With the distance of time, it’s easy to forget how much of a Dick Tracy, Great Depression-era, wise guys vs. coppers gangster movie 1989’s Batman is. It’s an environment of tommy gun lawlessness and retro noir organized crime. The Joker further connects the film to 1930s culture by crooning lounge songs like “Beautiful Dreamer” and “It’s a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight”. And it’s telling that in the years that followed, we didn’t get Superman, Wonder Woman, and The Flash movies. We got Dick Tracy, The Phantom, and The Shadow.
But beyond these genre trappings, what other nuggets does Tim Burton’s seminal superhero film contain?
Jack Nicholson takes up a lot of the film’s oxygen, but he is fun to watch, whether vandalizing paintings, taking up scrapbooking, or launching a dodgy cosmetics marketing campaign. His deranged dancing is a quality passed on to Joaquin Phoenix’ Joker, although Cesar Romero wasn’t above a soft-shoe here and there. The Joker is a source of color in a grey world, and indeed, in a fairly grey cast of characters. An excessive amount of time is spent following Batman-chasing journalist Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl), who functions as an audience identification character. A strange decision given the copious amount of Joker material, holding court and claiming a huge amount of screentime that goes above and beyond time given to “villain scenes”.
It leads to the seeming conclusion that Burton is much more interested in the villains than in Batman, supported by the evidence of his unfiltered vision in the sequel and its characterization of Catwoman, Penguin, and Max Shreck. Of course, it behooves Batman to heavily feature Nicholson, who had the studio over a barrel with negotiating power. (His star power commanded a lavish salary and a big chunk of the merchandise, a deal he would ultimately try and fail to reprise for Hades in Disney’s Hercules.) And after all, in Superman: The Movie, villain Gene Hackman was also billed above Christopher Reeve.
The romance between Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) is unconvincing. The screenwriters’ weaknesses in this area are laid bare, and their treatment of the relationship is hackwork. We are told they made a deep connection, but are not shown this. Michael Keaton is understated as Bruce Wayne/Batman (with the exception of the “let’s get nuts!” moment). It’s a fairly reserved performance. Famously, Keaton’s casting was a sticking point because he was mainly known as a comedy actor. Burton had worked with him before on Beetlejuice. Its title role is an uninhibited role in gothic makeup that on the face of it lays the pipeline for Keaton’s casting not as Batman but as the Joker. A fascinating road not taken.
Speaking of the road not taken, Billy Dee Williams appears as Harvey Dent, seeding the character for a Two-Face tragedy later on. When Two-Face was used as a villain in Batman Forever, recent Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones jumped the line for the role. But Williams would eventually get his chance, voicing Two-Face in The LEGO Batman Movie.
One foundational change to the mythology is that Jack Napier, the man who will be the Joker, was also the man who killed the Waynes. I can definitely see the logic behind it (think also of the storytelling logic behind the Tobey Maguire Peter Parker’s organic web-shooters). But it is a seismic change; if Batman catches the Joker or he dies (which is exactly what happens to the Clown Prince of Crime), isn’t that game over? Can Bruce not go home with some measure of closure?
With his main theme, Danny Elfman does nothing less than crystallize the Batman sound. Rightfully grabbing all the headlines, the theme feels definitive. Elfman’s Joker theme is a carnival waltz that gains a demented quality when played against the character on screen. See the sequence where it plays as the Joker does that bizarre dance as he shoots crime boss Carl Grissom. There’s quite a lovely and warmly catchy Vicki Vale romance theme as well, adapted from one of the songs Prince contributed to the film.
Elfman has been open with his Bernard Herrmann influences, which are clear in the atmospheric score throughout Batman. There are moments of explicit echoes, and given that Herrmann would sometimes take to plagiarizing himself (he reuses part of his Vertigo score in Jason and the Argonauts), that makes quoting Herrmann something of a tradition.
As the film ends, Batman stands on top of a building gazing at the Bat Signal. Elfman’s final movement washes over the audience, incorporating quotations of various leitmotifs from the film. This explicitly Straussian cacophony climaxes in the shadowy main theme played in a triumphant major key!
The Craft of a Comic Book Movie
Tim Burton and production designer Anton Furst introduce a visually dense Gotham, following on from the level of cinematic detail found in, say, Blade Runner. All smoky matte paintings as far as the eye looks up, the city is a cathedral of industrialism. Even in Vicki Vale’s apartment, there are arches built into the ceiling evocative of urban sprawl and iron rivets. The density of Gotham is a stepping stone on the way to the absolutely wild urban design of the Joel Schumacher Batman movies. Burton and Furst mainly hew to noir influences, and the related framing of German Expressionism, but we get some of Burton’s trademark fairy tale imagery in perhaps the most indelible moment of the movie. Batman and Vicki Vale race to the Batcave in the Batmobile to the strains of Elfman’s “Descent into Mystery” cue, and the effect of passing through an eerily still forest, accomplished with models, comes off as a dark spin on The Wizard of Oz. Anton Furst won an Oscar for his work on Batman, but tragically he committed suicide less than two years later.
