The Image Book (2019)

Before Jean-Luc Godard’s latest essay-in-motion screened at the 2019 New Orleans French Film Festival, a presenter reassured the audience that the projection we were about to see was not broken, glitching, or corrupted. That turned out to be a helpful tip, as The Image Book plays about as smoothly as a gas station rap CD found facedown on parking lot pavement. The audio & imagery of the film alternate from complete darkness & silence to deafening booms & blinding vibrancy to erratic peaks & valleys in-between. Godard’s narration is sometimes subtitled in English, sometimes not, and he’s often cut off in the middle of a vague political or philosophical pontification. Images are frequently shown in their proper aspect ratio for a half-breath before being stretched out into full-screen, over-saturated monstrosities. The Image Book is a deliberately ugly, frustrating experience that strips the art of cinema of all its sensory pleasures in order to punish its audience. If I weren’t watching it with a snooty film festival crowd and if Godard’s name weren’t vouching for the purposeful intent of its sensory aggression, I assume there would have been even more flustered walkouts than the two or three I witnessed at our screening. Listening to old folks & college students intone “Hmmm” & “Ahhh” to themselves during the film as if in an art gallery where they “got” the subliminal meaning of an abstract oil painting was hilarious to me, as Godard did not give us much to work with in establishing patterns in his madness. I suspect most of our audience saw the grueling experience through for the exact reason I did, though: appreciation for the aging, curmudgeonly filmmaker’s audacity, even though he hates our guts for being there.

To his credit, Godard does afford The Image Book a clear sense of structure as a whole, even if its minute to minute rhythms are a dissociative free-for-all. The film is broken into five segments: one for each finger of the hand. This is explained with brief justification about how all art is made by the hands of its creator, which ultimately doesn’t mean much to the themes of the piece, but a guiding sense of structure is still appreciated in this kind of experimental cinema anyway. Three of the five segments seem especially vital to the The Image Book‘s thesis, as vaguely defined as it is: an early section titled “Remake” that pulls & distorts imagery from notable cinema past; a central section that collages imagery of steam trains & Nazi occupation; and a concluding section that offers sympathy to the suffering people of Arab nations who can only express their frustration with their government & Western oppressors through terrorist violence, as all other means have been stripped from them. There’s a lot of bleedover in all these segments, as even the early cinema clips are interrupted by war footage (and home videos of children playing war) and the distorted movie montages themselves continue throughout all five “fingers.” What Godard is trying to say with this assemblage is anyone’s guess. He makes a somewhat clear-eyed distinction between the decadent wealth of the West and the war-torn poverty of the Middle East, but the narration itself is too loosely philosophical to put too fine a point on what he’s saying. Mostly, what comes through is the sadness & anger of an old man who’s getting weary of watching the world burn with no sign of substantial change to come, a frustration he’s eager to pass on to his (mostly Western) audience as punishment. It’s a bleak political treatise that supposes its audience is unworthy of any cinematic pleasure, even the comfort of a clear thesis or narrative.

The Image Book is many things: a movie fanzine, an angry political screed, a flippant troll job, a solemn philosophy piece, a pretentious art film indistinguishable from a parody of itself. The wide range of cinematic relics it pulls from (including titles as varied as Un Chien Andalou, La Belle et la Bête, Elephant, Freaks, Salò, and Johnny Guitar) could easily make for a stunning, moving work of transcendent film fandom, but Godard deliberately uglies them up and robs them of their splendor. This may initially seem pointless when he’s distorting them though color-saturated Xerox copies in stretched-out aspect ratios or interrupting them with footage of war atrocities & hardcore pornography. By the time the film focuses on the atrocities of the now, particularly in the politics of The Gulf, it at least feels like there’s a commanding thesis behind the ugly chaos of it all – if not only in reflecting the ugly chaos of the modern world at large. Attempting any more concrete of a guess on what the French New Wave veteran was getting at with this ugly, fractured, grueling essay in motion could only make me sound like the beatnik lunatics in my audience who were shushing background chatter and whispering “Aha!” to themselves as if they had cracked some intellectual code. This is not a film that allows for a hypnotic, immersive experience; it has all the fluid movement & graceful logic of William S. Burroughs’s herky-jerky cut-ups experiments at their herky-jerkiest. However, it does command a confident, ambitious, righteous anger that I can’t help but be impressed by as a stunned observer, an anger that affords it a one-a-kind novelty as a stream-of-consciousness cinematic tirade.

