That’s Terrible, or, IT

IT

Getting the gang together to watch the 11PM news.

There are people you can count on to relay the most upsetting news of the day.

“Did you hear about death, famine and murder?” they’ll say, apropos of nothing.

“That’s terrible,” you’ll reply.

“Terrible,” they’ll affirm, ending the transaction and leaving you just the littlest bit worse for wear because now you know a little bit more about death, famine and murder. You’re left to stew in it, to wish you didn’t know, to curse the messenger.

It’s a curious exchange, the intent of which has always eluded me, left me wondering time and time again “why are you telling me this?”

IT (stylized in capital letters here to delineate it from literally anything and everything else), the cinematic adaptation of Stephen King’s “clown lures children into the sewers to murder them” romp, gave me a new perspective on the matter.

The film’s iconic clown Pennywise, the visage you’ll no doubt recognize from all kinds of unsettling marketing, is IT’s nominal horror, the villain in the same sense in which Queen Elizabeth II is a ruler. The true force of antagonism in IT is a one-two punch of a town with a history of the most heinous evening news stories and an utter lack of coworkers intent on making sure everyone in earshot knows about said heinous stories whether they like it or not. That baffling exchange (“death, famine, murder” / “terrible” / “terrible”) never happens in Derry, Maine. One gets the sense that long, long ago someone turned to the person next to them and managed to get out “did you hear about-” before being cut off by barking and the plugging of ears, setting a precedent that grew to haunt seven charming preteen misfits in 1988.

These misfits possess an inherent strength, the strength required to actively participate in the aforementioned exchange, the strength required to look death, famine and murder in its yellow cackling eyes and really, truly see it. It’s the strength to grapple with the worst of humanity because for each of these seven kids the worst of humanity is than the television screen.

Rather than begrudging the ritualistic transmission of distressing information, the protagonists of IT forge friendships out of it, coming together to look at everything wrong with the world and acknowledging it.

Yes.

Death, famine and murder.

These things are frightening.

These things happen.

These things exist.

Next.

Watching IT, it dawned on me that maybe, just maybe, trading reactions to the most upsetting happenings in our world is could be more than just a sick sort of gossip, it could be an exchange of empathy, humanity, strength and mercy.

IT is creepy and hilarious and fun, it’s a horror blockbuster that swaps out exciting fisticuffs for aggressively unsettling ambiance. What’s more, it’s a demonstration of the power that can be gained not only by staring down the terrors of the world, but by doing so as a community, a demonstration of the mercy of friendship and the upstanding willingness to share one another’s burdens.

I still don’t know what to say when served an anecdote of the previous day’s most despicable instances of death, famine and murder, but after seeing IT I’ll at least agree “that’s terrible” with a bit less spite.

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A Fine Find, or, Logan Lucky

loganlucky

Will the real Slim Shady please stand up?

When I was, I don’t know, eight, I was flipping though channels in a hotel room and found myself watching the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail. It didn’t have sharks or dinosaurs in it, but neither did anything else on television, so I watched Cocktail. And it was fine. I didn’t leave Logan Lucky, director Steven Soderbergh’s return from retirement, with any particularly harsh words in mind, but I left it feeling like I did watching Cocktail, adequately entertained despite a lack of sharks or dinosaurs.

Logan Lucky is held back from greatness by a nebulous sense of self. Following NASCAR heist perpetrated by the unlucky Logan siblings , Logan Lucky is essentially Ocean’s Eleven imposed onto a facsimile of Appalachia. Imposed is a key word here, as the twisting, turning caper narrative often feels like it imposes on the best interest of the film, which itself feels like a strange imposition onto the culture it is either trying to pander or condescend to.

I walked into Logan Lucky with Stanley Kubrick’s horse track heist flick The Killing on my mind, but Logan Lucky lacks the elegance of that 85-minute classic. For all the discipline Soderbergh displays in refraining from unnecessary directorial flourishes, the script, written by suspected-pseudonym Rebecca Blunt time and time again indulges vestigial narrative threads that feel like they’re there because conventions dictate they be. The film regularly wanders off the path of what could be a concise, engaging heist, so much so that the entirety of the final act feels like it is standing on ceremony.

But even if the film were trimmed down and streamlined, what really holds Logan Lucky back is its perplexing attitude towards the subsection of America it portrays. The film’s depiction of rural America feels like The Big Bang Theory’s depiction of nerds. The Logans and their lot are the unappreciated backbone of the American workforce when the story needs your sympathy and they’re backward goofballs when it needs your laughter. As fantastic as the likes of Daniel Craig and Adam Driver are in the film, the cast of characters in Logan Lucky never feel as though they were written with a sense of authenticity in mind. Winter’s Bone this is not.