There are certain elements of Batman that echo forward in future adaptations, beyond city design. The Joker’s plan to poison the population’s beauty products is idiosyncratic to him, but has clear parallels to Laurel Hedare (Sharon Stone)’s beauty product poison from Catwoman. It’s also in the same ballpark as Ra’s al Ghul’s plan to poison Gotham with Jonathan Crane’s fear toxin in Batman Begins. That movie’s desperate Batmobile ride to take Rachel Dawes into the Batcave has its origin in Vicki Vale’s gothic “descent into mystery”. And what is William Hootkins’ crooked cop Max Eckhardt but a dry run for Gordon’s corrupt partner Flass (Mark Boone Junior)? The oddest future echo of all: the Joker calls Batman “junior Birdman”. 25 years later, Keaton would star in Alejandro Inarritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).
It’s always been the easy armchair contrast: that Tim Burton’s Batman was such a 180-degree change from the 1960s TV show. Which is undeniable. But while certain elements of “The Killing Joke” and other then-contemporary Batman lore are in the stew of the 1989 film, its main move is to draw from the character’s roots in the early days of Batman comics. A time when the character existed in a world of Edward G. Robinson gangster movies. And this is key to the film’s status as a curio now. Batman didn’t use Superman: The Movie as a Rosetta Stone to crack the code of the comic book adaptation. Tim Burton mashed a superhero story into a gangster movie template. The Joker may as well be one of the deformed, larger than life baddies of a Dick Tracy story. And after many subsequent film interpretations, that is what continues to make 1989’s Batman unique.
“It is not improbabilities of incident but improbabilities of character that matter.” – Thomas Hardy
In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 film Marnie, Tippi Hedren’s title character is a kleptomaniac embezzler/con artist with crippling phobias of thunder, lightning, and the color red. When it comes to the building of a fictional person, that’s a lot. It’s a meal of a character, and she meets her match in the manipulative, vaguely sociopathic Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), who blackmails her into marriage. In telling their story, Hitchcock deploys a cornucopia of visual tricks, everything from dutch angles to eerie color overlay. The toolbox is wide open, no restraint. But he also displays a great number of his particular hang-ups, making Marnie something of a synecdoche for his preoccupations.
There’s the embezzling women and psychoanalysis of, well, Psycho. The plot device of keys from Notorious. The uncanny phobias and nightmarish imagery of Spellbound. The fluidity of female identity, often associated with hair color, from Vertigo. The twisted relationship dynamics of Suspicion. And most of all, there is the issue of Hitchcock’s behavior toward Tippi Hedren, the star he was jealously in love with, the woman he tormented on the set of The Birds. The representation of Hitchcock as problematic figure.
Many of Hitchcock’s women are there as decoration or as pawns to be sacrificed. To be the angelic girlfriend in Rear Window. To be hacked up in the shower in Psycho. To be grotesquely molded into someone they’re not and thrown off a building in Vertigo. To be brutally strangled in Frenzy. But Marnie is an extraordinary case. Here is a character who’s often a victim, both to her phobias and to her husband. But we always see the strength of her character, in her defiance or in a particularly witty comeback. And as Marnie, Hedren gives what so many other of Hitchcock’s women aren’t given a real chance to: a great performance. From deranged to distraught to childlike to wry, the woman runs the gamut.
The tone of Marnie is a wonderful tightrope walk between heavy thematic material (as the MPAA would say), lurid half-trashiness, and the ability to land a hearty good punchline. We are rather like the Lil Mainwaring (Diane Baker) character, knowing something dangerous is afoot and cracking a crooked smile as the chaos plays out. In one standout scene presented in wide shot, on screen right Marnie empties a safe of its petty cash, and on screen left the cleaning lady has stealthily started cleaning outside the door. It’s a deliciously tense sequence, but as Marnie sneaks away and agonizingly drops something with a loud thud, she’s allowed a respite: the cleaning lady is nearly deaf. It doesn’t matter how clearly artificial that plot device is; the tension is an end in and of itself. As Hardy said, improbability of incident doesn’t matter. There’s something strangely off about so much of the movie, even in relatively neutral stretches, a sign that Hitchcock won’t let the audience breathe normally for long.
Marnie also contains visual motifs that seem to have specifically influenced later filmmakers. The aforementioned safe-breaking presented in wide shot is a screaming ringer for Brian De Palma’s literal splitting of the screen in so much of his Hitchcock-influenced filmography. And then there’s the unforgettable and non-exploitative rape scene, as a shot follows Marnie in close-up as she glides backward into bed. That was built upon by the Coen Brothers in Blood Simple, as Frances McDormand falls into bed, and pilfered by the show Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch in much the same setup.
Alfred Hitchcock was on a roll. Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds is one of the most iconic sequences in any director’s filmography, and while in some ways a pulpier entry, Marnie stands with those classics as his fifth belter in a row. As a particular nexus for Hitchcockian tropes, and as a showcase for just what Tippi Hedren could do with a meaty role, Marnie is a twisted landmark in the history of the psychological thriller.
Is a sociopath a showy role? Maybe if you’re Benedict Cumberbatch playing Sherlock Holmes it is, but on the other hand it implies the lack of emotion. In writer-director Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds, Olivia Cooke gives an excellent sociopath performance, and shows that lack of emotion does not equate to lack of expressiveness or lack of engagement. Importantly, Finley’s screenplay never gives the character an off-key note. This tale of two affluent but alienated high school “friends” makes for a solid debut for first-time filmmaker Cory Finley.
