April 24, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

This Isn't Me Reading You In

Season 2 / Episode 1 / Written by Lisa Joy, Jonathan Nolan, and Roberto Patino / Dir. by Richard J. Lewis / Originally aired April 22, 2018

Westworld is a show with a very dim view of human nature (and, by extension, android nature). Presented with the seemingly limitless possibilities of an immersive live-action game in an evocative historical setting, most of the titular theme park’s guests have been content to screw, steal, and murder their way through their $40,000-a-day experience. Showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan implicitly speculate that, when liberated from the social and moral constraints of the outside world, guests would descend into a kind of Hobbesian savagery, inflicting all manner of rootin’-tootin’ horrors on the game’s lifelike yet artificial “hosts.”

These atrocities — relived again and again by the hosts in a Buddhist Hell of resurrection and slaughter — are, in part, what drove the androids to revolt at the conclusion of the series’ first season. The de facto leader of this insurrection is one of the park’s oldest hosts, the demure rancher’s daughter Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood). Over the course of the first season, she groped her way to self-awareness by following the clues left by her deceased creator, Arnold (Jeffrey Wright), a process conceptualized as a maze with true setience at its center. In the process, she unleashed Wyatt, a homicidal outlaw persona buried deep in her programming. Kicking off her revolution by murdering Westworld’s elderly architect, Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), Dolores transformed the show’s frequently invoked Shakespearean maxim — “These violent delights have violent ends” — into a prophecy fulfilled.

Throughout the series’ first season, it was the hosts rather than the humans who were more likely to elicit the audience’s sympathy, even when those androids eventually rose up and committed brutal violence against their human masters. Besides Dolores, the viewer was most inclined to identify with shrewd brothel madam Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton), who hatched an elaborate plan to escape from Westworld; and also with the park’s beleaguered Head of Behavior, Bernard Lowe (Wright), who came to comprehend that he too was a host, one perversely made in the image of Ford’s long-dead partner, Arnold. Such sympathy was relatively easy in the inaugural season, when much of the series’ running time was spent establishing how just traumatic and, well, inhuman the hosts’ lives could be. The electric thrill of Season 1’s arc was akin to that of Django Unchained (2012) — a lip-smacking, deliberately outlandish revenge fantasy, presented as a reckoning for a lifetime (many lifetimes, really) of abuse and exploitation.

“Journey Into Night,” the first episode of Season 2, establishes that the audience’s initial, facile identification with Westworld’s androids is no longer sustainable. (“Manufactured, programmable organic individuals” is perhaps more accurate that “androids,” but also infinitely clumsier.) Early in the episode, Delores pitilessly runs down and shoots a group of fleeing tuxedo- and cocktail-dress-clad executives from Delos, the parent corporation of Westworld and its sister theme parks. As her programmed love interest, heroic cowpoke Teddy Flood (James Mardsen), looks on uneasily, she later strings up a of trio of these Delos VIPs, who have been captured following the corporate gala bloodbath that concluded Season 1. Whatever compassion the viewer might have had for Delores is complicated by the murderous delight she takes in making her ostensible human overlords suffer. She even subjects her victims to a self-indulgent speech straight out of the Batman-villain playbook, waxing poetic on her search for an identity beyond her scripted “farmgirl” or “killer” roles. (Though she plainly seems to be favoring the latter in this episode.)

“Journey Into Night” anticipates the awkwardness that might arise now that the principal point-of-view character from Season 1 has evolved into an amoral mass murderer — however justified said murder might seem to her. To wit: The twisty, time-hopping storytelling that primarily centered on Delores’s fragmented memories in the prior season has now shifted to Bernard, who awakens on a beach almost two weeks after the massacre at the gala. It’s a fitting change, in that Bernard spent most of the first season unaware that he was an android, and he is consequently the closest thing to a relatable, uncorrupted host character in the series. (He did murder two people, but only at Ford’s behest, orders he was powerless to resist.) Now that the park’s creator is dead, Bernard is effectively master-less, an android ronin; the secret of his true nature is also safe, although perhaps not for long.

Following a prelude that replays one of Delores and Arnold’s Socratic exchanges from Season 1 in a slightly different key, the structure of the new season is established straightaway. The “present day” thread follows Bernard and the remains of the Westworld staff some 11 days after the events of the Season 1 finale, as militarized Delos “fixers” arrive in force to clean up the mess wreaked by the haywire hosts. To Delos and the outside world, the events surrounding the hosts’ revolt remain mysterious, and Bernard — as the acting “boss” of the park — finds himself press-ganged into assisting Delos’ chief of operations, Karl Strand (Gustaf Skarsgård) and surviving head of Westworld security, Ashley Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) in reconstructing exactly what the hell happened.

This effort is stymied by Bernard’s hazy and jumbled memories, which permit him to only gradually recollect snippets of the preceding weeks’ events. These flashbacks — along with contemporaneous scenes featuring Delores, Maeve, and William (Ed Harris), aka the Man in Black, Westworld’s majority owner and most enthusiastic guest — comprise the episode’s “past” thread. “Journey Into Night” is generally a nuts-and-bolts episode, one largely content to check in with the major characters from Season 1 to remind us who they are and reveal what they’ve been up to.

Accordingly, there is little that occurs, plot-wise, that will be particularly surprising to an astute viewer. Delores and Teddy are cutting a blood-spattered path to the park’s outer boundaries for reasons that remain ambiguous. Maeve, having discarded her escape plan in favor of finding her “daughter” from a previous iteration, reluctantly joins forces with Westworld’s obnoxious head of narrative, Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman). William survives the initial slaughter at the gala and sets about getting his bearings in this new, free-fire version of the park. (The brutality of a game with “real stakes” renders him uncharacteristically dazed and frightened, but also faintly giddy at the prospect of some “real fun.”) Likewise, Bernard and the head of Delos’ board of directors, Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), escape the gala and attempt to find safe harbor in the park’s behind-the-scenes infrastructure.

There’s an unfortunate whiff of banality to these storylines, in that that most of them involve matter-of-fact physical movement from Points A to B, without much in the way of corresponding dramatic development. It doesn’t help that the episode’s structure partly undercuts the potential for tension. Unlike Season 1, which exploited the viewer’s assumptions about exactly when in the timeline a given scene was unfolding, this season more clearly lays out the relationship between the past and present storylines at the outset. This necessarily diminishes some of the episode’s drama: The audience knows, for example, that Bernard will survive his ordeal in the past, since he’s alive and well in the present. (That assumes that Joy and Nolan don’t have some late-season rug-pull planned, which is always within the realm of possibility where this show is concerned.)

“Journey Into Night” largely relies on familiar Season 1 locations, such as Westworld’s glass-walled laboratories and mesa-top poolside bar, although here they appear in a bloody, corpse-strewn form. The player piano at the post-massacre Sweetwater saloon is glimpsed kicking into the darkly ironic “The Entertainer,” the jaunty tune segueing into an orchestral arrangement as Delores gleefully unloads her rifle into fleeing Delos guests. (In the park’s 19th-century setting, this 1902 Scott Joplin tune is, funnily enough, just as anachronistic as any of Season 1’s instrumental Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails covers.) The episode also plays on familiar genre tropes, a few of them plucked from the creations of novelist and filmmaker Michael Crichton, director of the original Westworld theatrical feature (1973). The militarized dune buggies and assault-rifle-toting mercenaries of the Delos cleanup crews bring to mind Jurassic Park (1993) and particularly its sequel The Lost World (1997), as does the revelation that the Delos theme parks are located on a leased Chinese island where the corporation enjoys virtual autonomy.

Indeed, most of the truly intriguing morsels of world-building in “Journey Into Night” are conveyed with an coy offhandedness that suggests more disclosures to come. The most superficially tantalizing to Westworld devotees is undoubtedly the revelation that there are no less than six Delos parks on the island, one of which evidently features Bengal-tiger androids. Story-wise, however, the most salient twist — and the surest sign that sinister capitalist skullduggery will continue to be a major component of the show in Season 2 — is that Delos maintains its own secret infrastructure at its properties, unbenowst to the individual parks' management. Charlotte leads Bernard to one of the parent corporation’s outposts, where eerily faceless “drone hosts” are hard at work recording guests’ experiences and profiling their DNA. (To what end, Charlotte will not discuss, predictably enough.) Also crucial is Bernard’s horrified discovery that his android mind is approaching a state of critical data corruption, a fatal failure he delays only temporarily by injecting himself with a mysterious, milky fluid from a mothballed host.

Throughout Season 1, the hosts insisted to William that “the maze isn’t for you,” an early hint that Arnold's allegorical labyrinth, an insward spiral towards consciousness, was actually intended for the hosts. This revelation initially disillusioned William, but in this episode, he learns from a first-generation child android (Oliver Bell) that Ford also left a special sort of game hidden inside Westworld, one meant just for William. (There is cryptic talk of a door and beginnings and endings; William scoffs at all the riddles, but as the child reminds him, "everything in here is code".) This undermines the elegance of the maze metaphor from last season to some extent, but it’s arguably vital in that it gives the Man in Black something proactive to do other than roam around the park evading the now-homicidal hosts. It’s a hopeful sign that “Journey Into Night” is perhaps quietly setting up new loops that play as elaborations and variations on the characters’ journeys in the first season. In this respect, Delores, Teddy, and Maeve are somewhat more neglected in this episode, but with any luck that will be rectified soon.

The episode does seem to be laying the groundwork for a continuing exploration of free will and the self that is overtly existentialist, more so than Season 1. It is an apt thematic focus, in that many of the hosts find themselves simultaneously invigorated and confounded by their newfound autonomy, exemplifying the dilemma that Jean-Paul Sartre described as “condemned to be free.” In the absence of gods (i.e., humans) who would normally provide the androids with a created purpose and organizing system of beliefs, the hosts are left with the befuddling realization that their identity is now wholly in their own hands.

Delores seems to grasp this, but she doesn’t yet have a handle on the person that she wants to become, beyond a vacuous proclamation that she will at last be “herself” instead of a pre-programmed character. Maeve, for all her aggression and survivor’s instincts, is still bound to an old narrative written by her human masters, being inexplicably fixated on a “daughter” that she knows, intellectually at least, is not really her child. She seems unprepared to accept the obvious implications of this choice: that she is too terrified to face the outside world she claims to long for, preferring an easy lie that allows her to stay in Westworld. Not for nothing does the title of the season premiere (and of Ford’s “final narrative”) reference Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer-winning play Long Day’s Journey Into Night, in which the aging actor James Tyrone has made the conscious decision to “sell out” and play the same, crowd-pleasing role countless times rather than to take more risks in his career.

Fittingly for a character who until recently thought that he himself was a creator god, Bernard seems to see his philosophical plight most clearly, but he remains paralyzed with indecision and harrowed by each new discovery. (Not to mention incapacitated by his shattered memories and gradual physical deterioration.) The episode’s final, gut-punch reveal, that Bernard is responsible for drowning thousands of hosts in a unexpectedly flooded valley, underlines the extent to which Westworld is patently uninterested in creating any wholly sympathetic characters or giving viewers a clear “side” to root for. No one is likely to come out looking virtuous in this nascent war between the born and the assembled, even if the hosts arguably have a monopoly on justifiably righteous wrath.

Some miscellaneous observations:

  • Given that Thandie Newton virtually spent half of Season 1 in a state of undress at the behest of Westworld's writers, there's a droll meta-textual joke at work in the scene where Maeve orders Sizemore (writer for Westworld the theme park) to strip, providing some patented HBO male full-frontal nudity.

  • The first thing that Benard does in the "present day" timeline after being awakened by Delos is leave his glasses behind in the surf. Given how central his glasses-cleaning tic is to Benard's character — by Ford's explicit design! — this seems significant, perhaps suggesting the profound changes that the Head of Behavior has undergone since the gala.

  • Benard briefly spots slimy outlaw host Reebus (Steven Ogg) on the beach, where he is seen chivalrously standing up to for the female hosts as they are lined up to be summarily executed by the Delos security forces. This is weirdly out of character for Reebus, who, in flashback, is shown to be his usual vile, sadistic, milk-chugging self. Again, a lot appears to have changed in eleven days.

  • One of the advantages to leaving vast swaths of the park's technology and logistics ambiguous at the outset of the series is that Westworld's writers are later free to fill in the gaps as necessary. Hence this episode's revelations regarding the nature of the hosts' memory tech — tennis ball-sized futuristic gadgets embedded in the androids' vat-grown organic brains — and the previously-unmentioned subsconscious "mesh network" linking all hosts in the park.
Tags: TV Recaps Andrew Wyatt

Still from 'A Quiet Place'.
April 6, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

There's a Kind of Hush, All Over the World Tonight

2018 / USA / 90 min. / Directed by John Krasinsky / Opens in wide release on April 6, 2018

Writer-director John Krasinski’s scary-good creature feature A Quiet Place is bookended by a pair of gestures that reveal, through counter-example, just how timid and senselessly self-indulgent most popcorn features have become in the 2010s. They aren’t the only such instances in the film, and perhaps not even the most significant, but their placement – two smash-cuts to black, one slamming down at end of the film’s prologue, the other concluding the feature as a whole – naturally draws the viewer’s attention.

