Evolution (2001)

Sometimes, your heroes let you down. And sometimes, you’re not really “let down” per se, and the person’s not really a hero, he just directed some of the most formative films of your childhood. Ivan Reitman has made a lot of films, from the classic (Ghostbusters, Stripes) to the mediocre (Ghostbusters II, Twins) to the well received but essentially forgotten (Dave, Legal Eagles) to the infamously bizarre (Junior) to the simply infamous (Six Days, Seven Nights) and the simply bad (My Super Ex-Girlfriend), and even a personal favorite (Kindergarten Cop). But the truth is, as he has aged, he hasn’t grown much or matured, and nowhere it that more evident than in the 2001 flop Evolution. It’s a piece of shit.

Starring David Duchovny as Dr. Ira Kane, a disgraced former military scientist reduced to teaching biology at an Arizona community college, Evolution concerns the arrival of a meteor bearing life forms which rapidly evolve from blue ooze to worms before branching out into monstrous versions of seals, dragons, primates, and such strange beings as carnivorous trees and giant insects. His best friend is Harry Block: professor of geology, women’s volleyball coach, and deliverer of painful one-liners. They arrive at the location of the meteor crash, bluff their way into taking over the site from the local police, and meet Wayne (Seann William Scott), a firefighting cadet whose car was destroyed by the falling space rock. Of course, then the real military shows up, led by General Woodman (Ted “Buffalo Bill” Levine), with scientific advisor Dr. Alison Reed (Julianne Moore). There’s rivalry between the two groups, revelations about Kane’s past failures that resulted in his discharge, and romance! It’s terrible!

Outside of Christian propaganda, I have never in my life seen a movie that was so out of touch with its era and so obviously trapped within the sensibilities of the past. This movie is so sexist and gross, y’all. When it first surfaces, one’s initial reaction is to kind of laugh at it in how dated it is. Like: Reed’s a lady doctor, but she has to be a fucking klutz so she doesn’t come off as threatening to the fragile male audience and their avatar Kane (supposedly this was Moore’s idea, but that smells of the shit of the bull to me). Block and Kane meet her for the first time, with little interaction at all, and then Block spends the rest of the movie egging Kane on to just hit that already, sometimes in non-consecutive scenes that do not feature her appearing between them at all. She’s even subjected to listening to Kane describe her over the radio as a frigid bitch in an overlong monologue as her male colleagues stand around and laugh and make faces at each other like, “He’s right though, eh?” That’s not even getting into the appearance of poor Sarah Silverman acting as Kane’s ex-girlfriend (she’s ten years younger) in a diner where Kane belittles her in front of her new boyfriend about the shirts she never returned (haha?) that is essentially an excuse for Silverman to have to take her top off in a restaurant. And let’s not forget Block’s student Nadine, a woman whose only goal is to pass Geology so that she can get into her nursing program, not because she wants to help people but because appearing to want to help people will give her an edge in some beauty pageant, or the suburban women who find a monster in a pantry and want to make it a pet. Women, am I right? It’s unbelievable how mean-spirited the whole thing feels.

I can’t remember the first essay or article that first brought the underlying pro-Reaganomics anti-government themes of Ghostbusters to my attention; it’s been repeated and bandied about the internet for so long that it would be impossible to track down the originator of that reading (I’d wager it was someone over at Cracked though). But once you see it, you can’t unsee it. For the uninitiated: Ghostbusters can be read as a pro-capitalist text in which Our Heroes are underdogs providing a necessary service to the people of New York and collecting a fee, but the incompetent government (manifested in the goon from the EPA) won’t stop trying to keep the working man down. Also, Venkman won’t stop trying to get Dana to sleep with him, despite her repeatedly saying “no.” All of this is true, but Ghostbusters is also funny and of its time, two claims that cannot be made in defense of Evolution. Not to mention that in spite of Ghostbusters‘s contemporary mixture of misogyny and masculinity, it also had Janine, whose no-nonsense attitude served to counterbalance the boys club that she was surrounded by.

