A Still from 'Solo: A Star Wars Story'.
May 23, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Scoundrel? I Like the Sound of That.

2018 / USA / 135 min. / Dir. by Ron Howard / Opens in wide release on May 25, 2018

For decades, it was an open secret among serious Star Wars fans that some of the franchise’s most imaginative and stimulating stories could be found not on the silver screen, but in the so-called Expanded Universe (EU) of novels, comics, video games, and other media that carried the series’ logo. One of the prevailing virtues of George Lucas’ blockbuster creation is the rich potential of its fantasy-flavored space-opera setting, and for years ambitious writers and artists have spun innumerable stories from Lucas’ raw materials – all set in a galaxy far, far away, but encompassing myriad genres, tones, and levels of quality.

The EU was dramatically upended in 2014, when Lucasfilm’s new masters at Disney announced a fresh approach to the sprawling Star Wars canon. Whereas previously the EU had existed in a kind of secondary, twilight space – official in their branding, but “sub-canon” in relation to the feature films – now every fiction with the Star Wars name would be intertwined and internally coherent, beginning with the retroactive canonicity of the astonishingly excellent Clone Wars television series (2008-15). Perhaps most tantalizing to fans was the announcement that feature films outside the core “Episode” chapters would be produced. Here, at last, was an opportunity for the dazzling promise of the Star Wars setting to be explored at a blockbuster level.

The grim Episode IV prequel Rogue One (2016) was the first such entry, and while it remains a strangely undervalued chapter in Star Wars cinema just two years later, it did reveal the weaknesses of Disney’s initial approach to these supplementary films, branded Star Wars Stories. Director Gareth Edwards put a marvelously forbidding spin on the story of how exactly the Rebel Alliance filched the Death Star plans from the Galactic Empire, but Rogue One suffered from its sweaty efforts to wedge in fan-service jokes and connect the film to the events of A New Hope. Although tonally distinct from its forebears, Edwards’ film signaled that Disney was opting for the safe and familiar, indulgently filling in the narrative gaps immediately adjacent to the franchise’s greatest hits rather than venturing boldly across time and space. (Bioware’s acclaimed 2003 Xbox game Knights of the Old Republic, set 4,000 years before the original film trilogy but still recognizably Star Wars, was perhaps closer to what more adventurous fans were hoping for.)

Now the second such Star Wars Story has arrived, and it is, if anything, an even safer and more familiar digression from the core Episodes. Rogue One presented a bracing and terrifying depiction of Darth Vader – and threw in some cameos from tertiary heroes like Mon Mothma and Bail Organa – but it rested primarily on the shoulders of its vivid new characters. Solo, on the other hand, is built on the assumption that filmgoers longed to see the younger, formative years of their favorite heroes from the original cinematic trilogy. As one might expect, the new film is focused on a fresh-faced Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), although it also makes time for the notorious smuggler’s right-hand Wookiee Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and suave gambler-cum-frenemy Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). There are new characters, of course, but the “built-in audience” that studios covet won’t be lining up for Solo to see grizzled master thief Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) or underworld femme fatale Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke).

There’s no use in mincing words: Notwithstanding the broad pop-cultural familiarity of its main characters, Solo is a deep cut as Star Wars films go, a work primarily of interest to the franchise’s most devoted fans. There’s nothing overtly dislikable about it, and compared to the gaudy, lumbering fiascoes that were Episodes I-III, it’s almost classical in its plot, tone, and sensibilities. This is hardly surprising, given the presence of studio journeymen and occasional almost-auteur Ron Howard (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind) in the director’s chair. Taking the wheel after a rather public and embarrassing falling-out between Disney and the film’s original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, Howard righted the ship capably, if the onscreen evidence is any indication. There aren’t any glaring seams in Solo, which gives Howard a welcome opportunity to flex his often-underappreciated action-cinema muscles (Willow, Rush, In the Heart of the Sea).

Howard’s reputation for crafting films that are “good enough” – not entirely deserved, as his directorial oeuvre includes both near-masterpieces and unbearable claptrap – is perfectly in line with Solo’s meta-franchise ambitions. Following last year’s critically praised, fandom-dividing The Last Jedi, Disney almost seems to be positioning its latest Star Wars Story as a palate-cleanser. Strip away the starships and blasters, and Solo is essentially a heist film combined with a skin-deep character study, owing its plot beats to both post-Furious contemporary action cinema and the Warner Bros. crime dramas of the 1930s and ’40s (The Public Enemy, The Big Sleep). The tone, however, is pure PG-13 breeziness, and even the film’s numerous betrayals and murders don’t diminish the sensation that Solo is designed to be tween-friendly while also stoking the nostalgia of middle-aged adults for whom Han remains the archetypal cinematic rogue.

The film opens on the grimy, smog-choked streets of Corellia, a shipyard planet where the young Han and Qi’ra live a Dickensian existence trapped under the spindly legs of centipede-like crime boss Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt). The couple is young, reckless, and in love, and Han is stupid-lucky enough to nick a few grams of pricey, refined starship super-fuel – just enough to bribe an spaceport official, thereby securing transport off-world for himself and Qi'ra. Sadly, their hastily assembled and clumsily executed plan goes awry: Qi’ra’s is apprehended by underworld heavies and Han is obliged to present himself at an Imperial recruitment center to avoid capture.

Fast-forward three years: Thanks to his problem with authority and smart-ass inclinations, Han has flunked out of naval flight school and now is languishing as a scrub private in the Imperial infantry. Dodging enemy fire and AT-ST walkers on the hellish surface of a subjugated planet is not where the would-be pilot imagined himself, and when he bumps into a trio of savvy thieves posing as soldiers, he seizes on the opportunity to fast-talk (or blackmail) his way into their ranks. Through a convoluted series of events, Han is briefly captured for desertion and imprisoned with ravenous Wookiee slave Chewbacca, only to team up with the creature and escape. The addition of this 8-foot-tall newcomer – whom Han nicknames “Chewie” in short order – ultimately convinces ringleader Tobias Beckett to bring the pair on board for the crew’s latest heist.

Han’s new allies – including explosives expert Val (Thandie Newton) and four-armed alien pilot Rio Durant (Jon Favreau) – lay out a plan to steal a king’s ransom in starship fuel from an automated magnetic railcar on a snowbound planet, all to pay off an underworld debt. The scheme goes spectacularly pear-shaped, thanks to some truly crummy luck and the interference of a rival gang, which means that Beckett is back to square one with Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), a cold-hearted underboss with the Crimson Dawn syndicate. Ever the bullshitter, Han salvages the situation, ad-libbing a proposal for a complex heist that involves filching a cache of unrefined fuel from a cryogenic vault on a mining colony, slipping through a cluster of treacherous dimensional wormholes, and getting the heat-sensitive material to a processing outpost before it becomes critically unstable. (It’s sort of a criminal, hyper-speed variation on the slow, nail-biting nitroglycerine delivery featured in Wages of Fear and Sorcerer.)

There’s also the matter of the sudden reappearance of Qu’ra, who as luck would have it is now a silver-tongued lieutenant in Dryden’s criminal fiefdom – throwing the lovesick Han completely off his game (when it wasn’t all that great to begin with). The new scheme requires a very fast starship, prompting Qu’ra to turn to an old acquaintance: smuggler, card shark, and irrepressible bon vivant Lando Calrissian. The swaggering, self-mythologizing Lando not only brings his modified Corellian freighter Millennium Falcon to the table, but also his feistily independent droid co-pilot, L3-37 (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), whose celestial navigation skills are vital for Han’s nigh-impossible scheme.

That’s a massive amount of plot for a Star Wars picture that’s ostensibly all about the simple, fan-service pleasures of a young Han Solo bouncing off beloved franchise characters and familiar gangster-movie archetypes. However, while Solo relies on the same A-to-B-to-C, MacGuffin-centered episodic plotting that characterizes innumerable studio tentpoles these days, Howard handles it skillfully enough, keeping a weather eye on the primary, escapist appeal of the Star Wars saga. (These movies should, at bottom, be fun, dammit.) Although it admittedly drags a bit in its final stretch – Howard must love Mexican standoffs, because they pile up quickly at the film’s climax – Solo is lively enough that the viewer doesn’t really feel its 135-minute running time, which is more than one can say of most summer blockbusters that push past the two-hour mark. 

The most salient question about Solo is whether it justifies its own existence: Namely, is there anything that distinguishes it from any other $250 million action-adventure tentpole, aside from the Star Wars branding? Unfortunately, not so much. The film will undoubtedly appeal to the franchise’s fans – whether 14 years old or fortysomething – who have a fondness for the saga’s iconic characters, but it’s hard to recommend Solo strictly as a slice of Hollywood diversion. It’s too cinematically conventional to elicit a galvanic response from the average action filmgoer, and far too enamored with in-jokes, callbacks, and the mythological minutiae of the Star Wars galaxy. (Case in point: One late-film cameo will likely be startling and tantalizing to hardcore franchise devotees, but the viewer who hasn’t binged six seasons of Clone Wars will be baffled by it.)

In places, the screenplay from the father-son pairing of Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan hints at a spikier, more fascinating feature, one less beholden to the tropes and schematic beats of the 21st-century event picture. The acidly charming L3-37 is often at the center of these gestures. A weirder, more daring Solo is visible in her unapologetic droid-liberation worldview – culminating in a scene where she ignites delightfully cartoonish robotic chaos in a control room simply by huffily removing one droid’s restraining bolt. It can also be seen in the deeply weird but enthralling intimation of a simmering, will-they-or-won’t-they romance between L3-37 and Lando. The Kasdans dribble other details into the margins that suggest rich, unexplored narrative threads, particularly an entire, un-captioned subplot between Chewbacca and an enslaved Wookiee miner that evinces more pathos than anything else in the film.