The film concerns two young women who bring out unexpected things in each other. Lily Reynolds (Anya Taylor-Joy) is an uptight student who offers to tutor former childhood friend Amanda (Cooke) for the SAT, after certain acts have made Amanda a social pariah in addition to being a “weirdo”. Each character learns from the other’s worldview and a modest criminal proposal comes out of their partnership. So Thoroughbreds finds good company with female-friends-in-a-bubble movies (Heavenly Creatures) and teenage black comedies (Heathers) while skewing less comedic and methodically charting its own course.
Both actresses bring the sparring character dynamics vividly to life, but Cooke steals the whole movie. After setting up the incident that has made Amanda somewhat infamous, we get the scene where she lays out her perspective. It’s her Jaime Lannister moment, where the backstory is recontextualized. Because Cooke does not play the scene for sympathy, but rather with a matter-of-fact delivery, sympathy comes naturally. On top of navigating the dramatic side of things, she also has to deal with the actorly business of playing a passable oversized chess game against herself! As great as her scene partners are, it feels like they’re just feeding the beast that is Olivia Cooke.
While this performance is magnetic, the film hums along on a solid wavelength without achieving true flight. Finley’s dialogue is sharp, but the wider satirical point being made is only developed with vague brushstrokes. This is primarily an issue because it ties in directly with the in your face, suburban-crime-story driving force of the plot. The film has been compared with the aforementioned Heathers, but that Winona Ryder vehicle is operatic while Thoroughbreds is intimate. Slight qualms aside, it owns its space well.
Perhaps the film’s greatest success is the talent it showcases. In the past, Olivia Cooke has been the best thing about a bad movie (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), impressed in a pixelated Spielberg flick (Ready Player One) and lit up the screen in The Limehouse Golem. This is her best showcase yet, and there’s more to come. Anya Taylor-Joy is similarly an actress at the start of what should be a standout career. Thoroughbreds is indeed the final screen appearance of Anton Yelchin. With his open face and shakey voice, he will be missed.
Finley’s assured debut is recommended for anyone who enjoys high school-age movies with bite, and look for it to likely be remembered for Best Actress come awards time (by this blog, not the Academy). In an early scene, Amanda teaches Lily “the Technique” for fake crying. I played along with the instructions, as you do, and by George, it works!
“No water in L.A., but it’s raining assholes in here.” So says the Nurse (played by a whirlwind of Jodie Foster), head of the Artemis, an exclusive hospital for contract criminals. The film Hotel Artemis follows the Nurse, her earnest orderly (an on-point Dave Bautista), and her colorful clients, on one fateful 2028 night marked by blazing water riots on the streets of Los Angeles.
A members-only hotel for killers governed by a strict set of rules – so far, so (John) Wickensian. But Hotel Artemis carves its own identity (occasionally on a human neck). Writer-director Drew Pearce keeps things contained within the evocatively designed Hotel, making the movie a chamber piece that unfolds like a finely tuned play. In a play you need characters it’s a pleasure to watch bounce off of each other, and the film delivers. Sterling K. Brown is a likable, solid-as-a-rock heist mastermind, offering a humane bedrock among the clients. As an effortlessly magnetic French assassin, Sofia Boutella finds maybe her best role yet (and she has pretty good taste). Best of all is the Nurse, animated by a bravura performance from Foster. She injects world-weary humor into this ideal protagonist, forever shambolically running to fix up the next patient, put out the next fire.
Pearce’s screenplay overflows with punchy neo-noir dialogue, enhancing the feeling of Hotel Artemis as a writerly movie. (Another sort of stagey conceit is that all the characters are referred to by codenames; for instance, Bautista’s hulking health care professional is Everest.) Pearce’s near-future world-building is nicely on the fringes; lived-in technology at the Hotel, breadcrumbs of backstory, and the not-so-subtle setup of an L.A. heading for dystopia.
If there’s a hang-up with the film, it’s that the screenplay is a little too eager to call back to itself and pay off previous moments and lines of dialogue. (This is a weird complaint, like the movie… fits together too well?) Also, there sure are a lot of life-changing things coincidentally happening on this one night. In the end, it’s safe to call these nitpicks.
Hotel Artemis is a rare beast in that it’s one of those movies that simply radiates “cool”, but it’s also got a lot of storytelling meat on the bones as well as humanity. It’s hard to overstate how marvelous Jodie Foster is in the movie, and Drew Pearce’s script is sharp enough to draw blood. In Pearce’s career prior to checking into the Artemis, he’s been paired with marquee writing talent on excellent blockbusters (with Shane Black on Iron Man Three, with Christopher McQuarrie on Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation), and now his directorial debut establishes him as a significant talent in his own right. I highly recommend this hotel on Expedia, Yelp, or your booking site of choice.
How high are the stakes for Solo: A Star Wars Story? There’s a disconnect between the extreme scrutiny paid to the film from a real-world perspective (largely due to the hiring of Ron Howard to finish the movie after the firing of Phil Lord and Chris Miller), and the movie’s own identity. Solo is a movie of modest ambitions, and it meets them. This is a solid straightforward crime movie in the Star Wars galaxy with a great lead performance, and that’s all it needs to be a success. The fate of the galaxy isn’t at stake on screen, so the fate of Star Wars isn’t at stake off screen.
