Captive State (2019)

I don’t know what the production or distribution history of the mid-budget alien invasion thriller Captive State indicates, but this seems to be a movie that no one really wants. Director Rupert Wyatt’s only major credit is a Planet of the Apes reboot released nearly a decade ago. The film itself feels like it wrapped production so long ago that it missed an opportunity to boost the screentime of single-scene actors who’ve blown up in the years since – Madeline Brewer (Cam) & KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk) to be specific. Most damningly, it’s a film that’s near-impossible to market, as it’s an alien invasion thriller that’s more interested in the political machinations of humans surviving under intergalactic rule than it is in exploiting the commercial potential of its creature-feature payoffs. A smarter, artier movie like Arrival can get away with that kind of obfuscation, but cheap nerd-ass sci-fi like this generally needs to be more accommodating to wide audiences in its minute-to-minute payoffs. As a result, both pro-critic reviews and box office numbers have been tepid for this underdog sci-fi pic, which has essentially been orphaned by its marketing & distributor. It’s a shame too, since Captive Sate is actually a solid little sci-fi thriller for anyone with an enthusiastic interest in the alien invasion genre.

The reason I say a little sci-fi nerd cred is required to fully engage with the film is that Captive Sate is much more adept at action set pieces & world-building lore than it is at dialogue or meaningful pathos. Set nearly a decade after first contact with invading alien species, the film is set in a post-apocalypse Chicago that’s politically torn between acceptance & resistance. Few characters are allowed any nuance as the film sketches out the two warring factions: a marshal law surveillance state government (represented mostly through John Goodman as a fascist brute) and an underground resistance aiming to topple it (represented by Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders as a low-level street hustler). The movie isn’t especially interested in the emotions or political maneuvers of their personal struggle, though, despite their unlikely social bond that bridges the gap between both sides of the civil war. It’s much more interested in establishing a larger “off-the-grid” future defined by analog equipment like wiretaps, reel to reel recorders, vinyl records, polaroid cameras, in-print newspapers, and carrier pigeons. Nothing typifies this old-world future better than the bird-swarm murmurations of surveillance drones that flutter throughout the city, keeping citizens in line with the threat of facial recognition tech. So much thought went into that establishment of a lived-in world and the political clash & chase scenes staged within it that very little time was left for establishing fleshed-out characters, which is something you just have to be okay with to get on its wavelength,

So what, exactly, is Captive State trying to say with all of this world-building & freshman-year Poli Sci pontification? Its major theme seems to be a contrast between active political resistance & mindless cooperation. Although the roach-like alien beasts (who feel like cousins to the space-bugs of Starship Troopers) are largely off-screen, their presence is felt in the submission & cooperation of a human government that cows to their intergalactic authority. As the film focuses on real-world issues like facial recognition software and exponential wealth disparity over defining the players in that conflict, it does appear to have a “Silence is complicity” ethos when it comes to living under the fascist rule of modern ills like The Trump Administration. It establishes a world where “You must pick a side,” having no patience for the cowardice of political apathy. More practically, the world it establishes is essentially just a playground where it can execute carefully-considered thriller sequences: the surgical body horror of tracking device removal, the heist-planning rhythms of a political assassination, a few spare moments of creature-feature confrontation, endless police chases, etc. I may have a few minor quibbles with its paper-thin characterizations (mainly, how it manages to have immensely talented women like KiKi Layne, Madeline Brewer, and Vera Farmiga on staff, but for some reason affords much more dialogue & screentime to dudes as lowly & uninteresting as Machine Gun Heckin’ Kelly than all of them combined), but I was mostly on board with the picture as a nerd-ass, overly serious sci-fi thriller. It’s just a shame it couldn’t also inspire that enthusiasm in its own distributor.

-Brandon Ledet

The Big Easy (1986)

The only reason it’s so difficult for actors to nail a genuine New Orleans accent is that it’s always been difficult for actors to nail a New Orleans accent. There have been so many wildly inaccurate Cajun French & Antebellum South accents attributed to the city in films & television over the years that out-of-towners have a very distorted idea of what New Orleanians sound like. It’s especially strange if you consider that most low-level impressionists already have a perfect New Orleans “Y’at” accent in their arsenal; they just don’t realize that we sound almost exactly like New Yorkers. Of all the wildly off-base, Cajun-fried, Southern belle accents I’ve heard attributed to the city over the years, none have ever matched Dennis Quaid’s in The Big Easy in terms of pure preposterousness. It’s not that Quaid exaggerates the stereotypical inaccuracies of the big screen N.O. accent. It’s that he sounds like no human being who has ever existed on the planet. He turns the bad New Orleans accent into a baffling spectacle, a truly singular “What the fuck were you even going for?” experience for folks down the road. It’s as confusing as it is mesmerizing. It’s also hilarious.