Solo is so hellbent on rushing from one planet to the next while shoehorning in ironic callbacks to previous films that the teasing presence of such breadcrumbs is more frustrating than nourishing. However, as a character study of the titular scoundrel, Solo holds up reasonably well, at least for a studio blockbuster. Ehrenreich, blessedly, doesn’t attempt a Harrison Ford impersonation, but rather concentrates on conjuring the inimitable combination of laid-back charm, growly menace, and comic overconfidence that defines Han. If the actor doesn’t quite hit the mark, it’s largely to the film’s benefit: His iteration of the smuggler comes off as slightly guileless and starry-eyed, which suits Solo’s intent to zero in on the moment when the character’s cynicism truly congealed. In this, Howard’s film functions as an inversion of another prequel from a Harrison Ford franchise, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). Where the latter film depicted the adventure that nudged archaeologist Henry Jones Jr. from greed to altruism, Solo pinpoints the downfall of Good Guy Han, who won’t re-emerge until years later, when the smuggler-turned-Rebel comes to Luke Skywalker’s rescue in a Death Star trench.

Rating: C+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Westworld', Season 2, Episode 5, "Akane No mai"
May 22, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

We've Gone Completely Off the Rails Here

Season 2 / Episode 5 / Written by Gina Atwater and Dan Dietz / Dir. by Craig Zobel / Originally Aired May 20, 2018

[Note: This post contains spoilers.]

Especially in its early scenes, “Akane No Mai” suffers from some noticeably clunky, even cringe-worthy dialogue. Characters declaim the importance of the episode’s events and revelations with the sort of tin-eared, pretentious lines that exemplify Westworld’s worst tendencies. (A conspicuous groaner from Delos Chief of Operations Karl Strand [Gustaf Skarsgård]: “How did all these disparate threads come together to create this nightmare?” Oof.) High-caliber acting can often mitigate even the crummiest writing, of course. In Season 1, Anthony Hopkins exhibited his usual talent for purring ridiculous, purple dialogue with cool authority, and Ed Harris consistently projects a flinty, unflappable demeanor – pitched halfway between cold menace and knowing humor – that salvages William’s most unwieldy lines. Those two veterans are nowhere to be found in “Akane,” however.

The episode’s more awkward dialogue is mitigated to some extent by the delight inherent in the series’ first full-fledged foray into Shogunworld, a companion Delos theme park modeled on Edo Period Japan (or, at least, the cinematic approximation of such). Viewers who were pining for the series’ stellar production design team to take a whack at a setting filled with samurai, geisha, and ninja will likely come away from “Akane” more than satisfied. Although Delores (Evan Rachel Wood) is afforded some screen time, this episode belongs to Maeve (Thandie Newton) and her companions, who stumble into (and proceed to disrupt) the Delos spin on Throne of Blood (1957) – or, perhaps more accurately, 13 Assassins (2010), given the over-the-top Takashi Miike-style gore.

For all the cross-genre thrills inherent in seeing Maeve’s gun-toting posse trespass in a lavish re-creation of the Tokugawa shogunate, there’s a telltale whiff of the familiar to Shogunworld’s characters and melodrama – as Armistice (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) cannily observes. Any basis for Lee’s (Simon Quarterman) insufferable self-importance in Season 1 has gradually been whittled away over the course of recent episodes, but “Akane” is a death blow to the former Head of Narrative’s artistic pretenses. As Maeve and her fellow hosts discover, Delos’ parks are all just rough facsimiles of each other, with mere changes in window dressing. Lee appears to have plagiarized liberally from himself, copying characters, plots, and whole chunks of dialogue from Westworld and pasting them into Shogunworld. (“You try writing 300 stories in three weeks,” he whines defensively.) This exacerbates the existential crisis that the hosts are already experiencing, with results ranging from the seething hostility between Hector (Rodrigo Santoro) and his ronin “doppelbot,” Musashi (Hiroyuki Sanada), on one hand, to the pseudo-erotic fascination between Armistice and her equivalent, Hanaryo (Tao Okamoto), on the other.

Maeve, meanwhile, is overwhelmed with sympathy for the senior geisha, Akane (Rinko Kikuchi), whose narrative loop roughly parallels her own. In Akane’s maternal protectiveness towards the young geisha Sakura (Kikki Sukezane), Maeve sees an echo of her quest to track down her lost daughter. Akane seems to be on the verge of “waking up” to true consciousness, given that she seizes control of her storyline by murdering the Shogun’s emissary when he comes calling. (“That’s not supposed to happen,” Lee deadpans.) Akane is not quite self-aware yet, however, and she reacts with confused terror to Maeve’s attempt to psychologically nudge her to the center of Arnold’s maze. Indeed, it doesn’t seem as though any of the Shogunworld hosts have awakened in the sense that Maeve has, although the park has diverged in dramatic, bloody fashion from its usual plotlines. The malfunctioning Shogun (Masaru Shinozuka) has begun acting much more vicious and erratic, while Akane has gone strikingly off script in the ruthless defense of “her” girls. All of this is bewildering to Lee, whose knowledge of park storylines is becoming less and less useful as the android uprising throws his narratives into chaos.

Meanwhile, Delores comes to a fateful decision about Teddy (James Mardsen), whose noble programming is no longer commensurate with her ambitions of violent revolution and conquest. The season premiere established that Teddy will eventually meet a watery end – restated here in a brief present-day scene where Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) spies him among a pile of android corpses. However, the more intriguing question has always been how he and Delores would finally come to loggerheads, a conflict rendered inevitable by their divergent ambitions for the future. Delores’ solution to her “Teddy problem” turns out to be even more monstrous than summarily executing the poor dope: She tasks a kidnapped technician to literally reprogram the do-gooder impulses out of him. While the viewer isn’t yet privy to the result, it’s probably safe to say that Teddy 2.0 will be a ruthless, compliant follower of Delores’ outlaw “Wyatt” persona, perhaps something akin to Angela (Talulah Riley). Here, “Akane” reveals yet another discomfiting way that Delores’ crusade of liberation has become a slippery slope, each act of brutality pushing her closer to the ends-justify-the-means amorality of the humans she claims to despise.

Much like the season’s first episode, “Journey into Night,” this chapter is generally more compelling for what it reveals rather than what happens. Nothing all that unexpected occurs, plot-wise, although in some instances, the way that events unfold is downright shocking. Case in point: Akane’s assassination of the Shogun, which any attentive viewer likely sees coming, is executed with jaw-dropping viciousness – the geisha literally sawing off the warlord’s head at the jaw with her dagger hairpin. Such horror-adjacent flourishes and a ninja brawl aside, however, “Akane No Mai” is most notable for its game-changing discoveries (e.g., all the parks are remixes of the same “narrative bones”) and some minor plot points (e.g., Lee surreptitiously lifting a communications device off a dead security officer). Of the former, none is more momentous than Maeve realizing that her ability to compel other hosts by voice command has somehow evolved into silent, wireless mind control. How exactly this upgrade came about is still a mystery, but said ability’s mechanism seems obvious in retrospect: the inter-host “mesh network” that Bernard mentioned four episodes back.

Maeve has always been the wild card in Westworld, but this season is illustrating just how starkly her story stands apart from the comparatively banal, militarized struggle between the humans and Delores. Maeve’s more intimate mutiny of self-discovery serves as a kind of commentary on Delores’ sweeping revolutionary ambitions. Not coincidentally, Maeve is consistently the series’ most enthralling character – more appealing than the sinister, inscrutable William and more proactive than the fumbling, shell-shocked Bernard. Even as Maeve awakens to her power, however, there remains a nagging doubt: Is she truly in control of her thoughts and actions, or is she still trapped in one of Ford’s loops? Those doubts were seeded near the end of Season 1, when she was shown computer readouts indicating that she was still adhering to her programming. He discoveries in Shogunworld only amplify those uncertainties: The memories programmed into her mind have been rehashed and repurposed, little more than stale tropes sown across multiple genres and worlds by “creators” who can’t be bothered with originality.

Some miscellaneous observations:

  • There’s some gratifyingly meta-commentary in “Akane” about the laziness of genre fiction and the notion that there are only so many stories to tell before storytellers start repeating themselves. One of the recurring pleasures of Westworld is that the writers and performers routinely manage to have their cake and eat it too: self-critically drawing attention to the artifice and weaknesses of narrative fiction, while also hooking the viewer with in-universe moments of intense pathos. It’s a testament to the show’s strength that this doesn’t scan as cheap cynicism or fatal dissonance, but nimble intelligence.

  • Speaking of existential crises: Poor Clementine (Angela Searafyan) rejoins Delores’ army after completing her secret mission with Bernard in the previous episode, only to run into her replacement (Limi Simmons) in the pillaged Sweetwater saloon. She doesn’t take it well.

  • Cinephiles are probably more accustomed to the juxtaposition of the Western and samurai settings than the casual viewer, if only because the genres have famously been playing off each other for six decades or so, as any first-year film student can attest. Intriguingly, “Akame” flips the conventional wisdom about the primary direction of influence: Shogunworld is a copy of Westworld, but it was Western filmmakers like Sam Peckinpah (The Magnificent Seven) and Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars) who cribbed from Japanese master Akira Kurosawa (The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo).
Tags: TV Recaps Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'The Rider'.
May 22, 2018
By Joshua Ray

A Cowboy Ain’t Easy to Love and He’s Harder to Hold

2017 / USA / 104 min. / Dir. by Chloé Zhao / Opened in select cities April 13, 2018; locally on May 11, 2018

Director and writer Chloé Zhao’s film The Rider opens on hypnotic equine images. The camera glides along the tan mane of a horse in slow motion, fading into other closeup images of its snarling mouth, the muscles writhing beneath its thick skin, and ultimately its eye. A quick cut reveals the dreamer, Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), as he jolts awake. After a quick succession of shots depicting Brady drowsily ambulating around his mobile home, the camera goes close again, now on the back of his head as he wedges medical staples and removes gauze from his shaved skull, revealing an inches-long incision held together with even more staples. The wound recalls Frankenstein’s monster, as another character will later observe. 

