Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Clueless with a Vengeance — “Do Revenge”

What “Clueless” once did with Jane Austen, “Do Revenge” does with Alfred Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith. The original “Strangers on a Train” tells the noir tale of two passing strangers agreeing to commit vengeance for the other. It’s the perfect crime because no one could ever suspect they know each other – the only time they’ve met is this one moment, without witness. Naturally, “Do Revenge” transposes this into a teen comedy.

Camila Mendes plays Drea, a student at a private high school who – despite being a scholarship kid – has managed to become the most popular girl in school. That is, until a private video she films for her boyfriend is leaked.

Maya Hawke plays Eleanor, a quiet wallflower transferring to Drea’s high school. The pair meet at a summer tennis camp. Eleanor was once outed as gay, her confidant not only betraying her trust, but also inventing a story that posed her as a predator.

Drea wants vengeance on her ex-boyfriend Max. Eleanor wants vengeance on Carissa. Neither can approach their target – they’d be seen coming a mile away. They agree to swap targets and do each other’s revenge.

You’ll lean one way or the other hearing that description. If you think that’s your jam, then yes it is. “Do Revenge” is exactly what you’re expecting, and much better than you’d anticipate.

If you’re wary of it, that’s why I made the “Clueless” comparison. It’s not just about the premise, in that both transpose classic stories into teen comedies. It’s about how well each pulls it off. “Clueless” nails the etiquette-as-set piece ethic of Austen, while “Do Revenge” understands the tension of Hitchcock and Highsmith isn’t told through the vengeance, but rather in the evolving power dynamic between the two strangers.

On a surface level, comedies can be measured pretty simply. Did you laugh, and do you feel good thinking back about what you laughed at? “Do Revenge” nails its jokes, in-joking social awareness, lampooning what bigots imagine ‘woke’ culture to be, and satirizing the performative allyship that mires forward progress.

What about the other part? Do you feel good thinking back on what you laughed at? Does its memory spark joy and whatnot? Go with me on a tangent. “Do Revenge” isn’t technically a remake, and there aren’t many good remakes of Hitchcock films to start with – but if it was and there were, it’d be the best. Wow, what a strong if-if-then statement. Brush it to the side, it’s nonsense. What’s past it is what’s interesting. Remakes need a reason to be remade; otherwise, what’s the point? “Do Revenge” has some of the best reasons to take this premise and reimagine what it’s capable of showing us.

“Do Revenge” isn’t just window dressing Hitchcock/Highsmith as a teen comedy. Celeste Ballard and Jennifer Kaytin Robinson (who also directs) completely rethink and rewrite what the “Strangers on a Train” premise can discuss about violence and hierarchy. What can it tackle in this moment in time, when people just trying to survive are already exhausted by con artists, cults, performative allyship, and the performance required in response to endure all these just to make it to the point where we forget who the hell we’re trying to survive as in the first place.

The jokes in “Do Revenge” riff on co-opted narratives, on defining social value through cultism, and on how characters can spin identity in a way that misrepresents the reason it’s important. These are all questions the U.S. can’t even process in a responsible way right now. This is the same week a bunch of MLM tupperware party racists can’t process that a fictional mermaid from fictional Atlantica in the fictional “The Little Mermaid” who’s going to sing a bunch of calypso- and reggae-infused songs could be Black. It’s not that the Disney animated version co-opted that music and identity, it’s that returning it is a violation of something, who knows, buy the mug, subscribe and click that bell. Suddenly they’re the victims of…I don’t really know what and neither do they because they made up that victimhood – but 40% of the country signs up for the newsletter.

There is a need to laugh at this, and to do so viciously in a way that’s a kindness to ourselves, to laugh as a type of primal scream (which also features). Do I feel good thinking back on what I laughed at in “Do Revenge”? You’re damn straight. Thank writers like these that someone’s reminding us how ridiculous it is. There’s a clarity that comes with being able to make fun of all this, not just at the level of pointing it out, but at the level of recognizing what it does to us.

In this way, the high school setting is a perfect choice – cliques offer a constant ability to force people into roles others define. The ability to erase identity even as it’s co-opted, of who has the ability to play victim better, informs Drea and Eleanor’s ability to even take vengeance on their targets. Max milks endless sympathy out of the school for the leak of Drea’s private video, even as the school shuns her for sending it. That’s one of the most realistic elements I’ve seen in movies.

The comedy doesn’t just work, it excels, it aims and sinks teeth. What about everyone delivering it?

Mendes and Hawke are both good, but Hawke’s leveling a performance that you usually don’t see in a teen comedy. She’s reminiscent of both her parents – Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke. Obviously that goes for appearance, but I mean in terms of nuance. She’s doing so many of the little things it took Ethan Hawke most of his career to figure out, and she has Thurman’s preternatural awareness for how the camera interprets eyeline, posture, and blocking. Maya Hawke’s is one of the best comedy performances of the year.

The filmmaking goes the extra mile as well. Design, staging, and cinematography all fuse to create some unique visual motifs – particularly a use of symmetry used in a discomfiting way. Visual themes repeat and invert – then poke fun at themselves just enough to remind you of ways other films in the genre are being echoed or subverted.

The writing stands out. I already covered landing both the jokes and the intent, but a comedy can be many things. Laughing is the main goal, but in between those laughs does it add a situational cleverness that keeps me smiling and engaged? Does it have that darkly ironic tone that keeps me needing to know what happens next? Is there contrast – is it just big, isolated jokes, or is there a pattering of rapid-fire jokes mixed in? Does it mix the hanging punchline with the big set-up, the visual gag with running banter? If the natural rhythm of the screenplay runs through different ways of being funny, then it’s not just the jokes that are funny – it’s also the surprise at what kind of joke is being told in each moment. It staggers my anticipation, and when I can’t predict the timing in the back of my head as a viewer, that means the comedy has full mastery over its timing.

I honestly didn’t expect a whole lot from “Do Revenge” starting out, but it’s a viciously smart comedy that holds your interest and evokes catharsis. It’s full of wacky hijinks, visually engaging filmmaking, a surprisingly intense story, a weirdly intact 90s ethic and musical score, an absolutely slayed performance by Maya Hawke. Everything I look for in a film like this, “Do Revenge” surpasses in as varied yet cohesive a way as I could want.

You can watch “Do Revenge” on Netflix.

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Fancy Brain Doctors Hate This One Simple Memory Test — “Jurassic World: Dominion”

There are so many ways to remake later franchise movies with the same beats as the original. Take the recent “Prey”, which acknowledges the “Predator” movies that have come before it with clever references and inversions of your expectations. It does these things without breaking immersion and with its own clear priorities. It includes franchise references in a way that serves the story it wants to tell. “Jurassic World” also does this pretty well. Just not this “Jurassic World”. The 2015 movie was a smart rehash of the original “Jurassic Park”, serving up references for fans while creating its own original tension and action…while unfortunately suffering from a cynical, antiquated opinion about women’s roles.

Now we come to “Jurassic World: Dominion”, a rehash of “Jurassic World” rehashing “Jurassic Park”. We should know by the sixth movie in the franchise that the more you clone, the more you’ve got to fill in the missing DNA gaps with frogs, wacky lizards, and probably some stuff from Australia we’d rather not know about. The storytelling gaps are cavernous and awkwardly spliced.

Say what you want about the last film, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”, but it stuck a designer dinosaur into the role normally played by a ghost stalking a Victorian haunted mansion – complete with a child hiding a chilling secret. It was an effective riff that took the franchise into territory it had never tried. This also makes it the only one out of five sequels even interested in new genre territory.

There’s no such commitment to anything new here. There are so many chances “Jurassic World: Dominion” had to be great, too. It’s like watching beautiful scenery pass by out the window from a train as it hurtles off a cliff.

Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire, the former operator of Jurassic World, is now an ecoterrorist busting illegal dinosaur breeding facilities. I’d love to watch a whole film about that, so at the end of the opening scene, her group breaks apart and she gives that life up.

But it’s OK, cause Chris Pratt’s Owen is in one of those old cigarette commercials where men on horses live off the plain on nothing but gumption and grit. Instead of rounding up horses or cattle, he’s rounding up Parasaurolophus and…you know what, I’m just going to describe his scenes as if they’re dialogue from his “Parks & Rec” character Andy Dwyer:

ANDY: So then I lasso the dinosaur from my horse.