That same disdain for government is on full display here. This movie came out in the summer of 2001, making it not only probably one of the last American films to feature the military without alluding to the War on Terror but also the last American film to show the military as being full of incompetent blowhards (at least until that became one of the narratives of the War in Iraq). Every level of organized government in this film is full to brimming with nincompoops with itchy trigger fingers, from the judge who supports the ousting of Block and Kane from the meteor site, to Woodman and his cronies, to the local police, to the governor of Arizona (played by Dan Aykroyd, who had a line in Ghostbusters mocking the world of public academia in comparison to the “private sector,” which is echoed in Evolution when Reed gives up her posting with the Army to join Kane’s ragtag group of misfits citing that she “always knew the real money was in the private sector anyway”).

The jokes on display here are just so old and out of date, not just for 2018, but for 2001. Poor Orlando Jones has is anally invaded by one of the creatures and it has to be extracted using a scary-looking tool. This is a pretty good example of the level of comedy in this movie.

Doctor: It’s moving too fast! There’s no time for lubricant!

Block: There’s always time for lubricant!

Comedy!

Honestly, this movie is garbage. As with Ghostbusters, this film could have gotten some slack if it were funny, but it’s just so painful. A flying alien dragon monster ends up in a mall, where Seann William Scott sings off-key at a convenient mic stand to lure it back. Orlando Jones goes up a giant life form’s anus in a “clever” payoff to one burrowing up his own ass earlier in the film. Toward the end of the movie, Reed tells Kane that she’s going to “Rock [his] world” once this is all over, and Moore has this look on her face like she just realized that no paycheck in the world was worth the humiliation of being in this throwback. This one’s on Amazon Prime, but you’re better off just watching Ghostbusters. Or Kindergarten Cop.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Wonderstruck (2017)

I seem to be at odds with most audiences on how we as a culture enjoy our Todd Haynes. Most people seem to prefer Haynes when he’s well-behaved, heaping ecstatic praise on his most straight-forward works like Far from Heaven & Carol. I’m much more into Haynes when he gets messy & experimental, like in the multimedia freakouts Poison & Velvet Goldmine. Considering that dissonance, I should have known better than to let the muted critical response to Haynes’s latest release deter me from seeing it big & loud when I had the chance, instead of sheepishly catching up with it months later upon its quiet streaming-platform release. Adapted from a children’s book by Brian Selznick (who also penned the source material for Scorsese’s Hugo, speaking of undervalued experiments from established auteurs), Wonderstruck is a deceptively well-mannered film that appeals to a younger audience in its tone, but formally sprawls into countless, ambitious directions. This film is just as fractured & mischievous as any of Haynes’s most out-there works, yet is thematically eager-to-please enough that its total lack of Academy Awards nominations feels like a deliberate injustice more than a harmless oversight (at the very least, it’s tied with mother! for being most over-looked in the Best Sound Editing category). I’d even argue it’s Haynes’s most impressive, satisfying work since Velvet Goldmine, which would make it his second-best film to date. If there’s one title I’m embarrassed to have not seen before filing my Best of 2017 list, it’s Wonderstruck, which only makes it all the more baffling why it was met with a series of yawns & shrugs instead of the rapturous adoration that was showered on the much more subdued Carol.

Two children, separated by 50 years and hundreds of miles, appear to be mysteriously linked in a shared destiny. They are both deaf, but do not speak sign language. Their parents are absent, but for wildly different reasons. They run away from home and are both drawn to the NYC Museum of Natural History for refuge. Their lives are temporally & geographically disparate, but supernaturally in sync, a mystery that untangles itself in intricate, multi-faceted ways as their stories converge in an unexpected (for them) shared space & time. In the stretch leading up to that convergence, the film busies itself contrasting the two adult worlds these out-on-their-own children perilously navigate. 1920s New York is framed with a traditionalist, black & white silent film palette, poisoning touchstones of Old Hollywood glamour with a distinct sense of NYC meanness. 1970s New York is a warm, sprawling mix of vibrant sounds & colors, even directly challenging the white hegemony of the earlier timeline by flooding the screen with PoC. Perhaps the reason I’m personally drawn to Wonderstruck is because the types of spaces that remain constant in both timelines & unite the two stories are the exact building blocks I’d use to construct an ideal universe: theaters, museums, libraries, bookstores, miniatures, etc. By the time the two deaf children’s parallel narratives converge in a whimsical, minutes-long stop motion sequence staged inside a meticulous miniature model of New York City, I was just completely broken down into pieces by the gorgeous, used book store universe Haynes (and Selznick) had constructed. It was only a kindness on his part to build me back up with the awe-inspiring tenderness of the film’s impossibly satisfying climax, a sweeping, meticulously calculated convergence of worlds that tied so many ethereal narrative threads together so concisely that it left me . . . well, you know the title.