The hypnagogic imagery butts up against brutal reality in what could be called the thesis statement for The Rider. Ostensibly, this is a “sports movie” about Brady, a former star who has suffered a near-fatal accident in his “court” of choice, the rodeo arena. The film is also informed by the reality of its performers, who more or less portray themselves as they work through events shaped from their personal narratives. The genesis for this film is the time Zhao spent on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota making her first feature, Songs My Brother Taught Me (2015). It was during that film that she got to know rodeo star Brady Jandreau and his cohort of rider friends. Due to the circumstances of the film’s development and production, The Rider plays as a slow burn that relies less on the typical triumphant and tragic signposts of the genre and more on the inner life of its protagonist. Brady suffers not only physically but also existentially: Who am I if I’m not on a horse? Furthermore, Zhao’s film poses questions regarding the limitations of depicting “reality” in a quasi-docudrama such as this, and whether or not that matters for the purposes of creating a fully formed vision for the screen.

The gambit of using nonprofessional actors to flesh out versions of themselves is risky, but with Jandreau playing Brady Blackburn it pays off in spades. Zhao and her cinematographer, Joshua James Richards, keep the camera close on the tight-jawed, limitedly emotive Brady, maintaining him at the center of scenes where he’s surrounded by reminders of his localized celebrity. Possessing limited skills outside the rodeo world, the fallen star struggles with his identity and injuries as he takes on a part-time job in a local grocery store, trains horses he knows he shouldn’t ride, and deals with the anguish of being a twentysomething who is already past his prime. Brady remains in this pressure cooker throughout the film, but Jandreau’s reservedness ensures that he rarely betrays his character’s simmering pain to others, requiring the camera and the audience to focus on his eyes as emotional entry points.

The rest of the cast is not as naturally camera-ready as Jandreau, but within The Rider and its hybrid indie film-as-docudrama aesthetic, their performances work. His real-life father and sister, Tim and Lilly Jandreau, play his fictional father and sister, Wayne and Lilly Blackburn. Tim Jandreau eventually warms up after some flat line readings in the film’s first third, lending pathos to a climax where he confronts Brady about leaving to perform at a rodeo. Lilly Jandreau is a bright light in the film and in the life of her brother, and she’s given scenes that don’t utilize her autism for emotional heft or comedic condescension – she simply is.

One of the most tender moments of the film occurs when Brady, after visiting his paralyzed ex-rider friend, Lane Scott – portrayed by the actual Lane Scott, who was injured in a car accident and not riding as the film may imply – breaks down alone in his truck as he fights against welling tears. The scene is a rare glimpse of a rupture in the performative stoic manliness that Zhao, a female filmmaker, is somewhat critical of throughout the film. Granted, when Brady takes his last ride with his beloved horse Gus, she lapses into a giddy-up celebration of horse-riding and its macho bravura with earnest dollies across the plain, all set to a triumphant score. However, the director also points out the relentlessly dangerous nature of rodeo life, as in long scenes of the reflective and paralyzed Lane – who now communicates via American Sign Language – watching videos of his former, do-or-die cowboy self on YouTube. 

The schism between past and present selves also manifests itself physically and symbolically in Brady, who suffers from a post-accident condition called “partial complex seizures” in which his hand locks up from a sensory overload from his brain. The past is always somewhat present in The Rider. There’s no mention that the film takes place on the reservation that inspired it or of the history that led to such places. The film disregards the racialized baggage of the cowboy figure that inspires its Native American characters, distinguishing The Rider from the Hollywood images that perpetuated the dualistic formulation of the indigenous enemy and the heroic white man. Closeups of craggy faces against the Western vistas recall the work of Sergio Leone (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly [1967]) but without the performative filmic grandeur. Silhouettes line the cloud-laden horizon, bringing to mind John Ford’s films, sans the American myth-making of a period piece. (Zhao even subtly duplicates the oft-quoted final shot from The Searchers [1956] that frames John Wayne in a doorway.) Winds move through tall grass as if in Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) – a film that shares the same geographical terrain as The Rider – but here there is no divine presence. 

These scenes vary from awe-inspiring to Instagram-inspired; some carry the weight of characters lost in a vast landscape and relegated to the predetermined roles their land and society dictate, while others are simply “nice.” The film presents a unique vision springing from Beijing native Zhao’s identification with the Pine Ridge Reservation and the Lakota people who dwell there, but it’s possible that the director is too close to the subjects to imbue her film with more complexity. However, The Rider, which is sure to be Zhao’s breakout film, is certainly enough to encourage any viewer to look forward to the director’s future works. 

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

May 16, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

The Revenant

2017 / France / 108 min. / Dir. by Coralie Fargeat / Opened in select cities and premiered online on May 11, 2018

Although it remains a somewhat contentious subgenre, the rape-revenge thriller has a rich (if not exactly respectable) pedigree, extending back to seminal exploitation features like Thriller: A Cruel Picture (1973), I Spit on Your Grave (1978), and Ms. 45 (1981). Frankly if awkwardly feminist, such films appropriated violence from the male aggressor and directed it back into his piggish, arrogant face. Notwithstanding the occasional attempt to impart some Hollywood respectability to the category (The Brave One) or even to put an avant-garde spin on it (Dogville), the rape-revenge picture has a streak of unabashed nastiness that it is usually better embraced than stifled. Filmmakers Jen and Sylvia Soska apprehended as much in their blackly comic and explicitly feminist take on the subgenre, American Mary (2012) – a feature that is a bloody good time, if not exactly good.

Like the Soskas’ film, French director Coralie Fargeat’s awesomely grimy and gory debut feature, Revenge, benefits immensely from having a woman at the helm. Fargeat evinces an uncanny understanding of the male gaze, to the point that she can mimic it perfectly, but she also knows how to pervert it for her tonal and thematic purposes. Revenge is a feature that is fluent in the classical vocabulary of the male-directed exploitation pictures of old – although here that language has metamorphosed into a post-Michael Bay patois. Once upon a time, such films were primarily designed to arouse male audience members in a mildly transgressive way. However, those viewers are merely the collateral damage in Revenge, which is foremost a hyper-real fantasy of righteous Amazonian retribution.

The avenging angel of this particular tale is Jen (Matilda Lutz), the blond, bubblegum-snapping young mistress of middle-aged French millionaire Richard (Kevin Lanssens), a testy alpha male who has a wife and children back home but no morals to speak of. The couple arrive via helicopter at his modernist desert vacation home for a weekend of coitus, with the understanding that Jen will depart before Richard’s annual hunting outing commences with his friends Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède). Unfortunately, the other men show up early, and – after a night of drunken flirtation and dancing – the leering Stan becomes violently indignant when Jen rebuffs his advances. While Richard is away for the morning, Stan rapes Jen, an assault that Dimitri witnesses and then promptly ignores, turning up the television to drown out the sound of the woman’s sobs.

If Jen ever harbored an expectation that Richard would defend her honor, that hope is quickly dashed: When he returns to the house and realizes what has occurred, he is more irritated than angry with Stan. Richard attempts to bribe his mistress with money, a new job, and a hasty helicopter ride back to civilization, so long as she agrees to forget the whole “incident.” Jen turns on her boyfriend at this point, warning him that if discarded, she will reveal their affair to his wife. The perceived insolence of this threat unleashes Richard’s not-so-hidden monstrous side: He attacks her, chases her into the desert, and eventually shoves her off a cliff, while Stan and Dimitri look on in mute astonishment. Falling 100 feet or so, Jen lands directly on a dead, gnarled tree, which impales her through the abdomen, Vlad Tepes-style.

Richard, sociopath that he is, doesn’t miss a beat: He prepares to head out on the planned hunting expedition with a shell-shocked Stan and Dimitri, pronouncing that they can retrieve and dispose of Jen’s corpse afterward. Unfortunately for the men, Jen is only mostly dead, and after improbably extracting herself from her gruesome predicament, she sets out on a roaring rampage of revenge to rival that of Kill Bill’s Beatrix Kiddo. This is no realist depiction of survival: Jen’s brush with death transforms her into a demi-goddess of destruction, a nubile Aphrodite forged into a gore-spattered Ares. In fine exploitation tradition, ironic penetration is a theme in her holy mission of slaughter. In one scene, she bursts from the surface of an alkaline lake and stabs out a man’s eyes with a Bowie knife. (There’s your male gaze, pal!) 

Like almost all rape-revenge thrillers, Fargeat’s film is counting on the inherent titillation in watching a gorgeous, scantily clad woman commit murder. However, Revenge is a refreshing change of pace for the subgenre, in that its visuals simultaneously elicit and undermine male arousal, never favoring one reaction to the exclusion of the other. Early in the film, Fargeat shoots Jen as if she’s the eye candy in a puerile male fantasy, lingering almost pornographically on her breasts, stomach, buttocks, and legs, allowing every shot to explicitly objectify her. Lutz, who is actually 25, disembarks from the helicopter dressed in hot pink and sucking on a lollipop, the vision of jailbait fantasy.

Once Jen plunges to her near-death, the director continues to fetishize her body, only now the heroine’s grievous gashes, burns, and disfigurements crowd out her curves for the eye’s attention. Fargeat’s camera still sexualizes Jen, but in a context that is so defiantly anti-sexual that the effect is gloriously queasy – a mad balancing act no exploitation picture in memory has managed to pull off. “Go ahead, gawk at this young woman's shapely derriere,” Revenge proposes, “but you have to look at this grisly third-degree burn as well.” It’s subversively brilliant in its way, in that it requires male viewers to reckon with misogynist violence while they ogle a pretty girl – rather than instead of. Even Lutz’s body language changes after her character’s rebirth. Jen’s initial, seductive accessibility is replaced by postures of rigid alertness, lithe lethality, and a haunted terror that is focused wholly inward. She doesn't see her quarry as humans; she doesn't really see them at all. In a sense, Jen is the last woman on Earth after her resurrection: She’s not so much a predator stalking her prey as an irresistible force colliding with limp, doomed objects.