-Brandon Ledet

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Mohawk (2018)

Two Indigenous people and a British solider, all in a polyamorous relationship, flee American militia in the wooded battlefields of the War of 1812. Nothing about that premise particularly signals that Mohawk functions as a horror picture, but as soon as the menacing synths and flickering projection bulb of the film’s opening credits set the grindhouse-reminiscent tone, its choice of genre is undeniable. Directed by We Are Still Here’s Ted Geoghegan, Mohawk creates a kind of reverse-engineered version of a creature feature where white American men are the monsters hunting down its protagonists, emerging from behind trees as a kind of supernatural intrusion on an environment where they don’t belong. On a formal, financial level, the film lacks the attention to craft that elevates similar-in-tone projects like Ravenous, The Revenant, Bone Tomahawk, and The Hateful 8, but its choice of an Indigenous POV in both a historical and a horror genre context affords the film distinction as a cheaply produced curio. Mohawk’s recurring nightmare imagery, synthy crescendos, and washes of impossibly bright red acrylic blood all feel familiar to horror cheapie territory, but its historical narrative told through the perspective of the Mohawk tribe is a different matter entirely.

Although its three central characters’ polyamory might stick out as a peculiar detail in the historical context of the War of 1812, Mohawk treats it with a casual, matter of fact dismissal. The much more pressing issue is how the throuple’s Mohawk tribe is caught between two warring white man governments, the Americans & The Brits. While most other Native peoples have chosen sides in the conflict, the Mohawk tribe remains deliberately neutral, leaving themselves vulnerable to violence from both ends. The presence of the British soldier disrupts this balance and invites even more violence, especially once our three leads find themselves surrounded by a small band of seethingly racist American combatants. The two sides bitterly fight out the conflict of the war at large in a wooded microcosm, trading vicious blows to each other’s already dwindled, wounded ranks. As the violence and stress-induced nightmares escalate in the days leading up to the inevitable bloodshed of the climax, the film drops the pretense of its function as a war movie entirely. The cheap synths, woodland sets, and bright red stage blood of its tension-building violence feel distinctly tied to the rhythms & tropes of horror cinema, which is an interesting lens for telling this kind of wartime story.

Unfortunately, Mohawk’s sense of craft can’t quite match the interest it generates as a corrective in POV from what’s usually depicted in clashes between American settlers & their Indigenous victims. The film finds a tone & perspective far preferable to the ones of superficial correlatives like The Revenant, but its flat digital cinematography is far from Emmanuel Lubezki quality. As confidently casual as Mohawk can be about its themes of polyamory, it drives home other topics with awkward tactlessness in lines like “From my experience, it’s the white man who does the scalping.” I suspect the film’s shortcomings are mostly on the shoulders of Geoghegan, whose previous haunted house picture was similarly frustrating in its stubbornness to live up to its full potential. I greatly respect his choice of perspective & casting in Mohawk. Besides the inclusion of always-welcome genre film character actor Robert Longstreet & wide-eyed beardo pro wrestler Luke Harper among the American monsters, the film also commits to casting actual Native actors Kaniehtiio Horn & Justin Rain in its central roles. That casting reinforces the fascinating specificity of the film’s choice in POV, but it’s a little disappointing that Geoghegan couldn’t do better by the opportunity for greatness created in that collaboration.

I’m always down for a horror cheapie with a killer premise set in the creepy (and affordable) world of the woods, but I can’t help but wish that Mohawk had done just slightly more with its visual language & sound design within that genre context. Its novelty as a historical horror film with an Indigenous, polyamorous POV puts a lot of pressure on the final product to deliver something memorable & impactful. It seems unlikely that we’ll ever see this exact set of circumstances & qualifiers coexist onscreen again. Mohawk is easy to recommend for the specificity of that context alone and can be forgiven for many of its sins against objective quality in consideration of its exceedingly modest budget. I would much rather report that it was a knockout masterpiece that fully fulfilled the promise of its premise, but the truth is that it’s a fairly standard woodland-set indie horror with a killer hook. There’s obviously value to that kind of minor pleasure, even if the temptation is to wish for better.

-Brandon Ledet

Waterloo Bridge (1931)

Old Hollywood legend James Whale is most famous for directing the first two Frankenstein films, both of which are highly ranked among Universal’s classic Famous Monsters relics. The project that landed him that job was far outside the confines of the horror genre, though: a wartime drama titled Waterloo Bridge. Bringing in the production of Waterloo Bridge on-time & under-budget for Warner Brothers, Whale earned the respect & attention of Universal executives, who then gave him free reign to helm any property owned by the studio, of which he chose Frankenstein. That follow-up has obviously outshone his work on Waterloo Bridge in terms of defining his legacy as an auteur, but Waterloo Bridge was a resounding success with a long-lasting legacy of its own. A pre-Code drama about a sex worker making do & unexpectedly finding love in wartime, Waterloo Bridge is a controversial work that, although subjected to censorship & patchy distribution as the moral landscape of Hollywood changed after its release, was popular enough to inspire two (toned down) remakes in the following decades. It’s an impressively bleak work of Old Hollywood filmmaking that, while drastically different from the Frankenstein series in terms of genre, telegraphed much of the grim atmosphere & well-budgeted spectacle that would soon define Whale’s career.

