Catching up with Thor, Bad Batch, Meyerowitz, and Billie Jean King

So I’ve been a bit everywhere the last few weeks, and haven’t had much time to put pen to paper (finger to keyboard?). But I’ve still seen some movies, and here are some quick thoughts! One strong recommendation, one less-strong recommendation, one surprising shoulder-shrug, and one unfortunate thumbs down, in that order…

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The Battle of the Sexes (2017) – B+

If you were worried Battle of the Sexes would be a heavy-handed morality tale reflecting the re-emergence of feminist to the forefront of the public eye in the last few years, well, you’d be right. But, in addition to being a bit too precisely timely, the film is also surprisingly tender and a fairly rousing sport film in its own right. It lives and dies on its two star performances, and both Emma Stone and Steve Carrell have a good shot at adding more Oscar noms to their resume. Stone finds a lost soul inside Billie Jean King, but makes it an integral part of her fighter’s spirit rather than a distraction. And Carrell finds some humanity in the opportunistic Bobby Riggs, peeking at the brokenness that feeds his chauvinistic persona. It’s a film that’s as relevant as it’ll ever be, but it doesn’t rely on virtue signalling to hold up as a classically designed crowd-pleaser simultaneously.

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The Meyerowitz Stories, New and Selected (2017) – B

I liked The Meyerowitz Stories a fair amount, owing mostly to the chemistry and history of its central characters, played by Adam Sandler (channeling his childlike rage for both comedy and catharsis) and Ben Stiller (his smugness neatly transferred from his selling point as a comedian to his character’s chief flaw). But perhaps what keeps it from being astounding is, surprisingly, the cartoonish performance of Dustin Hoffman as the family patriarch, whose responsibility for the flaws of his children is the focus of the film. Hoffman is occasionally quite funny; indeed, the film’s one Excellent Joke™ is staged between him and Emma Thompson (it involves gourmet hummus). But he never feels like an actual human being rather than a caricature drawn by writer-director Noah Baumbach, which undercuts the more restrained tone taken when his character is absent.

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Thor: Ragnarok (2017) – C+

Thor: Ragnarok is a fantastic Hulk movie sandwiched on either side by a half-assed Thor movie. Everything about it screams that director Taika Waititi really wanted to make the middle third, where Thor and Hulk wind up in a gladiatorial culture lorded over by Jeff Goldblum while making friends with a gentle Kiwi rock-creature named Korg, but had to advance the MCU plotline by including Thor’s long-lost sister Hela taking over Asgard on the fringes. Just look at how Waititi handles the Warriors Three, a strong presence in the previous Thor movies, to get an idea for how much he cares about Asgard. That middle third truly is outstandingly entertaining, and Cate Blanchett chews sweet delicious scenery as Hela whenever she gets a chance, but this really needed to be split into two movies instead of constantly distracting each other. Then we could get the Thor-is-a-gladiator and the Hela-is-a-colonialism-metaphor movies we truly need. There are enough fantastic moments to make Ragnarok memorable (melting stick! the retro score and effects! Banner’s buffoonish bifrost bounce!), but its less than the sum of its parts.

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The Bad Batch (2017) – D

And then there’s The Bad Batch. It opens fantastically, with a beautiful tableau of desolation at the gates of a sort-of desert open-air prison, where the undesirables among us are left to their own devices, and each others. The movie never tops its opening moments but constantly tries to, with occasional beautiful shots and a bonkers mute Jim Carrey performance being overshadowed by narrative incoherence and auteur touches that go from eye-rolling to motion-sickness inducing. The movie’s greatest sin, however, is its treatment of the central relationship of listless Arlen and the cannibalistic Miami Man, which is not sold nearly well enough to justify its resolution point. The concept is there, and the set design is killer, but The Bad Batch doesn’t work for either genre thrills or arthouse pontifications.

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Catching up with Thor, Bad Batch, Meyerowitz, and Billie Jean King

mother! is a truly unique gonzo journey

One of the chief thrills of Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is in rooting for the film itself. mother! is wild and wildly ambitious, and veers dangerously close to self-parody many times. With a less sure hand behind it, mother! could be the most mocked movie of the year. Hell, it still might be. But its consistency and intensity amongst the chaos wipe away any complaints about such relative trivialities as logic and narrative structure. mother! is a thrillingly grand experiment, a love-it-or-hate-it experience that I firmly come down on the “love” side of.