Wonderstruck is far from the first film to attempt to revise & modernize “silent” filmmaking on an epic scale. Where it departs from past works like The Artist & Singin’ in the Rain, however, is in Haynes’s deliberately messy style as a collage artist. The sound design in this film is incredible, weaving effortlessly from immersion in the deaf children’s aural POV’s to the glam rock tapestries of Velvet Goldmine to the piano-accompanied silent era when the deaf & people with functional hearing had much more in common in their shared experiences at the movies. Haynes gleefully indulges in the most obviously attractive aspects of constructing a silent-era throwback, especially in scenes where he films & photographs his long-favorite collaborator Julianne Moore as a classic Old Hollywood starlet. The “silence” in the film’s choices of medium is much more than a question of aesthetic, however, as it’s distinctly, inextricably a part of its narrative DNA. For obvious reasons, Wonderstruck details at length the array of communication breakdowns that can cause havoc in a variety of interpersonal relationships once sound is removed from the communicators’ toolbox. The modes of communication the children and their friends & family must employ to get around their sound/language barrier are almost as varied as the visual media Haynes employs to communicate with his own audience: stop-motion, 3D models, silence, monologue, intensely colored lighting, black & white filmmaking, rapid fire montage, calm children’s film hangouts, etc. He even cast a deaf actress for the film’s lead to aid in the accuracy & immersion in the fractured narrative (Millicent Simmonds, who is also scheduled to appear in the upcoming horror film A Quiet Place). The movie’s silent era throwback vibe is far from empty nostalgia feel-goodery, even if it’s just as openly celebratory of the medium as simpler, more joyful works.

My favorite review of Wonderstruck I’ve seen so far was a blurb from John Waters’s Best of 2017 list, where he recommends parents show it to their kids as a kind of intelligence test, explaining “If your small-fry like the film, they’re smart. If they don’t, they’re stupid.” It’s a glib review that flippantly disregards questions of preference & taste, but it’s one I can’t help but agree with. In fact, I’d expand that uncalled-for insult to the adults who are bored or unmoved by the film as well. Complains that Wonderstruck is emotionless or “gets lost” in the Museum of Natural History baffle me. I can’t imagine a scenario where this many people don’t fall under the spell of Hayne’s kaleidoscopic mix of New York City models made entirely out of 1920s glamour magazines, Guy Maddin-style nightmare imagery of layered wolves, glam rock daydreams about stargazing, and so on. It’s unfair to fault anyone for not emotionally connecting with Wonderstruck’s children’s film tone or its narrative about deaf, fearless children who refuse to be treated like inconveniences by their reluctant adult guardians. That kind of subjective response is obviously personal, but people understanding the film as anything less than a technical marvel in fractured, multi-media storytelling makes me question what planet I’m living on.

To be fair, though no response to Wonderstruck could possibly be as idiotic as the one it’s getting from its own distributors. Amazon Studios is making no plans to release Wonderstruck on physical media, which is tragically ironic, considering the film’s obsession with the archival & preservation of physical objects. Todd Haynes’s latest work of ambitiously sprawling genius may be obsessed with libraries & museums, but Amazon’s going out of its way to make sure it never arrives in any such collections. Given the muted critical response to the film over the last few months, I’m afraid it might be lost in time to digital rot, which makes me want to cry over its delicate, misunderstood beauty all over again.