Mae Clarke (of Frankenstein fame, naturally) stars as an American prostitute struggling to make ends meet in a nondescript English slum. Introduced as just one chorus girl among many in a lavish stage musical before casually soliciting men & avoiding cops at her real job walking the streets, our financially & emotionally broken protagonist is a microcosm of the young people who’re made into living ghosts by the Great War. She takes no pleasure in sex work, which is mostly a desperate necessity to (barely) cover her rent. The dread of a life that can’t be sustained forever is made even more unbearable by the constant air raids that terrorize London, sending its worse-for-the-wear citizens seeking shelter at a moment’s notice. In one of these air raid crises, Clarke’s fragile antiheroine meets a wealthy, naïve American solider (Douglass Montgomery) who instantly falls in love with her. She bats away his sweet offerings of rent money, pretty dresses, and marriage purely out of self-loathing, believing that her sordid lifestyle & family history means she doesn’t deserve happiness with such a well-to-do sweetheart. Indeed, his heart visibly breaks in half when he first discovers her profession, but his offer of marriage & lifelong happiness stands anyway. The conflict of Waterloo Bridge is tragic, but largely internal; it depends entirely on if a young woman can forgive herself for the “immoral” things she had to do to survive. It doesn’t end well.

The painfully earnest performances from Clarke & Montgomery drive much of Waterloo Bridge, which often shows its origins as a stage play in long, uninterrupted conversations during air raids & romantic getaways. Whale strategically chooses moments to splurge on spectacle, funneling most of his budget into a few isolated effects shots that almost trick you into thinking you’re watching a war epic instead of a parlor drama. Huge crowds of extras & bomb-dropping model airplanes bookend enough of the single-apartment dialogue-dumps that the whole thing feels way more extravagantly expansive that it truly is at its core. You can easily tell what Universal execs saw in Whale’s financial resourcefulness & why they had the faith in him that led to Frankenstein. A few choices, like the soldier’s off-putting sense of entitlement or his practically deaf father’s one-note version of comic relief, prevent the film from being an all-time classic, but they feel tied to the writing & the source material more than anything Whale had influenced. His mark on the film is delivering a powerfully grim punch to the gut on a bare bones budget, something that helped launch his career & establish his reputation as an Old Hollywood legend.

Presuming most modern audiences aren’t 1930s producers looking to fund the long-dead James Whale’s next project, Waterloo Bridge mostly offers 2010s film nerds one of those glimpses of grimy pre-Code Hollywood sex & violence that feel so out of place in ancient black & white studio pictures (thanks to the moralistic bullies who censored them into oblivion). Besides not shying away from the source material’s matter-of-fact discussion of the practicality of sex work, Whale also searches for sexual tension in the details of dialogue & body language. Chorus girls are filmed in their dressing rooms, lounging in see-through underwear. When one prostitute complains to a friend that the men conducting air raids give her “the willies,” she glibly responds, “Well, they are men, aren’t they?” As Montgomery’s worked-up soldier gets hot & bothered in Clarke’s presence, he strokes the blatantly phallic corner post of her bed, leering. Waterloo Bridge is not a sexy movie. It’s too relentlessly grim & ultimately tragic to earn that descriptor. Its frank discussions of sex & sex work make for a striking Old Hollywood wartime drama, though, something I imagine was lost in its two Hays Code-era remakes. I can’t say it’s my favorite work I’ve ever seen form James Whale or even the most shockingly sex-comfortable pre-Code film I’ve encountered (Baby Face is tough competition for that distinction), but it is an impressive small-scale work for something that’s essentially a grimy stage play with occasional war epic aspirations.

-Brandon Ledet

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

I feel like what I’m looking for in any Bette Davis movie is for the actor to let loose & open fire on her costars. I’m not sure if this is retroactively a result of her late career comeback in the famously combative (onscreen & off) What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? or if it’s just a natural extension of a deliberately non-demure persona she carried throughout her career. I didn’t think to expect that loose cannon antagonism in the 1939 Technicolor costume drama The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, but Davis’s lead performance as Queen Elizabeth I delivered it by the truckload. Although it has the pedigree of an expensive Major Studio period piece, the film is essentially just Bette Davis wearing beautiful costumes, gobbling snacks, and hurling vicious insults for two solid hours. In other words, it’s fabulous.

Many actors have interpreted Elizabeth I onscreen over the decades, ranging as wide as Cate Blanchett & Quentin Crisp, but Bette Davis’s depiction feels entirely singular in its vicious, feral energy. Like with many pictures over her career, it’s rumored that she was not at all happy with her coworkers or the demands of the production. She was especially miffed that Elizabeth’s remarkably high hairline required her to shave her head, which put her in a persistently ornery mood. This made the film a chore to shoot, especially since Davis would act out in juvenile ways like slapping the piss out of her romantic co-lead, Errol Flynn, with all of her might instead of just making sure the scripted hit looked good for the camera. That anger translated well to the role, though, making Davis’s Elizabeth come across as a kind of furious demon in beautiful costumes. She’s visibly uncomfortable, constantly reaching for grapes or wine or invisible stress balls to calm her nerves as she inhales between each insult. The effect on the film is glorious, though, transporting Davis’s slack, unceremonious, Baby Jane Hudson-mode energy into a stuffy Studio Era drama where it doesn’t belong.