Aronofsky purposely withheld almost all information about mother! before its release, and perhaps it is best left that way, as a puzzle to slowly piece together. In that spirit, I won’t discuss the plot, but suffice to say that a literal interpretation of the events of mother! is simply ludicrous. mother! is a metaphor wrapped inside an analogy, and while the metaphor itself could be either tacky or pretentious, its blunt presentation of it pays dividends. While the first act plays out as a chamber drama with metaphysical portents, after a spat between brothers enters the storyline, there’s no mistaking mother! for a literal story. Over the course of two hours, Aronofsky lays out his thesis on human history and human ugliness in the space of a single farmhouse, starting from social rudeness and culminating in mass chaos. The historical and environmental allegories it lays out are obvious but thrilling, while its commentary on partnerships, artistry, and sexism could take multiple viewings to fully unpack.

mother! is assuredly not for everyone. Some will find its allegorical nature obtuse, confounding, or pretentious. Many will find that it goes too far in its last act, which contains a level of violence well beyond what normally makes its way to mainstream cinemas. But as a piece of gonzo filmmaking, mother! is an absolute masterpiece, an unforgettable wackadoo journey through human nature that left me shaken and exhilarated on the way out.

A

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mother! (2017)
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, and Michelle Pfeiffer
Rotten Tomatoes (70%)

HIGHLIGHT FOR SPOILERY COMMENT: So, the mother! in question is most likely Mother Nature/Gaia, as embodied by Jennifer Lawrence, with Javier Bardem’s “Him” being God. The link between the house and our planet is pretty clear, painting humanity as uninvited houseguests who destroy the planet (in probably my favourite small moment, a guest barges into the bathroom and apologizes to Lawrence, saying “Just exploring!”). But does the metaphor fold back unto itself? If God is a inattentive partner and poet laureate, are artists also God to a extent? Is mother! arguing that fan bases destroy the personal world of the artist, with the artist themself as a willing participant in the destruction?

mother! is a truly unique gonzo journey

Okja’s performative histrionics don’t mask its muddled message

Despite being clearly an auteur work, a result of Netflix letting Snowpiercer‘s Bong-Joon Ho off-leash, Okja feels weirdly like reverse-engineered weirdness. The bare storyline is actually pretty dry, so a lot of showy performative flourish gets added to try to make it pop, but it rarely does. Jake Gyllenhaal, in particular, goes way over the top as a version of Tracy Morgan’s Brian Fellows on even more cocaine, but even Tilda Swinton gets sucked into it, trying to add any life into a dull corporate family sideplot and only succeeding in the pretty riveting opener. At its heart, Okja is about a girl and her superpig, which makes for a decently charming opening twenty minutes, where super-pig Okja is established as a caring and smart presence. But the main creature turns into a plot device rather than a character after she’s taken to New York by a Swinton’s Monsanto stand-in, and the charm of the film goes with it. The addition of the Animal Liberation Front helps insofar as Paul Dano is a lot of fun as a ski-mask wearing freedom fighter, but the movie seems to use them to push against GMO-based superfarming without offering anything approaching a nuanced critique . I’ve got nothing against giving Monsanto bad press, but Okja‘s critiques are shallow straw-man arguments, where Swinton is bad because her attempt at sustainable farming is a lovable, delicious mutant, I suppose? Pass the salt.

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C-

Okja (2017)
Directed by Bong-Joon Ho
Starring Seo-hyeon Ahn, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, and Jake Gyllenhaal
Rotten Tomatoes (86%)
On Netflix

Okja’s performative histrionics don’t mask its muddled message

Dunkirk is a beautiful, terrifying mess

I’m in love with the opening shot of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. After a pitch-black title card, we smash-cut immediately to six soldiers wandering abandoned streets in a daze, being showered by flyers that read “surrender and live”. Everything about it, from the sudden brightness to the air of desolation, is disorienting, but for a moment its oddly, eerily beautiful. Then the gunshots come, and terror with them. A lot of Dunkirk is beautifully filmed horror, but that disorientation finds its way into the narrative structure and tears it apart somewhat. It serves some purpose to the mood of the film, but does away with a most of the emotional investment and poignancy along the way.

One aspect is worth praising unreservedly right out of the gate: Hans Zimmer’s score drives this movie, and in many ways the video feels like it serves the music rather than the other way around. There are perhaps two quiet moments in the entire film, but otherwise, the score is constantly pounding, sometimes reduced to ambient drones and sometimes to a simple metronome, but always propelling the film forward.

The score is particularly important as a glue, since the film takes on a highly nonlinear structure. It’s divided into three overlaid pieces told over different timespaces; a week with a soldier trying to escape the beach, a day with a civilian ship attempting to rescue survivors, and an hour with an ace pilot defending the ships. The three stories intersect at pivotal moments, but in such a way that when the ship encounters the pilot, it’s intercut with scenes of the pilot twenty minutes into the future. This is a risky structure, and by far the most “auteur” aspect of the film. Nolan may not have made an arthouse war film a la The Thin Red Line, but its certainly more formally daring than Saving Private Ryan.

However, I don’t think the risk pays off. In the final cut, too many climactic scenes get cut up and spliced between the three narratives, and not always with a clear emotional throughline between the action. One particular scene on a shot-up vessel should be harrowing, but instead of focusing on it during the action, we’re constantly diverted to the pilot checking his fuel gauge again. It’s one thing to ask the audience to logically follow the events, but quite another to ask us to maintain emotional investment when the narrative refuses to linger. In some aspects, the structure feels like its covering the weaker elements of the film. In particular, the sea story centers in parts around a kid who tags along with the vessel, with embarassingly maudlin and mawkish results. Additionally, he pilot’s storyline has much less going on than the other two, and effectively vanishes from the film for a good chunk, as if Nolan ran out of things to do. As a standalone story, or a continuously told one, the pilot’s lonely birds-eye view could have been touching, but instead it drags. Things are a bit more steady on the beach, but it suffers a bit from the fact that all of the British soldiers look exactly the same, which made it sometimes more difficult to follow than it should have been.

But Dunkirk does have its moments. Nolan stages some beautiful shots; my favourite is perhaps a sinking ship filmed in the ship’s frame of reference, with its mast still straight while walls of water come at it from the side. And even with the excessive cutting, there are some incredibly tense scenes here, notably three which make drowning feel real and deeply terrifying. When it reaches those moments, Dunkirk is as good as the best war movies ever made. For the most part, its just kind of a mess.

C

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Dunkirk (2017)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, and Mark Rylance
Rotten Tomatoes (92%)

Note: In the theater I saw it in, one of the speakers started acting up a bit towards the end. I cannot stress enough how much of Dunkirk relies on sound, so this definitely affected my viewing experience. If you can’t see it in a big theater, at least make sure to see it somewhere with one heck of a subwoofer.

Dunkirk is a beautiful, terrifying mess

Baby Driver is a (mostly) expertly choreographed thrill ride

Director Edgar Wright’s bread and butter, ever since and including Spaced, has been in making genre parodies that don’t only embrace the genre, but flourish in it. Shaun of the Dead, for example, has a lot of fun with zombie clichés, but it works perfectly well as a zombie movie in itself, and has a lot more visual style than most of its straight-faced kin. Baby Driver, Wright’s newest, is similarly aware of the tropes of its genre and picks fun at them, and gets away with it because it, first and foremost, is a good heist thriller. Yet, there is no mistaking Baby Driver for a parody; this is a fun thrill ride almost all the way through, and any laughs to be had at the genre’s expense are purely incidental. Playing it straight maybe makes Baby Driver a less novel outing than Wright’s previous, but the energetic flow, charismatic performances, and dazzling automotive stunts make for a hell of a fun time.

As one might have gathered from Scott Pilgrim vs The World, Wright is one hell of a kinematic director, and the audiovisual vibe he creates throughout is what really sets Baby Driver apart. Baby (the driver) has tinnitus, and always listens to an iPod to drown out the ringing. This simple little plot device gets exercised throughout the entire film, which Wright directs a lot like a music video, with everything from elevators to automatic weapon fire synchronized to guitar solos and trumpet blares. It also makes for easy (but effective and sparingly used) moments of dramatic tension whenever the music cuts out. The mood is so entrancing that when the choreography gets interrupted, we’re just as disoriented as Baby.

The cast is also more than game to play with some archetypes. In particular, the crowd of crooks have an interesting dynamic that could fill up a much longer movie. Kevin Spacey’s ringleader Doc never really comes into focus, with a few consequential moments in the third act that seem to come out of convenience to the plot rather than naturally from the character. However, the dynamic between Ansel Elgort’s Baby, John Hamm’s Buddy, Eiza Gonzalez’s Darling, and Jamie Foxx’s Bats is tense, fraught, and goes in some truly unexpected directions. Foxx almost takes over the movie in a nasty way as a hotheaded stick-up artist, but it ends up being his contrast with Hamm’s more level-headed Buddy that provides the second half with much of its thrust, and both actors relish that chance to play the heel. Outside the crime, Baby romance a waitress played by Lily James, who really only exists as an avatar for escape, a romantic ideal to make Baby wish he was in a different kind of movie. James is charming enough to make it work, but the script is clearly only interested in her insofar as she (a little inexplicably) cares about Baby, dulling the central drive of the second act.

Baby Driver isn’t Wright’s masterpiece. It’s either ten minutes too long or twenty too short, and its central character is not quite as nuanced as I might like. The ending is also a bit haphazard, with a climax that gets a bit too ugly and a bit too chaotic, as a setpiece set against Brighton Rock gets away from Wright’s otherwise steady flow. But it’s a hell of a fun time for the most part, and the kind of popcorn movie that will be endlessly rewatchable on home video. In the post-streaming era, it’s maybe the Blu-Ray release I’m looking forward to most since Fury Road. That should speak volumes louder than any little quibbles.

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B

Baby Driver (2017)
Directed by Edgar Wright
Starring Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, and Jamie Foxx
Rotten Tomatoes (94%)

Baby Driver is a (mostly) expertly choreographed thrill ride

Wonder Woman succeeds through its optimism and sense of awe

I haven’t been keeping up to date with the Zack Snyder-led DC universe films, but the criticism around their grim edginess and excessive cynicism is quite well known. Wonder Woman is in many ways a movie about evil, but using that evil to examine the limits and importance of optimism rather than stage a frown-off. Sure, stories about heroes being forced to contemplate the worthiness of humanity for their heroism have been done before. But in allowing that hero to be someone who has never encountered humanity before, Wonder Woman explores a sense of naivete about human nature but stops well short of condemning hope.

But that’s perhaps burying the lede. Wonder Woman had greater expectations and (unfairly) a greater duty to succeed than most of its ilk, which is maybe why it feels less formally risky than the best of its brethren. Wonder Woman has clearly benefited from the MCU films that came before it. It’s fish-out-of-water conceit, golden homeworld, and willingness to just go with the ancient gods angle feel very reminiscent of Thor, and its mixture of superhero conventions and a wartime setting are familiar from Captain America: The First Avenger. But Wonder Woman is a stronger film than either of those entries, particularly in how it uses the wartime setting to exaggerate both the silliness and the impact of superheroic feats. Seeing Diana walk around the streets of London in period garb carrying a sword and shield is maybe the funniest sight gag of the year, but when the bright blue, red, and gold outfit shows up on a battlefield, it’s a beacon of hope to lead the way. Also, its use of World War I rather than WWII is sly. Sure, there’s an evil German general (played by an American, naturally) to contend with, but the central thesis of there being hope for the global community is certainly an easier sell without the Nazi party in the picture.

The action scenes in Wonder Woman aren’t terribly visceral or exciting, filled with excessive slo-mo and playing a little loose with the exact level of power Diana has. At one moment, she can collapse a building with a tackle, and at another, she’s evenly matched with what’s effectively a man on PCP. But the framing of the scenes is worth highlighting. The female characters in other recent superhero movies, such as Catwoman and Black Widow, tend to be filmed as very technical fighters, relying on quick moves to gain the upper hand. Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince, on the other hand, is certainly choreographed as well trained, but what’s really stark is how director Patty Jenkins frames her as an object of power. As she fights a squadron of soldiers, she isn’t frightened for herself or relying on stealth. She takes charge and simply kicks ass. While the action isn’t tense, it’s the perfect way to handle an action scene with a nigh-invincible superhero. Diana is a figure of awe, and Jenkins makes us believe that.

By the end, Wonder Woman is far from immune to some plagues of most superhero movies. The movie may neglect the invisible jet, but the Golden Lasso of Truth is still plenty silly (played alternatively for effective laughs and ineffective drama). The finale is a mess of mostly impotent explosions with a color palette that consists of grey and rainy grey. Diana’s weaknesses are never clearly outlined, making it difficult to judge when we should worry for her. In place of that worry, we get American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and his cadre of military outcasts, whose human vulnerability is emphasized instead. Pine essentially takes the role of competent superhero love interest, occupying more-or-less the same space as Haley Atwell’s Agent Carter in Captain America, but anchors the film as a link to reality and as one hell of a charismatic foil for Diana. Make no mistake though: this is Gal Gadot’s movie, and through Jenkin’s lens, she’s commands the screen. They have the difficult task of believably creating a figure of simultaneous power, wisdom, and naivete, and they make it look effortless. Wonder Woman doesn’t break the mold the same way is breaks (or at least cracks) the ceiling, but in a vacuum it’s still a solid entry into the upper-middle tier of superhero flicks.

B

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Wonder Woman (2017)
Directed by Patty Jenkins
Starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Danny Huston, and Robin Wright
Rotten Tomatoes (93%)

Wonder Woman succeeds through its optimism and sense of awe

King Arthur is great fun when it forgets about legends

Is there anyone out there who was clamouring for a new King Arthur movie? With certain standards, like Sherlock Holmes and Robin Hood, there’s a real sense that there is a fanbase out there, and that those characters have stories in them to tell. King Arthur though? Sure, his story is the backbone to plenty of other stories, but the Knights of the Round Table themselves have never really popped onscreen (give or take a Holy Grail). Since no one is interested in seeing a King Arthur movie (a truth I will assume correct until proven wrong), it’s no surprise that Guy Ritchie had no interest in making one either. His King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword is really a sneaky way for him to make a familiarly Guy Ritchie Cockney crime lark, with some Arthurian legend in the margins to convince the studios to give him a budget. At least, that’s what it seems like, but far too often those margins grow and swallow the energy of the rest of the film.

After a ten-or-so minute intro on the backstory of kings and mages, King Arthur reaches its absolute peak: a wordless quick-cut montage that zooms through 20-odd years of history, showing us the maturing of Arthur on the streets and in the brothels of London (then Londinium) and the rise of the evil King Vortigern. It then catches us up with Arthur as he recounts an encounter with a Viking who assaulted a prostitute to the local leader of the guards, with a four-way narration between Arthur, his two mates, and the guard leader. Colorful names abound, from Goosefat Bill to the three Mikes (Flatnose Mike is the main topic of discussion), and energy pops off the screen, reminiscent of the best moments in Ritchie’s crime trifecta of Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, and RockNRolla. It’s all very much like the second coming of A Knights Tale, just a bit less anachronistic and a bit less noble.

For these moments, King Arthur looks like a winner, but it loses steam when it tries to say something about the “King” part. There are moments here and there after Arthur pulls the sword from the stone that hint at some originality and some joy, but with the exception of a montage of Arthur dealing with rodents of unusual size, they all relate to the city and its crooked side. An assassination attempt midway through the movie is a blast for the most part (best one-line character in the movie: “I’m a target, aren’t I?”), but falls flat when it moves from talk to action. Mostly, this has to do with the use of Excalibur, which puts Arthur in some kind of fighting super-mode. It’s about as much fun to watch as someone play a videogame on the easiest setting. Jude Law doesn’t get much to chew on as Vortigern, although thankfully the magical elements of his character have been played up in the trailer; he’s at his best growling from the throne, collar open like some kind of medieval Elvis impersonator. It’s obvious from this movie that Guy Ritchie could make a really fun period piece if he focused on his strengths. Epic storytelling just isn’t one of them.

C+

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King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Starring Charlie Hunnam, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Djimon Hounsou, and Jude Law
Rotten Tomatoes (26%)

King Arthur is great fun when it forgets about legends