-Brandon Ledet

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)

I approached this sequel with a fair amount of trepidation. The first Kingsman was an anomaly in that it seemed to fly under most people’s radar (it was in its third week when I saw it, on a Thursday afternoon, and there was not another soul in the entire theater) but was successful enough via word of mouth (after all, there is a sequel now) that it became a bit of a cult film almost instantaneously. The press for the film has been overwhelmingly negative, and I had reservations about seeing how far a follow-up to one of my favorite films of 2015 could possibly stray into territory that garnered such negative feelings.

And frankly, I just don’t get it. This movie is awesome.

Around my office I’m known as the guy who likes the weird artsy shit (and, if you’re reading this site, you probably are that guy or gal or person of a nonbinary nature in your office too), but I also genuinely love a surprise, over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek roller coaster of an action film when one somehow stumbles out of the studio system to slouch toward either notoriety or be forgotten. I wasn’t at all interested in the first Kingsman after seeing an overlong preview for it on FX during American Horror Story until a friend promised me that there was more to it than met the eye. And there was! It’s an unapologetic spy film that cribs from My Fair Lady (explicitly), blows the heads off of hundreds of people in a colorful fireworks display, and twists the familiar elements of the gentleman spy and action genres so far around that they essentially break off. It’s not the greatest film ever made, but it was an exceedingly well-choreographed exercise in bubblegum brutality and Blofeldian pomp.

The new film, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is all of those things as well. It’s a little more bloated than its predecessor in length and that nudge-nudge-wink-wink factor (it’s a fine line that’s difficult to manage/navigate), while running a little leaner on some subtlety. Sure, there are no lines that lean so heavily on the fourth wall as the original’s clunky “This ain’t that kind of movie, bruv,” but there is a salon robot that files down and a fifties themed villainous lair buried in “technically undiscovered” ruins in a jungle, not to mention the best use of Sir Elton John in a movie since Almost Famous.

We pick up where we left off last time, with Eggsy (Taron Egerton), codename Galahad, still mourning the loss of his mentor Harry (Colin Firth), the previous Galahad. We learn that he’s still dating Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström), whom he rescued from Valentine’s base at the end of the previous film and that the apparently-killed Charlie (Edward Holcroft), a Kingsman recruit who failed to make the cut, was mangled at the end of the last film but is still alive. In fact, he’s working for Poppy (Julianne Moore), a drug empress who wipes out all of Kingsman but Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong), the agency’s surrogate for Bond’s Q. The Kingsman doomsday vault points them in the direction of a kind of sister organization known as Statesman, which uses a distillery as the front for their off-book missions. After some of that good old-fashioned Let’s You and Him Fight nonsense, the remnants of Kingsman team with the Statesman cowboy stereotypes to thwart Poppy’s plan to strongarm the U.S. government into decriminalizing all drugs by withholding the antidote to a virus of her own design. “Champ” Champagne (Jeff Bridges) is the leader of his group: wild card party animal Tequila (Channing Tatum), archetypal honorable gunslinger Whiskey (Pedro Pascal), and shrinking violet Merlin equivalent Ginger Ale (Halle Berry). Before they reach the finish line, there’s much discussion of John Denver, a tussle or two with a couple of killer robotic dogs, a man being forced to eat a hamburger made of his friend, and a painful looking identity-erasing makeover. Also, there’s a subplot about the evil unnamed PoTUS (Bruce Greenwood) cackling and lying. And a wedding.

A lot of people have taken issue with some of the more subversive elements of the film and the way that they turn our hero into a bit of an idiot, but I like that. It’s another way of subverting the Roger Moore Bond’s tropes, because Eggsy isn’t the perfect wish fulfillment hero that Bond is. His friends are uncouth, he’s careless with his lethal gadgetry, and he doesn’t see an obvious traitor in his midst until it’s almost too late.When Whiskey and the Galahads (band name!) visit a facility hidden within some kind of ski resort, you expect that it’s going to be a play on the fact that Roger Moore’s Bond skied all the time, in A View to a Kill, For Your Eyes Only, and The Spy Who Loved Me. But nope, there’s no overlong ski chase, just a giant skyway plummeting from the sky.