A 16th Century tale of real life war & romance endowed with the same Major Studio bloat of the 1960s Camelot musical, there isn’t much to The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex in a formal sense. As Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, Errol Flynn is propped up as a kind of love/hate romantic sparring partner meant to periodically threaten Davis’s power as the Queen of England. She steamrolls him with ease. Essex & Elizabeth both can’t get enough of each other in their lustful bouts of loneliness and can’t possibly share the same space & time, due to their individual thirsts for power & the throne. This sometimes leads to the Queen sending Essex off to war in the Irish Moors (which look an awful lot like a studio lot) without proper supplies to succeed, just to be temporarily rid of him. It also leads to literal, direct rebellion within the palace where the two square off head to head with their respective guards. Flynn’s Essex is never given a chance to really stand up to the Queen, however. Outside occasionally riding a horse, the athletic leading man isn’t even afforded a chance to do any of his signature swashbuckling. Elizabeth’s other foils, a dangerously horny Olivia de Havilland and a foppish knight played by a baby faced Vincent Price, don’t fare much better. As much as this film’s dialogue frets over Elizabeth’s duties as a Queen being hindered by her desires as a woman, there’s no question who’s in charge and who’s going to make it out on top. I’m not saying that because of the inevitability if its Wikipedia-verifiable history lesson, either. Davis’s fierceness demands her victory, with obligatory demise for each of her opponents, whether or not she wants to fuck them.

I’d be a liar if I said I cared at all about the plot of this film. Formally, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex is remarkable less for its narrative than it is for its gorgeous production & costume design. One Orry-Kelly-designed dress in particular, with shimmering green mermaid scales, a pale pink Elizabethan collar (naturally), and a neon green feathered hand fan had me gasping for air. Those luxurious design flourishes only serve to contrast Elizabeth’s demonic furor, however, as she complains about her old age, smashes mirrors, claws at a pile of snacks, and fires off long strands of insults: “lying villain,” “wicked devil,” “slimy toad,” “stupid cattle,” “snakes & rats,” etc. If, like me, your favorite Bette Davis performances find the actor in vicious attack mode, the formal mediocrity of this Studio Era period piece won’t matter to you one bit. The film is downright delicious for Davis’s inhuman bursts of Technicolor furor, especially considering the restrained pomp & propriety of the setting that contrasts it.

-Brandon Ledet

Dunkirk (2017)

I sometimes complain about missing an essential Dad Gene that would enable me to care about certain traditional macho movie genres: Westerns, submarine thrillers, James Bond entries, etc. I’m not faced with the pressure to watch any other subcategory of these Dad Movies nearly as often as I am with The War Movie. Films about battleground warfare, especially set during WWII or The Vietnam War, tend to put me to sleep. There’s a grim, heroically macho routine to battlefield dramas & thrillers that typically makes them feel indistinguishable from one another, like a sea of uniformed soldiers solemnly marching in unison. Christopher Nolan’s recent war thriller, Dunkirk, broke that spell and made me question my Dad Movie prejudice. Dunkirk feels much more like a personal obsession with the story of a single historical event than yet another echo of the war movie genre trappings that dull down so many of its peers. I’m usually unable to distinguish any particular World War II battlefield picture from the long, uniformed line that marched before it, but Nolan’s auteurist interests in things like time, intense sound design, and muted performances from actors like Tom Hardy & Cillian Murphy make Dunkirk feel like a wholly new, revitalizing take on the genre. Instead of checking my pulse for signs of life at the top of the second act, I found myself holding my breath in anxious anticipation throughout, due largely to Nolan’s technical skills as a craftsman and, in a recent turn starting with Interstellar, personal passion as a storyteller.

Dunkirk dramatizes a colossal military disaster where 40,000 French & British heroes & cowards awaited rescue on a beach while surrounded by the German enemy in World War II. With a massive cast & sparse dialogue, Nolan does little to provide character detail for any of these thousands of soldiers, but rather tells their story as a massive unit. Even actors like Murphy, Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, and pop star Harry Styles, who all should individually draw attention through the virtue of their mere presence, are but tiny gears in a larger machine that sounds & functions like clockwork, ticking away until the enemy bombs them out of existence. Nolan fractures this larger narrative through three narrow focus storylines: a two man beachside escape mission that lasts a week, a three man boat ride that lasts a day, and a two man airplane skirmish that lasts an hour. These three narratives barrel towards an inevitable point of convergence: a historical event where private vessels & fishing boats were employed to rescue soldiers from the beach, since all traditional Navy ships were being sunk by the enemy. Although Nolan tells this story through a precise, coldly technical build-up of moment to moment tension, he takes a breath to glorify this triumph of The Dunkirk Spirit in a rare stint of nationalistic pride. When the tiny pleasure yachts roll in to Bring Home the Boys under the German’s noses, Branagh admires their bravery in silence, nearly holding back a single manly tear as if it were Nolan himself watching the waters. It’s possibly the only moment of relief offered in Dunkirk‘s entire runtime, a much needed breather in an otherwise tense, relentless chokehold.