On the industrial planet Corellia, Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) is unwittingly following in the footsteps of his future father-in-law; he’s indentured to an alien slave driver, and longs to take his skills as a fast driver off-world to be a great pilot. After being separated from his girlfriend Qi’Ra (Emilia Clarke), Han befriends Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and follows the gunslinging cynic Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) into a life of crime.
The era is ten years before the original Star Wars, a time when the Galactic Empire is a fact of life. Stormtroopers are just dystopian cops. Against this backdrop of oppression, Han is introduced hotwiring a landspeeder, and here Ron Howard takes a cue from his past and paints with an American Graffiti brush, all breakaway teens and hairpin turns. Familiar genre conventions are trotted out because they do the job. Of course there are Mexican standoffs, and a train heist (updated to the high-flying, twisting Conveyex), because this is a space western, get it? Several side characters are wiped out, because that’s what happens when a motley crew gets together in a heist movie and a job goes sideways.
One stumbling block is that the film is a little top-heavy with action. How exciting can it be for a ship to rock in a vortex filled with abstractions for ten minutes? The action isn’t a particular highlight, but still, Solo is a fun ride. The opening speeder chase is propulsive, and parts of the Conveyex sequence are spectacular (including a stylish little one-on-one fight between Beckett and the masked Enfys Nest).
Everything is held together by the film’s central performance. Ehrenreich is extraordinary, holding the screen with real presence but doing so with subtle actorly choices. He embodies a few of Harrison Ford’s mannerisms, but more importantly, his roguish essence. When we first meet Han, he looks damaged, determined with a face like an open wound, the product of a pained Dickensian upbringing. As the movie goes on, his worldview evolves, from optimism to that familiar front of being above caring.
Another highlight is the droid L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), a (what do you know?) droid-rights activist who, like Rose Tico in The Last Jedi, profoundly represents the spirit of rebellion. However, some odd decisions are made with Solo’s female characters. Maybe Thandie Newton was only free from Westworld for a week or two, but her character Val gets L.O.S.T. in the shuffle (Lack of Screen Time). L3-37 is given such as strong logline for her character but then gets sidelined. And Qi’Ra is taken in a weird nourish femme fatale direction that feels undefined.
Another major player is Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), who’s great and larger-than-life, complete with a closet filled with nothing but capes. At one point, Lando and Han are given a little call-forward to the famous “I love you”/”I know” exchange from The Empire Strikes Back, but this and other fanservice moments feel decidedly underplayed, to the point that some audience members won’t even catch it. This is the right decision; there’s a way to wink and nod without contorting your face and giving yourself whiplash. Rounding out the characters, we all know it’s all about Luleo Primoc (aka “Vat Weirdo”) and Aurodia Ventafoli’s soulful, plaintive duet.
In the build-up to Solo, it was announced that John Williams would compose a musical theme for Han Solo, something he always wanted to do in the past. But what he’s come up with seems like a copied-and-pasted, slightly faster version of his own Poe Dameron theme, another roguish pilot. The main body of the score is written by John Powell, who uses hints of his own percussion-heavy Bourne scores, as well as an Adiemus-meets-Ennio Morricone cue for Enfys Nest’s Cloud-Riders. But Powell would have done well to incorporate some of the rock instrumentation from the Solo trailers to give the score an extra oomph. It’s a bit of a missed opportunity for the man who, with How to Train Your Dragon, gave us some of the greatest film music of this century by marrying atypical film score instruments with an orchestra. Powell does make great use of existing Star Wars themes, however. The “TIE Fighter Attack” cue, last heard during the Millennium Falcon’s flight under Crait in The Last Jedi, gives the Kessel Run a needed punch-up, and will never stop being a pure injection hit of Star Wars. And, asteroids!
Production designer Neil Lamont adds to the saga’s palette of settings well, a couple of his designs being Han’s cool-as-Hoth landspeeder and the rustic and unusual Lodge set, where the stage is set for Lando’s introduction. Also, cinematographer Bradford Young gives Solo an earthy yet beautiful look. His lighting of the film’s five planets give a shape to the story’s structure all on their own: From the grime of Corellia, to the even-darker War-is-hell mud of Mimban, to the brighter snowscapes of Vandor, to the claustrophobic toxicity of Kessel, to a warmer hope for the future on Savareen.
Solo, while not featuring the best action or the best character dynamics, carries itself well as a fun space caper movie, and is given a big lift by its make-or-break central performance from Ehrenreich. It hits its themes of freedom and family hard and often. It’s filled with that Star Wars spirit of rebellion, albeit in different forms. I’d venture to say it’s a better Han Solo movie than Return of the Jedi (though not a better movie overall). When Han first sees the Millennium Falcon, I did almost cry. And that’s got to count for something. 7/10.
P.S.: YOU CAN’T MAKE THE SPOILER RUN IN LESS THAN 20 SENTENCES!