RON: A Parasaurolophus weighs 8,000 pounds. That horse is 800 soaking wet. It’s going to pull you to the ground, son.

ANDY: Then I’ll just body surf along the ground and use my lightning reflexes to wrap the rope around a tree stump.

RON: That dinosaur will pull you and the tree stump behind it without even noticing.

ANDY: Not if he turns around and becomes my friend first.

Yeah, that’s a scene. Claire and Owen are taking care of Maisie, the cloned girl from “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”. They live deep in the woods with their velociraptor Blue and her new baby, Beta. Maisie resents not being allowed to go anywhere – not even into town. Ooh, is this going to be a Spielbergian movie about a fractured family brought closer together by their shared love for the baby velociraptor they raise?

Wait, why isn’t Maisie allowed to go anywhere? Because every mercenary in the world is after the cloned girl. Ah, so we’re going to get an awesome siege sequence where mercenaries with dinosaurs fight a Parasaurolophus-roping everyman, his ecoterrorist wife, their adopted clone daughter, and mom-and-baby velociraptor? I will watch that every day for the rest of my li– nope, Maisie just rides her bike directly onto the one-lane bridge a sketchy vehicle is clearly and visibly parked on. The mercenaries are just there to chauffeur Maisie and Beta to the next scene.

At least this leads us into the genre “Jurassic World: Dominion” wants to briefly try: the spy film. Welcome the half hour of the movie where dinosaurs are an afterthought. Now eventually you do plan to have dinosaurs in your dinosaur movie, right? Don’t worry, you’ll see them as they’re being trafficked at a black market in Malta that totally isn’t presented in a wildly racist way.

Wait, why are they at a black market in Malta? Cause that’s where Owen’s CIA contact (yes, really) says Maisie and Beta are being taken.

Claire decides to search for Maisie by showing her daughter’s picture to exactly one random person, a woman she bumps into in the bathroom. Wildly convenient then that this is the one person who’s actually seen Maisie. I mean, they could have had a CIA character be like, “Make sure you bump into this woman”, but nope, it’s just happenstance that the one person Claire bothers to ask is the one person worth asking.

Luckily, DeWanda Wise’s Kayla also has a plane, which is perfect for when things go wrong and dinosaurs are set loose to stomp all over Malta. At least we finally get exactly what we want to see in a dinosaur movie: Chris Pratt knife-fighting a mercenary.

Sigh.

ANDY: So he comes at me with a knife, but not before a baby dinosaur eats his arm.

LESLIE: The whole thing?

ANDY: Dinosaurs are big, so a baby one can probably eat an arm.

DONNA: Can’t he just fight with his other arm?

ANDY: Not if there’s two baby dinosaurs.

At least the dinosaurs get to have a motorbike chase. Well, the dinosaurs don’t have motorbikes, but that might’ve been better. Long story short, half the cast is on Kayla’s plane to Maisie’s destination: the totally innocuously named Biosyn’s remote dinosaur park, where I’m sure nothing bad will happen.

Let’s leave them aside. What should be the highlight of “JW: Dom” is the original “Jurassic Park” trio of Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, and Sam Neill. Unfortunately, they’re woefully written, with no idea for how older generations, or humans of any sort, think and speak. Goldblum can sell it, but Dern and Neill feel like they’re acting out a soap opera on its last legs and desperate to gin up some press by getting the original pair back together. Will they or won’t they? It turns out they found the one narrow, hidden path along which I don’t care. It’s actually pretty cool that Dern’s Ellie Sattler moved on with her life as a professor, lecturer, field botanist, agricultural investigator, and parent. She’s leading a team investigating prehistoric locusts that are eating every crop except one corporation’s: Biosyn. The only man she can go to? Neill’s Alan Grant, who despite leading his own paleontology team is wallowing in loneliness as he pines for Ellie. Seems like a him problem, but “JW: Dom” says why not make it an all of our problem?

Ellie accepts an invitation from Biosyn’s in-house philosopher, Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm. She wants to get inside and prove that Biosyn has created these prehistoric locusts. Alan’s along as a witness, so now we’re all going to the same place. Locusts are located, planes plummet, and now everyone’s running around while dinosaurs look wide-eyed at their fresh chew toys.

APRIL: What are you going to do, Andy, the Dilophosaurus is about to spit poison all over your girlfriend!

ANDY: I make it submit with an awesome choke hold!

BEN: But there are three other Dilophosaurs watching its back. Did they just disappear? The whole point of this exercise is to plan ahead–

ANDY: That’s why I’ve trained as a ninja all my life, knowing one day I’d have to sneak up on a dinosaur to save the woman I love.

BEN: [sighs] Just roll initiative.

About the only one who saves the constant zipping back and forth is Bryce Dallas Howard. She’s not doing anything award-worthy, but she is the one putting forth the effort when it comes to physically throwing herself into scenes in a way that a “Jurassic [map feature]” film asks.

For every scene, it’s just a checklist. Are the characters in a jeep? Cool, let’s make sure we get the shots that remind the audience of the time a jeep drove off a road, the time a jeep fell off a cliff, the time someone hid in an upside down jeep, the time someone jumped out of the jeep with a flare. That’s just one scene about one thing. Name a reference and there’s a checklist of references that will be done for it in the most joylessly unironic way possible.

Do you remember the time a Tyrannosaurus was challenged by another apex predator and had to fight while the cast ran away, like in JPs 1 and 3, but was then saved by the interjection of a third badassosaur like in JW1? You want to see that done worse, in a more perfunctory way, complete with an unintentional slapstick ending?

Do you love seeing that one shot of someone leaping out of the way as a dinosaur’s jaws snap shut behind them? Remember that famous shot from JP1? Can we do it twice with every character, with lazier and lazier editing that makes it feel like the dinosaur’s nervous about hitting its cue, and slower and slower by the time we’re doing it to the 70 year-olds? Then this is your novocaine, because by the 10th time I just couldn’t feel it anymore.

I had this feeling in the back of my mind that I’ve seen this movie done so much better very recently. It was a “smash two casts together in a monster movie” that actually embraces its absurdity in an endearing way. Last year’s “Godzilla vs. Kong” took a similar approach to hurling two casts together, complete with a girl who needs protecting, unearthing a corporate conspiracy, and giant beasts obsessed with one-upping each others’ Spielberg references. It was silly as hell, but satisfying because it combined smart visual gags and jokes with a streamlined, uncomplicated plot. I called it the “Animaniacs of monster movies” because its references were smart, funny, and moved so quickly you didn’t have to worry about them overstaying their welcome. “JW: Dom” is more like LeBron’s “Space Jam: A New Legacy”, obsessed with making sure you notice each and every reference, and just in case you didn’t, here’s a lingering close-up of it.

As a film of recognizing things, “Jurassic World: Dominion” sure exists. I’m not against this kind of movie, but you have to make it satisfying. The references have to be in service of something more meaningful – and that’s not a high bar. Fun is something more meaningful, but you can’t have it when the priority is just to recognize things. For something like the “Jurassic [domain name]” movies, opening up the toybox of memories can bring more unintended sadness at what’s been shorn from them and the opportunities that have been missed. Nostalgia is a pristine thing. To fold that into your recipe, you’d better know how to evoke childlike glee from it. If you don’t, you just end up with the checklist of references that is “JW: Dom”.

I recently wrote that I’d watch dinosaurs read a phone book, and this is the baseline level of acceptability for that. It entertains only because it reminds you of other things you were entertained by, and just hitting the baseline for this franchise feels like such a wasted opportunity.

The toybox metaphor makes me think to earlier this year and “The Book of Boba Fett”. Robert Rodriguez upended the whole toybox so everything spilled out, with constant recognizable elements from the Star Wars franchise. It could have been annoying, but he did it with such unbridled joy and enthusiasm that he got to play with these toys. You don’t need to fit paragraphs of thematic message into one insultingly reductive and by then meaningless line, you don’t need to have a checklist of sub-references you need to make for every reference, and you don’t need a spy movie interlude to justify Chris Pratt’s paycheck. You just need to communicate joy that we all get to be here for two hours-plus. You can sense when it’s there, and you can sense when it’s lacking.