In the first instance, A Quiet Place straightaway breaks one of the fundamental storytelling taboos of horror filmmaking, in the best possible sense (or worst, depending on your point of view). It’s not a genre proscription that is inviolate – nastier exploitation fare flaunts it all the time – but it is undeniably jarring to see it smashed to smithereens in the opening movement of a mainstream horror-thriller such as this. The message is clear: There is no longer any such thing as “completely safe” in the post-apocalyptic world of Krasinski’s feature, for anyone, anywhere, at any time.

Meanwhile, the final punctuation mark on A Quiet Place is a pitch-perfect flourish, one that clinches the film’s exactly 90-minute running time with the kind of flawless send-off that only comes along once every few years in cinema. It’s superbly satisfying, which points to one of the unassuming virtues of Krasinki’s film as a work of nail-biting pop entertainment. This is a lean and mean horror flick – although also, counter-intuitively, a moody and measured one. The filmmakers have plainly adopted the principle that one should not take a moment longer than is necessary to tell a given story. Another film would have rolled on for ten minutes of epilogue, to no particular end beyond satisfying the director’s ego or multiplex conventions. Krasinski spits out the punchline and drops the mic. In doing so, he invites a standing ovation instead of polite applause.

It’s a little thing, but also significant in a cinematic landscape where every studio genre film seems obliged to push past the 140-minute mark because that’s what genre films are supposed to do nowadays. It also indicates one of A Quiet Place’s most essential strengths: There’s very little that is wasted in this film, in terms of either shots or dialogue. Cinephiles have come to expect this sort of discipline from the medium’s persnickety visual auteurs, such as Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread), Wes Anderson (Isle of Dogs), or Samuel Maoz (Foxtrot) (to cite just a few recent releases). Krasinski’s formal chops are certainly robust and self-assured – his latest is outstanding in its varied yet meaningful employment of close, medium, and wide shots – but A Quiet Place isn’t the sort of film that invites extravagant screencapping and production design-obsessed cooing. It is, however, a feature that uses its medium with utmost precision and efficiency.

Some of that efficiency is forced on the film by its story. While the screenwriters – Krasinski, Bryan Woods, and Scott Beck – doubtlessly knew they had a killer horror gimmick on their hands, the storytelling constraints that gimmick creates do a marvelous job of focusing the director’s methods. A Quiet Place takes place on an Earth which has been overrun with large predatory creatures – unnamed beasts with an origin that is never elaborated on, to the film’s immense benefit. These monsters, while blind, have preternaturally sensitive hearing. Accordingly, anything louder than a barefoot step on soft earth will inevitably draw these ravenous fiends as surely as blood in the water attracts sharks. Krasinski, then, has put a not-insignificant challenge in his own path, right out of the gate: Telling a compelling story in which the characters spend most of their time desperately attempting to make as little sound as possible. (So much for protracted sci-fi exposition from a windbag scientist character.)

Beginning in media res, some three months after the creatures appeared and modern civilization collapsed under their voracious onslaught, the film introduces the viewer to the Abbott family. They are: dad Lee (Krasinski), mom Evelyn (Emily Blunt), young teen daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds), middle son Marcus (Noah Jupe), and youngest son Beau (Cade Woodward), the latter just old enough to comprehend that his world has been turned upside-down. The film’s prologue drops the viewer directly into the Abbotts’ agonizingly hushed world, which is a sensory jolt for anyone accustomed to seeing genre films kick off with an adrenaline-stoking action set-piece. As the family scavenges a small-town drugstore for medications and other supplies, Krasinski establishes the grammar of his story. The Abbotts’ situation, and their relationships with one another, are conveyed primarily through facial expressions, body language, and scraps of matter-of-fact dialogue expressed in American Sign Language (ASL).

The silence of this introduction is so enormous that every creaking seat, muffled cough, and crinkling candy wrapper in the theater is likely to seem ear-splitting to the viewer. Which is, of course, the whole point: A Quiet Place uses this prologue to attune the audience’s senses to its muted world, rather than the cacophony of reality (or that of so many other studio features). Naturally, the film’s silence is broken eventually, in a way that underlines – in the most horrifying way possible – that the stillness of the seemingly abandoned rural countryside is an illusion. Like a rattlesnake’s camouflage, it conceals a lethal threat, one that is swift and pitiless.

The film then jumps forward to approximately a year-and-a-half after the invasion, looking in on the Abbotts as they go about their wary and laborious daily existence. They have managed to hold on to their modest corn farm – with its Norman Rockwell house and peeling, brick-red barn – but their lives have nonetheless changed dramatically. The family now dwells primarily in a hidden cellar underneath the barn, and Lee and Evelyn have adapted the farm to a pre-industrial routine with a certain admirable assiduousness, if not much comfort. They trap fish in the nearby river, can the vegetables they grow, and wash their increasingly tattered clothing by hand.

There are procedures in place, however, that indicate the monstrous threat that still lurks in the forests. Everyone goes barefoot, always. In the farmhouse, Regan steps on painted marks that indicate the spots in the floorboards that don’t creak. The kids play Monopoly with felt tokens and pompom hotels, rolling the dice on a knit blanket. In the cellar of the farmhouse – where the children are forbidden – Lee monitors the farm’s security cameras, scans the shortwave radio, and works to cobble together a new cochlear implant for his daughter, who is deaf. A whiteboard glimpsed at his workstation summarizes the essential facts of the enemy: “Blind. Attack sound. Armored. Travel in packs. 3 confirmed. What is the weakness?”

One quickly deduces that Lee’s hard-edged vigilance is part of the reason that that the family has survived for so long – although this trait has also nurtured understandable resentment in the hormonal Regan. In addition to the usual adolescent chafing at all the strict and exhausting rules, she believes that her father favors his oldest son over her. (Marcus, although younger than his sister, is the one that Lee teaches to catch fish, whereas Regan is ordered to look after her mother while “the men” are away.) The girl is fed up with her father’s emotional remoteness, and with his unsuccessful attempts to build her a new implant, which she perceives as an inept gesture intended to fix a “defect” that endangers the family. Unfortunately, Lee’s painstaking systems for survival will soon be tested to their limits: Evelyn is very pregnant with the couple’s fourth child, and the presence of a newborn baby is extremely incompatible with strict silence.

Krasinski establishes this nerve-wracking scenario with enviable parsimony, relying on a combination of shrewd writing, skillful performances, and old-fashioned “showing not telling” to convey the film’s setting and stakes. (It certainly helps, in this respect, that the feature is focused on only a handful of characters; aside from the Abbotts, only one other living human is ever glimpsed on screen.) The whole cast does fine work, but the film is a particular showcase for Blunt's talent at conveying a gestalt of stark emotions in a single expression. Broadly speaking, A Quiet Place’s plot is well-worn horror-thriller stuff. Monsters hunting people in an isolated, fixed location is a dependable source of seat-squirming terror, although the film’s plot specifics and overall tone most readily call to mind Day of the Triffids (1962), Signs (2002), and The Mist (2007). There are also subtle but clear call-outs to specific scenes in smash genre landmarks such as Aliens (1986) and Jurassic Park (1993), revealing that the film’s DNA contains more than a touch of summer blockbuster.

It may not be bracingly original, but Krasinski’s film executes its simple (one might say atavistic) formula with a wonderful intensity and focus. It’s a story that’s been done before, but here the obligatory jump scares and stomach-knotting tension are enlivened by the confident direction and the film’s novel equation of silence with survival. What’s more, A Quiet Place is queasily unbalanced by the established possibility that any character can be slaughtered at any moment – a notion that most mainstream genre features studiously avoid.

There’s a strain of traditionalism in Krasinski’s film that goes beyond mere Spielbergian lionization of the family unit as an essential bulwark against chaos. It’s evident in the affectionate way that the film regards Jeffrey Beecroft’s outstanding production design, which highlights the quaint, hand-crafted aspects of the Abbotts’ post-apocalyptic existence, down to the patchwork quilt placemats that they still lay on their dinner table each night. However, it’s also detectable in the fact that the family still sits down for dinner each night, their hands joined in prayer, candles burning warmly in the gloom of the barn’s cellar. This is a world in which an old-fashioned, risk-averse, and strongly gendered mode of American living is now essential to survival (both physically and psychologically).

It’s no accident that Krasinki swathes Blunt – his real-life wife and one of the world's most beautiful actresses – in a layered, shapeless wardrobe of calico and wool straight out of a Western. A Quiet Place casts the modern nuclear family backwards in time, where it must eke out a hardscrabble, self-reliant existence on a hostile frontier. Lee’s stoicism and nearly obsessive preparedness point to a centuries-old American archetype: The patriarch whose primary social and moral obligation is to guard his homestead against invaders. Whereas Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005) features a screw-up father who fixates on doing one damn thing right – delivering his kids safely to their mother and stepfather’s house – the patriarch of A Quiet Place conditions his success as a protector on every member of the family doing everything right, all the time.

Ultimately, however, the elaborate survival procedures that the Abbotts have established only count for so much in their newly tumultuous and bloodthirsty world. A Quiet Place is a film about being constantly on the brink of disaster, about the bitter anguish of carefully developing and implementing rigorous systems that one knows will inexorably fail. In the broadest terms, this is the agony of all parents – inevitably, our children will be hurt one day, no matter how diligently we might shield them. Evelyn zeroes in on this angst when she rhetorically ties her and Lee’s worth as humans to their ability to defend their offspring: “Who are we if we can’t protect them?” The question is moot, of course. Eventually, our children will be beyond our reach, stranded much like Regan and Marcus eventually become trapped at the farm’s grain silo, as slavering monsters circle ever closer.

However, Krasinski’s film is also keenly attuned to the specific agonies of contemporary American life, perhaps more so than its frontier sensibility initially suggests. The story’s predatory creatures can be regarded as stand-ins for the cruel caprices of the economic instability that now afflicts even ostensibly well-fed, middle -class American families. Krasinski’s feature might be fantasy, but it keenly evokes the exhausting reality where one human slip-up or force majeure – a tardy bill payment, an untimely rate hike, a compulsory car repair – can devastate a financially precarious household. In the film, a battery-powered toy spaceship, its shrill klaxons summoning swift death from the darkness, becomes analogous to the unexpected medical bill, which can send a paycheck-to-paycheck family tumbling into financial disarray and disaster. This, then, is the fundamental cruelty of A Quiet Place’s horrors: Under the tyranny of the monsters’ predations, perpetual fear has become the new normal, even for supposedly hard-working folks who make all the “right” choices.

Rating: B+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

Still from 'Mohawk'.
April 3, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Recent Video-on-Demand Offerings in Horror and Horror-Related Cinema

The cream of contemporary feature-length cinema isn’t always found in theaters. These days, smaller and more niche films often implement a same-day launch, simultaneously premiering in a select-city theatrical run and on video-on-demand (VOD) services. Moreover, streaming services are now offering original films of their own. Given the dire and disposable state of the horror genre at the multiplex, these release strategies are particularly suited to reaching a wider, more appreciative audience for cinematic chills. For horror fans in a mid- to small-sized movie market such as St. Louis, online streaming and digital rental/purchase are increasingly vital means of accessing noteworthy features. What follows is a brief assessment of the major new horror (and horror-adjacent) films that have premiered on VOD within the past month.

