It would have been nice if he had rolled with the changes, though.

Now, you may get the idea that I hated this film, and that’s far, far from the truth. Yes, it’s very uneven, with too many scenes eliciting eye-rolls or groans. Yet the scenes that work work exceptionally well. A lot of it comes down to the sequel series cast, with Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac holding things together brilliantly. (Sadly, Kelly Marie Tran gets short shrift, garnering less screen time and fewer lines than Abrams’s Lost buddy Dominic Monaghan.)

The new additions shine as well. Keri Russell and Naomi Ackie squeeze sparks out of their scenes with Isaac and Boyega, respectively. Richard E. Grant is such an obvious to play a First Order/Imperial officer that one wonders why it took so long to get him into a Star Wars movie. Also, D-O is adorable.

The legacy cast doesn’t fare quite as well. Carrie Fisher’s scenes feel isolated and detached from the rest of the proceedings (which is understandable, as they were cobbled together from Force Awakens and Last Jedi outtakes). Mark Hamill gets one lame scene. It’s great to see Billy Dee Williams again, even if he doesn’t actually do a whole lot.

Abrams’ direction, while somewhat pedestrian (he’s certainly no stylist), at least keeps the energy level high enough to prevent the audience from noticing the glaring plot holes until they get home from the theater.

As the (apparent) official close to both the sequel trilogy and the larger Skywalker saga, The Rise of Skywalker just about does the job. It can’t help but disappoint, but it could have been a whole lot worse.

Ultimately, though, 2019 will be remembered as the year of The Mandalorian; so if you don’t mind, I’ve got a date with Baby Yoda.

Starring Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Naomi Ackie, Domhnall Gleeson, Richard E. Grant, Lupita Nyong’o, Keri Russell, Joonas Suotamo, Kelly Marie Tran, Ian McDiarmid, Billy Dee Williams. Directed by J.J. Abrams. 141 minutes.

My Month in Film: September 2019

I am happy to say that, after a couple years of real-life chaos, I’ve returned to the world of amateur cinematic critiquing. Plus, TV Good Sleep Bad has returned for another run of cult TV randomness. All of this and more, if only I can get the hang of WordPress’s so-called “improved editing experience.” Feh!

September Content Recap

This month’s full-length reviews:

TV Good Sleep Bad: Episode 32 — Gravity Falls and Liquid Television

Other podcast appearances: The LAMBCast #496: It Chapter Two

Capsule Reviews

The Hole in the Ground

I reckon one of the upsides to not having children is that I never have to spend sleepless nights worrying that they’ve been abducted and replaced with physically exact duplicates possessing inhuman strength and a sudden taste for spiders.

Thus, I cannot relate to predicament Sarah, the young single mother played by Seána Kerslake in The Hole in the Ground, finds herself in after she and her young son discover the titular ginormous Hole in the Ground (which looks like a cross between a giant’s eye and the Sarlacc Pit from Return of the Jedi) in the immense, dense woods behind their new house. Which they’ve just moved into after fleeing Sarah’s abusive ex.

I hope you like your horror movies blatantly, unsubtly metaphorical, because so much of this movie fails to make sense if taken literally. (“How has no one other than Sarah and her son managed to notice this god damn huge sinkhole, even though it’s clearly been there since the ’80s at least?” is only one question that that film will not even attempt to address.) Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, until about half-way through, when director/co-writer Lee Cronin shifts gears and decided he wants to spice the pot up with the sort of kick-ass motherhood that was all the rage in early 2010s horror movies.

It has quite a few lovely scenes, and also James Cosmo, who always seems to be at hand when Irish children are menaced by the supernatural (see also: Citadel). And it’s very pretty. Unfortunately, the narrative doesn’t seem to have any ambition beyond “The Babadook, but Irish” which ultimately ends up letting the end product down.

Starring Seána Kerslake, James Quinn Markey, Kati Outinen, James Cosmo. Directed by Lee Cronin. 90 minutes.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Nobody loves Hollywood more than Quentin Tartantino. So I was more than a little surprised when Tarantino’s latest turned out not to be a work of symbolic fellatio. His fairytale of L.A. proves to be quite compelling, largely through its meticulous recreation of the collective American folk-memory of Tinseltown in the first half of 1969, late enough in the ’60s for hippies and Vanilla Fudge’s cover of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” but before Manson and Altamont. (Considered in this light, the film’s much-maligned ending makes perfect thematic sense.)

Key to this is Margot Robbie, a talent whom, like Tarantino, I find myself often adopting a cynical attitude towards even if I’m impressed with her body of work overall. Much has been made of Robbie’s lack of lines in the film, but unusually for QT, her performance works not on the basis of her ability to recite stylized dialog but her ability to embody Sharon Tate, or at least Tate as we collectively fantasize her to have been, not as she actually was. (Which isn’t to say the portrayal isn’t accurate; I don’t know enough about her to judge.) Leo and Brad may get all the QT dialog (although my favorite line of the film, “I’m as real as a donut,” is uttered by someone named Austin Butler), but it’s Margot we’re all going to walk out of the theater remembering.