Quaid stars in The Big Easy opposite Ellen Barkin. He’s a spicy Cajun NOPD officer; she’s the federal DA cracking down on the corruption that runs rampant throughout his department. They learn a lot from each other. She teaches him that his “good guys” vs. “bad guys” binary philosophy is a lot less cut & dry than he explains it to be, considering the bribe money local police extort from the public as if they were working for tips. In return, he teaches her the most valuable thing she could learn from a Cajun firecracker: how to fuck good. The Big Easy arrived at the height of the Joe Eszterhas era of the erotic thriller. It shamelessly exploits the cheesy, sleazy backdrop of New Orleans as an excuse for hedonistic sex & violence (the same way it’s exploited in Cat People ’82 & Zandalee). Barkin enters the city as a frigid, nervous woman who does not know how to relax, and Quaid’s space-alien version of a suave Cajun romantic awakens her inner sexual goddess. Meanwhile, the pair continually find horrifically mutilated, bullet-riddled corpses left by cops & mobsters around the city and collaborate on the paperwork that will dismantle that corruption, which are about as strange of aphrodisiacs as I can imagine.

Of course, the main draw of The Big Easy for locals is the 80s era tourism of New Orleans at is sleaziest. The movie wastes no time there, opening with an aerial helicopter shot of the bayou while drunken zydeco music blares on the soundtrack. The first spoken dialogue is of a radio DJ announcing “It’s 2a.m. in New Orleans, The Big Easy, and we’re stirring up that gumbo!” That’s when Quaid & Barkin meet at the scene of a homicide on the steps of the 80s World’s Fair pavilion (blocks away from my office). Other tourist stops include Voodoo stores, Bourbon St. strip joints, Antoine’s, Tipitina’s, the Cabrini bridge, and nighttime drives down Decatur. Chef Paul Prudhomme drops by the hot-and-dangerous couple’s diner table while they down Dixie beers among neon-lit crawfish signs and conspicuous bottles of Tabasco. Local actors John Goodman & Grace Zabriski appear in bit roles. The St. Aug marching band soundtracks a police chase. The pronunciation of terms like “Whre y’at?” & “Tchoupitoulas” are discussed at length in the dialogue. Even the film’s steamiest sex scenes are set to tender zydeco music, because nothing is allowed to touch the screen here unless it’s being served up Cajun style. It’s a dedication to shameless New Orleans tourism that makes The Big Easy especially entertaining as a locally-set novelty.

As laughably unconvincing as Dennis Quad’s accent is in the movie, he becomes endearing as a local-boy novelty through osmosis as you learn to accept the singular, space-alien lisps & rhythms of his made-up dialect. After all, the wildly inaccurate movie-star attempt at a New Orleans accent has in its own way become part of the city’s DNA. We are often delighted by our own shameless cheese, so it’s easy to fall for Quaid’s peculiar “Cajun” charms as he sings at a fais do-do and shows off his various alligator toys: gator plushies, gator dolls, gator lamps, etc. Barkin is also charming in her own right as the outsider to this world, her mannerisms often reminding me of (a much more stable) Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence. The pair even drum up some genuine erotic tension in their clashing personalities, especially in a courtroom sequence where she’s pressured to interrogate him on the witness stand. Mostly, though, the entire production plays like a ridiculous joke – shamelessly mixing its Skinemax-tier sex with its grotesque mafia-violence gore to achieve something beautifully sleazy & New Orleans-appropriate in its B-movie majesty. Quaid has said in interviews that he regrets the quality of his performance in The Big Easy, a mistake he blames on Hollywood’s collective coke problem in the 1980s. I personally think he has nothing to apologize for, as his preposterous “Cajun” accent and old-fashioned N’Awlins hedonism make The Big Easy a true gift for anyone who loves the city – a trashy, campy delight.

-Brandon Ledet

True Stories (1986)

The RedLetterMedia boys launched a new series on their youtube channel last year called Re:View, in which they discuss films that hold a special significance for them. One of the episodes I had overlooked on its original upload was their discussion of True Stories, David Byrne’s 1986 film that he wrote, produced, and directed (unlike Adulterers, this turned out to be a good thing) as well as starred in. It’s a forgotten gem, even among Talking Heads and David Byrne fans, despite being the origin of one of their hits, “Wild Wild Life,” as well as being the first major role for John Goodman and also featuring Spalding Gray and Swoosie Kurtz. I was instantly taken with the idea and searched for the movie online in the hopes of finding a cheap copy of the out of print DVD, only to discover that the Alamo Drafthouse was going to be screening it only a couple of weeks later, as part of its Essential Texas Film series. I bought tickets faster than you can say “this is not my beautiful wife.”

Byrne plays a nameless cowboy who visits the fictional town of Virgil, Texas, an eccentric place full of quirky people, like a woman who is an outrageous liar, another woman who is so rich she never gets out of bed, a conspiracy theorist preacher, and a benevolent tech tycoon who hasn’t spoken to his wife in years. The town is preparing a celebration of specialness (the final syllable is stressed by all those who speak the word) in honor of their sesquicentennial, with such features as a mall fashion show, an unusual parade, a lip-sync competition, and the final, strange performance that one could call a talent show, but probably shouldn’t. If there is a main character other than the drifting cowboy, it’s Lewis (Goodman), a clean room technician at Varicorp, the local tech company that employs most of the people of Virgil. Lewis is a man looking for “matrimony with a capital ‘M’” who loves life, country music, and women, although what he wants more than anything is a wife who will appreciate his “consistent panda bear shape” and odd fashion sense.

The lifeblood of Virgil is its motley assortment of citizens, but the town’s economy is supported by Varicorp, manufacturer of microchips and other gadgets. Earl Culver (Gray) is the CEO and a local civic leader who loves the little town, and supports its growth philosophically as well as financially, and delivers some of the more socially intriguing dialogue in the film. Throughout, various characters provide their different viewpoints on (then) modern life, all of it charmingly endearing and prescient, although some monologues (like Culver’s dinnertime speech about the changing economy as the result of technological development, including the announcement that “there’s no concept of ‘weekends’ anymore!”) have aged better than others (like the Cowboy’s musings on the way that shopping malls have replaced downtowns as the cultural and social center of modern life). Many characters lack proper names, like the Nice Lady, who interrupts the parade of newborn babies to coo and fawn over every one of them but cannot tolerate even the mildest shadow of sadness, rejecting Lewis because of the formless melancholy of the country ballad he’s composing for the Celebration. There’s also the Lying Woman, a notable town figure who claims to have been at the center of the conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy, that she rejected Burt Reynolds despite his obsessive devotion to her, and that she has psychic powers born from having spent so much of her time as a child staring at the her own surgically removed vestigial tail (her mother later sold the oddity to LBJ, who in turn sold it to the Smithsonian for a pretty penny, so she claims).

Many would read this description and feel like the film is predicated upon mocking small towns and the people who live there, but the movie is actually utterly sympathetic to every character that appears on screen, even those who are in conflict with others. Byrne has admitted that the film’s inspiration came from reading tabloids while on the road and imagining a place where all the weirdos from these pages lived in a kind of harmony, which would also lead one to think that there would be a maliciousness in the voyeuristic peeks that we get into the lives of the citizens of this town. But no; life in Virgil has a melody and a magic, and no character is ever made out to be a fool or is treated with anything other than genuine respect by other characters as well as Byrne’s lens. Even ugly and featureless housing developments are gifted with an air of mystery and treated with a gentle tenderness. As the Cowboy drives through one and the camera pans slowly past discarded newspaper billowing in the wind like a tumbleweed across several balding lawns in front of featurelessly utilitarian brown brick homes, he asks “Who’s to say it’s not beautiful?”, and the every member of the audience must admit that, when viewed this way, none of them can make such a claim.

Uproariously funny, effortlessly poignant, and endlessly quotable, True Stories is the true celebration of specialness, a time capsule of unapologetic warmth and unconditional fondness for an oft-disparaged way of life. If you can track down a copy, sink your talons into it and never let it go. Watch the trailer here.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Speed Racer (2008)

It can be difficult to pinpoint the exact moment a movie’s reputation crosses the line dividing underrated gem and overrated misfire, but the live-action Speed Racer reboot is getting dangerously close to crossing that threshold. After a string of cult hits with Bound, The Matrix, and V for Vendetta, the Wachkowskis got their first taste of massive critical & financial failure when Speed Racer flopped in wide release. In development under several creative teams since 1992 and racking up a budget well over the $100 million mark, the project was likely doomed from the start, but what the Wachowskis delivered was far more bizarrely energetic & personally enthusiastic than what you’d typically expect from major blockbusters that suffer similar growing pains. Speed Racer’s green screen vision of a live-action hyperreality where everything from future sport car races on impossible Hot Wheels-style tracks to pancake breakfasts in a small suburban home feels equally, eye-bleedingly cartoonish is an intense sugar rush of weird ideas I wish even half of all summertime blockbusters could stack up to. The problem is this enthusiasm amounts to an unwieldy, 140 minute long story that’s more epic in length than it is in scale, shoveling that visual sugar into audience’s mouths by the truckload instead of the spoonful. As much as I empathize with dedicated fans of the film who wish to counteract the disregard for this weirdo visual energy by hailing it as a masterpiece, I have to admit that the film is ultimately Too Much of itself. Its cumulative effect is impressive, but exhausting.

Emile Hirsch stars as the titular Speed Racer, a suburban racecar driver who struggles to live in the shadow of his presumed-dead brother, Rex Racer. Speedy has a team of helping hands hoisting up his legacy (as all racecar drivers do), including a parental power couple played by John Goodman & Susan Sarandon and a ride or die love interest played by Christina Ricci. Outside a subplot concerning the death/disappearance of Rex Racer & the not-so-secret identity of the mysterious outlaw Racer X, the story mostly concerns Speedy’s struggles with fame as he’s called up to the big leagues by major corporate sponsors. A dichotomy between small, wholesome racing families and massive big money corporations is drawn as Speedy is asked to participate in a rigged system where racecar driving is treated like pro wrestling: scripted sports entertainment. I don’t have a mind specifically geared to care about cars, but the video game landscapes where these races are staged are a beautiful sight to behold. Speed Racer can often devolve into a jumbled mess of flashback-corrupted timelines and go-nowhere Gags For The Kids involving a goof-em-up chimpanzee, but its story about a young upstart toppling an evil corporation through a pure, passionate dedication to his sport is certainly infectious, especially when paired with this kind of sci-fi, Rollerballish futurism. I’m not sure early scenes detailing Speed Racer’s childhood troubles adjusting to schoolwork & literally competing with his brother’s memory have to be nearly as extensive as they are, but they do help establish the heightened, color-intense surreality of a child’s imagination that commands the film’s overall aesthetic. In terms of plot, Speed Racer‘s major flaw might be that there’s too much of it, possibly a result of adapting pre-existing manga & anime source material for s standalone feature.

I don’t mean to sound overly negative on the Wachowskis’ aggressively strange, admirably overreaching cartoon vision. I was entirely sold on Speed Racer as an ambitious, singular work of world-building through simple CGI, the way Steven Chow features often impress me in their unembarrassed embrace of the artform. The way characters feel entirely separate from their background environments (which feature the most artificial-looking Nature exteriors since Douglas Sirk) is very much in tune with the art of comic book panels & anime action sequences, maybe more so than any other live-action film outside Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. The way the film clashes a wholesome, nostalgic worldview represented in old-timey racing footage from the silent era and line readings of “Jeepers!” & “Cool beans!” against a ludicrous future overrun by segways & impossible superhighways is a beautifully rendered aesthetic I’m not sure I’ve ever seen in a film before. I totally agree with Speed Racer apologists & devotees who contend that the alternate reality fantasy the Wachowskis crafted here should not have been dismissed outright (the way I readily dismissed their sci-fi adventure epic Jupiter Ascending without blinking). What keeps me from hailing the work as a overlooked masterpiece, though, is the way that fantasy is made to be exhausting by something as easily fixable as the film’s length. After about 80 minutes of Speed Racer the film had offered an incredible cartoon hyperreality the world has never seen before. The only thing it can do for the hour that follows, however, is offer more of what you’ve already seen. As delighted as I was by any of the film’s in-the-moment surprises (one gag involving a weaponized beehive in particular had me choking on my wine), the film’s overall effect was just Too Much of a Good Thing. If Speed Racer were an hour shorter I’d likely be joining in the praise of it as an overlooked masterpiece. As is, I can only appreciate it as a fascinating, sprawling mess of deliciously bizarre, enthusiastic ideas that long outlive their welcome.

-Brandon Ledet

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

I was really expecting a lot out of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and while I wasn’t disappointed per se, as a great deal of it lived up to the expectations that I had, there was still enough to detract from its majesty to leave me feeling relatively cold in the end. This may come as a surprise to you, given that I was and am a staunch defender of Jupiter Ascending (going so far as to put it on my Top Ten of 2015 list), but it comes as even more of a surprise to me. Maybe it’s that the charisma score of the two leads in Ascending (Channing Tatum +10, Mila Kunis -4, sum total 6) was still higher than that of Valerian (Dane DeHaan, normally a +8 for me, comes in at a +1.5 here, and Cara DeLevigne at a surprising +4), or maybe it’s that Ascending was a dumb-but-pretty thrill ride that escalated over the course of the film while Valerian is front-loaded with a lot of greatness that peters out into a banal “love” story by the conclusion.

The film opens on a magical and beautifully rendered sequence, set to “Space Oddity,” that shows the progress of the Alpha space station as it grows over time to include a multitude of different national space programs and astronauts, then to include delegates and additions from other space-faring races, to ultimately become so massive that it has to leave earth’s orbit and move into the Magellan Current (there’s no such thing that I know of, although there are dwarf and satellite galaxies near our own that are known as Magellanic Clouds). 400 years after leaving our solar system*, Alpha is home to millions of life forms from over a thousand races. Major Valerian (DeHaan) and his partner Laureline (DeLevigne) are special agents of the Human Federation (it’s unclear why the amalgamation of races is referred to this way, or if the humans merely administrate the station due to the fact that they built the original core) on a mission to retrieve a valuable life form from a Jabba-esque alien (John Goodman) at an interdimensional bazaar. En route, Valerian receives a soul-powered dream/vision from a young alien princess who died following a catastrophic disaster on her home planet of Mül, an event that destroyed her world and drove her people to the brink of extinction.

Following their success, Valerian attempts to research Mül, but all information about it is classified, even to their four-star general superior Okto Bar (Sam Spruell). Their attempts to further discern what happened to the planet are thwarted when General Filitt (Clive Owen) is called upon to give a speech to assembled member species about a radiation zone which has appeared in the center of Alpha, and from which no survey team or tactical party has yet returned. This assembly is attacked and the general kidnapped, forcing Valerian to pursue and Laureline to investigate further, leading her down a rabbit hole adventure of duck-like aliens with trunks and scrotal skin, a psychic jellyfish that feeds on memories, a steampunk submarine pirate named Bob, and nearly getting eaten. Meanwhile, Valerian’s misadventures lead him to enlisting the help of a shapeshifting alien named Bubble (Rihanna), and finding out what really happened on Mül and who’s responsible.

I was so on board for this film, and I was completely in the moment, despite some reservations, until the point when Laureline is kidnapped. I wasn’t a huge fan of Valerian’s creepy possessiveness of and desire for Laureline, but I was willing to forgive this transgression as a kind of blind deconstruction of the Han/Leia relationship (YouTube channel Pop Culture Detective has a pretty good video essay on this subject here) until it became apparent that their relationship was meant to be read as completely sincere. This was the biggest sticking point for me in the first half of the movie, but I was still along for the thrill ride through that nonsense and a belabored info dump. However, the film starts to drift when Laureline is captured by the languageless alien monsters that hate outsiders (a friend compared them to Jar Jar Binks, saying that they weren’t explicitly racist caricatures like he was, but their tribalism, cannibalism, and lack of higher speech functions smacks of “space ignorance”). Meanwhile, Valerian has to recruit Bubble to help him as a disguise to enter their xenophobic culture to save Laureline (after she saved him first, so she’s no damsel in distress). This, too, is pretty dull, give or take a PG-rated shapeshifting Rihanna exotic dance number.

If you’ll recall, when Avatar came out, there were stories about people who were so obsessed with living in the world of Pandora that they were getting cosmetic surgery and considering suicide. That seemed absurd to me then (and now), but while I have no desire to shuffle off my mortal coil, I’ve never before experienced such an intense desire to live inside a film’s aesthetic than I have when watching the delegates of fish people and mechanical men arrive on Alpha. Aside from an expositional infodump as Valerian and Laureline return to the space station, there’s too little exploration of the world that’s been created. Instead, the film gets distracted by plot cul-de-sacs that explore areas of Alpha that are far less interesting than those of which we get only a glimpse. I used to think that we would never again live in a world where the special effects in a movie would be the film’s biggest draw, along the lines of how the word of mouth about Independence Day revolved around the monumental destruction of landmarks, bringing in more audience members than could have been expected. That’s not really true, however; the effects in Valerian are so effective at rendering a beautiful world that you can’t help but get lost in it. It’s so engrossing that, when a supposedly emotional moment is happening between Laureline and Valerian near the end of the film, you forget to pay attention to the plot, such as it is. Combine that with some heavy-handed (and questionable) use of the Noble Savage trope, a dramatic “reveal” of the film’s villain that is anything but, and a notable lack of chemistry every time DeHaan and DeLevigne are on screen together, and you’ve got a beautifully imagined world captured in a fairly lackluster film.

*Except not really. The film states that Alpha has progressed 700 million miles from earth at the time that the majority of the film takes place, which is . . . still in our solar system. To put it in perspective, the earth is an average distance of 93 million miles from the sun (a distance referred to in astronomy as an “astronomical unit,” or AU), so this would put Alpha less than 8 times further from our sun than we are, or, more poetically, further than Jupiter but closer than Saturn. The furthermost planet, Neptune (please refrain from expressing your non-scientific sentimentality for Pluto in the comments), is 2.795 billion miles from the Sun. Of course, it’s absurd that the film (and I in this footnote) are charting anything in miles, since astronomy is a science and science uses the metric system. Even if I misunderstood and the film said that Alpha was 700 billion miles (or 0.119 light years) out, our closest stellar neighbor Proxima Centauri is 24.94 trillion miles (4.243 light years) away, so it really hasn’t gotten far, especially in four centuries. That’s a mere 43.435 light days from earth! If this were set today, August 1, 2018, that means that I could live on Alpha and pick up radio transmissions from June 19. But just because they think Chester Bennington is still alive and have no idea that Anthony Scaramucci has been appointed and deposed, they’ll know soon. It’s hardly a distance befitting the majesty of pulling Rutger Hauer out of his bed of mothballs to give a grand speech about travelling among the stars. But I digress.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Atomic Blonde (2017)

There’s been some extensive discussion lately about how nostalgic media had gone too far with its Remember This? relics & references to 80s & 90s pop culture. Titles like Stranger Things & Ready Player One have proven popular with mass audiences, but have also drawn eyerolls from plenty critical outlets for their easy nostalgia bait. One of the more bizarre aspects of the Charlize Theron action vehicle Atomic Blonde is the way it hops on that same 80s nostalgia train, yet somehow its pop culture throwbacks feel oddly curated and not quite part of the trend. Set on both sides of The Berlin Wall in the few days leading to it being torn down in 1989, the film’s pop culture references include things like David Hasselhoff, Tetris, skateboarding, grafitti, neon lights, etc. In one indicative scene, Theron beats up a horde of faceless goons in front of a movie screen at a cinema that happens to be projecting Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Atomic Blonde is a weird little nerd pretending to fit in with the popular kids. Its blatant nostalgia for 80s pop culture should make it a widely accessible work, but there’s something off-kilter about its reference points that immediately single it out as a sore thumb outsider.

As nerdy as Atomic Blonde‘s 80s pop culture references can be, its basic pleasures are lizard brain simple. This is a summertime popcorn picture that banks on the central hook that its audience will never tire of watching Charlize Theron beat down men while wearing slick fashion creations & listening to synthpop. Its central mystery about double/triple agents jockeying to get the upper hand at the fever pitch of the Cold War is never nearly as significant as a David Bowie needledrop or a panning shot detailing Theron’s complicated underwear as she gears up for another day of crushing dude’s throats. Costume designer Cindy Evans deserves just as much credit as ex-stuntman director David Leitch or Theron herself for making the movie feel at all distinctive or memorable. The brutality of the action choreography (much of which Theron performed herself) & the immediate pleasures of the soundtrack (which includes acts as varied as New Order, Public Enemy, George Michael, Ministry, and Siouxsie & The Banshees) are entertaining enough as post-Tarantino/Scorsese pop cinema diversions. It’s the fashion design set against the Crimes of Passion-esque neon lighting that helps distinguish the film as its own idiosyncratic work, however, which should give you an idea of how surface level & visual its merits are on the whole.

Although the feeling wouldn’t last long, I was actually very much excited for Atomic Blonde‘s narrative structure when Theron’s ass-kicking protagonist was first introduced. She begins the film already icing her wounds in a freezing cold bath, recovering from a spy mission to the Eastern side of The Berlin Wall. This decision reminded me so much of the archetypal JCVD & Schwarzenegger action pics of the 80s & 90s, which usually introduce the hero at the tail end of one adventure before beginning the one that will command the plot. Instead, this opening is soon revealed to be a feature-length flashback, wherein the story is told in an investigative interview with British & American intelligence agencies. A needlessly complicated plot about double agent assassinations & a McGuffin referenced to as The List gradually emerges, but is told in such sweeping, summarizing swaths that any in-the-moment suspense over the central mystery is left muted at best, incomprehensible at worst. Instead of trying to figure out which of her collaborators has sold her out to the KGB (James McAcoy? John Goodman? Toby Jones?), the audience is better off letting go of narrative completely & indulging in the image of Theron kicking ass to kick-ass synthpop. The flashback structure undercuts a lot of the immediacy of that simple pleasure (with the major exception of an extended stairwell sequence that wisely slows down to allow the sheer brutality to fully sink in), but the strengths of the fashion design, the soundtrack curation, and Theron’s physical presence are enough for the film to persevere.

Atomic Blonde‘s origins as a graphic novel adaptation and a pet project from one of the minds behind the John Wick franchise are blatantly apparent. Its reliance on the slickness of its imagery and the Hey Remember This? quality of its off-kilter 80s nostalgia are much more firmly in its wheelhouse than the complex double/triple crossings of its Gotcha! mystery plot. Now that Theron’s rock solid protagonist had emerged as a high fashion, animalistically brutal James Bond type, despite the lackluster plot that surrounded her, the world is primed for that Just Another Adventure, JCVD-style sequel. She’s got a killer look, a signature drink (Stoli on the rocks), an established bisexual flair for bedding other agents, and, most importantly, is damn convincing as a physical threat to faceless baddies. Since the movie leaves off at the dawn of the 1990s, she even has a whole new era of odd duck nostalgia bait to milk on her next mission. I enjoyed Atomic Blonde for what it is, but it has some glaring narrative issues I feel could easily be course-corrected in an Atomic Blonde 2. I fear this picture’s box office returns will be too slight to generate a sequel, but at least its sense of fashion has left us with a killer lookbook as consolation.

-Brandon Ledet

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

The big risk in me venturing out to see the latest King Kong reboot was that my love for loud & dumb movies about giant monsters might be crushed by my ever-growing boredom with war narratives. Kong: Skull Island made no secret of its Vietnam War cinema aesthetic in its advertising, promising to be something like an Apocalypse Now With Kaiju Primates genre mashup. The actual film is something more like Platoon With Kaiju Primates, but the effect is still the same. Skull Island‘s main hook is that it uses the traditional King Kong narrative as a thin metaphor for U.S. involvement in Vietnam (and other unwinnable, imperialistic conflicts of world-policing), declaring things like “Sometimes the enemy doesn’t exist until you’re looking for them.” It’s the same exact themes that are hammered to death across nearly all Vietnam War movies with the exact same Love The Smell of Napalm imagery (ever seen an explosion reflected in aviator sunglasses before?) and more or less the same needle drops (don’t worry if they don’t immediately play CCR; it’ll eventually happen twice). As an audience, I’m missing an essential Dad Gene that enables people to care about a very specific end of Macho Genre Cinema (including war films, submarine pictures, Westerns, and, oddly enough, the James Bond franchise). If there’s anyone out there with that Dad Gene who still enjoys the occasional Vietnam War film, they’d likely have a lot more fun with Kong: Skull Island than I did. For me, it was like someone mixed jelly into my peanut butter jar because they didn’t bother cleaning their spoon.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment about Kong: Skull Island is that it amounts to less than the sum of its parts. The cast alone is a testament to a staggering waste of potential: Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Tom Hiddleston, recent Oscar-winner Brie Larson, all wasted. The movie is stacked with onscreen talent, but just about the only memorable performances delivered are from a fully committed Shea Whigham & John C. Reilly, who both pull off a tragic/comic balance in their respective roles as shell-shocked war veterans. Reilly is (rightly) getting a lot of attention in this film as a shipwrecked soldier who’s been stranded on Skull Island since WWII and is deliriously relieved to see people who share his language & culture for the first time in decades. The biggest laugh I got out of the film, though, was in watching Whigham chow down on a can of beans and casually describe his first battle with a skyscraper-sized ape as “an unconventional encounter.” The sense of wasted potential extends far beyond the immense talent of its dispassionate cast, however. Even its central hook of attempting a Vietnam Movie With A Giant Ape seems like it was handled in the blandest, least interesting way possible. Instead of writing a revisionist history where Kong is transported to Vietnam and intermingles with the soldiers on the ground, the soldiers are transported to his home, the titular Skull Island. This sets up an echo of the exact same narrative we’ve seen in nearly every version of a Kong picture. Peter Jackson’s (infinitely more passionate) version of King Kong was released just a little over a decade ago. All this one does to update it is toss in some helicopters & flamethrowers and increase the size of the titular ape.

I’m not sure a full plot description is necessary here, so I’ll try to make it quick. The day after the U.S. declares its withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973, a military troop is ordered to secretly escort a geological mission to survey the once mythical Skull Island. [Scene missing: soldiers complaining that they’re being deployed instead of going home.] There’s a lengthy assembling-the-team sequence where everyone’s various motives & vulnerabilities are revealed for future significance, but no one character gets enough screentime to make any of it count for anything. Do we really need to know Brie Larson’s background as a hippie anti-war photographer to watch her blankly stare at monsters & the Northern Lights for the next 90min? Doubtful. The “geological” expedition, of course, is a betrayal, a cover-up for finding proof of a two-fold conspiracy theory: that the Earth is hollow and that giant monsters live inside it. Once discovered, King Kong is initially seen as a threat, as he attacks the military crew that bombs his home in an attempt to prove those (correct) theories. Eventually, however, it’s revealed that the gigantic ape is the protector of the island and, by extension, the world at large. He fights off & keeps at bay the other monsters that threaten to crawl out of the hollow Earth to terrorize mankind: giant spiders, squids, something John C. Reilly’s freaked out war vet calls “skull crawlers,” etc. This dynamic of Kong as a protector doesn’t really do much for the film’s central Vietnam War metaphor. It mostly just hangs in the air as a naked setup for a M.U.T.O. (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism, no C.H.U.D. that) cinematic universe, which is eventually supposed to link up with the most recent American Godzilla property (as opposed to the far superior Japanese one) for a pre-planned crossover film. And there you have yet another passionless blockbuster that’s a mere placeholder for a future film franchise payoff.

If I haven’t talked enough about Kong himself so far, it’s because the movie doesn’t give me much to work with. There isn’t too much new or different about the infamous beast in his most recent form. The quality of the CGI hasn’t advanced all that significantly since Jackson last tackled the property in ’05, which is kind of a big deal in the King Kong genre, going all the way back to its stop-motion animation roots in the 1930s. The ape’s gotten a lot bigger in scale (likely in preparation for his upcoming kaiju battles) and modern 3D made for an occasional moment of action cinema eye candy, but I couldn’t work up much awe or horror for the misunderstood monster, which is a problem. His inner anguish is always secondary to the soldiers’, never being afforded much of an onscreen emotional narrative outside John C. Reilly plainly informing us that he’s the last of his kind. Sacrificing the ape’s inner life for some killer kaiju battles might’ve made that thin emotional groundwork forgivable, but the giant monster violence of Kong: Skull Island is also a little lacking. In old school kaiju movies (and in more faithful throwbacks like Pacific Rim) the monsters would fight for minutes at a time, establishing pro wrestling-style narratives through the physical language of their battle sequences. Here, the fights only last for seconds at a time as we follow the human characters who navigate their paths of their destruction. Again, my disinterest with that end of the dynamic might have a lot to do with my general boredom with war movie plotting, so mileage may vary on that point. It just feels strange to me that a movie that boasts Kong’s name in the title would be so disinterested in the ape himself.

None of this is to say that Kong: Skull Island is a total disaster and an entirely joyless affair. There are some moments of monster movie mayhem that work well enough as eye candy and both John C. Reilly & Shea Whigham do their best to boost the spirit of the proceedings with some much-needed levity & camp. (I think my ideal, streamlined version of the film just be those two characters alone in a Swiss Army Man-style romance adventure on the same kaiju-infested island.) Overall, though, the movie feels like a well-funded version of a SyFy Channel mockbuster that can afford to hire legitimate actors instead of Ian Ziering or Steve Guttenberg or whoever’s up for it that particular weekend. Unlike the recent genre film rehash Death Race 2050, which applies that SyFy style of direct-to-VOD CG cheapie energy to something uniquely bizarre, Kong: Skull Island lacks any distinguishing sense of passion. I guess you could point to a smash-cut of Kong eating a human to a human eating a sandwich or the basic novelty of a giant ape fighting a giant squid as holding some kind of camp value, but that’s a bit of a stretch, given how much the movie focuses on its stale Vietnam War themes. The silliest Skull Island film gets in its basic DNA (outside Reilly & Whigham’s respective quirks) is in its shameless shots of muscular Kong ass, but even that line of putting-it-all-out-there ape anatomy could’ve been more over the top, #GiveKongADong2017. Maybe audiences more in tune with the basic thrills of war movies as a genre will feel differently, but I struggled to find anything in the film worth holding onto. Its stray stabs at silliness didn’t push hard enough to save it from self-serious tedium and its Vietnam War metaphor wasn’t strong enough to support that tonal gravity. Everything else in-between was passable as a passive form of entertainment, but nothing worth getting excited over, much less building a franchise on.

-Brandon Ledet

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

disaster

fourstar

One thing that’s always disturbed me about “doomsday preppers” & “survival” enthusiasts is that they always seem to be perversely looking forward to the post-apocalyptic scenarios they’re supposedly preparing against. When preppers warn of possible end-of-the-world scenarios that will tear society to shreds, the first thing that always comes to mind is the question “Who would want to survive that?” Whether the world as I know it ends by zombie outbreak, alien attack, or (most likely) nuclear fallout, I’d honestly rather die that pick through the wreckage with the paranoid, power-hungry bullies who had been anticipating that downfall. Apparently I’m not alone in that opinion.

10 Cloverfield Lane is less of a “sister film” sequel to the (shrill, annoying, insufferable) 2008 found-footage sci-fi horror Cloverfield & more of a tense, horror-minded thriller about the monstrous spirit lurking within doomsday prepper culture. I’m not sure that it’s the first film to depict the selfish nastiness & misanthropy at the heart of “survival” types in the context of the horror genre, but it’s the first I’ve seen and it’s damn effective. After a brutal car accident, a young New Orleans woman (played by Faults‘s un-deprogrammable cult fanatic & Scott Pilgrim’s mall punk girlfriend Mary Elizabeth Winstead) finds herself chained to the wall of a mysterious basement wearing only her underwear. Her captor (played by a beyond terrifying John Goodman in what might be a career-high performance) attempts to convince her that she’s “lucky” to be contained in his bunker because “there’s been an attack” & “everyone outside [the shelter] is dead.” Skeptical of her captor’s “generosity” & the idea that “getting out of [there] is the last thing [they] want to do”, our hero carefully attempts to piece together exactly what the strange man wants her for, what’s waiting for her in the outside world, and what’s her safest, most expedient form of escape. 10 Cloverfield Lane keeps the answers to these questions shrouded for as long as possible, but one thing is certain throughout: whatever monstrous threat is waiting outside the shelter could not be has as awful as the one running the show within.

Part of the reason 10 Cloverfield Lane is such a great film is that it’s the exact opposite of its predecessor. Ditching the shaky cam blur that made Cloverfield such a nauseous mess, the film adopts a very grounded, straight-forward visual style that recalls William Friedkin’s masterful stage play adaptations Bug, The Birthday Party, and The Boys in the Band. More importantly, the first Cloverfield film never developed its characters beyond shrill archetypes fleeing danger. When someone’s endlessly shrieking “Rob’s got Beth on the phone! Rob’s got Beth on the phone!” and you don’t know or care who Rob & Beth are, it’s difficult to be anything but annoyed. 10 Cloverfield Lane, by contrast, locks its audience in a basement with a small cast of fearful doomsday survivors suffering under the power dynamics of the cycles of abuse. It’s much easier to be engaged by a film on an emotional level in that kind of scenario.

There is something very essential that both Cloverfield films share, however: the overwhelming power of their central mysteries. If these two films are to be understood as a loose anthology, it’s the basic trick of keeping the audience in the dark that binds them. 10 Cloverfield Lane ups the ante by not only clouding the truth about what exact outside force is looming as a threat over its proceedings (zombies, Russians, Martians, nuclear war, and mutant space worms are all suggested at some point), but also introducing a complexly monstrous threat from within the characters’ ranks that is simultaneously abusive, protective, and difficult to understand. The film’s woman-in-captivity terror is far from unique (actually, it seems to be somewhat of a full-blown trend recently) but the way its Stockholm syndrome familial bonds & doomsday prepper cultural context complicates that narrative allows the film to crawl under your skin in a way that its predecessor never even approached, whether or not its threat was just as mysterious. All of this, a go-for-broke third act that throws all caution to the wind, an expert use of the Shondells classic “I Think We’re Alone Now” to boot. 10 Cloverfield Lane shook me, surprised me, and confirmed my deepest fears about “survival” nuts’ ugly thirst for post-apocalyptic power grabs. That’s far more than I could’ve expected from a “spiritual sequel” to a found footage horror I failed to enjoy all three times I gave it a shot.

-Brandon Ledet