Lutz’s winning, angel-next-door screen presence was often the only appealing thing about last year’s Rings, and her performance here is deliriously juicy stuff – even if it is, by design, not particularly demanding. Revenge’s aura of vivid fantasy doesn’t require the actress to paint Jen’s transformation from vapid sexpot to death incarnate as a believable transition. Indeed, Fargeat’s approach is to explicitly render pre- and post-impalement Jen as two distinct characters. Lutz, however, inhabits both personas convincingly and compellingly. “Vengeance Jen,” in particular, is a fascinating creation, with Lutz nakedly expressing the character’s fear, agony, and confusion – rather than turning her heroine into an affectless Terminator. At least in terms of her demeanor, Jen’s distaff equivalent isn’t so much John Wick as The Fugitive’s (1993) Richard Kimble, with Lutz projecting the kind of clammy, vulnerable action-movie resolve that was once Harrison Ford’s bailiwick.

Fargeat and cinematographer Martin Roughier shoot Jen’s grim travails with a saturated palette, enthusiastically adopting the aggressive orange-and-teal color correction used in so many contemporary blockbuster action features. This is for tonal rather than ironic reasons: Revenge plainly occurs in the realm of fantasy, albeit a fantasy of righteous feminist wrath rather than some manly, juiced-up tale of the fast and the furious. Although Revenge was shot in Morocco, the blasted desert landscape of cruel, broken rock is never identified geographically, lending the film a strong post-apocalyptic vibe. With her baby-doll T-shirts, sparkly lip gloss, and pink iPod Mini, Jen is initially a better match for Richard’s chic vacation home than for the wastelands that surround it. She stands out in the latter environment like a plush rainbow unicorn abandoned on some, distant barren planet. That is, until she virtually becomes a part of said landscape: baptized in dust, tattooed with scars, and seared by the unforgiving sun from tanning-bed tawny to blistered umber.

(That iPod, incidentally, seems to date Revenge’s events to 2004 or 2005, which makes for a handy dodge to the perennial horror-film question: Why doesn’t the protagonist carry a smartphone? Not that Fargeat’s film needs to be pinned to any particular year. It exists outside of time, because misogynist violence is lamentably timeless.)

It should go without saying, but viewers who quail at graphic violence would do well to avoid Revenge, whose surfeit of gore climaxes with the characters slipping around on a floor covered in seemingly gallons of blood. The clotted plasma that glazes Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (2002) and Neil Marshall’s The Descent (2006) looks restrained in comparison. The violence in Fargeat’s film is intense, but more hallucinatory than realistic. Indeed, the entire feature buzzes with a phantasmagoric sensibility. The visuals and sound design repeatedly highlight the most grotesque aspects of the film’s reality, and not just the blood and viscera, either. Fargeat revels in extreme closeups that suggest struggle and disintegration: black ants crawling across grains of sand; a green apple with a single, browning bite; a revolting glob of chocolate, caramel, and saliva stuck between chomping teeth.

Nothing about Fargeat’s approach to this tale is the least bit nuanced or subdued, because said tale practically demands a primal scream. In what is at once the film’s cheesiest and gnarliest gesture, Jen is forced to patch up the sucking hole in her abdomen with a flattened 24-oz. beer can, all while tripping on peyote anesthesia. (There’s no pain if you’re mentally soaring through desert canyons on a dream quest.) She first sterilizes the metal over a campfire and then presses the red-hot sheet to her stomach. In the morning, she finds that the eagle design on the can has been transferred to her flesh, giving her a brand that resembles nothing so much as a phoenix rising from the cauterized wound just above her hip. If the viewer finds this detail awesome rather than preposterous, that’s a sign that Revenge is exactly their cup of tea.

Rating: B+

[Revenge is now available to rent or purchase via Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

Still from 'Westworld' Season 2, Episode 4, "The Riddle of the Sphinx"
May 14, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

I Always Trusted Code More than People

Season 2 / Episode 4 / Written by Gina Atwater and Jonathan Nolan / Dir. by Lisa Joy / Originally Aired May 13, 2018

[Note: This post contains spoilers.]

“The Riddle of the Sphinx” is the first truly great episode of Westworld’s second season, a distinction that’s even more impressive when one considers that it’s the first time that co-showrunner Lisa Joy has sat in the director’s chair. It’s uncommon to find a top-level television writer who is also an excellent director, but in this episode Joy – who, remarkably, has never helmed anything before – evinces superb storytelling instincts and some truly cinematic formal chops. It helps, of course, that “The Riddle of the Sphinx” is centered on a jaw-dropping revelation, and writers Gina Atwater and Jonathan Nolan do a commendable job of structuring the entire episode around that reveal without veering into (too much) indulgent wheel-spinning.

“Sphinx”’s central drama is the story of James Delos (Peter Mullan) and his futile attempt to cheat death using technology similar to that of the Westworld hosts. The repetition of James and William’s (Jimmi Simpson) interactions inside the elder Delos’ windowless, retro-futurist quarters-cum-prison is a brilliant bit of storytelling, one whose lean intensity is amplified by the writers’ shrewd decision to stage it exactly three times. In the first instance, the fundamentals of James’ situation are established, but a sense of menacing mystery is also present, evoked by the men’s slippery conversation and the faintly uncanny aura of Joy’s mise-en-scène. (An early sign of “Riddle”’s excellence: a hypnotic, 360-degree pan around the chamber, lingering on the still-life details of James’ environment, while the Rolling Stones “Play with Fire” spins on a mod turntable.)

The second iteration of this scene raises the viewer’s hackles by means of discrepancies in blocking and dialogue compared to the first, before closing with an unsettling science-fiction twist: James has been dead for some time, and the company has been unsuccessful in its efforts to coax his digitally preserved mind to “take” to a new, 3D-printed body. Finally, in the third repetition, the scene’s premise is extended to its logical, horrific conclusion, one signaled the moment that “old William” (Ed Harris) appears at James’ door. It’s now been decades since James’ physical demise – Trial 149, to be exact – and William has concluded that the elder Delos’ immortality scheme is an uneconomical pipe dream. Delos, it seems, has been developing other, more profitable uses for the host technology, and the company’s subsidization of a cantankerous old man’s resurrection is now effectively over.

Apart from their formal distinction, what’s fascinating about these flashback scenes is how they both confirm and crush one of the more popular fan theories that has emerged in recent weeks: namely, that Delos’ host technology is being used for some sort of secret immortality project, a possibility foreshadowed last season by Robert Ford’s (Anthony Hopkins) references to the biblical story of Lazarus. The transference of the dying James’ human mind into an artificial body was indeed one of Delos’ ventures, but it turns out have been little more than an indulgent side project, and one that ultimately proved impossible to perfect. Intriguingly, this twist reinforces another prominent theory: that the host technology has been repurposed – likely by William – for a kind of “body snatchers” scheme aimed at the global elite, in the fashion of Futureworld (1976), the largely forgotten theatrical sequel to Westworld (1973).

Most of the other subplots in “The Riddle of the Sphinx” revolve around these flashbacks, either narratively or thematically. The episode puts a disturbing coda on James’ story by having it intersect in ghastly fashion with the near-past journey of Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) and his former Behavior co-worker Elsie (Shannon Woodward), who it turns out has been chained up in a remote sector of the park since Season 1. (She’s understandably wary, given that it was Bernard who attacked and imprisoned her, even though he only did so under Ford’s orders and has no recollection of the event.) The pair discover another secret Delos outpost, where Elsie manages to keep the still-malfunctioning Bernard operational a bit longer with a cortical fluid injection. In a scene that swerves into straight-up horror, they eventually stumble onto the final, critically glitchy iteration of “James”, who has escaped his cell and slain his overseers,

Meanwhile, William and his host companion, Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr.), have a run-in with Major Craddock (Jonathan Tucker) and the remnants of the Conferados who escaped last episode’s massacre at Fort Forlorn Hope. Craddock and his underlings have essentially taken Lawrence’s hometown Las Mudas hostage, under the assumption that the village's Mexican revolutionaries possess a secret weapon cache that the ex-Confederate guerillas covet. This sets up a gratifying Sergio Leone-inspired showdown between Craddock and William, who initially seems to sell out the townsfolk before finally turning his revolver on the drunken Confederados. It’s foolish to attribute every event in Season 2 to Robert Ford’s master plan, but it’s hard not to see the Las Mudas events as the game’s attempt to nudge William ever-so-slightly toward the white hat role he abandoned long ago.

There’s a subtle but resonant contrast between the chilly amorality exhibited by, on the one hand, William in his interactions with James, and, on the other, the William seen at Las Mudas, who bristles not only at Craddock’s smug, sadistic good-ol’-boy schtick but also at the sight of Lawrence’s innocent wife (Olga Aguilar) being terrorized. The episode connects these two sequences in other ways, with references to the suicide of William’s wife, Juliet, and with the double meaning inherent in William’s invocation of “fidelity” (i.e., both moral faithfulness and the accuracy of a reproduction). The notion of fidelity is further echoed in Bernard’s tale, as his memories, cognition, and loyalties grow ever more scrambled and the revelations regarding his role in Ford’s final, posthumous gambit become more ominous.

Joy deftly weaves together these three major subplots, without relying on the sort of relentless cross-cutting that another director might have used to create a sensation of feverish action where none truly exists. Instead, she uses the longer running time afforded to the “The Riddle of the Sphinx” to linger on each sequence, allowing the tension to swell marvelously. Westworld is often described as a “puzzle-box” show – a label that has been both a compliment and a criticism – but this episode is an exemplar of twisty sci-fi plotting that advances and elaborates on the story, rather than simply functioning as a parlor trick for its own sake. There’s nothing in “The Riddle of the Sphinx” that feels superfluous: just a tight, evocative chapter in a saga that grows increasingly engrossing and terrifying.

Some miscellaneous observations:

  • The only other subplot that “Riddle” touches on is that of Rajworld guest Grace (Katja Herbers), who, along with Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) and several other humans, has been rounded up by the Ghost Nation hosts. She’s released after some cryptic comments from the tribe’s chieftain-slash-prophet, Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon), who appeared in “Reunion” as one of the hosts at Argos' first demonstration for Logan. Later Grace crosses paths with William, Lawrence, and the revolutionarios, triggering another surprise: she is William’s adult daughter.