There’s never a feeling of spite or disdain on the part of the film for its subjects, but one gets the impression that Logan Lucky is more concerned with it’s expression of genre tropes than it’s depiction of the culture it imposes those tropes upon.

Despite all that, Logan Lucky is a fun, entertaining movie, but it’s perhaps one that is best discovered in a hotel room flipping by TNT on a rainy Saturday, or while Netflix and chilling or whatever you hooligans are calling it these days.

When You and That Camera Just Don’t Get Along, or, Good Time

goodtime

DY-NO-MITE!

Good Time, directed by the Safdie brothers, is the grittiest movie I’ve ever seen. Like, really gritty. Not like stubble and liquor bottles and shadows gritty. Like, while I was watching it I felt a facsimile of the groggy, sticky sensation you get after having spent too much time in a hospital or a convention center or a subway car. There were times at which I could almost smell the musk of the movie, a low-stakes crime thriller starring Robert Pattinson as a scrappy bank robber trying to free his special needs brother from the system. But Good Time doesn’t introduce itself grit first.

The film opens on a sweeping helicopter shot of a towering building, light glinting off of its multitude of windows. It’s filmed with the kind of reverence for architecture that wouldn’t be out of place in a Christopher Nolan film. The building is establishment, it is authority, it is rule. Nothing in Good Time is treated with that same cinematic veneration again.

Almost perpetually drowned in the harsh lighting of fluorescent bulbs or neon or television static or sirens, the denizens of Good Time are consistently crammed uncomfortably into the frame with intrusive close-ups. It’s as if the camera boasts a thinly-veiled disdain for its subjects, as if it is begrudgingly focused on a two-bit criminal when it pines to display lavish architecture, as if the film itself is an ally to, or an extension of the same system Pattinson’s Connie is railing so rabidly against.

And yet for all it’s cold derision for Connie, the camera and he have a lot in common in regards to their attitude toward those around them.

Connie has zero interest in the people he interacts with. They aren’t flesh and blood to him so much as means to an increasingly imprecise end. He’s brilliant in his own way, moving the film forward with his spastic schemes like he’s jumping up rubble in a futile attempt to scale a crashing avalanche, but he is hardly worth the audiences sympathies. We’ve seen his enemy. We meet it before we meet him. That massive building, everything that built it and everything it stands for. It’s not a matter of victory so much as a matter of prolonging defeat.

Good Time is a filthy, grimy and uncomfortable movie that doesn’t exactly aim to live up to its title, but the social interactions and the antagonistic report between character and camera make it a compelling confrontation between individual and institution.

Are You Ready to be Jimmy Caan?, or, Detroit (The Movie)

detroit

Hey, how would one go about writing a blog post in such a way as to appear woke without seeming like they’re trying to appear woke and without betraying there casual ignorance of American History? I’m asking for a friend.

I would never say Detroit is a bad film and I would never say that it is an enjoyable one. It’s immersive and effective and stacked with excellent performances, but man, Detroit is an absolutely miserable movie.

Director Katheryn Bigelow’s latest film depicts events that took place in the Algiers Motel on a night in 1967 during the 12th Street Riot. A majority of the film focuses on the unsettling, claustrophobic proceedings, eventually proving to be an empathic endurance test.

Detroit lacks the narrative thrust of Bigelow’s previous based-on-true-events film, Zero Dark Thirty. Where that film’s focus on the proceedings of a global manhunt lent it an inherent momentum, Detroit largely abandons any sort of momentum when it arrives at the events in question. The film’s most compelling threads, concerning musician Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), are left to stew and stagnate and are only picked up again near the end of the film, making them feel like prologues and epilogues bookending the seemingly endless canvas of abuse and injustice that is the film’s lengthy second act.

It’s a bold move, the pacing equivalent of walking along the sidewalk for a few minutes, falling into a horrible, sprawling rancid puddle in which you become entrapped for like three hours, then finally getting out and walking home smelly, wet and miserable. The various narratives of the film are stopped cold and when they’re picked up again they are forever altered, certainly not unlike the lives of the victims of the incident in question.

Again, not a bad film, just an utterly miserable one.

Two decisions in particular really enable that misery, helplessness and injustice to permeate the film to its core.

The first, Barry Ackroyd’s handheld, documentarian cinematography, leaves the viewer feeling embedded in the unfolding events. Detroit is not a film looking for one perfect shot. It’s framing never feels planned and the images on the screen never feel composed so much as they feel captured.