Besides Nolan’s typifying play with the film’s sense of time & a bold decision to never depict the enemy onscreen, Dunkirk also avoids war movie doldrums by echoing the structure of near-plotless obstacle course movies like Gravity or Mad Max: Fury Road. All that really matters is clearing the next hurdle. Whether searching for drinkable water & smokable cigarette butts in city streets or avoiding drowning inside of a ship that is both sinking & on fire, Nolan’s camera follows his soldiers & their civilian saviors as they conquer one obstacle at a time. This makes for an entirely nerve-racking experience from opening to closing credits, an intensity amplified by Hans Zimmer’s sparse, haunting score of ticking clocks & building strings. This score is only softened when the complex sound design is overwhelmed by sudden, deafening air raids that leave all soldiers ducking & praying for survival at irregular intervals. Nolan mirrors the impossible technical feat of rescuing that large of a number of soldiers on a fleet of tiny civilian vessels by staging his own series of aurally terrifying, temporally ambitious, and brutally logical technical feats of filmmaking & narrative craft. The anticipatory feeling of seeing the film on a 70mm print opening night felt more like an Event or an Experience than a typical trip to the movies. It was something akin to a film fest vibe (although with a notably more bro-populated crowd), but it also reminded me of waiting in line for a rollercoaster. Dunkirk is a quick, dizzying trip through pure adrenaline thrills & for-their-own-sake technical marvels. It gives you little time to attach yourself to any one character or narrative in particular, but the complexities of its basic structure & overall effect are so impressive that it never really matters.

The few isolated beats where I wasn’t fully onboard with Nolan’s vision were when he did attempt to stir emotion instead of building tension. That scene where Branagh admires the civilian volunteers’ makeshift rescue efforts while the ticking clocks score gives way to triumphant orchestral strings reminded me so much of the war movies that typically do nothing for my shriveled, cynical heart. Those moments are few & far between, however. Dunkirk mostly mines tension from an increasingly complex series of moment-to-moment tasks spread out over sea, sky, beach, and several converging timelines. To deny the power of the film’s technical feats because of its lacking emotional impact or detailed character development would be asking it to be something entirely different from the story Nolan set out to tell. As someone who has an impossible time focusing on the particulars of battlefield drama in more traditional war stories, I very much appreciate Nolan’s approach here. It’s likely that he personally found much more emotional resonance in the film than most of his audience possibly could, but the experience of watching him reach for that emotion in his tightly controlled, meticulous recreation of wartime chaos is as immediately impressive as it is likely to be unforgettable.

-Brandon Ledet

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

After Kong: Skull Island, War for the Planet of the Apes is the second time this year I attempted to put my boredom with cinematic war narratives aside to feed my hunger for eccentric creature features. The results were moderately better on this second go. Matt Reeves’s conclusion to his Apes prequel trilogy felt like a sincerity antidote to Skull Island‘s disingenuous SyFy Channel genre film throwback, which was far more conventional than its What If King Kong Fought In The Vietnam War? premise should have allowed. Not only does War for the Planet of the Apes cover similar territory in a more satisfying way; it also adds shades of World War POW camps, the Holocaust, American slavery, and the Malcolm X/Martin Luther King Jr philosophy divide to deepen the context of its Apes vs Humans war for the planet. It takes its wartime primates premise far more seriously than Kong: Skull Island attempts to, yet somehow emerges as a notably better example of summertime blockbuster spectacle, despite the season’s usual penchant for dumb fun. Its superiority to that overpriced B-movie aside, I can’t honestly say much else in praise of War for the Planet of the Apes. It’s an interesting film & a welcome excuse to escape the heat in a dark, air-conditioned room for two hours; but its nature as a straightforward war movie & a CG spectacle franchise cornerstone never allows it to amount to anything more substantial than that.

We rejoin the talking ape Caesar, played by eternal mo-cap prisoner Andy Serkis, as he attempts to maintain peace & order among his primate followers through simple credos like “Apes together strong,” and “Ape no kill ape.” Their plans to live peacefully in the woods are disrupted by a human militia headed by Woody Harrelson, who plays a warmonger who’s seen either Platoon or Full Metal Jacket one too many times in his life. This rogue colonel refuses to accept the apes’ peaceful request to be left alone in the wilderness. He slaughters large numbers from their ranks and eventually imprisons the survivors in an isolated stronghold he converts into a primate labor camp. Caesar and the colonel grimace at each other and trade gruff lines about who started/escalated the war and who they’ve both lost along the way for as long as the movie can put off two inevitabilities: an escape plan hatched by the ape prisoners & an all-out fire fight initiated by the humans. Somewhere during this grudge match two new characters introduce themselves to the fold: a mute child who’s clumsily coded as an archetype of Innocence & a Steve Zahn-esque buffoon played by sub-David Arquette buffoon Steve Zahn. As the war rages on, the developing details of the virus engineered in the first film are gradually revealed, opening the door for a kind of decisive finality to the series. The events of the film are tightly contained to a singular conflict, but dialogue hints that the struggle is linked to a more significant global crisis we never get to see.