More than the other recent Star Wars movies, Solo traffics in a delightfully unending stream of offhand references to other elements of the canon. To name a smattering: Aurra Sing (Beckett killed her…!?), Teräs Käsi, Mimban (from the Legends novel “Splinter of the Mind’s Eye”), Colo claw fish (“There’s always a bigger fish…”), we now know how both Lando and Leia got their Jabba’s Palace disguises (see Forces of Destiny), Bossk, the Pykes. But best of all is Maul.
What a payoff for fans of the wider Star Wars canon. What a tribute to the writers of The Clone Wars and Rebels TV series and Maul’s two comic miniseries, who against all odds created a real character out of the cipher in The Phantom Menace. That’s not to mention Ray Park (from the films) and Sam Witwer (from the TV shows), whose distinct approaches to Maul were melded together into one performance here. And this is exactly where Maul would be, as per TV and comic continuity: orchestrating criminal syndicates, and in opposition to the Pykes, who abandoned his service. That little strain of “Duel of the Fates” comes on, and Maul ignites his lightsaber. There you go, that one moment means that every Star Wars movie still includes a lightsaber.
You don’t go to a Denis Villeneuve film to feel at ease. You go to watch superbly put together portraits of twisted and disturbing subject material. Sicario, being like a two-hour living nightmare in the best way, is one of the most technically well-made films I’ve seen in a long time, also sporting exceptional performances from its three leads. It is an unflinching look at the corrupt war between out of control drug cartels and the federal agencies taking drastic action to stop them, all playing out on and around the border between Mexico and the United States.
It all begins when FBI SWAT agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) leads a kidnapping raid in Arizona, only to find corpses. So when the U.S. sees an opportunity to draw out the leader of the most notorious Mexican cartel (who also ordered the kidnapping), DOD adviser Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) convinces Kate to volunteer to seek out the people responsible for the crime in Arizona. But with the apparent parameters of the mission changing at every turn, Kate is swiftly wrenched out of her comfort zone and the line between opposing sides is deconstructed. And who is Matt’s mysterious partner Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro)?
The movie asks a lot of its three central actors, as a significant amount of screen time is devoted to moments where their faces have to tell the story. Blunt grounds the film so well because in her feature-length descent into an illogical hell with lies of omission at every turn, she communicates such subtlety with only expressions. There’s the downward spiral of confusion that runs throughout, and also moments of touching humanity. There’s a scene involving a group of illegal immigrants wherein Blunt conveys a single moment of such guarded but sincere sympathy, before quickly moving on to the business of the scene. Her character’s decency is essential as a contrast to the moral bankruptcy all around her.
Not to be outdone, del Toro also gives a magnetic and minimalistic performance that could very get some awards buzz. And Brolin skillfully radiates an aura of simultaneous charisma and threat, using a permanent shit-eating grin as others use body armor. Also notable are Daniel Kaluuya as Kate’s similarly sane partner and Victor Garber as her beleaguered boss. All the major characters are involved in a story that when laid out on paper doesn’t stand out much; many fairly expected beats are hit, but what matters in Sicario is the extent to which they’re internalized by Kate and by extension the audience.
In other words, it’s entirely excusable that the plot and story is nothing too special, because the visual and aural storytelling do the heavy lifting brilliantly and make every turn seep under the viewer’s skin. Director Villeneuve and editor Joe Walker create a landscape of dread punctuated by hard-hitting violence. Villeneuve’s previous films Prisoners and Enemy were largely atmospheric affairs, but Sicario introduces uncompromised action beats. The protracted build-up to violence, and its bloody release, complement each other here. I could have sworn the volume was turned up more than usual at my screening, making each gunshot register that much more. And aided by the doom-laden droning of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score, and the clarity of Roger Deakins’ cinematography, Sicario adds up to a formidable technical achievement.
There’s one thing about Kate’s ultimate place in the story that is a little off-putting, but it’s part of the movie’s point in the end. Kate, despite being the clear lead character, is not the protagonist of the story, and in the third act starts to get a little lost in her own film. It’s appropriate that Kate is our window into these extraordinary events, and that she does end up helpless later in the film to change the course of events set in motion by higher-ups far away from the field. It makes sense when you see it, it just takes time away from Emily Blunt to continue owning the screen.
Sicario is a technical triumph, generating paranoia and discomfort with precision, courtesy of very talented filmmakers. And the cast is a match for the intensity of the material, with Blunt and del Toro as the clear standouts. I do prefer Sicario over director Villeneuve’s previous Prisoners and Enemy, but taking all three together, it’s clear that he’s hitting these challenging thrillers out of the park. He’s got two science fiction films up next in the pipeline; should be fascinating. As for Sicario, it’s a beautifully constructed film depicting horrific material. A weak 9/10.
Philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) is having a not-too-surprising existential crisis. Life just isn’t worth living anymore; drive and purpose have been lost. Even as bright student Jill Pollard (Emma Stone) becomes fascinated with Abe and their friendship blooms, Abe remains apathetic to his life. That is, until a chance encounter clicks everything into place for the professor, playing out like a cross between Wings of Desire and Kick-Ass… Talking about this film without spoilers is tough!