The second, a sort of staggered, choosy contextualization, leaves the viewer with nothing to grasp but the abject abuse on screen. A brief animated sequence opens the film, providing a primer on the status quo of race relations in Detroit leading up to the 12th Street Riot and we’re shown a depiction of the onset of hostilities between police and the citizenry of the city, but I went into Detroit knowing nothing about the 12th Street Riot and I went out of Detroit knowing next to nothing about the 12th Street Riot. The backdrop to the events depicted in the film are taken as a given, treated like 9/11 is treated in Zero Dark Thirty, as an event that ubiquitous with the public consciousness  and thus requires no explanation. The macrocosm of the film is given no heft and the microcosm it concerns itself with suffers for it. Additionally, there’s a nuance afforded to the police force in the film that is not extended to the citizens of Detroit, which only furthers the uncertainty in regards to the world and the circumstances outside of the hellish motel the audience is held up in.

Without any sort of broader canvas to help contextualize the events at the Algiers Motel and with it’s utterly immersive camerawork, Detroit often feels like being forced into a front row seat watching the abuse of the powerless at the hands of the powerful simply for the sake of it.

And that may be exactly what it is.

I left Detroit wondering what it wanted from me, what it’s intent was. It didn’t feel educational as it doesn’t take particular interest in any single individual or in the 12th Street Riot. Its attempts at keeping a journalistic distance from the events keep it from feeling like an earnest call to action against the injustice it depicts. Ultimately, Detroit just feels like a very, very effective reproduction of a horrible incident. It feels like a film that wants nothing more than to have its audience bare witness to an unforgivable abuse of authority.

I would never say Detroit is a bad film and I would never say that it is an enjoyable one, but if its purpose is indeed to have its audience bare witness to cold, hard injustice and institutionalized racism, it achieves those aims with remarkable success.

A Very Good Romantic Comedy, or, The Big Sick

thebigsick

I don’t know. Any Everybody Loves Raymond joke, or something.

For a cinematic romance to work the audience has to be able to believe in the love for its characters, if not experience some minute facsimile of it themselves. Too often this pursued in romantic comedies by brandishing how witty, quirky and put-upon its prospective lovers are, a sort of truncated shorthand for relatability and affection. The Big Short, an autobiographical rom-com from writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon and director Michael Showalter, enacts a different strategy.

Comedic through and through, The Big Short still doesn’t shy away from a sense of reality, never entirely going fool goofball in while remaining sufficiently hilarious. It doesn’t forbid its protagonists being funny and quirky and put-upon, but it doesn’t refrain from showing them at their ugliest and most unreasonable either. More key to film’s appeal than its well-rounded characters, however, is its treatment of them and their flaws. The camera brings with it a sense of compassion, withholding judgement while displaying its subjects for who they are.

Such a phenomenon may come as no surprise given Kumail the character is Kumail the writer is Kumail the living, breathing human being, but the same sort of reserved, matter-of-fact acceptance is afforded to secondary and even tertiary characters. They’re all given the opportunity to think and act for themselves and they’re met with understanding when they screw that up in ways a more traditional romantic comedy might condemn or vilify.

I first heard the story on which The Big Sick is based several years ago when Kumail Nanjiani was a guest on the You Made it Weird podcast. Hearing Nanjiani offer a first-hand account of his experience is incredible and moving and unforgettable, and that The Big Sick even comes close to capturing the power the story has while being relayed to one of its primary participants is a testament to just how good the film is.

The realistic expectations The Big Sick sets, and therefore allows the audience to have, for its characters make them detestable, just as they make them relatable. They’re worthy of our disappointment just as they’re worthy of our affection. It’s no shorthand, and as a result, when you tune in to the chemistry between Kumail and Emily the signal comes through a lot clearer than it would were it broadcast on nothing but quirks and one-liners.

The Defenders, or, The Avengers: Appendices

thedefenders

Mike Colter: statue of human perfect. And three other jabronies.

Like the first Avengers film before it, season one of Netflix’s The Defenders is tasked with bringing together the worlds and aesthetics of various intellectual properties (in this case the Netflix series Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist) into a single cohesive unit. However, The Avengers was and is the vanguard of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the banner behind which everything from Thor to Inhumans to Foggy Nelson must fall in line. Where The Avengers had the opportunity, and burden, of defining a universe, The Defenders has to define itself within an already established world.

Essentially, The Defenders has to do what The Avengers did, in the shadow of what The Avengers did.