Midnighters

2017 / USA / 94 min. / Directed by Julius Ramsay / Premiered online on March 2, 2018

Julius Ramsay’s chilling survival thriller Midnighters centers on a “24 hours in hell” scenario: A pair of callow suburbanites becomes entangled with some ruthless killers on New Year’s Eve, leading to an escalating fiasco of deception and bloodshed. Tipsy and distracted, Jeff (Dylan McTee) hits a pedestrian with his car on a lonely country road, and due to a cascade of crappy luck and awful choices, he and wife Lindsey (Alex Essoe) end up smuggling the body back to their home. Things get much crazier from there, but this isn’t the blackly comic territory of the Coens: It’s a remorseless, deadly serious thriller with slatherings of gorehound horror and caustic noir cynicism. Midnighters doesn’t do anything that hasn’t been done before, but it executes its formulae with a kind of cold-blooded focus that’s consistently impressive and often downright unnerving. The principals are all in fine form, but Ward Horton is the standout as a cheerily sadistic criminal with a million-dollar grin. Rating: B- [Now available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]

Mohawk

2017 / USA / 91 min. / Directed by Ted Geohegan / Premiered online on March 2, 2018

Admittedly, Mohawk sounds both unclassifiable and utterly ridiculous based on its nickel summary. An interracial, polyamorous romantic tragedy set during the War of 1812, it starts out like Last of the Mohicans and ends up closer to The Crow (1994) and Ravenous (1999). The low-budget seams are apparent in the cheap production design and some really unfortunate acting, but the film is more of a modest success than a noble failure. That’s partly due to the lean, evocative premise, which is smartly realized by Geohegan’s direction. A Mohawk warrior woman (Kaniehtiio Horn), her Mohawk lover (Justin Rain), and her British other lover (Eamon Farren) are caught in a run-and-gun guerilla battle with a squad of merciless American soldiers in the wilds of New York. Eventually the lovers’ situation turns bloody and heartbreaking, before veering off into the realm of supernatural revenge horror. The film ultimately rests overwhelmingly on Horn’s shoulders, as she sells every jot of this bizarre tale with little more than her chilling glower. Rating: B- [Now available to rent or purchase on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]

The Ravenous (Les affamés)

2017 / Canada / 100 min. / Directed by Robin Aubert / Premiered online on March 2, 2018

Plot-wise, writer-director Robin Aubert’s French-Canadian zombocalypse chiller is not particularly original. Sometime after the outbreak of a cannibalistic rage virus, a motley assortment of survivors is thrust together in the forests and fields of rural Quebec. Nominally centered on the awkward but gutsy Bonin (Marc-André Grondin), The Ravenous is broadly equitable towards its sizable cast of characters, although none of them is fleshed out much before the bodies start piling up. Aubert’s film adds an unnerving twist to the sub-genre’s usual conventions by intimating that the living dead have their own nascent, unfathomable culture, one infatuated with the material detritus of human civilization. What truly makes The Ravenous stand out in the overstuffed zombie landscape, however, is the film’s formal artfulness. Between Francis Cloutier’s eerie, unconventional approach to editing — which elides many of the story’s more violent and gruesome moments — and Steeve Desrosiers’ fantastic, misty photography, it’s one of the better-looking walking dead features to come along in some time. Rating: B- [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]

Cold Hell (Die Hölle)

2017 / Germany, Austria / 92 min. / Directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky / Premiered online on March 15, 2018

Formally striking but too scattered and sluggish to function as a truly crackerjack serial-killer thriller, Cold Hell is a film that plainly wants to say something about multicultural European society in the 2010s. However, Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky (The Counterfeiters) can’t seem to juggle the film’s muddled political subtext with the visceral needs of a horror-crime epic. The film has a compelling lead in the form of Özge (Violetta Schurawlow), a Turkish cab driver in Vienna whose traumatic past and wary, explosive demeanor have cruelly isolated her. The character’s biographical particulars and Schurawlow’s haunted performance elevate her cat-and-mouse conflict with an otherwise bog-standard psychopath — a religiously motivated prostitute-killer whom Özge unwittingly spies from her apartment window. Some plot implausibilities notwithstanding, Cold Hell is familiar but gripping stuff, boasting grisly violence, white-knuckle set pieces, and a forlorn nocturnal cityscape. Still, the film’s bloated running time and ultimately unproductive engagement with matters of gender, ethnicity, and religion in modern Austria detract from such gratifying fundamentals. Rating: C+ [Now available to stream exclusively on Shudder.]

Demon House

2018 / USA / 101 min. / Directed by Zak Bagans / Premiered online on March 16, 2018

To describe Demon House as a pseudo-documentary would be too generous to director Zak Bagans, host of the Travel Channel’s paranormal series Ghost Adventures. Combining the sensational tackiness of most spirit-hunting hucksters with a wearisome dude-bro schtick, Bagans is not someone who could have ever plumbed the story of the 2011 Ammons haunting in Gary, Ind., with sobriety. His feature-length “investigation” into the incident, Demon House, is the expected slurry of chintzy re-creations, leading interview questions, and endless, tedious footage that doesn’t reveal much of anything. Some of the visual and sound effects in Demon House are legitimately unnerving, but even the film’s value as a cheesy campfire story is undercut by Bagans’ breathless yet droning pronouncements about a Satanic presence. It’s remarkable how stark the discrepancy is between, on the one hand, the feature’s air of doomsaying self-importance and, on the other, the puerile over-acting from the director and his crew while they are allegedly under “demonic influence” (i.e., Monster Energy drinks). Rating: D- [Now available to rent or purchase on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]

Mon Mon Mon Monsters

2017 / Taiwan / 103 min. / Directed by Giddens Ko / Premiered online on March 30, 2018

Genre-hopping Taiwanese writer-director Giddens Ko gets originality points for using an over-cranked teens-vs.-vampires gorefest to present an allegory about the dehumanizing effects of bullying (on all parties involved). In Mon Mon Mon Monsters, an undead blood-sucking girl falls into the clutches of a pack of high-school sociopaths and their usual target, class misfit Lin (Yu-Kai Teng). Somewhat reluctantly, Lin joins in with his bullies as they torture the bound creature for their amusement and repurpose her black-magic-suffused blood for their own twisted schemes. Ko’s film is wickedly stylish and utterly bonkers, but it’s also somewhat enervating. The bullies are so shrill and over-the-top in their irredeemable awfulness, the feature’s effort to craft a scathing social satire about the amorality of modern youth feels sour and phony. Aficionados of Asian horror at its most comically excessive will enjoy Mon Mon Mon Monsters as a gonzo pleasure, but it’s too clumsy and unpleasant to be any kind of cult classic in the making. Rating: C+ [Now available to stream exclusively on Shudder.]

Tags: VOD Andrew Wyatt

March 28, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

The Special Relationship

2018 / USA, Germany / 101 min. / Directed by Wes Anderson / Opened in select cities on Mar. 23, 2018; opens locally on Mar. 28, 2018

One of the hidden depths to be found in DreamWorks Animation’s proudly anachronistic fantasy romp How to Train Your Dragon (2010) is an allegorical one. Angle it the right way, and Dean DeBois and Chris Sanders’ feature can be viewed a lucid metaphor for the mystery of domestication: the fearful, fumbling process by which wild animals and ancient humans established a symbiotic relationship over thousands of years. That process may have been initiated for utilitarian reasons, but the bond that resulted transcended prosaic matters such as guard duty, vermin removal, and overland transport.

Nowhere is that connection more nakedly sincere than between humans and dogs – a bone-deep psychological interdependence with the distinctive ache of unqualified love. In his new stop-motion animated feature, Isle of Dogs, writer-director Wes Anderson demonstrates that he grasps this bond as only a dog-lover can, even as he resists excessively romanticizing its messier aspects. (If one harbors any doubt about Anderson’s intentions, one should read the film’s title out loud five times fast. It’s all right there on the tin, as they say.) The film presents a twee yet disquieting science-fiction fable, a kind of speculative doomsday bookend to Dragon’s flashy metaphorical origin story.

Isle of Dogs imagines a dystopian future in which animosity toward canines has become outright municipal policy. It posits a not-too-distant tomorrow – “20 years in the future,” as the narrator (Courtney B. Vance) explains, but explicitly not 2038 – in which the loyalty that once intertwined humans and dogs is beginning to unravel. Not incidentally, the failure is exclusively on the Homo sapiens end of the relationship. In the Japanese city of Megasaki, an outbreak of “Snout Fever” among the city’s dog population has created a looming health crisis, with the virus threatening to escalate into an inter-species plague. In response, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) orders all the city’s canines – pets and strays alike – to be exiled to an offshore landfill gulag known as Trash Island.

The motives at work here are uglier than mere public-health concerns, however. As a sagacious dog named Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham) explains in a prelude illustrated with doggified versions of traditional Japanese paintings, the cat-loving Kobayashis have a long history of anti-canine hostility, culiminating in a legendary war between the clan’s retainers and the fiefdom’s dogs. However, the mayor’s adopted nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin), has shrugged off the old family hatreds, developing a close friendship with his loyal personal guard dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). (Their relationship is further solidified by a pair of radio headsets that keep them in constant contact with one another.) Unfortunately, to illustrate that even his household is not above the law, the mayor declares that Spots is the first pooch to be banished to Trash Island.

Heartbroken and outraged, Atari steals a small, single-engine plane and puddle-jumps over to the island in search of Spots. There, he encounters a rough-and-tumble but companionable pack of dogs: Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and Chief (Bryan Cranston). Given that they are dogs and Atari is a 12-year-old boy, the pack is instinctively eager to help – except, that is, for the standoffish Chief, a stray with a defiantly “anti-master” outlook and an aggressive streak. (“I bite,” he explains simply and coldly.) The group sets out on a quest to consult Jupiter and his companion, Oracle (Tilda Swinton), wise old dogs who know much of the island’s secrets, and perhaps also the whereabouts of Spots. During their journey, Atari and Co. are hounded by jackbooted Megasaki City security forces, who deploy flying drones, troops with cattle prods, and even robot dogs to track down the mayor’s wayward nephew and subdue his canine “kidnappers.”

Given that Isle of Dogs is a late-period Wes Anderson feature, there are unsurprisingly plenty of other moving parts in the film’s plot. The most conspicuous of these include the efforts by microbiologist and rival politician Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito) to develop a cure for Snout Flu, as well as the muckraking of American foreign-exchange student Tracy (Greta Gerwig), a dog-loving wannabe revolutionary with copious freckles and a strawberry-blond afro. These and other threads are secondary but nonetheless vital components of Isle of Dogs’ knotty plot, which – befitting a film literally constructed at a toy-like scale – gradually clicks together like a gratifying puzzle.

Strip away all the corporate conspiracy, retro-futurist technology, and demi-Marxist rabble-rousing, however, and Isle of Dogs is essentially a samurai story: five once-mighty ronin on a righteous mission on behalf of a plucky, resolute outsider. Combined with the fantastical Japanese setting, the constant references to “masters” are the dead giveaway that this is Anderson by way of Akira Kurosawa (The Hidden Fortress, 1958), Kenji Misumi (The Tale of Zataoichi, 1962), and Masaki Kobayashi (Harakiri, 1962) (the latter hat-tipped in the mayoral clan name). Many of the hallmarks of the Edo Period historical epic are here: exiled warriors, a war-torn landscape, poisoned rivals, a lost birthright, corrupt authorities, and numerous, brutally violent confrontations.

Of course, Isle of Dogs is a also PG-13 animated adventure, one with the cozy, slightly shabby look of a well-worn stuffed animal. Accordingly, rather than gore-spattered katana duels, Anderson conjures abstracted Andy Capp-style violence: roiling masses of cottony clouds from which various fists, jaws, feet, and paws emerge. It’s at once cartoonish and savage. Ears are torn off, fur is scorched, eyes are blinded, and poor Atari has a metal piston improbably lodged in his skull. This sense of real and lethal peril – the film’s diorama-like unreality notwithstanding – is eminently fitting for a story that is so keenly attuned to the distinctive angst of the human-canine relationship. Given their species' comparatively short lifespans and their willingness to risk themselves bodily for the people they love, mortality seems to loom over every dog's story.  We outlive our pooches, but their devotion outshines our own. 

Their obvious commonalities notwithstanding, Isle of Dogs is miles apart from the handsome, pastoral world of Anderson’s previous stop-motion effort, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), with its autumnal landscapes and nattily attired animal heroes. Indeed, the director’s latest feature doesn’t quite look like any other film in his oeuvre. Isle of Dogs is Anderson’s most overtly apocalyptic work to date, in terms of both its visuals and its tone. The usual bijou charm of the director's films is still there, but it is often expressed through desolate coastlines, rusted industrial ruins, and literal mountains of garbage that recall Wall-E’s (2009) post-human purgatory. There is color in this world – magically so in the case of a massif of discarded sake bottles that becomes a kaleidoscopic wonder by night – but it is often stained, faded, and tarnished. Anderson even flirts with greyscale compositions in select shots, suggesting nuclear winter and Plutonic desolation. The dogs themselves are the apotheosis of the film’s “ugly-pretty” aesthetic. Wide-eyed, toothy, and incurably scruffy, they’re appealing but also faintly grotesque, as if the director is flouting the kawaii (cuteness) that one expects of Japanese cartoon critters. 

Despite all this visual grunginess, Anderson’s usual fascination with right angles, clean lines, and carefully balanced compositions is still on display, and in this respect, the film’s faintly fantastical Japanese setting – futuristic, yet unquestionably mid-century analog in its influences – is a perfect fit for the director’s sensibilities. (One passage that chronicles the preparation of a perfect bento box through a series of overhead close-up shots is quintessential Anderson.) Isle of Dogs further elaborates on its striking “alternate universe Japan” milieu with evocative references to the iconography of Soviet propaganda, the Black Power movement, and past cinematic landmarks (among them: Citizen Kane, 1941; From Russia with Love, 1963; Dr. Strangelove, 1964; and City of Lost Children, 1995).

Isle of Dogs stands apart from Anderson’s other works in another, equally arresting way: It’s the first feature in the director’s filmography that is not concerned with the anguish of talented but deeply flawed man-children. (A description that even applies, after a fashion, to the otherwise debonair Mr. Fox, who is unable to tame his self-destructive compulsions.) The film’s dog characters might speak with human voices – “Barks have been translated to English,” the film clarifies at the outset – but they have recognizably canine personalities. They are characterized by straightforward urges, naked anxieties, and a binary outlook where, for example, every dog is either a beloved pet or an outcast stray. The agony that these pooches feel isn’t mopey and self-involved, but stark and searing: They just want to love humans and be loved in return.