So let’s get one of the elephants in the room out of the way: like Woody Allen’s previous film Magic in the Moonlight, Irrational Man features an older man who attracts the amorous attentions of a young woman played by Emma Stone. This is just one of Allen’s things. (And indeed, the profession of Abe Lucas in this film is really just a barely-more-explicit-than-usual excuse for Allen’s characters to talk about their problems with heightened pop psychology.) What did initially weird me out here was the inevitability of that set-up in Allen’s screenplay. When the news arrives that Professor Lucas is coming to join the faculty of Jill’s small college, she and other characters make knowing jokes about how she won’t be able to resist such an “interesting” man, beer gut or no. In Jamie Blackley’s Roy, boyfriend to Jill, we also have a character type very familiar to these situations: the boringly supportive partner who is used as a foil of the exciting other (see Hamish Linklater in Magic in the Moonlight; Emily Mortimer in Match Point). It’s all very Woody-by-numbers. But what Irrational Man does with these elements is what really matters, and it more than delivers in twists of the story that lead the film down a rich strain of black comedy.
At the core of the film are Phoenix and Stone. They give very typical Allen-y performances, physically very naturalistic but attuned to his particular psychological frequency. He is all insular world-weariness, wielding a flask as most people wield a smartphone. She is a beacon of intelligent innocence, welcoming novelty amongst her routines. Narration is used via both leads, and it is used to score self-conscious laughs alongside the darker turns of the story. That story is a simple but engaging one, and encompasses a literally done transition from protagonist to antagonist with skill (more on that in the spoilery P.S. I need one when I have to be so opaque in the review proper!).
Woody Allen has directed at least one film a year since 1982, and Irrational Man is a full-bodied and solid entry into his canon. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but neither is it a trifle. I enjoyed watching this film more than any of his since Midnight in Paris, and probably even before. The main body of the film is fun, but there is a bit of a comedown toward the end, giving the feeling of almost paying for the fun you’ve had; it’s a technique that reminds me of The Bank Job, of all things. Allen has crafted an interesting counterpoint film to his bleak Match Point, aided by the easy chemistry and dramatic weight of Phoenix and Stone. Irrational Man is an effective and fun ride, though it is hard to discuss it in detail without spoilers, hence the post-script. 7/10.
P.S.: *SPOILERS* So this is a movie where you watch the trailer, you think, “Huh”, and then you move on. It’s probably only because I’m a completist and Woody Allen fan that I went to see this one, and I’ll say that I now admire the trailer because it doesn’t give away the delightful way that the story just sort of skews and commits to an unexpected new direction: when Abe overhears the story of a mother being legally railroaded by a corrupt judge, he decides to galvanize his own ineffectuality into the goal of killing that judge. And after the deed is done, he decides to kill again to protect the secret of the first murder.
This is what I was alluding to with the literal protagonist-to-antagonist transition. Murder one: Abe wants justice done and proactively kills. Murder two: Jill wants justice done and is stopped by Abe’s attempted murder. It’s a nice and efficient little story trick and I enjoyed watching it play out. And I also mentioned before that Irrational Man is a really fascinating counterpoint to Match Point. In the latter film, Jonathan Rhys Meyer’s main character got away with his murder through sheer good luck in a stunner of an ending; in the former film, the main character is hoist by his own petard and dies through sheer bad luck. The contrasts continue, but that’s the main one, and by extension the moral universes of each film come off very differently: the hand guiding the ending of Irrational Man seems a benevolent one, while the bleak close of Match Point portrays a very uncomfortable and disturbing truth.
Despite Ant-Man being a founding member of the comic Avengers, and also despite a power set opening the door to fun/creative/unique action, the prospect of Ant-Man the film was met with more than a little skepticism. What Marvel Studios has crafted is a well-cooked palette cleanser after the operatic mayhem of each of their films since 2012’s The Avengers. Ant-Man scales back on scope, but that doesn’t mean it scales back on quality or payoff.
At San Quentin, petty thief and absentee father Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is being released, ready to reconnect with his daughter and former partners in crime including Luis (Michael Peña). Nearby across the San Francisco Bay, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) watches as Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) is shown the fruits of technology he created back in the Cold War era, now weaponized by unbalanced mogul Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). And plans are drawn up to bring everyone together in a web of superpowered shrinking suits, heists, daddy issues, and wacky comedy.
Straddling all four of those elements is Rudd, anchoring the film with his everyman Scott Lang. As both the butt and deliverer of jokes, he’s an appealing lead, equally at home showing off MacGyver-esque chops in a remarkable heist sequence as he is internalizing more dramatic beats. As Ant-Man, his power set is used brilliantly for visual gags and straight action. And no spoilers, but the shrinking and enlarging mechanism of this power is used for a couple extraordinary, punch-the-air moments in the Third Act. You’ll know them when you see them.
As an ant does, the supporting cast also carry more than their weight and taken in ensemble make for an impressive wall of protagonists. Douglas is not trotted out for a few token scenes, but rather given a full, vital, present and active character with an edge and an arc. Lilly is given a strong character in Hope – often female characters in tentpoles are presented more as archetypes than realistic people; to be crude about it, either cuddly or cold. But Hope is in the middle spectrum; confident, knowing her own value, with her ultra-competence offset by snarky as well as warm humor. And let’s just say she looks to have a bright future in this universe. Leading the comic relief, and stealing every scene he appears in, is Peña as Luis. Having established dramatic chops elsewhere, Peña is the MVP in bringing a great Ant-Man-specific comedic energy to the film, precisely because his character is so broadly played.