The point of “JW: Dom” is to recognize things, as if a test to see whether 90s kids are suffering from dementia yet. No, we’re in our 30s, get off our landlord’s lawn. The story is in service to checking off these moments of recognition, rather than being the priority that enables these moments to shine. A movie can’t be a movie when it’s just trying to be a memory test. All that does is show us how much the people behind it didn’t even bother to understand in the first place.

You can watch “Jurassic World: Dominion” on Peacock, or see where to rent it.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

Gorgeous, Thoughtful Alien Splatter Action — “Prey”

“Prey” understands pace better than the vast majority of movies, action or otherwise. A good action movie should ebb and flow. Early details that become important later should return in a way that feels natural, not predictable. We should make realizations as the characters do, and those characters should matter. Their relationships should matter because this is what suspense arises from, and suspense is the most meaningful element in action. You can’t just rely on a contrast between slow moments and breakneck action; you need to establish a relationship where they inform each other in a way that draws the audience in more and more. “Prey” evokes this uniquely cinematic sense of pace so well that it establishes itself as the best entry in the “Predator” franchise.

It’s 1719. We follow a Comanche woman named Naru, who wants to be a hunter. Many in the tribe object to this, though her brother Taabe can be supportive at times. Needless to say, an alien Predator has come to Earth to hunt whatever presents itself as an interesting threat – animals and humans alike. Naru insists there’s something else out there, bigger and more dangerous than a bear or mountain lion, but no one believes her. She sets off with her loyal dog to prove it.

There’s an approach to action movies where everything is used efficiently, where every detail is a Chekhov’s Gun we know is going to come back and be meaningful later. I don’t like that approach. I want my Red Herrings. I want my Chekhov’s Guns that end up failing, and Red Herrings that turn into Chekhov’s Guns when you look at them differently. That makes a great action movie, one that doesn’t just satisfy your expectations, but can play with them so expertly that it wraps up your anticipation as a willing ally.

There are suspense and splatter horror elements and some extremely atmospheric action in “Prey”. What ties them all together is a playful yet patient sense of storytelling and editing. It satisfies and subverts your expectations from previous “Predator” movies and action movies in general.

“Prey” is stunningly gorgeous. You don’t necessarily expect this from an action movie, but it’s nice when it happens. Much of this is due to the vast majority of the film being shot outdoors, often leaning on natural light. There’s a sense of peace and nature to it – and not in the way of some stereotypical approach to Native Americans. Instead, I’d say the closest comparison for its use of natural light would be a Terrence Malick movie. This is aided by a stretch in the middle of “Prey” having very little dialogue, building a foreboding relationship between the quiet and dread. Director Dan Trachtenberg has also spoken about the influence of Malick’s “The New World”, “Days of Heaven”, and “The Thin Red Line”.

This different pace and atmospherically textured approach makes the Predator’s inclusion feel stranger, more sudden, and truly alien. There’s also an opportunity for the Predator’s metaphor – a trophy hunter visiting Earth – to speak to the ongoing imperialism and genocide of Native tribes. French trappers figure into the plot in a way that makes them feel just as alien as the Predator – though smartly without lending them the power fantasy.

The acting is exceptional, particularly on the part of lead Amber Midthunder and Dakota Beavers, who plays Naru’s brother. Midthunder plays a rebellious action hero with inspired physicality. Beavers delivers Taabe with a mixture of arrogance and care, of carrying a burden for others, and measured concern that his care for them will make him fail that burden. His is a deceptively complex supporting role that I hope catches the praise it deserves. Most of the cast is Native American or First Nations (including all the Comanche parts, thankfully).

“Prey” is also artistically thick. Of course, many of the references are to Comanche art – both modern such as Doc Tate Nevaquaya, and traditional.

There are references to George Catlin’s paintings of Comanche villages. It’s worth noting that while these have anthropological importance, context is needed. His complex relationship to those he painted was described by anthropologist Renato Rosaldo as “’imperialist nostalgia,’ a yearning for that which one has directly or indirectly participated in destroying”. While he did record a way of life that was being violently erased, one can’t assume he did so without a biased eye.

It doesn’t feel like “Prey” takes these references uninformed, however. There’s no feeling of imperialist romanticism toward the Comanche, nor of subscribing to any racist or “noble savage” tropes. The Catlin influence is in there because it is a record of sorts, but it’s informed and measured out by a range of other influences.

There are many other details that shine through. Naru’s loyal American dingo, or Carolina Dog, reflects a once-common breed that many tribes used for hunting across the Americas. “Prey” producer Jhane Myers is Comanche and Blackfeet and has spoken about the focus on incorporating accurate Comanche aspects. The film also has a Day One Comanche dub and subtitle options, a first for a ‘major release’.

You’re obviously coming to “Prey” for the action. It’s great, across the board. The fight choreo is creative, and doesn’t feel isolated – it constantly interacts with complications introduced by the location and design elements. It’s these other details that make the action feel more consequential and engaging, though. “Prey” doesn’t just get action right, it gets the storytelling right. It gets the build-up right. All the little ways it justifies and subverts your expectations feed into its suspense. Its often breathtaking cinematic beauty and painterly execution elevates the atmosphere of the film while making the “Predator” franchise’s strong B-movie bogeyman roots feel as alien and otherworldly as they should.

For “Predator” franchise fans, there are a number of references, but not in that overburdened, “must explain everything” way that (the otherwise very good) “Solo” took with Star Wars. There are layers of reference that are there if you know them, but they aren’t belabored or highlighted. They’re cleverly and quickly implemented before they’re gone again and more important things are happening.

There are things to criticize, but they’re relatively minor. A few animals are realized in CG. While a Predator can largely be acted and puppeteered, not so with a bear. You can tell some elements that are CG, and I know that can impact viewers’ immersion, but it didn’t detract anything for me.

I’d argue that the core “Predator” franchise is much stronger than people credit it. “Predator”, “Predator 2”, and “Predators” are all well realized action movies. With “Prey”, that gives it four good movies out of five. When I say “Prey” is the best in the franchise, it’s not measuring against one Schwarzenegger film, it’s measuring against three other good films. But that also seems like a small pool to measure it against. “Prey” is a great movie, artistically compelling and with something to say within the action genre. It delivers much more than I expected.

One thing that initially gave me pause is the notion that the lead characters were referred to by the title: “Prey”. Sure, it’s some smart wordplay, but what does that say about its perspective on the Comanche, or relationships of power between cultures? The loveliest, most fulfilling realization I had watching “Prey” is that the title still refers to the alien.

You can watch “Prey” on Hulu.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

Commando 2: Bourne Infinity Extraction Impossible 7 — “The Gray Man”

Do you remember in high school when you and your friends sat around making up worse and worse action movie one-liners? You’d laugh at all the terrible puns, and see if you could come up with something truly Schwarzenegger-worthy. We were kings and queens and dreamers then, speaking countless screenplays into the night air fueled on nothing but Swedish Fish, Root Beer, and insomnia. Memories of it are just a sensation now, every word spoken lost into the ether. That’s a shame, not because of what time makes us lose, but because every detail, every terrible impression and excruciating half-joke we came up with, was light years better than the god damn nonsense bullshit excuse for a screenplay in “The Gray Man”. Just think of the millions we could’ve made if this is what’s getting greenlit. None of us thought of bringing a notebook! None of us thought, Hey, let’s record this tripe in case some future production company just splashes money onto shit people scribble on napkins, drop in a fountain, step on, and then turn into a screenplay by using Google Translate to fill in the blanks like frog DNA in a fricking dinosaur. Cause that’s the screenplay for “The Gray Man”. Every piece of dialogue is a barrage of one-liners that thinks it’s just the cleverest shit ever written, but isn’t self-aware enough to just be bad or edit itself into a pun. It’s like they took that line from “John Wick” where the Russian mafia boss explains how badass Keanu Reeves is and were like, “Yes, but what if entire movie words just these”. Well you did it. You god damn did it.

So I disliked it, right? Oh, but the explosions are so pretty. Make it through the first 40 minutes of hackneyed fucking dross and you’re like, “I really want to turn this off, not even Billy Bob Thornton can make this dialogue work”, but then you might notice a strange thing happen. It can only be described as magical, for what else but magic could give you the one thing you want most in life in that moment, and make it even better than you could have dreamed. That’s right: Everyone in this movie finally shuts the fuck up and just starts shooting each other.