I’m not sure that if you swapped out the apes with a more plausible rebel group like, say, Anarchists or Socialists, that I would find that same plot all that interesting, given my general aversion to this dour wartime end of cinema. That’s not the only issue making War for the Planet of the Apes feel like a moderate-at-best success, though. The apes look great; they’re believably animated in an eerie, modern CGI rendering that recalls the Disney-funded majesty of last year’s live action Jungle Book remake. The problem is that kind of CG spectacle isn’t all that interesting in the long run. As realistic as the apes look, they’re still just slightly off in a way that’s more distracting than it likely would have been if their image were more stylized. I’m not sure there was any point during the picture where I wasn’t thinking about the quality of the special effects, which isn’t anywhere near the top of my list of cinematic priorities. That kind of summertime special effects showcase typically comes with a long line of normalizing, Major Studio requirements too. There’s an oddly conspicuous Coca-Cola ad placement involving an abandoned 18-wheeler the camera lingers on for an eternity. The movie opens with a labored text scroll that attempts to walk the audience through the plot points & the “Rise/Dawn” title confusion of its two predecessors. It attempts to head off critics’ readymade puns like “Ape-ocalypse Now” & “The Great Esc-Ape” by making those allusions itself, which feels like a Major Studio brand attempting to control the conversation instead of allowing the film to be its own weird self. The whole ordeal just feels meticulously calculated & restrained.

 Without question, the second entry in the Apes trilogy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, remains my favorite film in the franchise. There was something oddly wild & unpredictable about that film, which gifted the world one of my all-time favorite action movie images: the ape on horseback simultaneously operating two machine guns. I’m not sure there’s anything to be found in this follow-up that’s half as exciting as that image. Even Woody Harrelson’s character, who’s clearly supposed to echo Brando’s Colonel Kurtz performance from Apocalypse Now, feels fairly run of the mill for a crazed war movie villain. He nonchalantly shaves his head with a straight razor, wears sunglasses at inappropriate times, and eats apple slices off a combat knife; all of that macho posturing feels cinematically overfamiliar. By the time a Jimi Hendrix needle drop finds him listening to Vietnam War era rock alone at his boozy command station I felt as if I had already met this character a thousand times before. It was a beat that made me roll my eyes just as hard as any of Steve Zahn’s attempts to resurrect Pauly Shore humor or his silent little girl companion’s similarly cliché visual representations of Wartime Innocence (complete with tenderly earnest offers of a single flower). If it weren’t for the presence of CG apes in its central roles or the movie’s lengthy, silent stretches of sign language communication, War for the Planet of the Apes wouldn’t feel much different from any number of big budget war movies or grim franchise-closers. It’s competently made and visually impressive. It’s got a strikingly sorrowful brutality to it that helps distinguish it slightly from the other bombastic works of calculated studio bloat floating out there in the summertime blockbuster heat. Still, titles like Dawn or, better yet, Okja are exciting reminders that CG spectacle can be something much more idiosyncratic, more passionate, and more memorable than that. At least Kong: Skull Island is a fresh-on-the-mind counterpoint signaling that it also could’ve been much worse.

-Brandon Ledet

The Beguiled (2017)

Sofia Coppola’s remake of the 1971 Clint Eastwood-starring thriller The Beguiled rings oddly like a synthesis of the defining aspects of my two favorite films from the director: the dangerously gloomy boredom of The Virgin Suicides & the playfully modernized costume drama of Marie Antoinette. The delicate visual beauty & intensely feminine modes of violence in Coppola’s The Beguiled plays directly into her most readily apparent strengths as a filmmaker. Even though she could have assembled this picture in her sleep, however, there’s a potency to its in-the-moment effect that makes it feel like a personal obsession instead of a more-of-the-same exercise. The question of the film’s overall effect isn’t whether it’s a great work or if it’s an indulgence in craft, but rather how it never existed before this year, why it’s arriving now. The Beguiled feels as if it’s already lingered in the ether forever, or at least as long as Coppola’s been making movies.

A Virginian school for girls struggles with the vulnerability & boredom of isolation during the American Civil War. Distant drums & cannons build tension in an otherwise serene soundscape of bugs, birds, and branches swaying in the wind. In this secluded pocket of peace, one of the younger girls discovers a wounded Union soldier in the woods. Despite being a firmly Southern, Confederate household, the women of the school take the soldier in and allow him to heal in their care. They purport this kindness to be an extension of their Christian charity, but their motivations are clearly more purient than that claim. As the women openly lust for the new, exciting, masculine sore thumb that invades their once quiet home, unspoken rivalries form and the atmosphere turns palpably violent. Suddenly, the distant sounds of war are dwarfed by the violent outbursts within their home, as the intimate presence of the enemy distorts their Southern belle reverie, giving rise to something much more menacing.