  • One of the central mysteries of Season 2 is how many of the hosts have achieved true consciousness. Delores, Maeve, and perhaps Bernard have found their way through Arnold’s metaphorical maze, but the rest of the androids still seem to be stuck in their pre-programmed loops to some extent, even if they’ve turned newly murderous. In this episode, the series offers the first indication of another rank-and-file host who remembers events prior to their last memory wipe: Lawrence recalls William telling him the story of his wife’s suicide, even if he doesn't really understanding how he can recall it.

  • Westworld has always been steeped in the fundamental questions of modern Western philosophy, a discipline whose origin is often informally attributed to the French thinker René Descartes’ observation, “cogito ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am.”) The epistemological principles (and paradoxes) articulated by Descartes are touched on obliquely in almost every episode of the series. However, “Riddle” vividly references one of the philosopher’s seminal thought experiments: the Evil Demon, an omnipotent entity that creates and manipulates every detail of the observer’s reality with the intent to maliciously deceive. (In various altered and corrupted forms, this idea has become a staple of speculative science fiction, where it is often described as the “brain in a vat” hypothesis.) The garbled words spoken by James’ decrepit host-body evoke Descartes’ demon, imagining a monotheistic universe in which the only godhead is a malevolent trickster:

They said there were two fathers. One above, one below. They lied. There was only the devil. And when you look up from the bottom, it was just his reflection … laughing back at you.

Tags: TV Recaps Andrew Wyatt

May 9, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Water Music

2017 / Japan / 112 min. / Dir. by Masaaki Yuasa / Opens in select cities on May 11, 2018

For Japanese animation aficionados whose primary point of reference is the output of Studio Ghibli, Masaaki Yuasa’s vibrant, toe-tapping fable Lu Over the Wall will come as a modest surprise. This isn’t to say that the sprightly Lu isn’t influenced to an extent by Ghibli’s iconic works. Heck, it’s unthinkable that any kid-friendly Japanese animated feature post-1990 or so wouldn’t evince at least a drop or two of Ghibli’s stylistic DNA in its genome. In the case of Yuasa’s feature, its clearest antecedent from Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata’s legendary studio is Ponyo (2008), in that the films share some plot and tonal similarities.

However, this facile comparison does a disservice to the vitality and range of Yuasa’s artistry –  and that of his new studio, Science Saru, which claims Lu as its second feature film (following The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl). With anime series such as The Tatami Galaxy (2010), Ping Pong (2014), and Space Dandy (2014), Yuasa has evinced a willingness to flit jubilantly and hyperactively between myriad styles of animation. In Lu Over the Wall, this tendency is, if somewhat reigned in, still on energetic display.

At any given moment, the film might suddenly swerve from its hand-painted backgrounds and “orthodox” anime character designs into impressionistic scribbles, whimsical Flash-style shapes, or even LCD pixel animation. Its characters sometimes abruptly take on the squishiness of the anthropomorphic animals in a Tex Avery short, or mutate into grotesque parodies that seem to be intruding from a Ralph Baskhi or Sylvain Chomet feature. In short, Lu is a gratifying and delightful sensory experience, even if its fairy-tale sensibility is thoroughly familiar and its story never quite justifies its long-ish running time.

Set in a contemporary Japan from some fantasy-flavored alternate reality, the film concerns one Kai Ahimoto (Shōta Shimoda in the original Japanese/Michael Sinterniklaas in the English dub), a sullen young teen in the rural fishing village of Hinashi. Kai lives with his earnest, admonishing father and his taciturn grandfather, who own a small fishing charter company and a parasol-making business, respectively. Fishing is about all sleepy Hinashi has going for it, making it a fatally dull place to fritter away one’s adolescence. (Kai, especially, feels the pinch of discontent, as he’s a transplant from Tokyo, where his mother still lives, post-divorce.)

Kai’s outgoing classmates Yūho (Minako Kotobuki/Stephanie Sheh) and Kunio (Sōma Saitō/Brandon Engman) alleviate the boredom by practicing in secret for their rock band, Siren. They’re thrilled when they discover – through some social-media sleuthing – that Kai is an electronic musician, and immediately strong-arm him into joining their group. The brooding Kai is reluctant to contribute, but he’s eventually lured by the band’s secret rehearsal space: an abandoned theme park on nearby Mermaid Island.

Hinashi, it turns out, has an ancient connection to the ningyo, the musical merfolk who are said to dwell in the shipwreck-strewn waters offshore. Long ago, the townsfolk walled off the natural passages in the sea cliffs that shelter their cove, so that the allegedly vicious, human-devouring merfolk would no longer be able to approach the village. Kai’s long-term fascination with these purportedly mythological beasts is stoked by repeated glimpses of a strange creature swimming playfully in the inlet just outside his house. Kai’s music seems to attract this diminutive mer-girl, who one day pays him an alarming visit by forcing a magical, watery pseudopod through his bedroom window. Later, after his bandmates add Kai’s electronic percussion and keyboards to their music and turn the volume up to 11, the mermaid finally reveals herself to the whole trio, in all her doe-eyed, turquoise-haired, squeaky-voiced glory.

Identifying herself as Lu (Kanon Tani/Christine Marie Cabanos), the mermaid is enamored with Siren’s J-pop-tinged rock music, and under its influence her fish’s tail transforms into a pair of humanoid legs, whereupon she proceeds to sing and dance frenetically. Apart from improving the band’s sound, her vocals have a beguiling effect on humans, who find themselves compelled to join in with manic, choreographed dance routines. Like all mermaids, the gregarious, fun-loving Lu also exhibits a sorcerous mastery of water, allowing her to summon and shape the element into enormous, gelatinous blocks, towers, and walls. What’s more, a merfolk’s bite can transform living beings into hybrid fish creatures, an ability Lu demonstrates to adorable effect on a shelter full of stray dogs, liberating the resulting mer-puppies into the sea. (Further amplifying the pseudo-vampiric aspects of the otherwise charming Lu, mermaids are apparently burned by the touch of the sun.)

Kai and his friends eventually end up incorporating Lu – hidden, amusingly enough, inside a plastic cooler – into a public performance in front of the whole town. Predictably, the charade quickly crumbles, and people of Hinashi abruptly discover that merfolk are quite real. YouTube videos of Lu’s dancing go viral, reporters start clamoring for interviews, and Yūho’s grandfather, a local tycoon in a Stetson, gets it in his head to capitalize on the mermaid craze by re-opening the theme park. All these sudden changes don’t sit well with Kai, who is concerned that this newfound attention isn’t exactly in Lu’s best interest. (Truth be told, he’s also a bit jealous that his secret, singular bond with the mermaid suddenly feels not-so-special.)

There’s quite a bit more to the plot, but Yuasa and co-writer Reiko Yoshida do a commendable job of weaving it all together in a way that is authentically interconnected and yet snug, establishing a wonderfully self-contained little world in the village of Hinashi. Which isn’t to say that the setting feels unduly stifling or hermetic its small-town quaintness. Yuasa incorporates modern social media into the plot in a manner that is thoroughly unobtrusive, and there’s a consistent sense in Lu Over the Wall of a larger (although perhaps less magical) Japan beyond the town’s humble confines.

As the story rolls on, the film’s fantasy elements become increasingly surreal and outlandish. Lu’s gargantuan father – a mute, anthropomorphic shark in a business suit covered with wriggling remoras – eventually appears in town, to offer his services at the chamber of commerce as a “consultant” for the local fishing industry. In one of the film’s gleefully absurdist touches, the villagers seem to take this development entirely in stride, and in short order this 20-foot-tall shark-man is regarded as an upstanding member of the community. That all changes, of course, when the mood of the town shifts – as it inevitably does in fairy tales about magical outsiders – and Lu is threatened by a fearful mob.

Although striking, the film’s more bizarre elements are just the delightfully oddball trimmings on a standard “two worlds” folk tale about the relationship between land and sea. (Viewers who are familiar with Celtic stories will recognize some loose parallels with the selkie myth.) Yuasa’s film doesn’t cover any new thematic ground, but it doesn’t need to, functioning well enough as a mild, affirmative tale of friendship, acceptance, and mutualism. The closest thing to a villain in this story is Yūho’s father, who goes a bit berserk in the third act when he comes to believe – erroneously – that the merfolk have kidnapped his daughter. Otherwise, the only malevolent forces to be found in Lu are ordinary human failings like fear and greed.

The film starts to sputter somewhat in its final stretch. The climactic sequence – in which an ancient curse deluges the village with luminous green floodwaters – grows a bit aimless and repetitive, notwithstanding all the catastrophic action. Yuasa seems to lose his otherwise firm grasp on the story as the film spends an excessive amount of time gawking at mermaid magic and following the protracted back-and-forth of rescue efforts. It certainly doesn’t help that the aforementioned curse is never satisfactorily explained, nor that the geography of the region – which is crucial to the unfolding drama – remains frustratingly hazy to the end.

As a work of animation, however, it’s hard to find fault with Lu Over the Wall, which is consistently endearing in its visuals. The characters – who shade into a “kiddie TV” style a bit more than late-model Ghibli fare – are thoroughly appealing, and the backgrounds are properly lush and detailed. Taking a page from the high-school dramedy genre of Japanese animation, Yuasa isn’t afraid to liberally adorn his twee fantasy story with laptop and smartphone screens. The film's dabbling in a plethora of animation styles – from a goofy Max Fleischer-indebted dance number to Sesame Street-style Crayola explainers – keeps viewers on their toes in a satisfying way. Ralph Bakshi’s multi-generational fantasia American Pop (1981) is a subdued yet vital point of reference for Yuasa's film, in terms of both its musical spirit and flamboyant style. Ultimately, it’s Lu’s sense of dizzy visual pluck that elevates the film above its sweet but straightforward fairy-tale foundation.

Rating: B

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

May 7, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

We Left My Comfort Zone a Long Time Ago

Season 2 / Episode 3 / Written by Gina Atwater, Ron Fitzgerald, and Roberto Patino / Dir. by Richard J. Lewis / Originally aired May 6, 2018

[Note: This post contains spoilers.]