Fans will be happy to find that over the course of its eight episode first season the series is able to stake a claim to its own identity both in relation to its own tributary shows and in the context of the MCU at large.

Daredevil (Charlie Cox), Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Luke Cage (Mike Colter) and even Iron Fist (Finn Jones) react to and interact with one another believably and enjoyably, never betraying the world of each individual character built within their own shows. Some of them, Cox in particular, deliver their best performances yet. Watching these four disparate elements find their way to tracks set on a collision course for one another is exciting and propels the early episodes of the season forward at a brisk pace. But once the titular cabal come together things get particularly interesting for the MCU.

Since the first season of Daredevil Netflix’s Marvel series have used the destruction of New York City in the first Avengers film as a jumping off point, but The Defenders solidifies the first phase of these series as a Tolkien-esque appendix to The Avengers, the kind of tucked away supplemental material that elevates the text from which it is derived.

The Defenders and its four preceding shows weave a tale of trickle down responsibility. The Avengers descended upon an unsuspecting New York City with thunder and monsters and fury, saved the day and irrevocably altered the status quo of the planet in one fell swoop, then left. Though likely unknowingly, The Avengers abandoned their responsibility for the new world order they established, one that took hold in the streets of New York. In their place ninjas and blind lawyers and nefarious business tycoons and bullet proof men fill in the cracks in the city like militias in an abandoned colony.

If The Avengers were equated to Return of the King (spoilers for Return of the King) The Defenders would be the burning of the Shire, a reminder that even heroism can have unintended consequences and that even hardships brought on by demigods and superhumans can be overcome by folks on the street.

The Defenders weren’t in Civil War and they may not show up in Infinity War (though they totally should) but the Marvel Cinematic Universe is better and more nuance for their presence in it.

Kick That Story’s Ass Charlize, or, Atomic Blonde

atomicblonde

Turtleneck attack!

Atomic Blonde, director David Leitch’s Cold War spy flick based on Antony Johnson and Sam Hart’s graphic novel The Coldest City, blends the tried and true cinematic espionage of a Bond film with the contemporary sensibilities of 007’s latest action hero progeny. If Casino Royale was Bond meets Bourne, Atomic Blonde is James meets John.

Wick.

Of Baba Yaga fame.

It’s not exactly a coincidence, given Leitch had a part in directing the original John Wick, but the blend of Wick action and Bond tradecraft never quite comes together, the latter bogging down the former.

Charlize Theron is Lorraine Broughton, the titular Atomic Blonde. Against a backdrop of the waning days of the Cold War Broughton is tasked with going to Berlin to retrieve a list of undercover operatives before Russia can get ahold of it. It needn’t be more complicated than that, but to its own detriment Atomic Blonde wades deep into narrative twists and turns. There is a great film in Atomic Blonde, be it a more straightforward take on the material or a far denser take that delves into the culture built around the Berlin Wall and the denizens of that culture who have built a life for themselves out of the dizzying tensions and labyrinths of espionage and are force to reckon with the possibility of the Cold War ending. But Atomic Blonde isn’t that simple or that complex.

Theron engages is a series of thrilling, well-choreographed, in-frame fight sequences executed with the precision and minimal edits of a John Wick film, but the synthesizer-drenched transitions from one sequence to the next don’t adhere to the same sort of lethal efficiency. Theron, who far exceeds the confines of the film she’s in, is an utter badass, but fight as she might bits of a middling complex narrative cling to her. You can feel them falling away as she beats the shit out of Russians, just to glob on all over again when the action stops and unwieldy story resumes.

Atomic Blonde could be said to be the opposite of Dunkirk in terms of storytelling. Where Christopher Nolan’s latest utterly deprives the audience of exposition and narrative flourish in hopes of further immersion, Atomic Blonde outright insists on exposition, nailing the script to the ground with narrative and making a tent out of what could have been a kite.

Charlize Theron kicks so much ass that she is able to repeatedly, though always temporarily, escape the overbearing script through brute force. When she’s let loose, minutes away from exposition on either side of the film’s running time, she is astounding, carrying herself with a physicality that intimidates and lends gravitas to her fights. She is so good, in fact, that despite any reservations I have about Atomic Blonde, I can’t help but hope for a sequel because damnit, Charlize Theron is an absolute badass and I want to watch her beat the crap out of more chumps.

For whatever facets of John Wick or James Bond Atomic Blonde takes inspiration from it never fells like a knock-off of another franchise, but as a whole it doesn’t live up to its own potential either.