Before its violence becomes openly visible, the devilish fun at the core of The Beguiled is its barely-contained displays of lust. Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning (a staggeringly powerful trio of talents) stare down the soldier’s gradually healing body with held breath & blatant thirst. Colin Farrell is objectified without apology under this scrutiny. An unconscious sponge bath scene in particular is gleefully overwhelmed with close-ups of the actor’s hips, thighs, and chest hairs. Farrell also holds his own as the de facto prisoner of his seven female wardens, manipulating rivalries among them as a cowardly power play to establish a permanent place at the school instead of returning to the war. He’s the sole male presence in the house, though, a soldier deep in enemy territory. Any brief battles for power he can manage to stage only lead to temporary gains, sparks immediately snuffed by overtly feminine means. After a while, those lustful stares look a lot less like an opportunity and a lot more like a threat.

There honestly isn’t much to The Beguiled in terms of narrative complexity or immediate cultural significance, so Coppola must carry its weight on the back of her visual craft. The film’s natural lighting & period setting fall somewhere between The Witch & Daughters of the Dust in terms of both costuming & cinematographic tone. The sights & sounds of Nature permeate every moment, so that when they’re disrupted by the echoes of war (whether inside or out of the house) the effect is consistently jarring. The fog rising from the forest floor mirrors the steamy tension between Farrell’s soldier & his wanting captors. The heat of them being trapped in an old Southern home together is apparent long before the tension explodes. I can’t pinpoint any qualities of Coppola’s The Beguiled that suggest an immediacy or a necessity for its modern presence, but Coppola’s sense of visual craft & the tension she stirs between her actors make it feel at least somewhat timeless. It’s not one of Coppola’s very best works as a filmmaker, but it does share enough of those films’ DNA to re-conjure their potency & solidify what makes her one of the most consistently rewarding directors around.
-Brandon Ledet

Wonder Woman (2017)

I’m going to admit up front that this movie was not made for me. I have not seen any other entries in the DC Universe other than the first two Christopher Nolan reboots of Batman. I’m not at all part of the superhero movie loving crowd, but in a world where the Dark Knight has at least twelve cinematic appearances, Superman has at least ten, and the Marvel Universe is dominated by male superheroes and small female roles in ensemble casts, it was about damn time we had a movie wholly dedicated to a female superhero. Also, in a world dominated by male directors, it was long overdue for a woman to helm a superhero film. It’s 2017 and Patty Jenkins is the first woman to direct a superhero film. Ever! It’s only fitting for that title to be Wonder Woman: an icon for women and young girls; a tough, no nonsense Amazon princess warrior; and arguably one of the best superheroes of all time. All this alone makes it a movie worth seeing and supporting; and it’s also fun, even for a superhero curmudgeon such as myself.

Wonder Woman starts with Diana’s childhood on the secret Island of the Amazons, Themyscira. Here we get a view of the culture of these women, why they exist, and how their island is eternally preserved and hidden by a veil of storm and fog. The training montages here are pretty cool, but a lot of what happens on the island (repetitive speeches about the gods and reiterations of what Diana is and is not allowed to do) just seems to drag. It’s cool to get a peak into the Amazon lifestyle, but only after so much of that do we finally get the inciting incident. A WWI era British Intelligence spy, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) manages to crash through the protective field around the island, followed by German troups. After a huge fight on the beach where we get some commentary about the destructive killing power of guns, Diana decides to leave with Trevor and save the world from war. After lots of fish out of water humor and wacky, “Oh my god, you can’t just carry a sword through turn of the century London!” hijinks, they assemble a team of misfits and go straight to the front lines.

For a tale that takes place with WWI as a backdrop, this film’s not that gritty. Thanks goodness for that, because it could have easily been another gray, dull action movie about the horrors of war. That’s not to say that the horrors of war aren’t present here, especially since World War I was a particularly savage example of carnage and loss of life. The main villains are still an evil general and his mad scientist lover/sidekick, who are developing a particularly lethal form of mustard gas. Despite this, there’s a tone of hope. We believe in our seriously scarred and flawed heroes. Diana is a source of justice and light in the darkness. War is still hell, but in the end we know Diana is going to succeed. There’s no way she can’t. She’s Wonder Woman. The movie really sells us on the idea that she can do anything, and that’s not a bad thing at all.