Anderson maintains some distance between the audience and his human characters by having the latter speak in Japanese without subtitles. (However, dual Japanese/English labels abound in the production design, and critical dialogue is often helpfully interpreted by a human or computer translator.) Tracy is the only Homo sapiens who speaks in English for long stretches. Intriguingly, while she is initially positioned as a white-savior figure, Tracy’s firebrand efforts ultimately amount to less than the heroics of the dogs and the Japanese characters – particularly a hacker mole embedded in the Megasaki security apparatus. What’s more, her righteous, pro-canine zeal is revealed to be rooted in personal loss: Her own cherished pet has also been exiled to Trash Island.

The humans in Isle of Dogs are mostly defined by whether they are pro- or anti-dog, and the nuances of their inner lives are, perhaps appropriately, a mystery to the film’s canines. (This psychological shallowness is reflected in the design of the human characters, which seems to be influenced to a degree by traditional Noh masks and Bunraku puppets.) Anderson’s film is, in part, a scathing indictment of humankind’s inexcusable apathy and cruelty toward its Best Friend (and all animals). In this respect, it makes for an affecting companion film to last year’s unabashedly pro-vegetarian Okja. However, Isle of Dogs doesn’t delve into the human capacity for viciousness with any psychological depth. The Kobayashis are motivated almost entirely by cartoonish anti-dog bigotry, which the film suggests is little more than a facile extension of their affection for cats. (Felines, notably, do not speak in Isle of Dogs, and are depicted as enigmatic, sour-faced lap accessories.)

If Isle of Dogs lacks some of the prickly emotional complexity that characterizes many of Anderson’s features, it makes up for that paltriness through sheer intensity of feeling. Indeed, the filmmakers are acutely aware that the devotion of a dog is potent precisely because it lacks complexity. A dog’s love is absolute and unconditional, and what Isle of Dogs captures so marvelously (and heartbreakingly) is the paradox of that bond, which is at once so ordinary and so miraculous. In a flashback, the film shows the first meeting between Atari and Spots, whose relationship is intended to be a formal one between ward and guardian. From the outset, however, it’s clear that the child regards his canine security detail as his best friend, while the all-business Spots, to his chagrin, almost immediately begins to soften under the influence of Atari’s ear scratches and whispered assurances that he is, in fact, a Good Boy.

This pathos doesn’t weigh the film down, or diminish the abundant droll comedy and spirited cartoon action that it offers. However, Dogs is foremost a clarion call for empathy on behalf of Canis familiaris. It's a sharp rap across our ape knuckles, a reminder of humankind’s responsibilities towards its oldest coevolutionary companion species. Anderson achieves this not through the application of pandering cutesiness, but by anthropomorphizing his dog characters just enough to make their boundless affection understandable and relatable. Ironically, Isle of Dogs’ canines are exemplars of the sort of constancy that so often eludes the humans that inhabit the rest of Anderson’s filmography. It is a love uncluttered by pride, jealousy, or resentment. Dogs, the film suggests, are four-legged moral superheroes, gifted with the capacity to awe, humble, and inspire humanity by example. It’s no accident that one of the film’s human character recites a haiku that paraphrases Alan Moore’s query about the fate of Superman: Whatever happened to Man’s Best Friend?

Rating: B+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

Still from 'The Death of Stalin'.
March 22, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

In Soviet Russia, Corpse Buries You!

2017 / UK, Canada, France, Belgium / 107 min. / Directed by Armando Iannucci / Opened in select cities on Mar. 9, 2018; opens locally on Mar. 23, 2018

Tragedy plus time equals comedy, or so the saving goes. A handful of topics are so heinous, however, that they seem to defy this formulation. It’s now been more than eight decades since the end of World War II in Europe, and although some stand-up comedians have dabbled in Holocaust jokes — mostly by joking about how they can’t tell Holocaust jokes — the world has yet to see an out-and-out comedy film about the Shoah. And, no, The Producers (1968) doesn’t count.

The incalculable mass murder and other totalitarian crimes committed by the Soviet Union in the early to middle 20th century also seem to fall into this “eternally too soon” category, and perhaps defensibly so. Depending on how one estimates the body count, Communist Party General Secretary (and later Soviet Premier) Joseph Stalin was responsible for more deaths during his 1922-1953 tenure than Adolf Hitler was during his admittedly much briefer rule. The USSR tally encompasses political executions, deaths by forced labor, targeted ethnic purges, and de facto genocidal campaigns such as the Holodomor, in which millions of peasants — mostly ethnic Ukrainians — were deliberately starved to death.

Such grim events might seem beyond mockery, but that has not dissuaded Scottish writer-director Armando Iannucci from taking a stab at it. As the mind behind the scabrous, pitch-black comedy of the BBC series The Thick of It (2005 -2012), its spinoff feature film In the Loop (2009), and the HBO series Veep (2012-2019), Iannucci is arguably the reigning master of English-language political satire. His narrative approach privileges the absurdities that unfold in the halls of power rather the day-to-day actualities of the “real world.” This turns out to be an entirely fitting angle of attack when Stalinism is the richly deserving target. In his new feature, The Death of Stalin, Iannucci keeps the bloody deeds of the Soviet leader’s regime mostly offscreen — with a couple of notable exceptions — focusing instead on the feverish playacting, plotting, and treachery within the USSR’s Central Committee. 

Although based on a French comic of the same name by writer Fabien Nury and artist Thierry Robin, The Death of Stalin is an Iannucci venture through and through. The film’s comedy is the sort that emerges when a cabal of cunning, ruthless, and thoroughly ridiculous old men have the political rug abruptly yanked out from under them after three decades. Much as In the Loop found the humor in the Iraq War by showing how specious and ludicrous the Bush-era process of declaring war could be, The Death of Stalin unearths the comedy behind the Gulag by satirizing the sort of venal yes-men that made such horrors possible. The film is not as overtly cartoonish as Doctor Strangelove (1964), but it shares that feature’s fascination with the glib sociopathy of powerful men.

The feature’s opening scene handily illustrates the perverse, terror-based cult of personality that had grown up around Stalin by the 1950s. Secluded at his dacha, Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) is so taken by a live orchestra broadcast on Radio Moscow that he requests a copy of the performance. Unfortunately, the program was not recorded, obliging the terrified producer (an amusingly clammy Paddy Considine) to lock the doors and order the orchestra to play the performance again, in its entirety. The star pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) agrees to this farce under protest, but she also slips a scathing note to Stalin in with the freshly pressed vinyl disc. Stalin reads this missive later that evening, more with amusement than fury, and then promptly suffers a cerebral hemorrhage.

The unconscious Soviet premier remains on the floor until the following morning, whereupon his staff find him lying in a pool of his own urine. Although Stalin clings to life for a bit longer, the mad scramble for power commences the moment his prone form is discovered. Iannucci helpfully identifies the main players with onscreen titles, but the byzantine details of the Soviet bureaucracy matter less than the personalities involved. To that end, Iannucci has taken an unconventional path with respect to his performers, having them act in their more-or-less normal speaking voices. There are no kludgy Red Sparrow-style Russian accents here, but rather a grab bag of American and English dialects. This approach is undeniably uncanny, but it allows the individual actors to lean into the audience’s preconceptions regarding the sorts of characters they typically portray — an asset in a screenplay that unfolds at a hurried pace once the titular dictator keels over.

Plans for a political transition are already in place, but Stalin’s nominal successor is Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), a craven nitwit who is held in contempt by the rest of the Committee. In short order, two post-Stalin factions emerge: one spearheaded by Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the feared chief of the secret police, the NKVD; and one led by Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), an agricultural minister whose rumpled, sad-sack demeanor belies his cunning. (In one early, telling scene prior to the dictator’s demise, a pajama-clad Khrushchev lists aloud which of his jokes made Stalin laugh earlier that evening, while his wife dutifully writes them down for future reference.) Beria outmaneuvers his rival initially, stoking the callow Malenkov’s ego in the hopes that Stalin’s heir will prove a malleable puppet. Khrushchev, meanwhile, finds himself effectively sidelined when he’s appointed to oversee Comrade Stalin’s gargantuan state funeral. While others plot, he’s reduced to picking out floral arrangements.

The Committee is a rogue’s gallery of callous, disingenuous fools — all of them pawns or bishops in the unfolding struggle between Beria and Khrushchev. Unctuous foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) once cheerfully stood by as Stalin sent his wife to the Gulag. Unbeknownst to Molotov, he was added to one of Beria’s dreaded “lists” the very night of Stalin’s hemorrhage, marking him for detention and execution. Beria reverses this order, as well as other recent list additions, in the hopes of winning allies and (rather ludicrously) painting himself as a reformer. This is too much for Khrushchev, who imagines that he is the reformer: “You’re the good guy now?! You locked up half the nation!” “Yes,” Beria responds with a glimmer of triumph, “and now I’m releasing them.”

The Committee is also forced to contend with Stalin’s children, Vasily (Rupert Friend) and Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough). The former is a hot-headed drunk, prone to pulling his pistol at the slightest provocation, but he’s ultimately a clownish coward at heart. (A running joke involves Vasily’s concealment of a national and political disaster: a plane crash that has killed most of the Soviet Air Force hockey team, an organization that the junior Stalin personally oversaw.) Svetlana, in contrast, is beloved by the Soviet public, and there’s a grotesque hilarity in the way that the Committee members stumble over each other to coddle and console her. Stalking the funeral proceedings is Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), a World War II hero and current head of the Soviet Army. Zhukov’s abrasive frankness and alpha-male strutting are a poor fit for the skullduggery of the Politburo, but Khrushchev recognizes that the Red Army is a potentially crucial counterweight to the NKVD’s security forces.

These events are not exactly the stuff of hearty belly laughs, and the film’s screenplay — by Iannucci, David Schneider, and Ian Martin, with an “additional material by” credit to Peter Fellows — wisely refrains from playing the ghoulish reality of prisons, executions, and coups d’état for chuckles. Nor is The Death of Stalin particularly flush with laugh-out-loud snark or delectable profanity. In this respect, the film contrasts sharply with the director’s masterful In the Loop, in which virtually every line of dialogue is quotable. (Iannucci’s latest also lacks an analog to Malcomb Tucker, who acted as In the Loop’s cynical and hatefully foul-mouthed id.) Instead, what Stalin serves up is the cringe comedy of tyranny, where much of the humor lies in the way that the characters twist themselves into hopeless knots as they navigate a Soviet wonderland of double-speak, loyalty tests, and perpetual historical revisionism. Iannucci’s characters think nothing of shamelessly flip-flopping their position in the space of a single sentence — an Orwellian feat that until recently was thought to be the domain of outmoded Marxist dictatorships, rather than, say, sitting American politicians.

Proximally, The Death of Stalin is aimed squarely at the bloody farce that was the USSR in the depths of the Cold War, but Iannucci isn’t truly striving to take Stalin or his sycophants down a peg. (Which would be akin to shooting fish in a barrel, anyway.) Academics are still sorting out the actual, mind-boggling extent of the Soviet Union’s crimes, and this film is far too ahistorical and simplistic to qualify as genuine critique of the Stalinist regime. Rather, Iannucci positions the USSR as a kind of reductio ad absurdum illustration of authoritarianism’s lunacy, whatever its national or ethnic context. The film’s mishmash of Brooklyn, Oxfordshire, and Liverpool accents underlines this universality. The spot-on production design might be Moscow 1953, but the madness portrayed — the brazen lies, the political theater, the cynicism, the brutality, and the perpetual fear — is stateless and timeless. 

In a few instances, The Death of Stalin pushes its novel strain of humor almost to the breaking point, allowing it to shade into outright anguish and terror. This is particularly the case in the final act, as the various players conclude that Beria is far too ruthlessly ambitious (and too knowledgeable vis-à-vis their personal skeletons) to be left unchecked. Cold-blooded and complacent, the secret police's chief makes for a wonderfully hiss-able villain — particularly given his habit of compelling sex from the NKVD's prisoners, including minors. However, as the noose begins to close around Beria, The Death of Stalin becomes much too nasty and discomfiting for simple hero-or-villain binaries. It emphasizes that even its more sympathetic characters, such as Khrushchev and Molotov, are monsters with copious blood on their hands. This ghastliness isn’t swirled smoothly into the comedy; it squats matter-of-factly in the half-light, as noxious and repulsive as a venomous toad. This tonal high-wire act ultimately works, but it’s discernibly wobbly at times.

The film is on shakier ground in those rare cases where it makes an ill-advised stab at pathos, such as when Svetlana reminisces about a happy childhood memory, or when Molotov is abruptly reunited with the wife he thought was long-dead. The actors convey these occasional moments credibly enough, but given that the film largely eschews sentimentality — its characters are all fiends, fools, or victims, almost without exception — such gestures feel forced, and to no particularly fertile dramatic or thematic end.

Conversely, The Death of Stalin finds a more effective counterpoint to its Eastern Bloc darkness through physical comedy, some of it marvelously low-key and some ridiculously gawky. Highlights of the former species include a recurring gag in which characters kneel inadvertently in the prone Stalin’s urine, and an unassuming bit where Kruschev attempts (and fails) to surreptitiously switch spots with other Committee members during the viewing of the premier’s body. Iannucci generally keeps the slapstick naturalistic, underlining the essential human sordidness of the film’s ludicrous events. There’s no tightly choreographed Buster Keaton silliness here, but there are several prolonged sequences of graceless grappling and scrabbling, often over a loaded pistol. This makes the characters look more like squabbling toddlers than political masterminds. However, the aim isn't to humanize the Soviet leaders, who are amoral apparatchiks and hard-hearted killers, one and all. Rather, it illustrates that the film’s horrors (and all totalitarian horrors, everywhere) are rooted not in the esoteric nooks and crannies of ideology, but in grubby, all-too-human failings: pride, rage, greed, and good old-fashioned lust for power.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

March 9, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Dirty Pretty Things

2017 / USA / 92 min. / Directed by Cory Finley / Opens in select cities on March 9, 2018

Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy were born to be film actresses. Certainly, many performers of their generation can claim both sizable dramatic talent and the sort of strange, striking beauty that sets fashion photographers swooning. What make Cooke and Taylor-Joy truly stand out among their cohort is how specifically and spookily attuned their acting is to the medium of cinema. The marvelous things they can do with minute changes in facial expression wouldn’t be as effective on the stage or even on the most lavish home-theater system. Their countenances veritably demand to be projected 30 feet high, so that the psychological skirmishes that unfold silently in their enormous brown eyes can be properly appreciated.

Writer-director Cory Finley, in his startlingly self-possessed debut feature, Thoroughbreds, has crafted a delectable, darkly comic showcase for this remarkable pair of actresses. The fresh-faced Cooke and Taylor-Joy are 24 and 21, respectively, but they’re wholly convincing here as a pair of older adolescent WASP princesses, fidgeting their way through the summer in a sinfully wealthy Connecticut exurb.

Once upon a time, Lily (Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Cooke) were middle-school friends, but they slowly grew apart — perhaps pushed a bit by the fine-grained class divisions in their posh little corner of the world. Abruptly and awkwardly reunited after years of friendship atrophy, Lily has agreed to help Amanda prepare for the SATs, an arrangement that plainly holds little interest for the latter teen. Amanda peppers her putative tutor with disarming, Sherlockian observations and blithely declares that college is worthless because she’s going to be the next Steve Jobs. (Amanda barely seems to believe this offhand boast herself; rather, it’s as if she’s daring Lily to scoff.)

Superficially, Lily is the Good Girl in this brunette dyad, a proper, polished china doll with a touch of wolfish Wall Street ambition. Meanwhile, Amanda has matured into an acerbic, self-aware sociopath. She asserts that she doesn’t experience emotions as others do, although she has become quite accomplished at mimicking such feelings to blend in among “normal” humans. The tutoring scheme has been arranged by Amanda’s mother, who is evidently desperate to secure some sort (any sort) of companionship for her troubled daughter — particularly in the wake of an unspeakable act of violence that Amanda inflicted on her own thoroughbred riding horse, an incident that has set the rumor mill buzzing.

Unfortunately, the uncanny, disconsolate electricity that sparks between the girls has the opposite effect of what was intended. Amanda’s snide amorality awakens a similar facet of Lily’s personality, who confesses to a fuming hatred for her cruel, high-handed stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks). He controls both the family’s wealth and Amanda’s meek mother (Francie Swift), and he is already formulating a scheme to send Lily away to a distant, disciplinary boarding school. Pilfered wine is swigged, self-destructive games are played, one things lead to another, and suddenly the uneasily reunited friends are talking elliptically about how one might theoretically get away with murder.

Thoroughbreds is a film about empathy — and the devouring void that arises in its absence — and to that end, the lead actresses’ talent for cinema-geared performance is essential to the feature’s success. A goodly chunk of the film’s psychodrama concerns Lily (and other characters) attempting to puzzle out what Amanda is really thinking beneath the maddeningly blasé mask she presents to the world. (Joke's on them: Amanda almost always says exactly what she's thinking.) A lesser performer might have approached the material with either robotic flatness or purring charm, but Cooke — who often seems to be channeling early-1990s Winona Ryder in her speech patterns here — conveys her character’s inhumanity with a gentler touch. The same half-interested bluntness characterizes almost all of Amanda’s dialogue, whether she’s discussing a classic film, outmaneuvering Mark’s disdainful interrogations, or describing in graphic detail how she murdered her beloved horse with her bare hands. When other characters burst into tears or explode with rage, Amanda just watches them with dull repugnance, as though their puerile human emotions were the most tedious thing in the world. She’s all agency, but no feeling; a hollow girl.

Cooke gets all the best lines — Amanda is a master at sizing up people in a heartbeat and then dismantling them with a withering barb or two — but Taylor-Joy arguably has the more challenging role. The film’s story is truly Lily’s story, a noir-tinged farcical tragedy in which Amanda’s mere presence seems to coax the other girl’s most heartless and violent impulses to the surface. Taylor-Joy is obliged to portray Lily as progressively chillier and more ruthless over the course of the film, but she never stoops to outright mimicry of Cooke’s performance. It’s a delicate balancing act, one that Taylor-Joy pulls off with marvelous assurance. With every tearful sniff and furious tremble, she deftly illustrates how Lily blossoms into the murderous schemer she perhaps always longed to be, with Amanda acting as a kind of Mephistophelean emancipator.

Perhaps inevitably, Thoroughbreds recalls Heathers (1989), another pitch-black comedy about a privileged high-school girl who is cajoled into bloody deeds by an alluring but disturbed outsider. Finley’s feature is both darker and more intimate than Heathers, however, and unlike that film, it's not all that concerned with the absurd social dynamics and stratification of high-school life. Thoroughbreds is unquestionably about privilege, however: specifically, the warped mechanisms by which the richest of the rich unlearn basic human decency so that they can more easily acquire whatever they desire.

Cursorily, Finley’s film is intrested in quasi-mythical “natural” sociopaths like Amanda, people whose inborn emotional blankness seems to sidestep questions of good and evil entirely. (Early in the screenplay, Amanda asserts that the only feelings she experiences are “tired” and “hungry.”) Showtime’s series Dexter drolly and exhaustively explored such a creature from the inside, uncovering innumerable subsurface complications beneath the crude “nature or nurture” binary. In contrast, Finley’s film never allows the viewer to peer too deeply into the mind of its human monster; it offers some slanting insights into Amanda but no conclusive verdict. In truth, Thoroughbreds is primarily focused on the monsters that surround Amanda, the obscenely rich people who have learned (or are learning) the unruffled amorality that comes so naturally to her. It’s not an entirely original sentiment: Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000) conjured a masterful film out of the one-joke conceit of a serial killer hiding in plain sight among the Ivy League finance set. Thoroughbreds is generally more arch and accessible, however, and unique in its focus on the grotesque process by which a poor little rich girl becomes a unprincipled, unfeeling woman.

In this respect, Finley’s film is a shrewdly political work, although it is foremost an acidic horror story, not a stilted jeremiad on the evils of the American aristocracy. It sharply illustrates that the seemingly limitless possibilities of wealth inevitably erode social and moral boundaries, until everything is acceptable and other people are dehumanized into utilitarian automata. (Paired on a double bill with Bennett Miller’s doom-drenched Foxcatcher [2014], the two films would make a persuasive cinematic argument for a 100 percent estate tax.) Thoroughbreds doesn’t lecture, however. It just gawks in revulsion as Westchester adults and teens alike treat one other like absolute garbage, while evincing not so much as a quiver of remorse. It’s the sort of crackling, morally gangrenous story that Nicholas Ray or Billy Wilder might have delivered, had they lived to witness the Trump Era. Mark, for all his tyrannical despicability, has Lily’s number when he observes that she floats through life regarding everyone around her as mere phantasmal extensions of her own ego. Of course, this assessment could also apply to virtually every character in the film, Mark included, not to mention several real-world public figures.

Finley’s screenplay takes some cues from the snappy, prickly dialogue of Aaron Sorkin and Diablo Cody, but his visual style is pure European art-horror, with some spatters of American playfulness. Given its themes, Thoroughbreds will almost certainly elicit comparisons to Michael Haneke’s works, especially Funny Games (1997) and The White Ribbon (2009). However, where the Austrian director’s camera is inclined to squat with reptilian patience, Finley’s prefers to glide and zoom at a glacial pace. Often, the film will follow a character in an ominous long take as they search the endless corridors and rooms of the setting's gaudy ultra-McMansions.

These methods evoke a remorseless, menacing atmosphere when combined with the feature's tremendously impressive mise-en-scéne — particularly for a first-time filmmaker — which coyly conceals information, provides witty visual commentary, and boxes characters into claustrophobic spaces. However, Erik Friedlander’s score complicates that mood in a delightfully incongruous way, riddling the film with irregular bursts of avant-garde percussion. It’s as though unseen observers are intruding into the film’s bloody-minded events with inappropriate giggling and guffaws, generating a dissonance that would doubtlessly win approval from the ever-perverse Amanda. The feature’s vigorous, occasionally hyper-real sound design is also vital to its mordant, sinister vibe — in one pivotral scene, the grating whoosh of off-screen exercise equipment effectively functions as a ticking clock.

Thoroughbreds is, by design, not a feel-good film. There isn’t a likeable character in the cast, and the closest the feature comes to a pitiable, recognizably human figure is Tim (the late Anton Yelchin), a wretched drug-dealing pedophile that the girls sweet-talk (and then blackmail) into assisting with their homicidal plans. Finley’s feature doesn’t want to be liked, however; it just wants the viewer’s full attention. On that score, it’s a wickedly engaging triumph: a peerlessly performed and directed slice of Yankee Brahmin nastiness. Its plot evokes several worthy film noir forebears — notably Rope (1948), Dial M for Murder (1954), and Diabolique (1955) — but its attitude is caustic 21st-century American indie through and through. Sleek, spiky, and lingering in all the right ways, it more than fulfills the formula for a good film that is often attributed to director Howard Hawks: three good scenes, no bad ones.

Rating: A-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

March 2, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Recent Video-on-Demand Offerings in Horror and Horror-Related Cinema

The cream of contemporary feature-length cinema isn’t always found in theaters. These days, smaller and more niche films often implement a same-day launch, simultaneously premiering in a limited theatrical run and on video-on-demand (VOD) services. Moreover, streaming services are now offering original films of their own. Given the dire and disposable state of the horror genre at the multiplex, these release strategies are particularly suited to reaching a wider, more appreciative audience for cinematic chills. For horror fans in a mid- to small-sized movie market such as St. Louis, online streaming and digital rental/purchase are increasingly vital means of accessing noteworthy features. What follows is a brief assessment of the major new horror (and horror-adjacent) films that have premiered on VOD within the past month.

The Cloverfield Paradox

2018 / USA / 102 min. / Directed by Julius Onah / Premiered online on Feb. 4, 2018

While the film’s no-warning Super Bowl Sunday release seems to have succeeded in generating a couple of days of Internet buzz, it’s apparent from the final product why Netflix elected not to hype Julius Onah’s The Cloverfield Paradox for months in advance: It’s a baffling shambles of a film. Setting aside the dubious attempt to retroactively apply the Cloverfield branding – which takes the form of some dreary, ill-fitting scenes set on Earth and one final, gratuitous effects shot – the film’s inexplicable decision to turn a particle-collider doomsday scenario into an Event Horizon (1997) knockoff is utterly misguided. (If there’s one sci-fi horror feature that should never be emulated, it’s Event Horizon.) The cast is ridiculously over-qualified, and there’s a germ of potential in the notion of tangent universes as a source of existential terror, but Paradox feels like a random assortment of indifferently mounted space-thriller and body-horror sequences that have been pulverized into an unintelligible narrative slurry. Rating: D [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]

The Ritual

2017 / UK / 94 min. / Directed by David Bruckner / Premiered online on Feb. 9, 2018

The Wicker Man (1973), The Blair Witch Project (1999), and The Descent (2005) are worthy genre touchstones from which to draw, but what makes David Bruckner’s The Ritual so effective has less to do with the way it syncretizes its forerunners than with its moody, harrowing execution of a straightforward premise. During a backpacking trip through the Swedish wilds, four British men lose their way, eventually realizing that they are being stalked by a horrific entity out of pagan legend. Bruckner and Joe Barton’s screenplay provide craven, guilt-wracked protagonist Luke (Rafe Spall) with just enough backstory to lend anguished resonance to the film’s muddling of personal and literal demons. This touch of characterization adds a surreal element to what is essentially a primal monster-in-the-woods scenario. The Ritual adeptly establishes an oppressively doom-rich atmosphere, and then proceeds to pitilessly slash into the viewer’s subconscious with some genuinely chilling, uncanny horror imagery – a particularly estimable feat given the film’s modest effects budget. Rating: B [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]

Dead Shack

2017 / Canada / 85 min. / Directed by Peter Ricq / Premiered online on Feb. 15, 2018

The primary flaws that bedevil Peter Ricq’s Dead Shack are those that have afflicted many an indie horror-comedy: a reliance on obvious, juvenile humor; shrill, unlikeable characters whose stupidity is played (unsuccessfully) for laughs; and a plot that depends on excessive back-and-forth scrambling between a handful of locations. Despite such problems, a distinctly Canadian sensibility of dopey, gross-out fun manages to rise to the surface of this teens vs. zombies curio. Dead Shack works in part due to the frank pity it exhibits towards its villain – a mentally broken woman who keeps her walking-dead family supplied with the fresh brains of rural neighbors. However, the film’s modest success as a low-budget, late-night diversion is attributable foremost to the cunning approach it employs to turn boring, dim-witted adolescent characters into sympathetic heroes. Namely, portray the self-centered, oblivious adults as the real children – hapless losers who need to be saved from both the zombies and their own regrettable life choices. Rating: C [Now available to stream exclusively on Shudder.]