Don’t get me wrong, there are two big action sequences in those first 40 minutes. They are terrible, so terrible that you might wonder what the goddamn point of this action movie is if it can’t even get words or action right? But then, I don’t know, someone came to their senses and stopped huffing the Swedish Fish and was like, “Oh wait, we’re the Russo Brothers, the guys in charge of the MCU, didn’t we know what we’re doing at some point”? And fucking behold, once you get your nose out of the Swedish Fish, you remember what a camera does. Do we want to swing it around wildly and cut away from the fight to highlight firework cannons being shot at the camera so we can’t see anything? Or do we want to feature the actual fight choreography? Oh shit, we’re out of firework cannons, guess we should try the other thing.

Jesus Christ. Fucking what. The first two sequences are so horribly, over-the-top edited, I thought that Ryan Gosling must’ve flunked the fight choreography so hard the only choice they had left was to cut around every movement and never show a full sequence of strikes. But nope, he does fine later. They just wanted to be “Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever” for 40 minutes. Shaky-cam is not the problem here. Cutting one punch in for every two fireworks you show blasted in the audience’s face is. This approach is junked later, but even if you do ditch the awful aspects of your film a third of the way through, it still bears the question why you didn’t just do that earlier or edit or get a script doctor, or just reshoot or hell – I would have taken a “Star Wars” style text crawl.

Having mastered every other role, Ryan Gosling now embodies an off-the-books hitman with the energy of a wet shrug. How you sap this dude of charisma is beyond me, but they Dementor the fun out of him for like, the first hour-and-a-half. We do know he’s glib since we’re told in the first scene that he’s glib. Thanks for that, otherwise I wouldn’t have known. It just seems a waste to box such a dynamic actor into an itty-bitty cage, but hey, you do you.

He’s faced with an anything-goes intelligence contractor in the form of Captain America himself, a trashy, mustache-twirling Chris Evans. Evans gives it his all. He even makes some of the one liners work because he wags his tail so hard about it you’re just like, OK, fine, Chris, you can have this one, I’ll just pretend you’re doing a TikTok. As much as I love him and lobby people to pay attention to his non-Marvel career, Evans is not up to the against-type standard set by Daniel Craig.

It’s Ana de Armas who really stands out, perhaps the only one to overcome the dialogue and realize a character who’s more than a wafer-thin caricature. Her CIA field agent Dani is the spark of quality acting and actual timing the movie desperately needs to keep it from collapsing in on itself, and she comes off as the most badass of the bunch. If you’re looking for an action hero in this movie, she’s the one with an argument for a franchise.

Billy Bob Thornton is what you expect, which is to say Billy Bob Thornton starring Billy Bob Thornton brought to you by Billy Bob Thornton. Alfre Woodard breathes some fresh air into things for five minutes. Bollywood star Dhanush brings all the charisma Gosling forgot for two extremely memorable fight scenes. Rege-Jean Page uh, he’ll have more chances, possibly even with writers next time. Jessica Henwick plays a secondary villain, but really her job’s to read you all the other characters’ biographies because a hundred years of filmmaking apparently haven’t demonstrated properly how to fold that information into the story itself.

The overriding feeling I have from “The Gray Man” is that every aspect it incorporates is done far better elsewhere by something very recent. For all its wannabe Bourne, Bond, and Mission: Impossible trappings, “The Gray Man” is really just a gussied up “Commando”, with Gosling aiming his way toward Evans’s castle and the little girl he’s kidnapped.

Gosling’s connection with the girl in their pseudo father-daughter pairing? Virtually nonexistent and shoved on us in five minutes of ineffective flashback. It’s got nothing on last year’s “Kate” and the deeply impactful work Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Miku Martineau get done in between stellar fight scenes.

Whirligig fight choreo extravaganza? “The Princess” is far more effective, and its humor far more successful, even if it shows the seams of its budget.

Super-stylized mash of action genres with an A-list of stars? “Gunpowder Milkshake” embodies the action movie as pop art in the way “The Gray Man” embodies the action movie as wait-what-were-we-doing?

Smart action borrowing from the gun ballet lessons of “John Wick”? Well, I mean there’s “John Wick” if you want it cheese, chocolate, and wine, and there’s “Extraction” if it’s a burger or pizza kind of night.

Spycraft mixed in with effective, personally consequential action? The last pair of “Mission: Impossible” movies are legitimately great films.

For a minute, I thought “The Gray Man” was going to emulate some of Indonesia’s best action thrillers, such as “The Raid” films, the gory “The Night Comes for Us”, or the suffocating but utterly, utterly exquisite “Headshot”. Yet these are martial arts films, and not just films with martial arts in them; they’re films where a fight scene can carry as much beauty, plot, and emotional change as a well-written dialogue scene – but “The Gray Man” holds later set pieces that impress, not ones that communicate much of anything.

The chief argument for “The Gray Man” is its size and budget. Everything is bigger and louder. The first two action scenes are disasters, but after this, and after the characters mostly shut up and just let Ana de Armas handle all that word stuff that’s popular these days, the whole thing cleans up, gets its shit in order, stops caring about being anything other than “Commando”, and uses its bigness and loudness the way you were expecting from the beginning. It doesn’t surprise, but it does – eventually – satisfy.

Do I like it? I mean, I kind of dislike that I don’t. That doesn’t mean I like it; it just means it’s there. It’s like noticing a rock on the ground. Sure, there are rocks in the world that are pretty and that I might like, and there are rocks in the world where I pass by and think, “Eh, you could do better”. But most rocks I pass by without thinking too much about them, since they’re rocks. That’s how I feel about “The Gray Man”. It has some sparkly bits that draw you in, but after you realize it’s otherwise just a normal rock, you might think you spent way more time on it than it needed when there’s a neat, purple swirly one over yonder.

I like certain elements in “The Gray Man”. De Armas is the action hero this should have been about. Evans is having fun, even if it amounts to little more than a shtick. If its one strength is being big and loud, it has one of the most successfully big and loud action scenes I’ve ever seen (you’ll know it when you see it). If you’re a connoisseur of action movies, it’s worth a watch.

“The Gray Man” does an exemplary job of demonstrating just how hard it is to make spy films or write dialogue for them before it finally gives up and accepts its fate as an action movie.

Huge chunks of the first half needed to be edited out. The Russo Brothers should have known to cut action scenes that serve no purpose and fail to advance character or story in any way. Hell, there’s one fight scene where the supposedly practical characters acknowledge it doesn’t need to happen but since the movie needs it to happen, they just have it anyway. That’s fine if you’re “Hudson Hawk”, but this isn’t a meta treatment, or a film looking in on itself. It’s the writers thinking you don’t even want them to try, so why should they? The fight that follows is good, but…there are a lot of fight scenes out there that are good, many of them housed inside movies that do the work to justify their need.

The spycraft dialogue is atrocious. I can’t say this enough times. It’s fucking awful. Everyone just comes off as the stereotypical asshole jock in a coming-of-age movie. The film also keeps delving into the Russos’ superhero work before remembering it doesn’t include any superheroes. There are a few times where the hero hurtles toward a fatal injury and it’s just cut around. Suddenly he’s landed safely with no explanation. No stuntwork, no CGI excuse, just a bad edit. If you’re going to do that, you have to at least acknowledge the film is self-aware of this.

And yet…. There’s been a heat wave this week, and my brain feels like that PSA about how to fry eggs after doing drugs or whatever that was about. I’m just happy to sit in one place still enough to hope the heat doesn’t notice me, and if I can get both a hatewatch and a likewatch in on two hours time, then shit, I feel pretty productive.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to something more basic about our movie-watching experience. Like many complex human quandaries, Shakespeare put it best: a “Commando” by any other name is still as sweet.

You can watch “The Gray Man” on Netflix.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

Jane Austen as Charcuterie Board — “Persuasion”

“Persuasion” has trouble knowing what type of film it wants to become. The Jane Austen adaptation heaps on the wackiness early, to the point where you’re left wondering if they’re just making “Emma” out of it. This would be a disservice to its lead character Anne being so different from Austen’s other popular protagonists.

Anne Elliot laments at having given up her chance at love seven years earlier, when she was persuaded by friends and family not to marry sailor Frederick Wentworth because of his poverty. Now a naval captain who’s built some wealth, a series of circumstances thrusts Wentworth back into Anne’s life. This is painful for both, as etiquette, social mores of the time, and good old-fashioned anxiety prevent them from communicating how they both obviously still feel about each other. Will they or won’t they? Are they even a good match anymore? Who’s this tall, charming, yet slightly sinister second love interest who enters in the second act?