As with most fairytales, it’s somewhat on the shallow side. Which is fine; Hollywood is not a particularly deep place, or at least, it won’t be until, in the words of Bill Hicks, “L.A. falls in the fuckin’ ocean and is flushed away” and leaves “nothing but a cool, beautiful serenity called Arizona Bay.”

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie. Directed by Quentin Tarantino. 161 minutes.

It Chapter Two

The first chapter of It, released in 2017, ended with the adolescent Losers’ Club promising, should their victory over the film’s titular cosmic terror prove temporary, to come back and finish the job. Of course, such a return engagement would be inevitable, seeing as director Andy Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman left roughly half of Stephen King’s beloved epic doorstop unadapted. So what happens twenty-seven years later, when the now-adult Losers return to the haunted town of Derry, Maine, to once again do battle with Pennywise the Dancing Clown?

I didn’t expect the answer to be “hilarity ensues.” But It: Chapter Two places the comedic elements front and center. It’s not just a case of Saturday Night Live vet Bill Hader, playing pathological wisecracker RIchie, accidentally stealing scenes from heavyweights such as Jessica Chastain (as the tough, no-longer-tomboyish Beverly) and James McAvoy (Bill, now a beleaguered novelist). James Ransone provides his share of comic relief as the grown-up Eddie (no less hypochondriacal than he was as a child), and even McAvoy gets in a camp-laden rant in a memorable scene with a kid on a skateboard. Is this entirely a bad thing, though?

Well, probably, considering it consistently undercuts most attempts Dauberman and Muschietti might make to scare or disturb. With a few exceptions — most notably an early hate crime against a gay couple and a later encounter between Pennywise and a little girl with a facial birthmark — most of Chapter Two’s set-pieces are more likely to elicit amusement than fright. In the case of Hader and Ransone’s encounter with a certain Pomeranian, that’s clearly intentional. Ditto Bill’s encounter with a pawnshop proprietor played by a certain Stephen Edwin King. But one of Ransone’s earlier scenes, where he confronts his childhood demons in a pharmacy basement, probably wasn’t meant to come off as quite so funny.

Most of the film’s comedy comes from the filmmakers’ attempt to condense the source material (one of King’s longest and densest novels) into something that can be portrayed visually. The screenplay preserves the spine of the modern-day half of the novel’s narrative — the adult Losers are introduced, reunited, split apart, and finally reunite again to fight the final battle — while replacing the actual plot beats. Infidelity to King isn’t the problem here, as much of the novel’s action is either internal or metaphysical, and wouldn’t translate well to cinema. (That scene in the book — you know the one I’m talking about — at least makes thematic sense, even if to say it doesn’t work is an understatement.)

But the new beats and concepts (and there are a lot of them; Chapter Two has a runtime just short of three hours) often run the gamut from ridiculous to the profoundly stupid. Both book and film center on a ritual the Losers must enact to overcome It. King portrays it as a largely intuitive battle of wills with its own internal logic; the film transforms it into a silly pile of faux-Native American hogwash, with a scavenger hunt bolted on to facilitate the series of quest subplots that make up the second act. Everything culminates in a climax and denouement so bad that some observers have wondered if it’s intended as a meta-commentary on King’s own reputation as a writer of terrible endings.

I’m tempted to say that Chastain, McAvoy, Hader, and friends deserve better. (In fact they do. Chapter Two underserves the character of Mike as much as Chapter One did, and also conceives the grown-up version of Ben as some sort of sentient wallpaper.) But to be honest, the ensemble’s total commitment to the material makes the film entertaining even when it’s not particularly good. The kids are back, as well, appearing in flashbacks, recreating that easy camaraderie that was one of the first film’s highlights. Meanwhile, Bill Skarsgård, whom Chapter One afforded very little opportunity to actually, y’know, act, gets a lot more to do here than dance a janky jig or lend his visage to a dodgy CGI effect. And some of the film’s most memorable moments belong to him.

Still, it can’t be denied that, qualitatively, It: Chapter Two is, to say the least, highly uneven. As a narrative, it’s (to quote Douglas Adams) a crazy piece of near-junk. As a cinematic experience — well, your mileage may vary, but it’s been a while since I laughed so hard at a movie. I’m not entirely certain that’s what the filmmakers intended, but I’ll take an ambitious failure over a successful mediocrity any day.

Starring Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Andy Bean, Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Martell, Wyatt Oleff, Jack Dylan Grazer, Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs, Jeremy Ray Taylor. Directed by Andy Muschietti. 169 minutes.