There’s been a lot of talk about the gender politics of Wonder Woman and what it means to finally have a female director on board for a blockbuster this big. The idea of Diana not being a piece of meat and eye candy has been floated around (oh, how our standards are so low). Other ideas I’ve seen have mentioned the design of the Amazonian armor and how it’s not run of the mill female boob armor. Both of those I have to sadly disagree with. Sure the armor isn’t Linda Carter bustier stuff, but there’s still the defined breast shapes, which has been discussed time and time again to be realistically useless except for the purpose of showing off boobs. You would think that an ancient race of warrior women would have figured that out. Also, there were many examples of Diana being presented to the audience as eye candy. In one particular scene she shows up to a gala in a stunning blue dress as Steve Trevor looks on with his jaw dropped. The real triumph as far as gender goes is that she’s allowed to be more than just eye candy. Not only is she presented as a desirable woman, she’s also given a story line with actual character development. The other refreshing thing about the way the film is written is that there’s no competition between women. She’s never given any lines implying how she’s not like the other girls or how the women outside her world are very weak, which was refreshing. Even on Themyscira, there’s a sense of camaraderie rather than oneupmanship. The other interesting catering-to-the-women-in-the-audience bit (though it’s debatable whether or not this is a win at all) is the reversal of the male gaze. Chris Pine is just there to be a handsome face and love interest, and there’s even a nude scene, albeit mostly implied, with a lot of double entendre. His character is not completely a cardboard cut-out, but compared to Diana it’s pretty darn close.

Wonder Woman is still guilty of the same sins as other superhero movies: cliché speeches about justice with nonsensical taglines (“It’s not about ‘deserve’; it’s about what you believe”), excessive slow motion (especially in the form of hair flips), and a cheesy fight sequence soundtrack. For true fans of the genre those aren’t necessarily problems, but more like charming quirks.  It manages to blend the darkness of war with the fun, superhero tone. A woman’s touch isn’t as immediately obvious to me as a lot of people believe, but where I see it I think it’s great. I’m glad the world finally has a female superhero movie, and that it’s living up to the hype and expectations.

-Alli Hobbs

The Return of the Vampire (1943)

“The imagination of man at times sires the fantastic and the grotesque. That the imagination of man can soar into the stratosphere of fantasy is attested by . . . The Return of the Vampire.”

By the 1940s the major studio horror boom most notably typified by Universal’s Famous Monsters brand had all but dried up. This was bad news for many horror legends, including enduring cult icon Bela Lugosi, who had been consistently typecast as vampires and mad scientist types since he first struck gold as the star of Tod Browning’s Dracula in 1931. Before heading into a long, dispiriting run of playing second fiddle or headlining B-pictures on poverty row, Lugosi had his one last gasp as a major studio leading man in the 1940s. Although he had played Dracula knockoffs before in titles like Devil Bat & Mark of the Vampire and Columbia could not secure rights to the Dracula name, The Return of the Vampire is widely considered to be an “unofficial sequel” to the Tod Browning film. It would by no means be Bela Lugosi’s last great film, but there is a certain class & production value to it that would be missing from most of his later works, so it’s an easy film to underestimate and, thus, be impressed by the ways it surpasses expectations set by its B-picture contemporaries.

The Return of the Vampire‘s narrative setting is split between the two World Wars. The Lady of a house being used as a makeshift infirmary to accommodate the casualties of that war is perplexed when a number of her patients appear to be suffering from anemia. Their only other shared symptom? Two small puncture wounds on each of their necks. This, of course, means there’s a vampire nearby, revealed to be Bela Lugosi’s Not-Dracula hypnotist. As he sleeps through the daylight, Not-Dracula keeps a werewolf on staff as a permanently hypnotized servant who does his bidding while he sleeps. Lady Jane and her own staff of medical academics recognize the signs of vampiric activity immediately and recite plainly for the audience rules like aversion to sunlight, stakes to the heart, lack of a reflection, the entire crash course. Their fight to slay the vampire & convert his werewolf servant back to his human form is a decades-long struggle that’s blatantly stated to be a Good vs Evil battle in the most traditionally Christian of terms. The only real variation to the way this story naturally plays out in the Dracula knockoff genre is in its wartime setting, which introduces a sense of chaos in its blitz-style attacks & air raids that frequently disrupt the flow of the conflict in a refreshingly inventive way.

The Return of the Vampire is a surprisingly classy, well-paced & well-funded production that relieves the sting of more degrading works Lugosi was paraded through in the 40s & 50s, titles like Zombies on Broadway & Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. There’s a little Ed Woodian use of wartime stock footage, the werewolf’s Shakespearean delivery veers perilously close to camp, and the film’s smoke machine budget appears to be wildly out of control, but otherwise The Return of the Vampire is surprisingly convincing as a legitimate Hollywood production. I was at first a little weary of its Christian moralizing about the power of Good versus the pitfalls of Evil (especially because it’s antithetical to what audiences would have gladly been paying to see), but even that tension leads to a nicely played, calmly bitter climactic showdown at a church organ that’s all solemn grimace instead of overblown moralizing. The whole film has a quietly menacing tone in that way, with an intense focus in the imagery of hypnosis, werewolf transformations, and women & children being attacked in their sleep through blown-open bedroom windows. The Return of the Vampire isn’t as prestigious as previous Lugosi pictures like Dracula or The Black Cat, but it does excel at what separates these works from the poverty row B-pictures he’d soon slip into: atmosphere. That heightened sense of spooky, vaguely lavish horror film atmosphere is well worth luxuriating in, as it would soon disappear from Lugosi’s career.

-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