If you’re unfamiliar with Jane Austen and this all feels a bit derivative, recognize that she created significant foundation on which modern romantic comedies are built. It’s familiar because we still copy her work to this day. Because of their very similar framework and structure, going back and trying to apply modern romantic comedy elements to Austen’s work can often turn out pretty successful. Too many voices as to how that should happen, however, and it can lose focus.

In this newest “Persuasion”, Dakota Johnson’s Anne often breaks the fourth wall to deliver a glance or witty comment to the camera. The approach hews very close to “Fleabag”, but without that series’ snap and acid. “Persuasion” still wants to stay inside a classic approach to the regency genre, which means adhering to more traditional filmmaking – very stately, lots of right angles, a mind toward theatrical blocking and the medium shots that highlight it. It avoids the self-aware slam cuts, natural shooting angles, and rack focus close-ups that cinematic series comedy has embraced.

This more traditional approach makes “Persuasion” lean toward the aching and expressive in so many other ways, but without finding a way to make the more modern direct address to the audience fit. Don’t get me wrong, the British have been folding in asides since before Shakespeare, but there are traditional approaches that fit these in selectively, and then there’s the more modern approach where these asides are built directly and rhythmically into avalanches of dialogue. “Persuasion” tackles the latter with the sensibility of the former.

Johnson’s good enough that you can get away with it anyway, but this isn’t the only place where “Persuasion” is slamming elements together with crossed purposes. Take the novel’s original lines:

“There could have been no two hearts so open, no tastes so similar, no feelings so in unison, no countenances so beloved. Now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted. It was a perpetual estrangement”.

This gets turned into the anachronistic line, “Now we’re strangers. No, worse than strangers. We’re exes”. A later echo of this devolves to, “Now we’re worse than exes, we’re friends”.

Reductiveness can be utilized in interesting ways. You can absolutely go somewhere with that – just look at one of the best adaptations of Austen’s “Emma”, the 1995 Beverly Hills-set “Clueless”. It understood how and when to reduce the original material to drive a point home in other ways.

The problem with “Persuasion” is that it sets this reductive approach next to a gloomy moment of a depressed Anne walking into the sea to float and gaze at the gray sky. The intent of screenplay and direction are so wildly out of whack in this moment.

One way of illustrating this unclear focus is how aggravating the music can get. The score is very good, that’s not the problem. It’s constantly used to telegraph whether the next scene is going to be a serious Merchant Ivory yearnathon or Emma-meets-Fleabag kookiness. The scene itself should tell us that, and it does maybe half the time. The rest of the time, it’s fighting crossed intentions so much that we need the music to instruct us that a threatening moment is supposed to be in good fun, or that an oversimplified line isn’t actually supposed to be fun but pained.

Here’s what frustrates the most: I kind of like “Persuasion” anyway. This is one of the best examples in recent memory of a cast nearly saving a film. Dakota Johnson nails it. Utterly. Completely. This Anne isn’t the Anne of the book, which I can live with, but what this screenplay and film ask of her – she absolutely delivers and there are times where she’s brilliant. One of the screenplay’s mistakes is that it’s generally uninterested in Anne’s rich internal life…but Johnson’s interested enough in it for the both of them. She delivers that sense of a whole person whether the film wants to pay attention to that or not. She gives larger performances than what’s being asked of her in that moment.

One of the toughest things an actor can do is to overcome filmmaking and writing that inherently disagree and don’t give her enough to work with. Johnson is battling filmmaking that’s restrictively anguished going one way, and a screenplay that’s reductively irreverent going the other. She feels unconfined by either, and that’s an accomplishment. Hers is a star turn utterly worth watching in a movie that’s maybe-OK-I-guess.

The cast around Johnson is good. Afolabi Alli, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Ben Bailey Smith, and Henry Golding all charm in their own ways. In particular, Mia McKenna-Bruce is the film’s much needed second comedic engine as Anne’s sister Mary – here a clever commentary on live-laugh-love narcissism who plays the part so well she grows on you anyway.

That said, you still need tension to drive a film like this. I can’t help but think of Autumn de Wilde’s 2020 version of “Emma”, my favorite adaptation of Austen. It had real tension throughout, and it found a way to join extremely modern filmmaking sensibilities to a more traditional storytelling approach. The inevitable scenes of who-dances-with-who or who-sits-with-who had a sense of visual irony and emotional language that guided its audience through the film’s adherence to traditional regency storytelling and etiquette-as-setpiece.

De Wilde understood in “Emma” that modern shot choice and editing could be fused with visuals that drew from regency-focused painters such as Edmund Blair Leighton. When those two things fuse instead of fight, you can get tension out of how someone raises a teacup or pauses an extra half-second before they speak.

“Persuasion” almost completely lacks that tension. When Anne and Wentworth awkwardly converse, there’s very little apprehension as to what will happen or how they’re speaking. Instead of watching two people expertly navigate a complicated course through the anxiety of their own expectations, we just see two people hemming and hawing – and that doesn’t feel like Austen. Half of what sparks in an Austen film adaptation is watching that expert navigation crash anyway because of etiquette, social roles, misunderstanding, interruption, and bad timing. That’s what drives playful frustration in the viewer and that tease is what fuels the will-they-or-won’t-they central plot.

Instead, the scenes are about watching Johnson muscle her way through to get the point across anyway, and selling the emotions on her performance despite the script. That makes me interested in watching Anne and her growth, but I couldn’t care less about the core evolution of the romantic plot. In fact, I think this Wentworth is serviceable, but either of his navy captain friends would make a far more rewarding pairing.

All in all, “Persuasion” is somehow both a cheesy and overly dour adaptation, but one with a game cast. Its filmmaking and script are often wildly at odds with each other, but when they both get out of the way enough, that cast does great work with great source material. There’s also some superb design and visuals, even if they do sometimes feel disconnected from what we’re watching happen within them.

I like “Persuasion” despite its questionable qualities as an adaptation and its star-crossed priorities. Johnson and the cast earn the watch on their own, and the film as a whole serves as a good illustration of the breadth Austen’s work can take on. It can be straightforward regency adaptation, or an ironic de Wilde riff, or a comedy of errors, or dour meditation on quiet longing. In “Persuasion”, it can be all these things smashed messily together at once, and yet something human and essential about it still remains.

Saying “Persuasion” is watchable because the Austen-ness of it survives the film’s intentions might seem like damning with faint praise, but Austen survives in much the same way Shakespeare, “One Thousand and One Nights”, Zhang Ailing, or Mary Shelley do. You can have experiments in adapting these that only half-work, but are still very much worth watching because of what they do differently. You can test ideas on them with mixed success, but where performances shine through in a way that’s special or unique to this telling.

That may ask you to be interested in that work or that genre without holding too strict an adherence to it – to be interested in the experimentation with it more than the result of that experiment. That interest doesn’t just vary person to person, but for each person it varies author to author. If that appeals to you about Austen, there’s some unique work happening in “Persuasion”. I was happy with my watch even if I think the film is just all right.

Similarly, if you don’t know Austen well and you want to see a period romantic comedy-drama, you’re getting something nice and watchable, with a charcuterie board’s approach to the genre – you get a little bit of everything, not too much of anything in particular.

If your floor of expectations for Austen is high and you want a certain level of adherence, you won’t be happy with “Persuasion”. Reading around, it does seem like a lot of Austen fans are pretty happy with it as a hatewatch, so if that’s your approach get some snacks and maybe do a Zoom watch party for it.

You can watch “Persuasion” on Netflix.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

Super Stabby Agile Princess Frequently Ferocious — “The Princess”

Have you ever wanted to combine “Xena” and “Die Hard”? Well now you can! It seems like an absolutely sensible combination for a fantasy movie, but until “The Princess”, I didn’t even know it was something I needed.

Joey King of the “Fargo” series and “The Kissing Booth” here plays The Princess. She wakes up as princesses are wont to do, locked in the tippy top of a ridiculously tall tower. Her kingdom’s been invaded, her family locked up, and she’ll be forced to marry their invader to legitimize his claim. Luckily, she’s been training in secret her whole life to become a knight, against her father’s wishes. What’s a girl to do but eviscerate her way down room by room, staircase by staircase?