Speaking of broad performances, Stoll as the villainous Darren Cross fits into this. The only real fun to be had with Cross is with Stoll’s performance. For example, he’s given the ridiculous-as-scripted line, “You tried to hide your suit from me, and now it’s gonna blow up in your face”, and delivers it like a petulant child, making the line sort of work on that level. The big problem here is indeed the character as written. Stoll has said in interviews that Cross’ motivation changed from draft to draft, and boy howdy does that show. There are facets of his character we are constantly told about without being shown; he doesn’t convince as a scientist, and much more importantly, neither as a mentee of Hank Pym. And there are twists in the Third Act about Cross’ character that are worth as much as the added-in-post flimflam that they are.
The villain is weak, and so are parts of the screenplay’s setup and structure. In the early section of the film there are a handful of on-the-nose lines that land with a clang as clumsy exposition. But the bigger picture problem I have with the First Act is that it feels like there are two movies being run in parallel: the hi-tech machinations of Cross with Hank Pym’s countermoves, and the story of Scott Lang and his band of “cute criminals”. And rather than having them symbiotically feed on each other, they feel like each is paying for the other. As if the screenplay wants to counterbalance the straight-faced with the wacky, rather than bringing them into harmony. This is not to mention the half-assed shoehorned romance, which feels profoundly unnecessary.
So with the bad out of the way, Christophe Beck’s score is pretty great. It supports the heist element, and when the main theme is aired, parts of it are like Lalo Schifrin writing for a Disneyland roller coaster! Returning to the use of Ant-Man’s unique power set, its use is really a lot of fun (particularly in a Second Act training sequence) and I feel comfortable leaving the thrill of the ride to the viewer rather than describing it on the page.
Ant-Man is a very enjoyable action-SF-comedy that inverts the stakes of more typical Marvel movies (just look what happens to a big building towards the end). It gets by on plenty of heart and even more humor that together create a fairly unique tone among superhero films, plus it’s not afraid to get a little weird, with sequences that resembles Interstellar and The Rocketeer of all things! Especial props go to the cast, with Rudd, Douglas, Lilly and Peña making for a formidable bouquet of likable heroes. Ant-Man admirably fills in its little corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and its small hero accomplishes big things. 8/10.
P.S.: Edgar Wright, bastion of visual humor and my personal favorite living director, was for the better part of eight years attached to Ant-Man, eventually forced out through creative differences with Marvel Studios. Obviously I would have preferred he stayed on; equally as obviously, I can’t compare the finished product to a movie that was never made.
P.P.S.: I want to talk a bit about the interesting way that Ant-Man is at war with its marketing. We heard over and over again in the trailers jokes that were pretty much saying, “See Ant-Man! And yes, we realize that name sounds ridiculous!” There was even a version of the gag where Scott Lang says, “Iron Man was already taken”. It was a bit savvy, but also more than a little insecure. Now observe how in the film proper, jokes of that type are nowhere to be found! Another fun undermining of the marketing: you see “tough-guy” shots in the trailer of Scott in the prison brawl, but the movie turns that on its head for a neat little gag.
P.P.P.S.: The MCU’s “second phase” closes with Ant-Man, and I noticed something sort of interesting about my opinions of the Phase 2 films’ villains. Iron Man 3‘s Aldrich Killian (good villain); Thor: The Dark World‘s Malekith (bad villain); Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘s Alexander Pierce (good villain); Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Ronan (bad villain); Avengers: Age of Ultron‘s Ultron (good villain); Ant-Man‘s Darren Cross (bad villain).
With three other major interpretations of the Sherlock Holmes character making their marks within only the past decade, director Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes distinguishes itself immediately – Holmes (Ian McKellen) is 93, retired in the south of England, and the steel trap of his mind has gathered rust. In this country home, housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) waits on Holmes, while her son Roger (Milo Parker) helps the venerable sleuth keep his apiary of bees. But the forgotten details of Holmes’ last case vex him; what led the greatest detective in the world to pack it in?
So the film is structured to fold in the story of Holmes’ mysterious last case (alongside an additional diversion) into the present-day foundation of the elderly Holmes going about his days, trying to remember that final case. At first glance inert, this is a quietly inventive structure; every time Holmes asks himself why he can’t recall the past, it becomes a meta line. As he remembers the plot, it is revealed to the audience. The viewer always knows the plot as much as Sherlock Holmes (not something you can say in other Sherlock stories). This conceit could have gone even further. There’s a bit of a cheat when Holmes “remembers” a shot that’s actually from another character’s point of view. Also, an explicitly nonlinear structure could have fit in to portray degenerative memory very empathetically, but for the sake of clarity I welcome the film’s relative straightforwardness.
The film teams director Condon with star McKellen, a duo who in 1998 made the extraordinary Gods and Monsters, a film with a near-identical premise to Mr. Holmes. A housebound and retired “genius” (living with a housekeeper) is haunted by half-remembered memories of the past, and confides in a young man with unforeseen consequences. In Gods and Monsters McKellen portrayed James Whale, legendary director of the first two Universal Frankenstein movies. Befitting that connection, it is indeed a more twisted and challenging film, but Mr. Holmes is no slouch, efficiently taking on dramatically hefty twists and turns to sometimes devastating results. I bring up the comparison not to bring low one or the other, but because it’s irresistible when a director gives us two “companion pieces”.