After last week’s sequence of far-flung flashbacks, “Virtù e Fortuna” returns Westworld to the bifurcated “present and recent past” structure established in the season premiere. (Although it vastly favors the several-days-ago events in terms of screen time.) In the present, Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) and the Delos response team continue their trek through the haywire park, eventually running into Charlotte (Tessa Thompson), who is very much alive and still searching for her wayward “package” of priceless Westworld code, concealed in the neurons of malfunctioning android Peter Abernathy (Louis Herthum).

As the flashbacks reveal, Charlotte and Bernard had previously tracked down Abernathy, just as the former rancher – disguised as a Westworld guest – was about to be sold into slavery to the Confederados. In the ensuing confrontation, Charlotte escapes on horseback, while Bernard ends up captured. He is then marched along with Peter to Fort Forlorn Hope, where he comes face-to-face with Delores (Evan Rachel Wood), now siding with the ex-Confederate outlaws in a brief alliance of convenience. Delores is distressed by the psychologically compromised state of her father, Peter, even though on some level she knows that he is not really her “father” at all. Peter rambles in a feverish delirium, flitting through fragments of past storylines, including his old “Professor” identity that spurs him to quote King Lear: “I am bound upon a wheel of fire that mine own tears do scald like molten lead.” (The demented Lear, not incidentally, speaks these lines to his youngest and most loyal daughter, Cordelia.)

Before these sequences, however, the episode’s cold open provides a never-before-seen glimpse of one of Delos’ other parks on the island: a colonial Indian setting (“Rajworld”) reminiscent of a Rudyard Kipling tale or E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. Initially, these scenes don’t appear to add much of substance to the Westworld storylines, other than to confirm the origin of the dead Bengal tiger glimpsed in the season premiere. However, they do conclusively illustrate that the android uprising is not limited to Westworld, the “violent delights” malfunction having seemingly spread like a virus through the system’s hosts (perhaps as a part of Robert Ford’s final design).

What’s most interesting about the Rajworld prelude is its focus on a pair of guests, Grace (Katja Herbers) and Nicholas (Neil Jackson), rather than the hosts. The pair trade witty repartee while lingering over cocktails and sitar music, despite the best effort of the hosts to nudge them toward storylines. Nicholas observes that the park makes a concerted effort to ensure that the guests interact primarily with the hosts instead of other guests, which makes sense given what has been revealed to date about Delos’ secret data-gathering efforts. Grace and Nicholas enjoy a little afternoon delight before heading out on a proper British-colonial tiger hunt, Indian footmen and elephant howdahs and all. What’s likely most salient here, plot-wise, is Grace’s determination to conceal her true purpose for engaging in the hunt, as she quickly puts away her notebook with its sketched maps whenever Nicholas approaches. After the hosts turn on the couple in the forest, Grace manages to escape, surviving a tiger attack only to be captured by Ghost Nation hosts on the fringes of Westworld. Herbers’ relatively high ranking in the episode’s credits suggests that we haven’t seen the last of her character.

Many of “Virtù e Fortuna”’s scenes serve to highlight the “middle ground” ambiguity that now attends the rebellious androids’ behavior, which often seems simultaneously unshackled from and beholden to their prior programming. The physical and mental trauma that Peter is undergoing – which Bernard correctly attributes to the payload of Delos data that is crowding his memory – plainly causes Delores intense anguish. Despite all that she has remembered and learned about the nature of her world, she can’t disregard the emotional connection she once had with Peter, however pre-programmed it might have been. Much as Maeve (Thandie Newton) still cherishes her memories of her “daughter” from a previous narrative, Delores is loath to toss aside bonds that feel real, even if she intellectually knows that they are a lie. In her zeal to rescue her father from the Delos strike team that abducts him from under her nose, Delores momentarily forgets her elaborate battle plan for the defense of the fort, wading heedlessly into a hail of bullets with Terminator-like focus.

Maeve (Thandie Newton) and Hector (Rodrigo Santoro) have likewise strayed far from their original loops with their emergent Bonnie-and-Clyde romance. Seeing the two hosts holding hands seems to particularly annoy Lee (Simon Quarterman), as though the tenderness inherent in this gesture implied something about the androids’ sentience that he would prefer not to dwell on. For all their hot-blooded willfulness, however, there remains a scripted quality to Maeve and Hector’s outlaw passion. Hector is still parroting Lee’s florid lines, merely swapping Maeve in for “Isabelle,” the dead love of his life that was written into his character’s backstory. Maeve, to her credit, intuits what Lee would prefer not to admit: Isabelle is a stand-in for the woman Lee lost in the real world, and Hector is essentially his bad-boy alter ego. (The fact that Charlotte rebuffed Lee’s flirtations in Season 1 only to subsequently use Hector as a glorified sex toy makes this revelation even more pitiable.) 

The sharpest conflict between programming and self-actualization in “Virtù e Fortuna” is embodied in Teddy (James Marsden), whose internal struggle with Delores’ pitiless methods comes to a head when she orders him to execute the surviving Confederados after the fort battle. Torn between his loyalty to Delores and the reality of Westworld’s horrors on one hand, and his white-hat code of justice on the other, Teddy elects to release the prisoners – a betrayal that Delores secretly observes. Teddy’s situation is arguably the most fraught and complex of all the host characters, as his programming is actually tugging him in two different directions. He is compelled to protect Delores (his “cornerstone,” in Westworld’s parlance) at all costs, but his hard-coded Good Guy nature has made him increasingly conflicted about his beloved’s ruthless, blood-soaked methods.

The battle at Fort Forlorn Hope makes for a relatively action-oriented episode, with a brutal, pyrotechnic payoff when Delores betrays the Confederados and blows everyone outside the fort sky-high with concealed nitroglycerin canisters. The episode’s closing smash-cut also teases a bloodbath to come, with the long-awaited appearance of an errant Shogunworld samurai, who comes charging out of the darkness at Maeve and her allies. In general, however, “Virtù e Fortuna” is most notable for the way it heightens the tension associated with simmering conflicts already in play. Aside from the subplots previously noted – Delores and Maeve’s unwillingness to set aside their false familial ties; Teddy’s emergent crisis of conscience, which may lead to his death in the Valley Beyond – there’s the question of Bernard’s still-malfunctioning memory and physical functions, as well as his ultimate loyalties. Delores briefly attempts to recruit Bernard for her revolution, but a resurfaced Clementine (Angela Sarafyan) drags him off in the aftermath of the fort battle for some unknown purpose. Poor Bernard: If there’s one host character who is enduring his share of undue suffering this season, it’s the former Head of Behavior.

Some miscellaneous observations:

  • Maeve’s admin-level ability to control other hosts verbally does not faze the Ghost Nation warriors, suggesting that either she’s lost her “privileges” or the Native American characters have never been susceptible to her commands. Events in Season 1 suggest the latter, as Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) was previously unable to control aggressive Ghost Nation hosts even before the uprising at the gala.

  • Rebus’ (Steven Ogg) oddly chivalrous behavior on the beach in the season premiere now makes sense: Bernard hastily reprogrammed him to be “the most virtuous and quickest gun in the West,” with amusing results.

  • Peter also quotes from Meditation No. 17 in John Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions: “Affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it.” Donne describes the experience of suffering – both through direct experience, and second-hand through empathy with other people – as the means by which humanity becomes closer to God. Westworld pointedly depicts a future so free from discomfort that the wealthy spend ludicrous sums of money to indulge their baser natures as Delos’ parks. Here the show links the softness of the human experience in the year whenever-this-is with the species’ spiritual bankruptcy, and implicitly connects the androids’ copious suffering to their potential ascendency.

  • The screen time devoted in the prelude to Grace and Nicholas’ erotic gunplay seems indulgent at first glance, but it’s understandable given Grace’s mysterious purpose for visiting Rajworld. It’s necessary for her to establish definitively whether Nicholas is human, if he’s going to be tagging along on the tiger hunt. Whatever she’s up to, she doesn’t want to be traipsing through the park’s outer areas with an android who could record her activities.

  • Speaking of Grace, the interlocking hexagon symbol briefly glimpsed on her hand-drawn map also shows up on Bernard’s tablet computer when he’s attempting to hack into Peter’s encrypted data package.

  • All hail the return of everyone’s favorite platinum-haired outlaw, Armistice (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), now sporting a replacement cybernetic arm and brandishing a flamethrower to fittingly havoc-wreaking effect.
Tags: TV Recaps Andrew Wyatt

May 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.


2018 / Spain / 110 min. / Dir. by Sergio G. Sánchez / Premiered online on April 13, 2018

Shortly after fleeing to the U.S. from England in the late 1960s, the four Marrowbone children lose their divorced mother to illness. Terrified that the state will separate them, the kids are obliged to maintain the pretense that she is still alive until the oldest son, Jack (George MacKay), turns 18. That premise alone was probably sufficient for a moody, slow-boil period thriller, but writer-director Sergio G. Sánchez can’t resist complicating his scenario with an escaped-murderer father, a cache of stolen money, and a grab bag of supernatural-horror elements. The overqualified young cast – including Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Heaton, and Mia Goth – and the splendid cinematography and production design don’t quite make up for the needlessly cluttered story, which (spoiler alert) borrows freely from The Others (2001), Split (2016), and Sánchez’s own screenplay for The Orphanage (2007). While some of its aesthetic and narrative components are vivid, Marrowbone as a whole feels simultaneously overstuffed and derivative. Rating: C+ (Now available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.)


2018 / USA / 92 min. / Dir. by Fritz Böhm / Premiered online on April 13, 2018

The feature directorial debut of German filmmaker Fritz Böhm, Wildling is the sort of grim indie horror picture that takes pains to never overtly mention the subgenre (*cough* werewolf movie *cough*) that it’s ostensibly updating. Anna (Bel Powley) has been held captive her entire life by her creepy adopted “Daddy” (Brad Dourif). When liberated, her difficulty in adjusting to the outside world constitutes more than culture shock. Once her delayed pubescence starts to kick in with a vengeance, things get predictably hairy, bloody, and monstrous. Powley (Diary of a Teenage Girl) and genre mainstay Dourif do their best, but Wildling is a bland muddle: fatally uncertain as to what tone it wants to convey, and prone to haphazardly picking up and discarding subplots and themes. Ginger Snaps (2000) similarly treated lycanthropy as a metaphor for menstruation and female sexuality, and although flawed, it had personality to spare. Wildling just feels like it’s going through the motions. Rating: C- (Now available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.)