That premise sounds potentially dour. As thrilling as films like “The Raid” and “Dredd” might be, their violence is often meant to overwhelm. The high fantasy of “The Princess” is clearly inspired by these, but its more direct lineage is the winking nod to camp that “Conan”, “The Princess Bride”, and “Xena” have inhabited in the past.

Take the villain, for instance. Dominic Cooper plays the evil usurper Julius as halfway between Karl Urban and Tim Curry. It’s a weird choice and I swear there are points where you can see him thinking, “Do I go Urban or Curry here”, but leaning into overacting is exactly what a film like this needs. I can’t remember a thing Kevin Costner says in the 1991 “Robin Hood” for instance, but I damn sure remember why Alan Rickman wanted to cut his heart out with a spoon.

It helps that Joey King commits whole-heartedly to her role as The Princess. She does a Batman-esque job of grunting in pain, favoring injuries, and hurling herself off precipices in improvised escapes, all without making me listen to a monologue about vengeance or pretending the dude whose skull she just caved in is gonna live.

As she moves from action scene to action scene, she tears up her wedding dress for mobility and bandages. She isn’t granted any magical strength or superhero powers, either. She’s fighting stronger opponents, and many clashes see her easily overpowered or thrown. The combat focuses on her creativity, technique, and use of space.

The fight choreography is endlessly creative. “The Princess” doesn’t repeat its choreography sequences in multiple scenes the way many other recent films do (I’m looking at you, “Wu Assassins: Fistful of Vengeance”).

A big part of this is that “The Princess” really likes enemies that commit to a bit. One early foe is a tall, bare-chested man with a horned helmet. What’s he do when The Princess disarms him of his sword? Does he use his reach and strength? Hell no. He’s got a bull helmet on: he fights head-first and tries to spear her on his horns. Every fight has a theme. In this kind of fantasy romp, this keeps the action fresh throughout.

Traditional swordfights are rotated with kung fu training flashbacks, a swashbuckling spiral staircase sequence, a combination sword-and-food fight, and that’s all before Olga Kurylenko comes sneering in with a switchblade whip. This creates opportunities to alternate desperate fights with funny ones, and more realistic elements with sight gags. That keeps the tone flexible and the pace bouncing along.

It’s clear that King committed to the fight training, and that commitment coupled with creativity, ambition, and the fun of it all lends the film a feeling I can only describe as glee. You’re not getting “The Raid” out of this, but director Le-Van Kiet is giving you “The Raid” as if Xena or Conan were the one trapped in the building.

This is also yet another success for composer Natalie Holt, who’s on a run after scoring “Loki”, “Fever Dream”, and “Obi-Wan Kenobi”.

“The Princess” carries a theme about women making their own choices and having the right to self-determination. It isn’t subtle, but why the hell should a woman have to tiptoe around when making her own choices? It finds a nice balance of being obvious about it while allowing its point to evolve organically so it can fold in examples of complicity, or how “kind” patriarchy is still self-invested in its own power and has to be pushed into action.

Will you enjoy “The Princess”? The best way I have to put it is by considering choreographer and critic Jill Bearup’s review. She raved about the fight choreo, but disliked the story and thin characterizations. In her words, “It’s like someone mashed together a fight reel with a video game with a Tumblr post about a self-rescuing princess”. Her description is 100% right, and also 100% totally my jam. If you’re like Bearup and that amounts to a negative, you’ll come away thinking “The Princess” is way too thin on worldbuilding and story.

I eat worldbuilding up with a spoon, but it doesn’t have to be in everything for me to like it. “Die Hard” and “The Raid” are both ridiculously thin on characterization and story. I can’t remember what the Nakatomi Corporation does. John McClane’s a cop with marriage problems who likes…I dunno, air ducts and not having glass in his feet, probably. I still like him and want to follow what he does, and that’s at the same level “The Princess” treats story and characterization. We just accept this thin world and character-building in other stories because they happen in the “real world”, but if fantasy wants to do a film like this, why shouldn’t it get to skip straight to the bloody hijinx like the rest of them?

How many times have I sat there through a B-grade fantasy thinking, if only they stopped trying to pretend this is a self-serious prestige film and doubled down on the fight choreo and one-liners? “Clash of the Titans”, “Immortals”, “Snow White and the Huntsman”, “The Scorpion King”, “Hercules” – come to think of it, The Rock has an entire subsection here. “The Princess” is the answer to that, and if it’s what you’ve been looking for from this realm of fantasy, it’s a good answer.

King is doing the put-upon hero shtick extremely well. Everything else is seeing what themed enemy, new environment, and wacky improvised weapon the next fight will build its wildly inventive choreo around. That’s the definition of a great popcorn flick for me. It won’t be for everyone.

There’s one last note. I found “The Princess” cathartic. It holds an informed, confident hope, one I’ve been struggling with the past two weeks in the wake of my country gutting the rights and future of its people. Staring down the pipeline of what’s to come in the U.S., I needed this movie more than any other I can think of. More than masterpieces I love, more than comforting films from childhood, more than my favorite subversive work, I needed a princess to wake, realize nothing was normal, and fuck shit up. I’m sure it’s way too obvious for some, and that’s fair in criticizing a story. There’s power in an obvious point being obvious, though. There’s power in it being treated as if its undeniable instead of having to ask or negotiate for space. Call it unrealistic, but doesn’t that mean the problem’s in our world, and not the film’s?

You can watch “The Princess” on Hulu.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

Nostalgia Bait Can Get Off My Lawn — “Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers”

I’m working on an article about the evolution of cyberpunk and I found myself thinking about William Gibson’s shift from cyber noir into postcyberpunk. It happened with a novel called “Pattern Recognition”, and I bring it up because the protagonist Cayce is allergic to brands. She gets sick when she sees a logo. Marketing firms hire her because she has an eye for good design – the few logos that she can physically tolerate. She feels debilitated around places like Times Square, where the number of brands overwhelms the senses. “Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers” would have seen her hunched over a garbage can.

Let’s get this out of the way first: most people like this movie. You might, too. My reaction to it appears to be clearly in the minority. If you like it, that’s awesome and I’m glad you do. I’m not going to super-focus on trashing it or anything. OK, maybe a line or two, but that’s it. I’ll go through what I don’t like, but for me, it opens up a far more interesting conversation about the increasing habit of brand packing such as in this or “Ready Player One”. I don’t take to it the way some do, and where that line of tolerance exists for different viewers is really interesting to me.

“Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers” was a series I loved as a kid. I was way too young to remember much when I watched it. My memory of it is really just brief impressions. I couldn’t name a specific scene if you asked, so I don’t have nostalgia for it as much as I have curiosity about what it can be.

The animated series followed chipmunks Chip and Dale, riffs on Indiana Jones and Magnum, P.I. They start a detective agency together and handle cases brought to them by other animals.

The new movie decides this is all a show the pair are cast in, and decades later the chipmunk actors who played those parts have gone their separate ways. It allows the film to tackle a world of human and animal actors – many of whom are 2D cartoons getting 3D surgery to appear in 3D-animated films. It’s very similar to “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” in terms of worldbuilding. Dale is still pursuing acting, so he’s gotten the 3D surgery, while Chip is content to work in insurance as the same old 2D version of himself.

They parted on bad terms, but the kidnapping of cartoon actors forces them to work together when their friend Monterey Jack (a mouse actor on “Rescue Rangers”) is kidnapped. The culprits are bootleggers, who redraw the kidnapped cartoon actors into similar but legally distinct characters they can then film in foreign knockoffs.

That’s clever, but “Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers” always seems to stop at clever. There are few punchlines, just a lot of smart set-up. One scene involves police investigating the crime and telling Chip and Dale they’re at a dead end. It combines 2D, 3D, stop-motion, puppetry, and live-action to some stunning effect. Some of these are emulated through CG rather than being the actual medium, but the scene is a successful meld of influences nonetheless. The problem is that nothing happens in it. The stop-motion detective in charge tells them several times over that he can’t do anything, and then a live-action officer just names the next plot point so they can get to it.

This highlights some big problems in the film. The script is repetitive and feels like a rough draft of concepts that need to be fleshed out with more specific dialogue later. Even a kids film (although this is a pretty adult take on it in places) needs dialogue that at least pretends it’s not the same conversation you’ve heard in a thousand movies before.

All the live-action actors come off as extremely wooden. Bob Hoskins, Christopher Lloyd, and Joanna Cassidy were anything but un-emotive in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”. A hybrid animation like this is a brilliant excuse to choose certain emotional ranges for live-action characters and play them up. Although it’s a little bit different as a hybrid medium, take a look at any Muppets movie for another example of this approach. That’s completely missing here.

As for the animated characters, Chip and Dale were once a charmingly optimistic and playful odd couple. They’re just downright annoying here. John Mulaney’s fine voice-acting Chip, but Andy Samberg’s Dale comes off as Andy Samberg. He’s a great ensemble player when he has a Chelsea Peretti, Terry Crews, or Cristin Milioti to do the heavy lifting of everything else going on, but I have trouble with him as the central focus. He highlights moments in comedy rather than carrying them the whole way. That’s not a criticism; very few people can do that. It just means that I don’t think he’s used right at all here.

The biggest issue by far is probably the most divisive one. “Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers” has received a ton of praise for how many character brands it packs into its world. This is what reminds me of Cayce from “Pattern Recognition”. It all starts to feel less like worldbuilding and comedy, and more like an infomercial for unused discount brands.

When Ugly Sonic gets an early monologue about his plight in life, I had mixed thoughts. The human-like CG hedgehog originally advertised in the 2020 “Sonic the Hedgehog” movie was replaced with a more cartoonish version after fan backlash. The original design was no longer in the film, but survived as a meme. Yet his inclusion in this film struck me less as a nod to fans, and more as “we spent a lot of money on that original CG, let’s see if we can make a brand out of him”.

It doesn’t help that the joke centers on his human-like teeth, a major online criticism that resulted in his redesign. Ugly Sonic doesn’t make any jokes or participate in the creation of any joke; the joke is simply “remember that criticism you had once”. The content is just a quick game of Recognize the Memory. There’s a market for that out there, but I guess I’m really not part of it. What I find interesting going forward as we get more and more brand-packed films like this is where that separation occurs.

The opening of the novel “Ready Player One” lists the 1980s obsessions of a billionaire tech celebrity. Exhaustively. It even has footnotes about additional 80s details the initial list doesn’t cover. It’s grueling. It operates off of the idea that rote nostalgia is content, to the point where I found it unreadable. The book was a major hit.

I know I’m not totally alone in this reaction, though. “Space Jam: A New Legacy” was widely criticized in 2021 for being a laundry list of Warner Bros. brands shoved into a movie in the hope LeBron James’s presence might reignite interest in one of them. The difference appears to be where that line is for different viewers.

I don’t think most would disagree that “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is one of the most successful approaches to folding disparate sources together into one story. Sure, Miles Morales, Peter B. Parker, and Gwen Stacy live in similar enough universes, but Nicolas Cage’s Spider-Man Noir? Kimiko Glen’s mech-operating anime Peni Parker? Spider-Ham? It shouldn’t have worked in a thousand years, but instead…it was funny, endearing, and surprisingly meaningful.

Maybe that dictates where the line gets drawn. An early joke in the “Rescue Rangers” movie is that onetime mouse co-star Gadget has married fly costar Zipper. The pair have had 42 babies, half-mouse, half-fly. I didn’t watch the entire film in one sitting, and this joke is just one example why I initially turned it off. It felt mean-spirited to take a character known primarily as an inventor – even if it’s a cartoon, cartoons can still shape us, and it was probably my first mainstream exposure as a child to the idea that women should be scientific leaders – it certainly made the argument more forcefully than what mainstream content for adults was pushing in the 90s. Yet here she’s reduced to a mother pumping out 42 half-fly babies. That’s the joke. Look at a meaningful message in a kids show about the idea women should lead in STEM, now she’s pumping out 42 babies. I guess it’s hilarious if you’re on the Supreme Court.

The characters feel like throwing a thousand brands at the wall to see which might stick and become profitable, and the jokes feel randomly applied because they’re funny to some in a vaccuum, regardless of the spirit behind them, the context, or whether they fit a character. I found it unwatchable. The movie is a major hit.

Maybe this is my get-off-my-lawn moment; I just didn’t expect it to hit in my 30s. Also, I guess I’d need to own a lawn to tell people to get off it and, you know: housing prices.

I don’t think I have answers for where each of us draws the line between finding something to be an inspired collection of sources vs. a compilation of nostalgia-bait masquerading as whole content. I’m not saying I’m right about where that line is – the whole point is it’s different for each of us. We each have different tolerances for it.

I’m not like Cayce, I’m not skipping dinner out of the nausea of it, but I’m so wary of the brand fire sale that many of these films become. I’m wary of the door that opens up into normalizing movies as dumping grounds for as many brand relaunches as can be packed in. We complain about well-thought out reboots or reinterpretations of a single source, and why doesn’t Hollywood come up with anything original, while we take an hour-and-a-half to invite 40 one-note jokes to compete for our relaunch love. The tension of the movie becomes less about anything on-screen, and more about which disused brand will find its viral moment. Maybe it’ll launch a new streaming Ugly Sonic series.

In a way, I feel like I’ve seen this movie before:

You can watch “Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers” on Disney+.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

Nicolas Cage and the Complexity of Gentleness in “Pig”

“Pig” is a story about the power of gentleness. It’s both sad and soothing. It sees humanity in the isolated, whether living alone in the woods or making deals surrounded by people. It recognizes how something as overpowering as love is stored in our memories so that its loss doesn’t break us day by day. It’s about that dam we create to stop love from overflowing us and to stop loss from overwhelming us, a cruelty and kindness to ourselves in turn.

The most fundamental bait-and-switch about “Pig” is that it stars Nicolas Cage. He plays Rob, a truffle hunter living in the backwoods with a truffle pig. High-end food suppliers prize truffles, and often pay hundreds of dollars an ounce for these mushrooms. A single find can rake in thousands; likewise a pig trained to find them. Rob’s pig is stolen, and he forms an awkward partnership with his slick buyer Amir (Alex Wolff). They head to Portland, Oregon to track down who has his pig.

That may feel like a set-up for a D-grade Nicolas Cage revenge film. I’ve heard “Pig” referred to as “John Wick with Nicolas Cage”, which is so far off-the-mark it feels like it’s intentionally trying to be the least accurate film comparison I’ve ever heard. “Pig” is a meditative drama about the precise intersection where love and memory are hollowed out by toxicity and trauma, seen through the lens of how food evokes memory. It feels much more like a vignette from “Tampopo” writ large.

This is also the best performance I’ve seen Nicolas Cage give. That may seem like faint praise, but let’s remember how remarkable he’s been in films like “Adaptation”, “Leaving Las Vegas”, “Lord of War”, and “Matchstick Men”. He makes a lot of crap, but when he really invests himself, Cage is nearly unparalleled.

I’ll avoid spoilers, but there’s a moment halfway through the film where you can see just how much anger is in his eyes. A physically imposing figure, you truly think Rob will just start pummeling someone into a pulp in front of onlookers. You can see his recognition of that anger, the struggle to quell it, and the exact moment it recedes. It turns into something else. He invokes a memory and uses it to deconstruct the man in front of him with understanding and kindness.

Plenty of films shock with violence and horror, and I love many of them. Yet when we think of films that are gentle, we tend to think of something sappy or – at best – reassuringly wholesome. Some of them are great, but they don’t necessarily shock us. There’s almost nothing out there that shocks us with its moments of gentleness and humanity. Plenty of films are empathetic, though perhaps not as many as there should be. I don’t think there are many that genuinely revere the power of understanding.

“Pig” reveres understanding to the point where it asks us to understand a protagonist who barely wants anything to do with us, an all-but-disowned son who wants nothing to do with him, his cruel and inhumane father, a restaurateur who’s turned his back to his dreams, a man who pays money to beat another, a woman willing to lend aid only because it helps her profit margin.

Writer Vanessa Block and writer-director Michael Sarnoski don’t justify these people. The film doesn’t seek to ennoble them or soften their harshness and harm. All it says is there’s something to understand here, something more than can be understood at first assumption. “Pig” doesn’t even fill in all the blanks, but in its disconnections, it provides evidence. It creates art not out of what we know, but from the shape of the spaces where what we know is missing.