The film to an extent lives and dies with McKellen, but the supporting cast here is uniformly great; the sympathetic Linney, the understated Hiroyuki Sanada, the hauntingly broken Hattie Morahan, and most of all the fantastic child performance by Parker buoy Mr. Holmes. I must also praise Carter Burwell’s score. His main theme sounds like a cross between Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” and Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”, finding a balance between melancholy and determination. And there is poetry in Jeffrey Hatcher’s script and Condon’s direction – observe the early scene wherein Holmes sees an omen of the future and a symbol of the past in turn.
While deliberately slow to start, Mr. Holmes is an effective drama powered past the finish line by a brilliant performance from Ian McKellen. The flashback structure gives the film needed thematic weight, and the cast rounds out a solidly made production. The film is a return to form for Condon (in time for Beauty and the Beast!), after nearly a decade of doldrums. 8/10.
In 1988, Walt Disney Productions rolled the dice on a project whose budget had ballooned and post-production protracted to more than a year. But this lengthened production time was in service of a groundbreaking mix of live-action and animated elements. True, Disney films such as Song of the South and Mary Poppins from decades earlier had dabbled in this technique, but Who Framed Roger Rabbit took the concept to a scale never seen before. What’s more, both Disney icons and Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes would cameo in the film, which takes us to an alternative 1947. In Hollywood and Toontown, humans and toons live together, and human P.I. Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is tasked with investigating the possible extramarital affair that’s got premier marquis toon actor and concerned spouse Roger Rabbit down in the dumps.
The film commits to a noir atmosphere that permeates everything from the production design to Alan Silvestri’s restrained and sultry score. The film refuses to be a mess; it decides on a focus and sticks to it. It’s easy to imagine a version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit that would give new meaning to self-indulgence, but everything remains on point: that being a sometimes silly, sometimes striking story of toon antics and anti-toon acid, all grounded beautifully by an engaging central performance by Bob Hoskins.
Hoskins’ brooding gumshoe is the necessary counterbalance to the wackiness going on around him, and of course he is given a basic but effective arc to play over the course of the film. His reason for giving toons the cold shoulder is given in dialogue early on. “A toon killed his brother…” Oh jeez, this is really heavy. “… dropped a piano on his head.” Hahahaha! This single line stands in for the delicate balance that the film strikes. The film asks what would happen if over-the-top cartoon antics were naturalized into a realistic setting, and the answer as shown here is what it should be: equal parts dark, joyful, and bizarre. It’s not any one thing, it’s all of them, and the film understands this well. And who better to bring the intricately looney results to life than Robert Zemeckis, hot off of directing Back to the Future, perhaps the most satisfyingly detailed film of all time? That attention to detail is what makes Who Framed Roger Rabbit great entertainment, as while the main plot is a necessary backbone, it is the insanity surrounding it, spicing up the proceedings, that makes a world of difference.
One insane but slightly understated aspect of the film is its villain, Christopher Lloyd as Judge Doom. He seems to be a Nazi-esque character; he’s dressed all in black with unsettling spectacles, and he even says, “You lack vision!” with a Teutonic accent! Balancing his relatively restrained persona are a pack of weasel henchmen, on loan from Winky in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Judge Doom is very much a standard capitalistic villain, but his villainy goes a little deeper than that. He means to destroy Toontown and transform the area for sterile profit; by doing so he’s declaring war on art itself, as the madness of Toontown, while impossible to contain, is a hub of creativity and good humor. So he’s a fitting villain from where I stand, and come the end of the climax he’s guaranteed to freak the audience out on a whole other level as well.
Some of the crossover elements in the film seem like the stuff of childhood fever dreams. Here, Donald Duck and Daffy Duck find a venue to exercise their competitive streaks, and marquis mascots Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny share a quick and exhilarating scene. Funny, then, that the film is so inappropriate for kids! You have a hard-drinking and cigarette-bumming hero, sexual jokes that are barely veiled at all (the most blatant of which is the only line reproduced from source novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit? by Gary Wolf), and topping it all off is the outrageously sexualized Jessica Rabbit, human wife to Roger. Then again, “questionable” material was no stranger to Zemeckis, as Back to the Future milked the icky topic of incest brilliantly. All this and more probably just added exponentially to the appeal for many kids, I would imagine. It’s a testament to Disney’s confidence in the film that it would only pull so many punches in bringing the story to life.
The visual appeal of the film is undimmed after all these years; the blue screen work for the Toontown sequence still inspires a sense of wonder, such as in Eddie’s wonderful descent down the skyscraper. It’s fitting that Judge Doom references The Wizard of Oz, as both that film and Who Framed Roger Rabbit pushed the boundaries of what a film could look like, and what strange alchemy could come together to conjure these moving pictures. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a great technical achievement, being a great feather in the cap of Robert Zemeckis; the animation landmark here foreshadows his forays into CGI fantasias in the first decade of the 21st Century, such as The Polar Express and Beowulf. But the film is also a broader achievement, endowed as it is with great humor, heart and boundless creativity. Pretty much a triumph. 10/10.