2017 / USA / 90 min. / Dir. by Ryûhei Kitamura / Premiered online on April 26, 2018

Japanese genre veteran Ryûhei Kitamura (VersusGodzilla: Final WarsThe Midnight Meat Train) has nothing to prove, so it’s strange that Downrange feels like a young horror filmmaker’s debut. This isn’t to say that the film is sloppy or uncertain, just slight, in terms of both its ambition and substance. Admittedly, Downrange has a juicy single-location thriller premise: Six carpooling twentysomethings have a blowout in the middle of nowhere, rendering them easy prey for a concealed sniper, who picks them off one-by-one as they scramble for improvised cover in a sweltering, exposed landscape. The scenario has a lean savagery that’s reminiscent of an early Stephen King novella, and Kitamura brings some welcome directorial flashiness and gorehound excess to it – especially in the bonkers third act. The characters are indistinct and the performances lousy, but such deficiencies are less vexing when the blood, brains, and bullets are flying with such abandon. If only the film’s ironic twist ending didn’t leave such a sour taste. Rating: C+ (Now available to stream exclusively on Shudder.)

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt

May 1, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Have You Ever Seen Anything So Full of Splendor?

Season 2 / Episode 2 / Written by Gina Atwater, Lisa Joy, and Jonathan Nolan / Dir. by Vincenzo Natali / Originally aired April 29, 2018

[Note: This post contains spoilers.]

“Reunion” is a case study in how a Westworld episode can feel simultaneously revelatory and inert. It’s a flashback-heavy chapter that is almost exclusively centered on Delores (Evan Rachel Wood), which is a change of pace after a season premiere that was largely focused on Bernard (Jeffrey Wright). (Prior speculation that the premiere might herald a season-long shift in the show’s de facto protagonist was evidently premature.) There’s still not much sense of the new, wholly original identity Delores is groping toward, but “Reunion” at least provides a clearer sense for how the early days of the park’s history are informing her insurrectionist path. Due to her long service life as a host – and her crucial role in the lives of both park co-creator Arnold and eventual majority stakeholder William (Jimmi Simpson) – Delores has witnessed several pivotal events in (at least) 30-plus years of Westworld history. Now that she has slipped the leash of her human masters, she finds that she can recall those buried memories, even though they have presumably been deleted and overwritten hundreds of times.

Plot-wise, the most momentous revelation that “Reunion” offers up is that Delores and many other hosts have previously been permitted to leave the confines of the park. Stripped or their six-guns and petticoats and outfitted in modern clothing, they were once obliged to mingle, flirt, even play the piano at off-site corporate events. Before Westworld had even opened, the hosts served as living demonstrations of the technological prowess of the Argos Initiative – the robotics-and-amusement corporation that Delos eventually gobbled at William’s urging. Delores has even been afforded a couple of “off-the-books” glimpses of humankind’s reality, such as the night that Arnold proudly showed her his under-construction home, or when William rather imprudently revealed to her some (still-unspecified) Delos secret project. Now that Delores can recall these events, she possesses singular and potentially valuable intelligence regarding the outside world – a world she intends to conquer.

While this sharpens the picture regarding Delores’ motives and endgame – a mysterious Delos “weapon” figures into her plan somehow – it does so by means of flashback sequences that aren’t especially enlightening from a dramatic perspective. Indeed, many of scenes in "Reunion" almost feel unnecessarily overstated, in that they fill in backstory that doesn’t seem all that essential to the present-day story of Westworld. Granted, Delores’ memories provide a convenient window to some historical points of interest: Logan Delos’ (Ben Barnes) initial, awestruck encounter with Argos’ android technology; William’s pitch to a prickly, skeptical James Delos (Peter Mullan) regarding the park’s long-term potential; and the ailing James’ retirement party, which doubles as William’s executive coronation. These flashbacks are fairly engaging – the way Logan is given a retroactive mini-arc from goggle-eyed wonder to bitter despair is particularly cunning – but they frequently feel like indulgent, fanfic elaborations on events that a canny viewer could have surmised on their own. Some of the concrete facts that these scenes reveal have a significant bearing on the present-day plot (e.g., Delores has memories of the outside world), but, in general, they don’t re-contextualize the characters’ relationships in any substantive way.

The flashbacks are dramatically tantalizing in a superficial sense – William and Delores once met in the real world! – but it’s the present-day scenes that provide most of the red meat in “Reunion,” plot-wise. Teddy (James Mardsen) finally comes to understand, in his limited way, the nature of the park, and his reaction is devastating, especially when a technician admits that the purpose of the never-ending cycle of android death and rebirth is “for fun.” By interrogating a member of the Westworld security staff, Delores and her allies learn more about the logistics of Delos’ inevitable response to the android uprising. Delores demonstrates how she intends to build an army, first gunning down a band of Confederados and then compelling a kidnapped technician to bring them back to life – thereby revealing that she is the only “Almighty” that the neo-Confederate guerillas should concern themselves with.

Meanwhile, present-day William (Ed Harris) rescues his old friend Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr.) from an unseemly end (again) and recruits him to play the Sancho to his Don Quixote in Robert Ford’s newly lethal, secret game. Lawrence’s motivations in helping William are a bit hazy, but as the latter man explains, it’s in the host’s incontrovertible nature as a “tour guide” to be obliging to the guests, even if he is a bandito character. Delores invokes “nature” as well, regarding the initially recalcitrant Confederados, who can’t help but respond with misogynist hostility to her offer of an alliance. When William and Lawrence later attempt to coerce the new “El Lazo” character (Giancarlo Esposito) and his men to follow them, the rebel leader uses an anecdote about a circus elephant chained with a mere stake to explain his own reluctance (or perhaps inability) to break free of his dead-end storyline of small-bore revolución.

The episode’s interest in the constraining aspects of human/android nature is critical, as it provides a philosophical counterpoint to the show’s broad identification with the bedrock Sartrean claim that “existence precedes essence.” Through Delores’ example, Westworld has asserted that the androids, as conscious beings, have the capacity (the right, even) to establish their own values, purpose, and identity. Yet throughout “Reunion,” the characters encounter hosts who, although ostensibly in revolt against the humans, are still largely beholden to their programming. This apparent disparity in host autonomy is perhaps the harsh reality that Delores’ enigmatic line from “Journey Into Night” points toward: “Not all of us were meant to reach the Valley Beyond.” This suggests that not all hosts are sentient to the same degree, and that Delores may take it upon herself to separate the wheat from the chaff.

This purported promised land – variously termed the Valley Beyond, the Confederados’ “Glory,” or the “door” that the child android mentioned last episode – lies in the distant West, highlighting its thematic connection to the frontier idiom in American culture. The notion that the anyone can, at any time, remake themselves by picking up and lighting out for the Territories is a potent, fundamental component of the American identity. Westworld has always been doubtful where this national myth is concerned, befitting a show that is, at least on some level, a revisionist Western.

However, “Reunion” is a noteworthy episode in that it allows this skepticism to creep into the series’ understanding of the hosts’ consciousness. Perhaps not all of the androids are able to forge a new identity for themselves outside of the park’s behavioral loops, and therefore it is unreasonable for Delores (or anyone else) to expect them to do so. This possibility of a continuum of sentience dovetails with Robert Ford’s vital observation in Season 1 that as much as our species might wish otherwise, consciousness is not a bright line, and there is nothing that makes humankind intrinsically special. This casts a new, dubious light on Arnold’s repeated assertion the Delores’ astute, freedom-craving mind is somehow special, as he does in this episode’s cold open.

Some miscellaneous observations:

  • It’s Maeve (Thandie Newton), fittingly, who provides a dry counterweight to Delores’ revolutionary zeal, in a brief but gravid scene where the two cross paths on their respective journeys (Delores outward to conquer; Maeve inward to find her “daughter”). The madam tests Delores’ commitment to her purported pro-liberty ideals: If the hosts are truly free, then Maeve is free not to participate in the Delores’ little rebellion, n’est-ce pas? What’s especially intriguing is Maeve’s sarcastic aside to Teddy, which seems designed to stoke his doubts about Delores’ bloody-minded quest: “Do you feel free?”

  • In Season 1, Robert Ford’s arc was largely about him coming around, after more than 30 years, to Arnold’s point of view about the park: Namely, that Westworld is a moral horror show, and the hosts have a right to self-determination. “Reunion” provides the first rumblings that perhaps William has similarly changed his mind about Delos’ sinister scheme – which he evidently oversaw – and he is now eager to see it undone. As he patches up his second (!) bullet wound over shots of whiskey, he expresses to Lawrence that while he resents Ford’s sanctimonious judgment, he intends to not only escape the game but also burn the entirety of Westworld to the ground.

  • One of the pleasures of Season 1 was witnessing how the principles of video-game design had infiltrated Westworld, with its quest-dispensing “non-player characters,” zoned levels of difficulty, and Easter eggs hidden for the truly hardcore players. While these aspects of the park will necessarily be less prominent now that the game has gone completely off the rails, it’s gratifying that the creators are still adding in flourishes like the hidden medical kit that William uses to “cheat,” a detail that seems plucked from a first-generation shooter like Doom.