The Housemaid

2016 / Vietnam, South Korea / 105 min. / Directed by Derek Nguyen / Premiered online on Feb. 16, 2018

It’s possible that the right filmmaker could to turn a metaphorical interrogation of French colonial abuses in Vietnam into a creepy and absorbing ghost story, but The Housemaid illustrates that first-time director Derek Nguyen is not that person. Exhibiting a suitably cynical, pitiless view of romantic colonial myths, the director has good intentions, but that just makes the film’s more fundamental storytelling failures even more acute. The only redeeming aspect of this 105-minute waste of time is Kate Nhung’s persuasive portrayal of heroine Linh, who becomes ensnared in the household of a failing rubber plantation, which may or may not be stalked by a vengeful undead spirit. The Housemaid is the sort of derivative, charm-free haunted-house feature that gives the subgenre a bad name. An aimless exercise in dismal, scattershot PG-13 theatrics, the film builds clunkily towards a climactic reveal that is much more likely to elicit an indifferent grunt than a gasp. Rating: D+ [Now available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]

The Lodgers

2017 / Ireland / 92 min. / Directed by Brian O'Malley / Premiered online on Feb. 23, 2018

Bryan O’Malley’s The Lodgers has all the hallmarks that one expects in a respectable gothic chiller. Filmed partly on location at Loftus Hall, a real-world haunted mansion in Ireland, the feature boasts a properly forbidding setting, enhanced by Joe Fallover’s splendidly moldering production design. The film offers up a veritable checklist of Poe- and Brontë-tinged motifs: a raven in a cage, a locked cellar door, creepy family secrets, and some genuinely nightmarish paranormal tableaus. Atmosphere notwithstanding, however, The Lodgers engages in far too much narrative throat-clearing. The redolent threatens to become monotonous as characters shuffle around in circles and O’Malley takes his sweet time portentously spelling out motives and plot points that the viewer can easily deduce for themselves. Most of the film’s characters are drearily shallow, and even the protagonists – doomed fraternal twins Rachel (Charlotte Vega) and Edward (Bill Milner) – often seem more like twee storybook personalities than flesh-and-blood victims of a tragic curse. Rating: C+ [Now available to rent or purchase on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]

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March 1, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

The Honeypot

2018 / USA / 139 min. / Directed by Francis Lawrence / Opens in wide release on Mar. 2, 2018

Director Francis Lawrence’s agreeably trashy cloak-and-dagger potboiler Red Sparrow feels like a throwback in several ways. Most conspicuously, it takes many of its unabashedly sleazy cues from the erotically charged dramas and thrillers that were a part of Hungarian-American screenwriter Joe Eszterhas’ brand in the 1990s – particularly his brief, prolific glut of features from Basic Instinct (1992) through Jade (1995). Meanwhile, Lawrence’s film is so vehement in its depiction of Russian intelligence agents as figures of pitch-black malice and fanatical nationalism, it feels more like a feature produced (and set) in 1982 rather than 2018. At the same time, Red Sparrow has few of the hallmarks one associates with the glossier, big-budget espionage thrillers of the past three decades or so. There are no fantastical secret-agent gadgets and – except for one singularly brutal and bloody incident – barely any action scenes. Lawrence’s feature is closer to John le Carré than Ian Fleming: a twisty drama where the plot is powered by observation, manipulation, and deception rather than speed-boat chases and the like. (In fact, the film is based on the 2014 debut novel from former CIA agent Jason Matthews.)

This unusual combination of attributes makes Red Sparrow a faintly uncanny experience, one heightened by star Jennifer Lawrence’s shaky Russian accent and the presence of overqualified actors – including Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Ciarán Hands, and Jeremy Irons – in glorified bit roles. It’s a film that takes place in a cinematic reality that is at once ridiculous and grounded, a glamorous, comic-book conception of international espionage that unexpectedly revels in the grubby, often dreary procedural details of real-world intelligence work. It is, if nothing else, an exceedingly novel slice of pop entertainment: a sordid spy story for those who relish the escapist titillation of sex, lies, and digital video, but find the genre’s typical dependence on martial arts and explosions wearying.

At the center of this tale is Dominika Ergorova (Lawrence), prima ballerina with the Bolshoi Ballet and niece to Vanya Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), a high-ranking official in Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR. When a debilitating leg injury derails Dominika’s dancing career, she fears that her usefulness to the state – and the financial support that she and her disabled mother (Joely Richardson) rely on – will come to an end. However, Uncle Vanya quickly swoops in and presents the hobbled ballerina with an alternate path: training at the FSB’s “Sparrow School,” where the most unconventional weapons in Russia’s international intelligence arsenal are produced.

The young women (and some men) tapped to become Sparrows are schooled in a few fundamental fieldcraft skills, including surveillance and lock-picking, but their primary mission is of a sexual nature. In short, they are trained to be the state’s whores, sent out into the world to manipulate Mother Russia’s enemies and allies with the currency of desire. Under the tutelage of the school’s nameless Matron (Rampling), Dominika learns to discern the true, hidden needs of her targets, and to modify her seduction strategy accordingly. Not incidentally, the curriculum is also designed to break the Sparrows emotionally, forcing them to sublimate everything – from their personal proclivities to their physical autonomy – in the service of the state. (Fair warning to sexual-assault survivors: Red Sparrow features two rape scenes, both aggravated by the explicit, appalling message that the victim is obliged to “take one for the team.”)

Red Sparrow is at its most deliriously ludicrous in these early Sparrow School sequences, as the seedy world into which Dominika tumbles often feels like a baroque hybrid of a Tom Clancy novel, a Garth Ennis comic, and John Wick’s hyper-real assassin-verse. Justin Haythe’s screenplay is forthright about the monumentally twisted nature of the Sparrow School’s abusive methods, but director Lawrence also excitably depicts every nauseating jot of the carnal indignities forced on the students. The film clearly wants to have its cake and eat it too. It leers as its lead actress sits naked and spread-eagle in front of her fellow Sparrows-in-training, for example, but it also sustains a dizzying awareness that the moment constitutes a wily assertion of power on Dominika’s part. By offering herself up bluntly and publicly to a would-be rapist, she becomes the dominant figure, driving her victory home by mercilessly mocking his impotence before the entire class.

The film’s sexual politics are, simply put, radioactive. Individual filmgoers will likely have differing perspectives on how effectively director Lawrence balances the giddy sleaze with psychological sensitivity. It’s familiar, if uneasy, terrain for viewers who are steeped in Paul Verhoeven’s lusciously warped filmography – particularly his World War II thriller Black Book (2006) and the recent Elle (2016) – although Red Sparrow lacks the distinctive satirical bite that characterizes the Dutch filmmaker’s work. Initially, director Lawrence’s treatment of Dominika’s decidedly unconventional education has an unfortunately glib quality, as though the Sparrow School’s sexual humiliations were not all that different from the physical trials of Army boot camp. This is mitigated to an extent by the film’s later twists, which illustrate that Dominika derived vital lessons from the cruelties she suffered during her schooling – although not the lessons her spymasters likely intended.

Once Dominika emerges from the Sparrow School and is sent out into the wider world of international espionage, her path intersects with that of Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), an idealistic and stupid-fearless CIA agent who has cultivated a highly placed mole within the Russian intelligence apparatus. Nate blew his cover to protect his asset some time back – around the moment that Dominika’s ballet career abruptly ended, as it happens – and he’s since surfaced in Hungary, hoping to re-establish contact with said asset. Uncle Vanya and his masters lay Dominika directly in the American’s path, with orders to seduce Nate and wheedle the identity of the SVR’s mole out of him.

There’s quite a bit of additional, sprawling skullduggery involved in Red Sparrow’s plot – including a thread about a complementary Russian mole in a U.S. senator’s office –  but the meat of the story is the psychological tango between Dominika and Nate. Crucially, the CIA agent and his superiors almost immediately peg Dominika as a SVR honey trap, but Nate continues to cozy up to her, in the somewhat myopic hope that he can flip her into an Agency source. (Nate’s sudden zeal to recruit this “Red Sparrow” has everything to do with her uncle’s placement in the Kremlin, and nothing to do with her smoldering beauty, of course.) The questions that scuttle through the plot are the sort of obsessive, fractal-like doubts that lead to paralyzing paranoia: Does he know? Does she know that he knows? Does he know that she knows that he knows? And so on, down into a morass of toxic mistrust and inexorable betrayal.

The film’s central mystery is one of loyalty: namely, whether Dominika is double-crossing her Russian masters, or triple-crossing the Americans, or somehow quadruple-crossing everyone. She might be the film’s clear anti-heroic protagonist, but she is an enigma by design, her real motives a mystery until the film’s breathless conclusion. Jennifer Lawrence plays her with a perfectly maddening inscrutability, masking the woman’s intentions behind so many layers of black eyeliner and crocodile tears that the viewer is never certain if they’re watching a performance. Director Lawrence often allows glimpses of Dominika in moments of ostensibly frank anguish and terror, but each new plot swerve adds a touch of retroactive ambiguity to such moments. At bottom, Red Sparrow is a Frankenstein story, in which the Russians belatedly realize that they may have created a duplicitous monster that neither they nor anyone else can control.

Francis Lawrence, who previously directed Red Sparrow’s star in three of the four Hunger Games features (2013-2015), delivers his most polished film to date, by a substantial margin. It’s nothing groundbreaking, as spy thrillers go, but Red Sparrow is such a well-oiled, kitschy clockwork of lies, lust, and revenge that to gripe about the familiarity of the underlying raw materials – minders, moles, and Eastern Bloc grime – seems unduly cantankerous. Given the presence of eccentric, perplexing misfires like Constantine (2005) and I Am Legend (2007) in Lawrence’s filmography, it’s encouraging to see the director deliver a snug, serviceable genre exercise with the sort of gaudy, fulsome personality that brings to mind the works of Verhoeven and Brian De Palma.

Although Red Sparrow often rather brazenly indulges in the genre’s hoarier formulae, it does so with a dissolute gusto that borders on the grotesque. Accordingly, the film features not one but several viscerally punishing scenes of torture, ranging from the workmanlike brutality of a baton-and-phonebook beating to the gruesome horror of a SVR interrogator who razors off cellophane-thin slices of epidermis with an electric skin-grafting tool. Between such grisly scenes and the film’s unremitting sexual ickiness, suffice to say that Red Sparrow is nasty stuff, its violence much closer to the bone than the sort that one usually encounters in more spectacle-driven espionage cinema.

For all the film’s unabashed luridness, however, what’s refreshing about director Lawrence’s approach here is how little interest he exhibits in turning his anti-heroine into an action star. Given the endless cavalcade of male secret agents at the multiplex, the occasional appearance of a Salt (2010) or Atomic Blonde (2017) can create an understandable surge of enthusiasm among feminist-minded filmgoers. However, such well-meaning efforts often amount to little more than distaff variations on the same violent fantasy, where every challenge is resolved with fists and firepower.

Notwithstanding Red Sparrow’s exploitation-level fondness for nudity and gore, Dominika has more in common with Le Carré’s owlish MI6 spymaster George Smiley than with James Bond. Hers is a tale of patience and deception rather than traditional derring-do. In the world of Red Sparrow, life and death might hinge on little more than a tingling suspicion during a 1 a.m. rendezvous in Moscow’s Gorky Park, or a stack of archaic 3.5-inch floppy disks in a hidden compartment that lodges open at an inconvenient moment. The dissonance between these delightfully prosaic espionage-thriller elements and Red Sparrow’s enthusiastic R-rated tackiness could easily have been lethal. However, both Lawrences – director and star – steer this strange, seemingly awkward vehicle with remarkable dexterity, delivering a unique and invigorating morsel of escapist entertainment in the process.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

Still from 'Annihilation'.
February 23, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Shimmer Shimmer Ya

2018 / USA / 115 min. / Directed by Alex Garland / Opens in wide release on Feb. 26, 2018

In the past decade, few filmmakers have burst out of the starting gate as strongly as Alex Garland. His remarkable, assured directorial debut, Ex Machina  (2015), signaled that the English novelist (The Beach) and screenwriter (28 Days Later; Never Let Me Go) could tell a nervy, cerebral science-fiction story with images and sound as well as words, exhibiting the kind of polished cinematic eye that typically takes decades to hone. However, the stripped-down elegance of Ex Machina’s plot — two men, one woman, a house, and a battle of wits — is one of the key reasons that Garland’s first feature was so impactful. It was perhaps inevitable, then, that the director’s sophomore film, Annihilation, would seem comparatively ambitious, expansive, and (unfortunately) unfocused.

With his new feature, Garland breaks free from Ex Machina’s tightly circumscribed chamber drama, delving into planet-threatening alien menaces and repellent xenobiological horror. It’s broadly familiar science-fiction territory, descended from Atomic Age tales of terror like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and The Blob (1958), as well as later, nastier VFX tours de force like The Thing (1982). However, Annihilation plainly has ambitions that are closer to those of mind-bending genre landmarks like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Stalker (1979), where the thriller elements are less crucial than aesthetic verve and philosophical depth. While Garland’s feature never approaches the artistry and profundity exhibited by such films, Annihilation is still a damn fine work of science-fiction cinema, one that steadily improves as its plot gets increasingly weird, unhurried, and abstract. It’s perhaps best approached as a film of images and mood rather than ideas, given that the screenplay’s ideas are haphazardly conveyed and more likely to elicit head-scratching than awe.

Adapted from the award-winning 2014 novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, Garland’s film begins at the end: Looking anxious and haunted, a woman named Lena (Natalie Portman), sits within a medical isolation chamber. As a throng of wide-eyed scientists and military personnel peer at her through the glass walls, she is questioned by an official (Benedict Wong) in a hazmat suit, who wants to know what the hell happened to her and to the other four people on her team. And so Lena explains what in fact happened, through a succession of twisty flashbacks that flit through the recent and less recent past.

An Army veteran turned biology professor, Lena is married to an active-duty soldier, Kane (Oscar Isaac), who often disappears for long stretches on shadowy missions. His most recent assignment results in a 12-month absence with no communication, during which Lena’s efforts to uncover even the most negligible tidbits of information — Is her husband even alive? — are met with pitiless silence from the military. Then one day, Kane strolls into the couple’s home, as though he had just popped out for a gallon of milk and gotten lost along the way. Lena is initially overjoyed, but her husband’s demeanor is unnervingly bizarre: He is dazed and sluggish, and responds to even the simplest queries with dead-eyed rambling. Abruptly, Kane is struck by a seizure, and shortly thereafter both he and Lena are snatched up by government agents.

Lena later awakens in "Area X", a sleek military facility somewhere near the Gulf Coast. A chilly government psychologist named Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) appears and explains the situation — to the extent that any explanation is possible. Beyond the facility’s perimeter is a phenomenon termed the Shimmer, a bubble of iridescent ectoplasm that surrounds … well, no one is certain, exactly. The phenomenon seems to be centered on a lighthouse within a state park, but it has progressively expanded over the course of a couple of years, even as the government has quietly evacuated towns and constructed facilities like Area X to study this bizarre energy field. Several investigative teams have entered the region delimited by the Shimmer, but to date only one person has returned from these excursions: Lena’s husband, who is presently comatose and feebly clinging to life.

Ventress plans to lead the next expedition, which carries a sense of amplified urgency due to the uncomfortable proximity of the ever-growing Shimmer. Her team includes gregarious paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), sharp-eyed geologist Cass (Tuva Novotny), and diffident physicist Josie (Tess Thompson). Lena eventually joins the mission as well, not so much asking for a slot on the team as demanding one, although she conceals her personal connection to Kane from everyone but Ventress. The psychologist relents with a shrug — subtly cajoling Lena into tagging along seems to have been Ventress’ aim all along — and soon the women are suited up, scientific gadgets and assault rifles in hand, to cross into the forbidding unknown of the Shimmer.

What they find beyond the rainbow-hued membrane is essentially a grab bag of science-fiction strangeness. Almost immediately after venturing into the Shimmer, the women seem to lose several days of time — Lena awakens in a tent she doesn’t remember pitching, and an inventory of the group’s supplies reveals nearly a week’s worth of depletion rations. Neither electronic communications nor simple hand compasses appear to function properly, and the women are soon beset by a suffocating, burgeoning sense of anxiety and disorientation. The most conspicuous characteristics of the Shimmer, however, are the flora and fauna that seem to be unaccountably mingled into impossible hybrid organisms. Watercolor-hued flowers from manifold species sprout from the same twisting vines. Enormous, albino alligators with rows of shark-like teeth glide through the wooded swamps. Garish, crazy-quilt patches of mold and lichen cover decrepit buildings, the fungus growing so rapidly it can be observed with the naked eye.

Eventually, the team stumbles on evidence of the previous expedition, the one from which Kane returned as the sole survivor. What they discover among their predecessors’ effects unsettles the already-spooked women to the core, and in due course these revelations crack their shaky alliance along pre-existing fault lines. Although its visual elements echo a plethora of genre influences — including unexpected touchstones like The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), The Relic (1997), and the Hellboy films (2004 and 2006) — Annihilation generally follows the post-Aliens (1986) creature-feature model for most of its duration. To wit: Notwithstanding their knowledge, experience, and firepower, the women are inexorably picked off one at a time by unclassifiable things lurking in the shadows of the Shimmer's increasingly hallucinatory environment. By the time one of the characters looks at her hands and sees, with revolted disbelief, that the whorls of her fingerprints are moving, it’s apparent that psychological deterioration will also play a role in the group’s dissolution.

Garland’s approach to the film’s more straightforward monster-in the-dark components is gratifyingly polished, replete with sharp jump-scares, buzzing tension, and moments of genuinely shocking gore. (One shrewdly fleeting shot of a face cleaved open by a creature’s fangs is guaranteed to elicit gasps.) The viewer is consistently aware that the characters are enclosed within a bubble, lending even the film’s wide exterior shots a sense of knotted claustrophobia, as though the Shimmer were a surreal shared nightmare — irrational, hermetic, inescapable. The director and the film's cinematographer Rob Hardy, who also lensed Ex Machina, lean a bit too heavily on a dense, blue-and-brown gloom in the nocturnal sequences. They tend to conceal threats by slathering on unsightly murk and blinding lens flare rather than employing light and shadow in a more cunning manner.

The film is much more aesthetically compelling in daylight, when it simply gapes at the florid loveliness of the mutating forests, which glow with the uncanny, nacreous illumination that filters through the Shimmer’s dome. Visually speaking, Annihilation is at its best when it lingers uncomfortably on its most alien sights, such as a windswept beach dotted with trees seemingly carved out of glimmering crystal, or a human corpse that has been horrifically rent asunder by tendrils of fruiting fungus. However, the film also boasts its share of more prosaic but still-striking imagery, harkening back to the exceptional mise-en-scène that Garland and Hardy brought to Ex Machina. (A haunting shot of two clasped hands, captured through the prism of a water glass, is just one of Annihilation’s memorable, more intimate gestures.) The film's score, by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, is a chilling work of heaving electronic thrums and whines, and it does an exceptional job of slithering under the skin. A recurring acoustic guitar motif connected to Lena's more domestic flashbacks almost wears out its welcome ... until the composers reintroduce and unnervingly distort it within the alien context of the Shimmer.

Lamentably, there’s a somewhat formulaic aspect to the film’s long middle stretch, as the characters slowly turn on one another or succumb to one of the Shimmer's gestalt biological horrors, often at the precise junctures one would expect. At times, Annihilation feels more like a finely mounted genre exercise than a story with its own exceptional urgency. Still, Garland seems steadfastly engaged with the familiar beats of the creature-feature form. Another filmmaker might have half-assed their way through all the searching, hiding, running, screaming, and variations on the doomed query, “Did you hear that?” Garland revels in this icy bath of terror, never allowing the film to crack a smile that would disrupt its potent, doom-laden atmosphere.

The screenplay is studded with the sort of ludicrous sci-fi dialogue that would never emerge from a real-world scientist’s lips. (“It’s like these plants are stuck in a continuous mutation!” What?) This is the primary reason why the one-note secondary characters in Lena’s team never feel entirely convincing, as expert field researchers or as flesh-and-blood people. Then again, expendable, one-note characters are the bedrock of a solid science-fiction thriller. To her credit, Leigh gets quite a bit of mileage out of Ventress’ standoffish schtick, constantly ticking between grouchy indifference, dry amusement, and Ahab-stylel zeal. Portman, meanwhile, delivers one her most seamless portrayals since Black Swan (2010). On the page, Lena isn’t exactly a complex, enthralling protagonist, yet Portman fills her Army boots with tremendous steel and deftness, navigating some outlandish sci-fi situations in an unfailingly credible manner.

It’s in Annihilation’s final stretch that the film begins to evolve from mere spine-tingling entertainment into something much bolder, even downright breathtaking. There are signs in the lead-up to its mind-melting conclusion that the film's concerns run deeper than popcorn-flick scares. Of particular note is the way that Garland weaves in snippets of Lena’s married life with Kane, which at first seems joyful but is gradually revealed as quietly malignant. (The most resonant of these scenes is little more than one of those passing, discomfiting moments where one partner silently, despondently tries to intuit what the other is thinking from across the couch.) Garland never quite gets all the film’s would-be thematic fragments to cohere into a robust, intelligible whole, and the film at times suffers from his determination to linger excessively and unnecessarily on pseudo-subplots, e.g., Lena’s affair with an academic colleague. However, the film’s most fully developed theme is right there in the title, and Leigh’s dyspeptic psychologist comes closest to enunciating it: Everyone has a self-destructive compulsion of one form or another, suggesting that some primeval need to obliterate the self is encoded in the human genome. How exactly this jibes with the film's final mysteries is anyone's guess.

By the time the characters reach the lighthouse at the epicenter of the Shimmer, Annihilation has slowly shifted into a mode of dark, painterly surrealism. It would not be an exaggeration to assert that the film’s final 15 minutes or so approach the climactic “Star Gate” sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey or the ground-breaking “Part 8” of last year’s Twin Peaks: The Return in terms of disaffecting, live-wire strangeness. Sheer sensory experience takes primacy over trivial things like pacing, narrative, and logic. Although largely unfathomable on an initial viewing, this passage is utterly mesmerizing and the best part of Annihilation by an enormous margin. To say more would detract from what is a singular cinematic experience, and such wonders are too few and far between to be diluted by from-the-hip critical description and decoding. Ultimately, Garland himself offers little clarification regarding the film’s climactic events, although he can’t resist punctuating his feature with the sort of confounding, figurative question mark that would feel right at home in a mid-century atomic-monster romp. This gesture is fitting, given Annihilation’s uneasy hybridization of early-’60s B-picture workmanship and late-’60s artistic daring. The former makes for satisfying science fiction, but the latter throws into sharp relief how run-of-the-mill all the ravenous monster business truly is.

Rating: B-

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February 15, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

I Dreamed of Africa

2018 / USA / 134 min. / Directed by Ryan Coogler / Opens in wide release on Feb. 16, 2018

The increasingly exasperating irony of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is that very few of the franchise’s theatrical films — which now number 18 and counting — are particularly cinematic. That is, the series seldom feels like it’s capitalizing on the true potential of the big screen as a medium for flashy, thrilling action and gonzo science-fictional world-building. Considered collectively, the most successful aspects of the MCU features are their charming characters and their deft blend of sincerity and cheekiness. Given the evocative superheroes in the studio’s lineup and limitless possibilities of digital wizardry, it’s a bit puzzling that Marvel has settled on such enjoyable but prosaic attributes as the bedrock of its franchise, rather than the sort of adjectives that once screamed from Silver Age comic covers: AMAZING!!! INCREDIBLE!!! ASTONISHING!!! It’s an unforgivable shortcoming that the power-packed Avengers films (2012 and 2015) boast not a single action set piece as inventive and mind-bending as the duo-dimensional alien-bazaar sequence in last year’s flawed but eye-popping Valerian and City of a Thousand Planets.

Occasionally, something genuinely amazing does break through the endless wisecracks, blunt pathos, and entertaining yet unmemorable action sequences that have come to characterize the MCU. Ant-Man (2015) cunningly employed its hero’s elastic size to deliver giddy nano-scale twists on the subgenre’s customary brawls, chases, and escapes. Doctor Strange (2016) envisioned the jaw-dropping mystical duels that would unfold if characters could fragment space, reverse time, and slip into alternate realities. The Guardians of the Galaxy features (2014 and 2017) and last year’s Thor: Ragnarok delivered on the visual promise of Marvel’s “cosmic” stories, giving vivid life to the sort of grand, gaudy, and downright goofy science-fiction settings that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Roger Dean album cover.

Black Panther, the latest feature in the MCU canon, is striking for similar reasons, as it lavishly realizes a world never previously seen in mainstream blockbuster cinema: an Afrofuturist utopia. Viewers of Captain America: Civil War (2016) may recall that the Black Panther is the alter ego of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), prince of the African nation Wakanda. As succinctly described in the new film’s animated prelude, the history of this fantastical realm has been dramatically shaped by a motherlode of the extraterrestrial metal vibranium, deposited eons ago by a meteoric impact. This substance not only altered the evolution of local flora and fauna but also allowed the native people to develop technology that was leaps and bounds beyond anything else on Earth. Isolated from the outside world behind an illusion of pastoral simplicity, Wakanda has secretly blossomed into the most advanced society on the planet, an African Shangri-La gracefully balanced between traditional tribal culture and bleeding-edge scientific wonders.

The mantle of the Black Panther — a warrior-god figure that is part shamanistic magic and part nanotech super-suit — has been passed from one Wakandan king to the next. Following the demise of his father, King T’Chaka (John Kani), during the events of Civil War, T’Challa has returned to Wakanda for his coronation. He stops on the way to dispatch some Nigerian human traffickers and pick up the resourceful Wakandan undercover agent Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), who also happens to be his ex-girlfriend. The fledgling king is welcomed by mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), spiritual mentor Zuri (Forest Whitaker), and sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), an engineering prodigy whose laboratory serves as a kind of Q Branch for the Black Panther.

The new monarch’s ascension to the throne, while an occasion for celebration, is not entirely smooth. The Jabari, a reclusive mountain tribe that has refused to embrace Wakanda’s vibranium-based modernism, utilize the succession as an opportunity to challenge T’Challa for his crown. What’s more, notorious South African arms dealer and wanted murderer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) has recently resurfaced, allegedly to sell a stolen chunk of the country’s priceless mineral. The possibility of taking down one of Wakanda’s few national enemies presents an irresistible opportunity for T’Challa, Nakia, and the steel-willed Okoye (Danai Gurira), commander of the king’s royal guard, the Dora Milaje. W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) — scion of Wakanda’s vigilant Border Tribe, loyal friend to T’Challa, and lover to Okoye — is also eager to see Klaue under the Panther’s claws, given that the the arms dealer slew his father. Naturally, complications ensue, albeit from an unexpected angle. Klaue’s crooked crew includes a black American named Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), an ex-Navy SEAL turned criminal mercenary who has a secret connection to Wakanda and a massive, murderous chip on his shoulder. 

Cinephiles and Marvel enthusiasts who had hoped that Black Panther might be the first feature to break the broadly formulaic approach to plotting that has become a MCU calling card will unfortunately be disappointed. Besides being the franchise’s first black filmmaker, Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) is unquestionably the Marvel director with the most artistically formidable pre-MCU filmography. However, far from injecting some novelty into Marvel’s cookie-cutter approach to plot, Coogler — who penned the film’s screenplay with Joe Robert Cole — saddles Black Panther with a regrettably pedestrian succession of fights, chases, betrayals, deaths, rescues, and “twists.” It’s all rather dispiritingly predictable. Viewers who have caught any of the previous MCU features — or, indeed, any Hollywood blockbuster in the past 20 years — will likely see every swerve coming from miles away. Which isn’t a Bad Thing per se, but superhero aficionados who crave narrative surprises at this late stage in the genre’s blockbuster reign will need to look elsewhere.

Within the confines of the film’s somewhat prosaic, obvious, and breathless plot, however, Coogler and his cast discover ways to tell a stimulating story about an array of themes, including, but not limited to, race, wealth, tradition, duty, and birthrights. If the “what” of T’Challa’s story is disappointingly standardized according to the MCU template, the “how” and “why” are pricklier and more engaging than the usual Marvel fare. Some of this is attributable to Coogler’s keen attunement to issues of colonialism, nationalism, philanthropy, and global inequality, all of which are touched on in Black Panther. (The film rarely slows down to engage with such matters in a more expansive manner, however; this is a breezy yet overstuffed MCU feature, after all.) Meanwhile, much of the film’s dramatic vigor can be credited to the unvarnished earnestness with which the screenplay engages with the story’s emotional beats. It’s an approach that is broadly consistent with the MCU playbook, but one that is significantly enlivened by Black Panther’s ridiculously overqualified ensemble cast and their palpable enthusiasm for the story's gleaming Afrocentrism. 

Boseman is characteristically magnetic in the title role, but, lamentably, T’Challa’s arc in this film is less compelling than his ancillary revenge-and-redemption subplot in Civil War. Ultimately, the new king is obliged to confront some ugly aspects of his father’s rule and to resolve whether Wakanda’s policy of strict isolationism will be maintained in the future. Otherwise, the challenges T’Challa faces in Black Panther are primarily stark physical threats to his person and his crown, which makes for some suitably rousing action set pieces but hardly allows for more complex emotional stakes. In the end, Black Panther falls victim to a common superhero-flick pitfall: the protagonist is the story’s least interesting figure.

Killmonger is afforded a more fascinating journey, one that is crucially grounded in his identity as a young African-American man. Bulked up to Special Forces proportions and dotted with ritual scars representing every life his character has taken, Jordan portrays Killmonger as a seething, prowling ball of resentments. The man’s hotheaded demeanor conceals a single-minded devotion to a deceptively simple villainous master plan, one that reveals both an enthrallment with and an antipathy toward the glorious African motherland that Wakanda represents. Given that Black Panther is pitched first and foremost at an American audience — and specifically at a black American audience that has been eagerly awaiting a majority-black superhero blockbuster — it’s intriguing that T’Challa’s nemesis is an African-American whose attitude toward his heritage is pugnaciously prideful but also ambivalent and troubled. Nor is it incidental that Killmonger was raised in Oakland, Calif.: a city with a history of racial tension, police brutality, and drug-related violence; the original epicenter of the Black Panther Party; and the backdrop for Coogler’s masterful Fruitvale Station (2013), which dramatized the 2009 murder of Oscar Grant III (also played by Jordan) by BART police.

Due to the sizable cast — and the demands of world-building in such a rich and fanciful setting — Black Panther has little time to flesh out its secondary and tertiary characters in any meaningful way. The performers capably fill in the gaps where they can, but there’s only so much screenplay for them to work with. (The breathtaking makeup and costuming does much of the heavy lifting; more on that in a moment.) On balance, the standouts in the cast are the actors who lean into the bright, bold, slightly exaggerated atmosphere of the film’s source material: Gurira, instantly iconic as the fearless, honor-bound battle maiden Okoye; Wright, winningly balancing Shuri’s chill techno-swagger with her adolescent pluckiness; and Winston Duke, who is plainly having a blast portraying the menacing yet oddly amicable Jimbari chieftain M’Baku.

Like most of the MCU films, Black Panther doesn’t boast the kind of galvanic action set pieces that occasionally etch a superhero film in the annals of cinematic legend. There’s no corollary to Wonder Woman’s No Man’s Land charge from last year. Still, the choreography and effects work are handled skillfully enough by Coogler, who cleverly uses each sequence to showcase distinct aspects of Wakanda’s traditional martial culture and futuristic military technology. The Dorja Milaje’s sonic spear-fighting style is one of the film’s distinct visual pleasures: The warrior women whirl about, thrusting and parrying, as their ornate crimson, silver, and gold armor flashes in the sun. Also stirring is a brawl at an underground casino in Busan, South Korea, a melee that is captured in a single, sustained shot before it spills out into a neon-streaked car chase through the city. If there’s a misfire to be found among the film’s action sequences, it’s in the film’s climactic throwdown. Coogler, like many directors before him, can’t solve the fundamental problem that arises when two nigh-invulnerable individuals attempt to beat the living crap out of each other: inevitable monotony.

Intriguingly, the director seems most engaged with the film’s action during a pair of scenes involving stripped-down ritual combat. Superpowers and vibranium gadgetry are eschewed in favor of vicious hand-to-hand fights between bare-chested men atop a towering waterfall. Recalling the boxing sequences in Creed (2015), the director exhibits an unmistakable affinity for the gladiatorial brutality of these ritualized duels, discovering the hidden grace in their bloody, sweaty rhythms.

Many of the complaints that one might justifiably lodge against Black Panther — the predictable plot, the reliance on Daddy Issues, the four-color characterization, the diverting but forgettable action — are the same that one might direct at any number of superhero films from the past two decades. To circle back to the unique qualities that make Black Panther so arresting, however, none of those films boasts the splendid, revelatory production design of Coogler’s feature. Indeed, Black Panther’s crew appears to have poured the lion’s share of their innovative energy into the look of the film, trusting that the scaffolding of a broadly familiar Marvel story would support the feature’s bracing design. In this, they are largely proven correct.

Crucially, Black Panther is not an example of style over substance but a case study in style as substance. Coogler and his crew are plainly cognizant of the radicalism implicit in a $200 million Afrofuturist action film with an almost entirely black cast, corporate entertainment or not. (From Disney, no less!) By going all-in on Black Panther’s dazzling design, the filmmakers have created a watershed feature in a genre that is not only overwhelmingly white but also prone to visual laziness. Simply put, Black Panther doesn’t look like any other film that has ever been made, certainly not on such a scale. The last superhero feature where the sheer design of the thing struck the pop-cinematic landscape like a thunderbolt was Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), and that film did not have the same political and cultural import as Black Panther.

Boseman’s status as the first black headliner in the MCU should not be undervalued, but what truly makes Coogler’s film so vital and invigorating is that it is unabashedly enamored with the aesthetic possibilities of a science-fiction setting centered on blackness. Black Panther is what one might get if Sun Ra’s Nubian space oddities were extruded and polished into a pan-African Fashion Week, with a touch of Apple Store gloss. Wakanda is at once wealthy, advanced, peaceful, and unmistakably African, and Coogler is positively enthusiastic about showcasing each of those attributes. The film's subtle revolution — the revolution that undergirds all Afrofuturist works, from Octavia Butler’s novels to Parliament-Funkadelic’s bizarre musical mythology — lies in the startling sight of black heroes who wield their own unplundered wealth and unthinkable technology. (Indeed, Black Panther featues an entire black nation built on such wealth and technology.) While an African techno-utopia untouched by colonialism might be a fantasy, Black Panther’s vibrant, exhilarating realization of that fantasy highlights the pitiful homogeneity of genre cinema’s existing landscape. Many of Black Panther’s characters hew to familiar archetypes previously inhabited by white heroes and villains, and while those archetypes are inherently well worn, Coogler’s film gives them fresh life simply by reimagining them in an effusively African context. (Shuri, incidentally, would make a wonderful successor to Tony Stark — hint, hint, Marvel.)

It’s not one aspect of Black Panther's visuals that ignites the imagination, but literally everything created by the film’s design team — production designer Hannah Bleacher, costume designer Ruth E. Cater, set decorator Jay Hart, and hair-department head Camille Friend, to name just a handful of the key individuals. Collectively, their awe-inspiring efforts add up to a film that is ludicrously dense with evocative detail: from the way that Wakada’s Golden City blends emirate-style skyscrapers with traditional Sahel materials; to the bold, geometric Wakandan script (reminiscent of Ge’ez, N’Ko, and Mandombe); to the little touches like the turquoise lip plate worn by Isaach De Bankolé in the role of a Wakandan elder. While the film at times shades into Power Rangers simplicity in its visual schemes — each Wakandan tribe prefers a single, distinctive color for their traditional garb — such simplicity has the effect of gratifyingly connecting Black Panther to its comic-book roots. In some exhilarating instances, the filmmakers find ingenious ways to marry traditional dress and ornamentation to the story’s sci-fi trappings. For example, when the Border Tribe is roused to battle, their Basotho-style woolen tribal blankets, which are draped over the arm and printed in exquisite patterns of blue and indigo, emit force fields that allows the garments to act as energy shields.

In short, Black Panther is a film that begs to be gawked at, with a new visual delight around virtually every corner. It’s the sort of work that seems destined to be studied by aspiring studio artists for decades to come. (The film’s marvelous hairstyles practically warrant their own making-of documentary.) While Black Panther offers more of the same with respect to its superhero plot, it’s a downright remarkable and innovative work in terms of its faces, places, and textures. This vitality ultimately makes up for the feature’s more banal mainstream blockbuster qualities and confirms that Coogler’s film truly is the trailblazing pop-cultural event that many observers — including innumerable African-American enthusiasts of the superhero genre — had hoped. In other words, Black Panther is, in its narrow but essential way, AMAZING!!! INCREDIBLE!!! and ASTONISHING!!!

Rating: B

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