Eggsy is still the un-Bond, and while this film fails to have the same (relative) gravity as it managed to maintain via the character arcs of the first, there’s a development there that I think is being overlooked by those who are decrying this as a bombastic failure, either as a follow-up or a standalone film. One of the things that people seem to be most upset about is the fact that Eggsy chooses to call his girlfriend and get permission to sleep with another woman in pursuit of the mission. Yes, it’s dumb in that it’s poorly timed (he couldn’t have called her on the way to the rendezvous?), but it reflects another anti-Bond quality that makes Eggsy more likable and relatable. For all the power fantasies that he fulfills, James Bond is an aggressive womanizer and kind of an asshole. He always gets the job done, but you know that if his marriage to Tracy Bond had lasted more than eight minutes he would have given her the old Betsy Draper special every time he was in the field, whether it was beneficial to his mission or just because he was bored. The film goes out of its way to show you just how unlike Bond Eggsy is in this way, and it’s actually refreshingly original. Also, there’s a laser whip.

I’ve also seen some responses to the political commentary in the film, which is allegedly slanted left. I was surprised to read this interpretation of the film after my screening, as I actually thought the film was rather toothless in its reflection of the current American political climate (not that I expected any deep commentary at all in this one, but by making the PotUS a major character, you invite that criticism). After all, in the last one, it was made pretty explicit that President Obama (along with essentially every political leader save for Tilde and her father and perhaps a few other dissidents) was a willing participant in villainous mastermind’s evil scheme. I’ve seen dismissal of the Oval Office subplot as being “pandering” because the evil president’s moral victor is an older blonde woman, a way of giving liberals the world that they want to live in. I didn’t (and don’t) see it that way, however. All of the reporting that we see within the film comes straight from Fox News, and, in comparison to the complicit Obama of the first film, the evil President herein is given neither a name or an explicit political party, and doesn’t have the mannerisms or characteristics that would truly make him an analog of Trump: no combover, no dayglo skin, no broken or rambling sentences or rogue trains of thought. There’s no actual political commentary here, and that’s fine; this is just another generic evil president in a long line of fictional evil presidents. If you see Trump in this performance, well, that’s up to you.

Overall, this is a sequel that works. It’s a bit paler and a not quite as fun, but it’s stylish, witty, visceral, colorful, and a hell of a lot of fun. It’s a film that’s not to be taken seriously, and it delivers on the promise that the (spoilery!) trailer sets up. On a scale of sequels that copied the template of the first film verbatim from Men in Black II to 10 Cloverfied Lane, it errs on the “scenes from the last one, but with a twist!” side, but there’s still enough new to satisfy you, as long as you’re willing to get lost in a candy kingdom of headshots and people getting cut in half. And Elton John in fabulous feathery shackles.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Safe (1995)

Although it’s told in three fractured, disjointed segments, there’s a unifying theme of unspoken menace in Todd Haynes’s debut film, Poison, that ties the whole thing together as a cohesive expression of queer anxiety. One segment in particular that involves a 1950s B-movie mad scientist who gradually transforms into a monster after accidentally ingesting his own experimental sex serum felt like a darkly comical, but ambiguously tense reflection on the AIDS crisis that wrecked queer communities in the 80s & 90s. That same thematic thread continued into Haynes’s follow-up feature, Safe, which also dwells on the menace of declining health without directly connecting the illness to a real world crisis in the text, but still feeling like direct commentary on a real life tragedy. I’m not sure if Safe is tackling AIDS (the way Poison does), the way women are discounted & disbelieved about dysfunction within their own bodies, the ills of modern culture at large, or some unholy combination of all three. Its continuation of playing an unknowable, unstoppable health menace as a kind of existential crisis is its strongest asset and the one that’s the most welcome contribution to Haynes’s overall oeuvre. Its only misstep is when it strays from that menace in its lackluster third act.