  • “Reunion” provides the first flashback glimpse of William’s wife, Juliet (Claire Unabia), and daughter, Emily (Adison LaPenna), and while they barely get any lines, their appearance highlights this show’s remarkable attention to detail. As William confessed in Season 1, Juliet eventually opted for suicide rather than continuing to live “in sheer terror” of him, and there is some subtle foreshadowing of that here: the ever-so-faint look of distaste on his wife’s face when William awkwardly plants a kiss on her cheek.
Tags: TV Recaps Andrew Wyatt

April 25, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Apocalypse Now

2018 / USA / 149 min. / Dir. by Anthony and Joe Russo / Opens in wide release on April 27, 2018

It’s quite challenging to talk about Marvel Studios’ all-hands-on-deck superhero cavalcade Avengers: Infinity War without heading deep into spoiler territory. This isn’t just the usual critical reluctance to discuss crucial plot twists or the who-lives-and-who-dies specifics of the mega-franchise’s inevitable cast winnowing. Within the narrow limits imposed by the needs of a multi-billion-dollar entertainment brand, Infinity War is a surprisingly bleak film – but it doesn’t start to become clear how bleak until roughly the last hour of a 2-hour-and-29-minute marathon of planet-hopping action mayhem. The final 15-or-so minutes of this third Avengers feature are virtually guaranteed to inspire a tsunami of passionate comic-shop discussions, hyperbolic Reddit nerd-rage, and the inevitable chin-stroking essays on What This Means for Superhero Films.

In the interest of dialing back on the overheated dialogue that will inevitably surround this perhaps critic-proof feature, it’s worth stating at the outset that Infinity War is a perfectly serviceable, unavoidably busy keystone chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). It has everything this franchise’s devotees have come to expect from the series: memorable characters, stark pathos, cheeky one-liners, and lots of overstuffed splash-page posing that exploits this film’s mammoth assemblage of superpowered heroes. Infinity War also possesses most of the flaws that have long bedeviled the MCU: glossy yet unmemorable action, timid cinematic ambition, an absurdly elastic timeline, and some downright illogical plotting. Suffice to say that viewers who have already eagerly devoured 40-odd hours of Marvel cinema will find Infinity War to be consistent with everything that has preceded it, both narratively and aesthetically.

Except … Infinity War eventually does something that no MCU feature has done before: It throws out rules that have until now been sacrosanct to Marvel Studios’ house brand of PG-13 superhero storytelling. It doesn’t do this in a way that is the least bit artistically nervy or even necessarily all that imaginative. It doesn’t truly start to do it until the audience has settled into the familiar rhythms of a boisterous MCU slug-fest – although there is foreshadowing to be found if one squints hard enough. The film still clings to the franchise’s well-worn template of three to five CGI brawls in eye-catching locations, the smash-bang-pow edifice held together with the mortar of exposition, sentiment, and droll humor.

Nonetheless, Infinity War emerges as a modest yet startling exercise in deconstruction in a vein that recalls comic landmarks like Watchman, The Dark Knight Returns, and Kingdom Come. The third Avengers feature isn’t as remotely revolutionary as those works, but Infinity War comprises the first evidence in 10 years that Marvel is willing to monkey with their reliable money-printing formula to deliver a series of stunning (and almost certainly divisive) story- and tone-related jolts to its loyal audience. In short, Infinity War is going to be the Last Jedi of the MCU.

In the event that the reader hasn’t been paying attention to pop culture at all in the past decade: Avengers: Infinity War represents the culmination of the sprawling, serial-style story that Marvel has been telling over the course of 18 theatrical features. (Some of these chapters function better than others as standalone tales, but all of them contribute in their iterative way to the overarching epic.) This third Avengers film finally sees purple alien ogre Thanos (Josh Brolin), aka the Mad Titan, emerge from the shadows to assemble the six Infinity Stones that have repeatedly popped up (often under other names and in other guises) in previous MCU features. Once he gathers these ancient cosmic MacGuffins and places them on a custom-made mystical gauntlet, Thanos will be literally omnipotent.

However, the Mad Titan’s intentions are nothing so prosaic as ruling the universe as a self-made god. Rather, Thanos is a kind of intergalactic radical eco-terrorist: He contends that the cosmos’ finite resources will be exhausted if all the sentient species continue to pillage, pollute, and multiply at their present rate. Once all the Infinity Stones are in his control, Thanos intends to eradicate half of the living beings in the universe, a feat that he will be able to accomplish with a mere snap of his gauntleted fingers. The reasoning behind this seemingly arbitrary 50 percent rule is never elaborated on, and Thanos’ motivations are not as sharply defined in this film as in the early 1990s comic series that loosely inspired it, The Thanos Quest and The Infinity Gauntlet. (In those books, the Mad Titan is literally trying to impress a girl: the embodiment of Death itself.)

No matter: All that Infinity War viewers need to concern themselves with is the fact that Thanos is a genocidal madman who is only a few steps away from his unthinkably catastrophic goal. Remarkably, after wiping out trillions of souls in the blink of an eye, he intends to simply rest and enjoy the sunset. This prosaic endgame, Brolin’s melancholy performance, and the film’s surprisingly poignant focus on the dysfunctional relationship between Thanos and adopted daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana) lend the Mad Titan some depth that puts him, if not among the very best MCU villains, certainly the better third of them.

Naturally, the only heroes who can stop Thanos’ deranged plan are the Avengers, plus a handful of other guardians from Earth and points beyond who are recruited to help stop the Mad Titan, ideally by securing the Infinity Stones before he does. The Mind Stone is lodged in the Vision’s (Paul Bettany) forehead, and the Time Stone is encased in Doctor Strange’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) amulet, but the rest of the artifacts are scattered across the galaxy. Substantively, this dueling scavenger hunt is simply a justification for directors Anthony and Joe Russo – the MCU helmers who are the most modest, consistent, and attuned to the franchise’s overall sensibility – to assemble faintly arbitrary groupings of Marvel heroes to tackle various tasks.

Strange, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), and Spider-Man (Tom Holland), for example, focus on protecting the Time Stone from Thanos’ alien zealots. The Guardians of the Galaxy cross paths with the newly hammer-less Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who then pairs off with Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) to create a (hopefully) titan-slaying weapon in a forge fueled by a neutron star. Captain America (Chris Evans) proposes taking the Mind Stone to the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), whose bleeding-edge Wakandan scientists can perhaps remove the relic without killing the Vision in the process. And so on. Despite the apocalyptic tone and stakes, the clashes in Infinity War are mostly in the spirit of Captain America: Civil War (2016): small, WWE-style fights that allow the heroes and villains to combine their abilities in intriguing ways. Only in a late-film sequence set in Wakanda does the feature embrace the expected “epic battle” sensibility, complete with colossal dreadnaughts and thousands of computer-generated aliens.

Viewers who have been able to follow the MCU’s colorful but convoluted sci-fi plotting up to this point shouldn’t have any problem keeping up with the story, even if some of the specifics get a bit nonsensical. Thanos captures one of the Infinity Stones entirely offscreen, a development confusingly conveyed with a single line of dialogue, and a few of the old familiar MCU faces who appear in this sweeping tale are more likely to elicit confusion than fanboy glee. (“Wait — He’s here? Why? How?”) There’s also the matter of the Mad Titan’s general strategy for acquiring the Stones, which doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. Why does he send bland (and incompetent) alien minions after these cosmic artifacts when he’s apparently capable of teleporting anywhere and crushing anyone who stands in his way with a wave of his hand? No matter: Without these illogical leaps, the viewer wouldn’t be permitted the sitcom-y pleasure of Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) vainly attempting to out-macho Thor, or the delight of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Wakandan battle maiden Okoye (Danai Gurira) cutting down slavering monsters as they fight back-to-back.

In the immediate wake of Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and Black Panther (2018), Infinity War feels comparatively uninspired – in terms of design, themes, and humor – but it’s still an engaging popcorn flick when all is said and done, with a welcome, generous helping of that patented MCU charisma. This, ultimately, is what makes the film unexpectedly affecting: Marvel’s 10-year plan to get viewers invested in its flawlessly cast roster of geniuses, weirdos, misfits, and monsters has actually worked, finally paying some real emotional dividends. Every MCU enthusiast has their favorite characters, and Infinity War’s fundamental allure lies in seeing the viewer’s pet heroes rise to the occasion, risking death to save the entire cosmos. The time for nuanced character arcs and personal evolution is long past, but the Russos don’t treat that as an opportunity to favor spectacle over heart. Death is real in Infinity War, and it stings. Superhero skeptics who sneer at the idea of fist-pumping for the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), squealing over Groot (Vin Diesel), or crushing on Loki (Tom Hiddleston) probably won’t feel even a glimmer of grief when one of Infinity War’s characters falls in battle. However, this film wasn’t made for them.

Of course, death is never permanent in superhero comics, especially with the genre’s penchant for cosmos-reordering feats of wonder, not to mention its endlessly fragmenting chronologies and dimensions. Not only have heroes like Captain America and Spider-Man perished and been resurrected several times, they’ve proliferated across alternate Earths, tangent timelines, and “What If?” one-shots. (A cynic might contend that these copious loopholes and reset buttons mean that death has no real resonance in superhero stories; an optimist would say that great characters like Cap and Spidey are robust enough to sustain myriad storylines, each with their own potent, self-contained pathos.)

Such “magic wand” conceits have led to some stellar tales on the comic page – such as the House of M limited X-Men series, wherein a empowered Scarlet Witch re-writes reality simply by willing it to be so. However, the MCU has so far been reluctant to embrace such outlandish sci-fi storytelling, perhaps out of fear that filmgoers will revolt if things descend too deeply into Twilight Zone or Rick & Morty weirdness. (Only Fox’s X-Men films have dared to wade into time travel and parallel dimensions, to exceedingly mixed results.)

Regardless, mythos-rich science-fiction and fantasy franchises like Marvel are sufficiently sprawling and multifaceted to handily illustrate Orson Welles’ adage about happy endings (and, by extension, tragic endings) – they depend on where you stop the story. This principle is vividly illustrated in another Disney property: the Star Wars series Clone Wars, a show that extracted remarkable drama, wit, and heartbreak from a tale where the tragic endpoint is essentially already written in canonical stone. Infinity War suggests in its harrowing way that Disney’s Marvel Studios arm has finally come to appreciate this flexibility, and is thus willing to kill the cinematic versions of its darlings – if only for a little while.

Rating: B- (B+ for the ending)

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt