Fanboy darling Edgar Wright has certainly earned his reputation as a passionate pastiche artist and intricate stylist; his genre-infused films pair narratives of arrested male development with whiplash camerawork and razor-sharp editing. That skill and craftsmanship is fully on display in Baby Driver, but it’s undercut here by a trite screenplay and an overweening sense that the film’s twee brand of coolness, inextricably linked to a jukebox of pop songs, is somehow irresistible.
Soon, just as there are plenty of adults who no longer remember a world before The Simpsons, nobody will recall a time when, for good or ill, there was not a new annual Star Wars movie. It’s no longer enough (either to shareholders or to pop culture at large) to expect a new installment of the core saga every few years (let alone every other decade), so with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Disney kicks off a line of one-off adventures. This one, set in-between 2005’s Revenge of the Sith and 1977’s A New Hope, follows a ragtag band of rebels on a likely suicide mission as they attempt to steal the plans for the original Death Star. Avoiding the greater mythmaking of the classic “episodes” in favor of turning Star Wars into a World War II movie-style combat drama, Rogue One is consequently packed with thinly sketched characters whose motivations barely have time to catch up with the film’s complicated but not necessarily complex plot, which is mostly a video-game-ish “go here, do this, get that thing” affair, with of course intergalactic democracy in the balance.
Never less than exciting even if the story and characters are generally on autopilot.
More remarkable are the deadly stakes and the impressively high on-screen body count. This is a relatively violent film, loaded with close quarters fighting and culminating in a massive, nearly 40-minute air/land/space battle that might be some of the most visceral action in the franchise’s history. Director Gareth Edwards shoots everything somewhat docu-verité style, with a lot of handheld, distinctive from the mostly tripod-locked style of the main entries. It’s never less than exciting even if the story and characters are generally on autopilot. Another matter entirely is the mandate of a newly expanding cinematic universe. There are plenty of cute little easter eggs here and winking nods there, but the decision to cram in lengthy cameos from major established characters (sometimes with the use of some state-of-the-art but still thoroughly unconvincing CGI) is a huge distraction reeking of fan service, gumming up the already wonky pace and making needless direct links to already well-documented stories (even if it does return a certain someone to scary status). There’s clearly plenty of room in the Empire for all sorts of stories (and you could do a lot worse than The Guns of the Navarone in a galaxy far, far away), but Rogue One‘s biggest problem is that it doesn’t feel entirely confident in telling a new or different one.
The Harry Potter franchise officially becomes an Expanded Cinematic Universe with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first in what Warner Bros. promises will be five J.K. Rowling-scripted original films, prequels to the Potter‘s proper. Centering around conservationalist wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who travels the globe capturing said fantastic beasts and shoving them into
If the source material for Doctor Strange, the 14th entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, suggested the company might finally be open to the surreal potential of their comics, what with sorcerers and cross-dimensional antics, the payoff is surprisingly dull, despite some frequently amusing eye-candy. The final third of last year’s Ant-Man was ultimately much trippier (and funnier), even though both films share the same problem
Based on the true story of Army Medic Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield here), a devout Seventh-Day Adventist and conscientious objector who rescued dozens of soldiers while refusing to kill an enemy or carry a weapon, Mel Gibson’s latest directorial effort is both a simple, deliberate Johnny-Goes-To-War melodrama and an incredibly brutal depiction of combat.
2012’s Jack Reacher was, at its best, an amusingly bare-bones action movie with a level of simplicity that may have felt a bit like a gritty ’70s throwback to some, but that more realistically resembled a made-for-cable movie circa the early ’90s. Never Go Back doubles down on the latter vibe and the result is virtually indistinguishable from something you might have watched on TNT in 1993 starring Michael Pare or James Remar
At the start of American Honey, Jake and Star, its two lead characters (played by Shia LeBeouf and newcomer Sasha Lane, respectively) meet and somehow immediately fall for each other as Rihanna’s “We Found Love” blares over a Wal-Mart PA. “We found love in a hopeless place…” goes the song, and it seems like that’s the only working thesis for this deliberately grungy (yet undeniably gorgeous), busted pop fairy tale.
Late in Eastwood’s chronicle of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s emergency water landing of US Air 1549 (dubbed the “Miracle on the Hudson”)—and the investigation that follows—Sully (a white-haired Tom Hanks) turns to his co-pilot (Aaron Eckhart), saying, “We did our job.” That pretty much sums up this simple story of pragmatic, unassuming, collective heroism and cool thinking in a state of crisis. Sully manages to save every passenger on board and is hailed as a hero by the media.
Initially presenting as another in a long, increasingly ossified line of rural neo-noirs (see also Out of the Furnace, Cold in July, Bad Turn Worse, on and on), Hell or High Water eventually manages to tease out a modestly novel threat to tug on as far as the subgenre’s general motivators of economic desperation and thwarted masculinity go. After the opening scene in which divorced dad Toby (Chris Pine) and his ex-con brother Tanner knock over a West Texas bank, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were watching one of those more generic films; neither Toby’s inexperience nor Tanner’s bravado and bug-eyed aggression would be out of place in them. But those are red herrings. These aren’t modern day desperadoes driven by greed or stupidity, they’re working-class men whose mutual histories of bad decision-making and machismo have become intertwined with the region’s rapidly dwindling economic opportunities (although the literal signs dotting the film’s landscape offering debt relief and cheap loans are a tad on the nose). Now they’re robbing branches of the bank that’s perilously close to succeeding in conning their mother out of possibly oil-rich property, and using the money to cover the mortgage. Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) bluntly articulates all this in a speech he gives to his partner about these tiny communities in which it’s nearly impossible to earn a living anymore, which strays a bit into No Country for Old Men territory with his elder lawman explicating the movie’s themes, but then again Hamilton himself is at the end of his line, shortly due to retire and feeling every bit the relic of an Old West culture that still struggles to assert itself, something the script (by Sicario‘s Taylor Sheridan, quietly developing quite the voice) hints at with colorful bursts of detail like an impromptu posse of good-ol’ boys forming to chase the robbers, or an ornery customer taking potshots at them during a holdup. A less interesting film would stop at this culture merely cannibalizing itself, but Hell or High Water has the empathy to make itself about characters trying to break that cycle the only way they know how.
The title of this pre-Suicide Club entry—which Sion Sono categorizes as a straight pink film—pretty much sums up the film in its entirety. Together with his wife, a master pottery maker (played by Sono himself), crippled by some unnamed malady, channels sexual energy into art. The couple teach a pottery class with just three naïve students (two eager, nubile girls and a nerdy guy), the ultimate goal of which is to maintain their long-standing winning streak at a local art fair. That sounds like a fairly fertile premise for a sexplo movie, but Sono does almost nothing with it; the instructors extoll the virtues of using love to create their pieces, but that mostly entails endless, blandly shot softcore scenes, with an awful lot of humping and moaning, packed with repetitive, shticky jokes, like a vase being, uh, blown into shape or molded by a girl’s boobs. There’s a lot of smearing of clay on naked bodies in these near-constant sexual encounters, but beyond that this desperately longs for a dose of real sleaze or at the very least some imaginative camerawork, qualities that tend to enliven even the most dreadfully tired pinku (and there are a great many). The film also displays exactly none of the crazed imagery, occasional dangerous eroticism, or go-for-it playfulness of recent, more evidently gonzo Sono efforts like Tokyo Tribe, which soared through its two-plus hours while this is a slog at a mere 65 minutes. One longs to know what a true pink auteur like Norifumi Suzuki (School of the Holy Beast) or Masaru Konuma (Wife to Be Sacrificed) could’ve done with this material.
It takes almost 30 minutes to introduce most (somehow still not all) of the major characters in David Ayer’s DC Comics adaptation Suicide Squad. A couple even get introduced twice. Coming on the heels of tepid response (despite relatively massive box office) to like-it-or-not mega-franchise kickoff Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Ayer’s effort bears all the hallmarks of not just ordinarily clunky studio filmmaking but a frantic attempt to retool a film nobody expected to have to bear the burden of both meeting its planned release date and course-correcting an upcoming slate of cinematically-universed blockbusters. Pinballing between the mini-origin stories of more than a half-dozen “meta-human” bad guys, pulled together by a hawkish government agent (Viola Davis, unsurprisingly a bright spot) to go on dangerous special missions, this opening chunk is crowded with on-screen text, jagged cuts, whip-pans, and on-the-nose needle drops. It’s exhausting, barely coherent, and probably the most exhilarating part of the movie, leaving you feel totally off-balance in spite of the relentless exposition. Sadly the rest of this beast settles into endless, generically bloodless, blandly-covered scenes of machine-gun fire—a real disappointment given that Suicide Squad‘s core “heroes” are people like an expert marksman, a psychotic lady clown, a crocodile man, a samurai woman whose sword “captures the souls of those she kills,” a 6,000-year-old witch, and so forth.
This future franchise’s needs neuter what might’ve worked a lot better had it been closer to David Ayer’s patented brand of mean-guy jerk-off material.
All of this is often agreeably weird (if never remotely coherent), but the marketing department’s mandate for both a series jumpstart and a PG-13 rating intervene; the whole film is constantly interrupted by jokes, lightning-fast action beats that come out of nowhere and end just as quickly, and shoehorned-in subplots (especially one featuring Jared Leto’s annoying Joker, which could be excised entirely without effecting the plot) meant to tie this to future DC installments. It’s as if the whole thing was put together based entirely on test-screening feedback cards, which probably wouldn’t surprise anyone if it had been. Individual scenes and performances stand out, especially when they feature Will Smith’s hitman-with-a-heart-of-gold and Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn (who gets all the good jokes), but the jumbled narrative ensures that those arcs (which also needlessly turn villains into troubled souls who aren’t so bad once you get to know them) never pay off. Ayer has a flair for ultraviolent ensemble action movies about repellent assholes (see the gleefully nasty Sabotage or the director’s diet-Sam Fuller WWII epic Fury), but this future franchise’s needs neuter what might’ve worked a lot better had it been closer to Ayer’s patented brand of mean-guy jerk-off material.
Let’s get this out of the way right up front: the new Ghostbusters remake/reboot/whatever isn’t a bad movie because it stars four women instead of four men. It isn’t bad because it somehow tarnishes the legacy of an alleged 80s classic either (honestly, there isn’t much to tarnish; Ivan Reitman’s 1984 film is merely fine). It’s bad because Paul Feig directed it. Feig is quite evidently good at collecting some very talented performers and getting them to improv a bunch of one-liners while they stand around on sets, but he is just as evidently awful at stringing those scenes into an actual film. He indifferently plops the camera down and lets them riff, and the generally very funny women he’s gathered here (Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones) are brutally underserved by his seemingly active disinterest in narrative, making most of the jokes feel mailed in from some other modern random-gag comedy, like one of Adam McKay’s Anchorman movies.
Only McKinnon really gets away clean. Her tech-genius character Holtzmann seems genuinely unhinged and even dangerous, even if Feig can’t resist having her mug into the camera in nearly every shot in which she appears (not to mention allowing her to do an entire scene eating a nicely displayed can of Pringles). Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold seem to think that the gender-swap alone is reason enough to make this movie vital, even making the villain (who only appears in four or maybe five brief scenes) a bullied man-child nerd angry that the world doesn’t take him seriously. But in failing to really do anything — anything at all! — with the core concept here, this new version falls into the same trap as the old one. The idea of a bunch of funny people fighting ghosts is still pretty bulletproof, instantly generating any number of possibilities, but none of the Ghostbusters movies have ever bothered to actually create a story to explore that richness, and have instead opted, each time, for a breezy hangout comedy. That’s not intrinsically a problem, but at least Reitman had Laszlo Kovacs for a cinematographer and an army of genius effects folks busy inventing brand new techniques to bring this world to life, whereas Feig’s film degenerates into a smear of endless CGI sludge and cameos from the old gang so strained you’ll be longing for Stan Lee to show up. It’s weird that nobody involved seemed to care about crafting an interesting Ghostbusters movie, which will ironically make all the misogynist trolls who hated it, sight unseen, probably very happy.