Julianne Moore stars as Carol (a protagonist name Haynes would later repurpose for much a more amplified effect), a milquetoast housewife to a wealthy California business prick. Carol’s suburban ennuii initially resembles a run of the mill indie drama conflict. Her sex life is unsatisfying, the constant renovation & redecoration of her home is a sign of discontent, and her alienation from her husband & violence-obsessed stepson becomes increasingly pronounced with every awkward meal they’re obligated to share. Things devolve into a “The Yellow Wallpaper”-style horror from there as Carol’s ennuii transforms into a physical illness that cannot be explained by the men in charge of her well being. Her headaches, nosebleeds, and coughing attacks suggest there’s something deathly wrong with her body, but her unsympathetic husband & doctor brush it off as hypochondria, since the ailment cannot be pinpointed by science as a virus or allergy or anything else scientifically measurable. Carol moves to a commune far outside the city to immerse herself in a chemical-phobic culture of New Age medicine, yet her health continues to decline, because there is no clear trigger for her expanding list of symptoms.

In Safe‘s best moments, it plays like an existential horror take on Douglas Sirk melodrama (an influence Haynes would later explore more fully in Far From Heaven). As Carol navigates a wide range of possible cures that include self help books, holistic medicines, fad diets, and an impromptu hair perm, the menace of her declining health is played both as a sly joke and as an existential nightmare with a John Carpenter-style score. The only plausible answer offered to the question of her illness is a flyer that reads “Are you allergic to the 20th Century?” That idea leads Carol down a rabbit hole of New Age conspiracy theories about “deep ecology,” “spiritual awareness of the planet,” and “the oneness of all life” that ultimately does her no good, but also no worse than what modern medicine has to offer. Haynes has a lot of fun clashing modern life with Nature in this way, shooting plants on VHS-quality camcorders and juxtaposing pop songs like “Lucky Star” & “Heaven is a Place on Earth” with one-with-the-Earth folk music feel-goodery. Unfortunately, it also feels as if Safe somewhat gets just as lost in examining this New Age bullshit as its slowly dying protagonist, however coldly. Once Carol adjusts to cult life on the “chemical free” commune early in the third act, there isn’t much left to what Safe has to say and all that the audience can do from there is wait for the credits, whereas earlier scenes felt like a nonstop onslaught of existential dread in a much more memorably satisfying way.

Although I’m underwhelmed by Safe’s ultimate destination at the New Age commune, it does lead to a great moment where Carol is pressured into giving a speech for her new cult family. There’s something horrifying about the way she babbles vaguely about toxins & pollutants in that moment with nothing solid or specific to say, especially after watching her suffer physically for so long in the scenes leading up to that moment. Julianne Moore is undeniably one of our greatest living actors and Safe offered her a fantastic early-career spotlight to generate both heartbreaking empathy & frustrating mystery in an existential plight. As much as I feel Safe‘s energy is zapped by its New Age cult criticism focus in its third act, I very much respect Haynes for offering Moore that platform, as well as the ways he managed to turn modern life & paranoia over health into Sirk-tinged horror in earlier sequences. Safe is far from the perfected Haynes heights of its follow-up, Velvet Goldmine, but it’s still memorably menacing all the same.

-Brandon Ledet

Maggie’s Plan (2016)

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There’s an alternate universe where Noah Baumbach’s films, with their manicured Wes Anderson visual palette and ensemble casts of talented actors both early & late in their respective careers, are a populist hit. In the universe we do live in, however, Baumbach’s films are more consistent crowd-splitters. Titles like The Squid and the Whale, While We’re Young, and Mistress America look like cutesy indie dramas from the outside, but harbor a strong, corrosive hatred for their own characters, revealing Baumbach to be much more of a misanthrope than he appears to be. The recent comedy Maggie’s Plan is an interesting window into this alternate timeline where Noah Baumbach’s works are actually the smart, breezy farces they’re advertised to be instead of comedic exercises in pitch black misanthropy (which I also enjoy just fine). Starring & directed by Baumbach collaborators (Greta Gerwig & Rebecca Miller, daughter of famed playwright Arthur Miller), Maggie’s Plan is not at all a cutesy indie trifle. It still pokes fun at its characters and indulges in morally & emotionally uncomfortable romantic scenarios. It just does so without tail-spinning its audience into frustrated hatred of every personality presented onscreen. The film is much more interested in the complicated plots of Old Hollywood farces and the general quirks of human folly than tearing down the self-absorption & self-destructive ego of modern ennui. I can’t say it’s exactly a better film for it, but it’s certainly a kinder & more enjoyable one.

Greta Gerwig stars as a young East Coast Academic who wants to become a mother under her own terms, a plan that involves a sperm donation from a crazy-eyed hipster who’s made a career for himself as a “pickle entrepreneur” (just about the most Brooklyn thing I’ve ever heard of). The plot is disrupted when Gerwig’s protagonist falls passionately in love with another East Coast Academic™, played by Ethan Hawke, (whom I somehow confused for Kevin Bacon for the opening few scenes). The problem is that he happens to be a married man. The dangerous sensation of this blossoming affair combines with several possible love triangle plots to threaten an eyeroll-worthy romcom yarn, but Maggie’s Plan is much smarter than anything I feared it might become. Instead of the complications of single mother pregnancy and the moral dilemmas presented by romantic jealousy, the movie tackles the ways love & desire are messy, with outcomes that cannot be controlled and the way romantic partners, especially men, can take their significant others for granted, treating them almost like an employee without giving it any thought. There’s no will-they-won’t-they series of missed connections and tangled misunderstandings here. Miller’s farce is much more about the way characters uncomfortable with loosening control over their messy personal lives have to learn to let go and let life happen naturally than it is about who they’ll be sleeping with by the time the credits roll.

Movies with this intimate of a narrative & limited visual scope obviously rely heavily on the strength of their cast to sell their charms and Maggie’s Plan is overloaded with talent. Gerwig does her usual thing, but with a much more endearing spin on her characters’ total lack of self-awareness. Hawke is perfectly cast as the smartest idiot in the room. They’re backed up by a long list of excellent bit players & single scene cameos: Bill Harder, Maya Rudolph, Wallace Shawn, Kathleen Hanna. And that’s not even mentioning Julianne Moore, who very nearly steals the show in an absurd caricature of European academic coldness. Of course, none of this talent would mean a thing without Miller’s superbly constructed script, which manages to feel intelligently assembled & well-considered in every moment while still working in punchlines as inane as “I don’t want you to have a baby with the pickle man.” There are a couple stray choices that make Maggie’s Plan feel distinct even as a small budget indie, including a time jump that completely upends its initial plot trajectory & a surprise over-abundance of 60s dancehall reggae on its soundtrack. It’s the cast Miller assembles and the ways her script arranges those chess pieces to craft a newfangled version of an Old Hollywood farce that makes the film worth a recommendation, though. It’s all intricately plotted stuff made to somehow feel like effortless charm.

It’s probably not at all fair of me to conjure Noah Baumbach’s name in this review, as Rebecca Miller has had a long, self-driven career long before recently joining forces with that divisive filmmaker. It’s likely that Gerwig’s presence is a lot of what recalls his work here. I really do think that anyone on the verge of liking Baumbach who finds his general misanthropy difficult to stomach would likely enjoy Maggie’s Plan, though. It’s just reminiscent enough of his storytelling style to draw the comparison, but so distinctly on its own wavelength that it won’t feel like an empty exercise for those who devotedly follow his career. I’m now curious myself to double back and watch some of Miller’s previous works to see if this is a vibe she’s always worked within. Maggie’s Plan at the very least proves her capable of turning small, familiar parts into memorably distinct, endearing pictures. It’s a lot rarer than it sounds.

-Brandon Ledet

Tales from the Dark Side: The Movie (1990)

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threehalfstar

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Bridging the gap between the George A. Romero-produced television series of the same name & the start of Tales from the Crypt‘s television run, Tales from the Dark Side: The Movie is a delicious little slice of early 90s horror anthology. Besides the occasional shocks of gruesome practical effects & general Creepshow vibe, Tales from the Dark Side also features great performances from some always-welcome faces in all their 90s glory: Christian Slater in full Heathers mode, a handsomely young Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore in dated aerobics gear & the makeup of the undead (not at the same time, unfortunately), Deborah Harry as a killer housewife preparing to cook & serve a child for a dinner party, etc. Much like the look of its recognizable cast, it’s a very dated film in terms of visual & cultural aesthetics, but it’s enjoyably dated, as horror anthologies typically tend to be.

The aforementioned Deborah-Harry-preparing-to-cook-a-child story is the tie-in or “wraparound” segment that provides the framework for the film’s three short tales of terror. Adopting an Arabian Nights structure, Harry’s would-be victim tyke prolongs his precious little life by telling his captor scary stories while she prepares to cook him. At first he recounts the tale of a revenge plot that involves a mummy rising from the dead to mummify the living. Then he tells the story of a murderous cat squaring off with a mafia hitman. Finally, he concludes his stay of execution with a romantic tale that revolves around an artist & a winged demon that looks like some kind of cross between a gargoyle & a gremlin.

As with Creepshow, Tales from the Crypt, and the Tales from the Dark Side television show, these stories have no significant connections outside of the wraparound segments, but rather function as individual short stories with their own narrative ups & downs. The opening mummy segment front-loads the movie with the recognizable talent & the most complex storytelling of the film. After that story concludes, it may initially feel like diminishing returns in the much sillier killer cat tale & the lackluster romance of the gargoyle yarn, but both sections actually pack a much stronger punch than they first imply. The narratives may become a little weaker as the films progress, but the intense body horror in their individual conclusions become increasingly intense. The cat’s final kill & the gargoyle’s transformation are both practical effects spectacles that rank among the best I’ve ever seen. Much like dated aesthetics & very loosely connected narratives, sitting through a couple underwhelming (and thankfully brief) stories to get to some prime gore also comes with the horror anthology territory. Tales from the Darkside might not be the most significant example of its genre, but it’s definitely worth a look for fans of the horror anthology in general, especially for that gruesome killer cat scene. That’s one for the ages.

-Brandon Ledet

Seventh Son (2015)

witch

three star

campstamp

Okay, here’s the thing: Seventh Son is a bad movie. It’s just awful. It’s already been called “staggeringly bad” “a creative miscarriage”, “a quickly forgotten pile of junk”, and maybe “the worst movie of the year”. I’m not arguing with any of those assessments. They’re true enough. I’ll even back up the complaints that the bland, medieval fantasy epic is even politically regressive. Indeed, its main plot involves two white men beating up & setting fire to the movie’s only female & POC-cast characters, who are all invariably evil. So, yeah. Seventh Son is a bad movie in almost all ways you can mean that phrase.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. It’s a mind-numbingly dumb & old-fashioned attempt at establishing a franchise (à la I, Frankenstein & Dracula Untold), but I honestly found the blatantly simple-minded picture kinda low-key entertaining. Watching a drunken, wizardly Jeff Bridges battle a half Dragon/half Disney villain Julianne Moore was lizard-brain cool enough to forgive almost any cliché plot points or b.s. franchise ambitions for me. This is the kind of fantasy realm nonsense that is overstuffed with dragons, blood moons, witches, ghosts, evil queens, ogres, and haunted forests. Better yet, it’s overstuffed with laughable scenery-chewing from two actually-great actors redefining what slumming it truly means. Jeff Bridges mumbling wizardly nonsense and a metal-clawed Julianne Moore cooing commands like, “Help yourself to the blood cakes, little one” were enough to make me glad that I gave the movie a shot despite it’s (well-deserved) awful reputation.

I’m not saying that you should support Seventh Son with your hard-earned dollars or even give it a chance when it’s streaming for free. I’d just be lying if I said I hated it. It’s a laughable failure of a film that won me over by laughter more than it lost me with its failure, especially in the final minutes when it promises (threatens?) a sequel that most certainly ain’t coming. Thankfully.

-Brandon Ledet