There’s a line from “Doctor Who” I’ve always loved. “When something goes missing, you can always recreate it by the hole it left”. Memory fades and fails us, faces become what we know from photographs rather than the person who looked at us, a line or two of voice you can remember with clarity becomes a monument to years of conversations. It’s a desperate scramble to keep what’s real of someone who’s gone from disappearing. What’s increasingly missing is the shape of that person, and more and more their shape becomes the hole they left. Grief that they aren’t there anymore turns to guilt that you couldn’t maintain their detail in a way that matches reality – as if that’s even possible.

“Pig” not only understands how this transformation of grief to guilt motivates its characters, it offers its characters to us as half-missing shapes. We have to understand them not just by what the film tells us, but by what it specifically doesn’t. We’re asked to see people by what’s there and what isn’t, which is rare both on film and in life. What all of the characters in “Pig” share is their isolation, no matter how many others are around. What’s missing controls lives that can no longer progress and create new space.

The best thing I can say about “Pig” is that it made a part of me feel seen. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a truffle hunter or a hermit. I don’t feel like I can’t progress or create that new space. Yet the last few years have felt incredibly isolating to many people. Overwhelming bigotry, the pandemic, new disasters every day, the concept that we have less and less control by the day. Our culture has incentivized isolation, hatred, and impersonality – brand image, the bottom line, everything’s fine no matter how much of what’s missing needs to be pasted over. It doesn’t matter if it’s real, or kind.

We all have a hole where a culture we believed to be a bit kinder creates a missing shape in us. Even if it never was so kind, we all have a grief that our belief in that kindness is lost, a guilt that no matter how hard we try we can’t seem to get far in reshaping it.

“Pig” is an allegory about the power of gentleness. I just hope it isn’t its eulogy as well. It clarifies that we can’t be gentle until we recognize what isn’t there in others, and can be real about what’s missing that we paste over in ourselves. How can you be kind if you deny that kindness to yourself? How can you be gentle if you don’t understand what gentleness someone else needs?

Kindness is often treated in a reductive way. Sometimes anger is legitimate and justified. Anger at an injustice is kindness. Kindness intersects every other emotion, and I believe in the full emotional set. We’re not short on anger these days. We haven’t forgotten that or pasted it over, nor should we. What we’re encouraged to forget isn’t just kindness and gentleness, however, it’s also the understanding and empathy that lets us recognize how to use them.

That’s not the excessive, performative, infantilized sentimentality that’s attached to kindness across our media; it’s a complex set of adult emotions that is one of the most demanding ways of being to learn. That’s what “Pig” clarifies – how easy it is to forget that, how difficult it is to remember, how necessary it is yet how commonly it’s dismissed.

How strange is it to see a man embody gentleness and believe it, as an actor we know for performing the opposite, in a tale that’s set up to be the opposite, in a way that compels those around him to have to face their own gentleness with a fear of how strange it is to see it after all these years. “Pig” is the best thing Nicolas Cage has done, but if that doesn’t seem like saying much, it’s the best thing most actors could ever hope to do because it’s something we almost never see. It’s something we almost never see on-screen, it’s something we rarely see for others, and it’s something threatened in how we envision ourselves.

You can watch “Pig” on Hulu or see where to rent it.

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Man is the Warmest Place to Hide — “Titane”

The following contains spoilers for “Titane”, Celine Sciamma’s “Girlhood”, and light spoilers for Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” and John Carpenter’s “The Thing”.

“Titane” is a stab at the heart of maleness, but not in the way you might expect. As a child, Alexia was in a horrific car accident that required doctors to implant a metal plate in her head. As an adult, she’s a popular model who dances at car shows. She’s also a serial killer who has sex with cars.

After a botched murder, she goes on the run. She decides to disguise herself as someone else in the news. She becomes Adrien, a firefighter’s long lost son who’s been missing for a decade. The heartbroken Vincent accepts her as Adrien and takes her in without question.

I want to note that the pronouns I’m using are intentional. Even though Alexia disguises herself as Adrien, this isn’t a trans role. Adrien is a cover to stop from being found by police; Alexia seems to identify and refer to herself consistently as a woman. She just can’t do that in front of those around her. The opportunity here is the metaphor of a woman training within and having access to masculinity. Obviously, this is a fine line for a story to walk – more on that in a minute.

“Titane” is ratcheted as taut as it can go. Will Alexia be discovered? Surrounded by men at a fire station, is she under threat as a woman? As someone the others perceive as frail, is she under threat as a man? Since she’s a serial killer, are they under threat? Will it matter if she’s discovered? Is she safe from Vincent? Is Vincent safe from her? Is she pregnant with a Cadillac’s baby?

At the same time, “Titane” is also a film about acceptance and the artificial gender-based borders we create to deny it to ourselves and each other.

There’s a scene later in “Titane” where a room full of firemen dance. Alexia – still disguised as Adrien – helps start a mosh pit. It’s an outlet for her violence, the kind of outlet for aggression women are socially denied, but that’s treated as perfectly normal for men. She’s encouraged to the top of a fire engine to dance. At long last, she’s found a place that accepts her, and so she dances as she knows how – as a model at a car show. The dance is feminine, sexual, made to appeal to men. Yet she’s still perceived by those around her as a man, as Adrien.

The discomfort of the firemen who were celebrating her just moments ago grows palpable. They look at each other in disgust, yet don’t exactly turn away. Are the men disgusted at her, or at their own feelings in relation to someone they perceive as male?

Alexia is not allowed in both worlds. This moment of acceptance into a masculine world directly precludes and asks denial of her feminine aspects.

This speaks to two gender-based social denials. Women are denied an approved outlet for things like physical aggression. Men are denied any aspects that can be read as feminine. Both meet rejection and disgust, but are these feelings in reaction to the person who’s expressing these aspects of themselves – or are they really a projection on the part of the observer? Is it so ingrained in them to reject these aspects of themselves that witnessing them in another triggers a trained, kneejerk self-disgust? We know that inward self-rejection then translates to outward hostility.

“Titane” is a film that maintains a reality and tension while also making me turn other films over in my head. Writer-director Julia Ducournau’s themes in “Titane” parallel the work of another French writer-director, Celine Sciamma. In many of Sciamma’s films, there are underlying comparisons of how men and women treat camaraderie, acceptance, and their sense of self.

The opening of Sciamma’s “Girlhood” features her characters in a football game (American football). They’re physical, tackling, and they combine the feminine camaraderie with this physical, violent game. The game never literally happens in the movie. It’s a metaphor, but it has every bearing on the girls’ existence. They can be themselves, they can be aggressive and physically dominant without shame. They have their own space to express these aspects of themselves. In the very next scene, they walk in groups at night to protect themselves from the harassment of groups of boys.

“Girlhood” tracks Marieme as she becomes Vic. By the end of the film, she’s embraced genderfluid traits: glamourizing her presentation as a woman for the jobs she can get, and binding her breasts and presenting herself with male traits in her private life. The film doesn’t reach the point of a transition, and who knows if that was further on Vic’s path.

In many ways, it treats masculinity as a way out for women. Sciamma manages both lines of thought well in “Girlhood”. Access to masculinity grants safety and privilege to Vic that she doesn’t have when she’s perceived as feminine. At the same time, this also informs Vic’s own story in discovering who she is.

“Titane” engages the first, but not the second. Alexia is hiding out by disguising herself as a man, but there’s no suggestion that she’s becoming more genderfluid or transitioning. Her cover as a man is a necessity of the plot and its metaphor. As I mentioned, she personally maintains her identity as a woman and as Alexia throughout. She just has to hide this out of circumstance.

Needless to say, this can be problematic. Unfortunately, as a film that’s part body horror, aspects like binding are presented in a way that play to that genre. While it’s not the focus of “Titane”, it still engages in some negative and harmful trans tropes. There’s a line that could’ve been walked more finely.

I’ve read work now that argues on both sides of the intersection “Titane” makes with genderfluidity and trans tropes. Alexia’s character comments on the roles one has to play to be accepted within masculinity, and the outlets that masculinity offers men but denies women. Despite this not being a trans role, criticism that this engages negative trans tropes is legitimate. I think “Titane” can be an incredible commentary on the need to accept genderfluidity, and a successful criticism on the unhealthy restrictions of strict gender roles, while also having some issues that could’ve been handled better.

In terms of the performances, Agathe Rousselle as Alexia and Vincent Lindon as Vincent are both remarkable. They play masculine roles from opposite directions of compensation, and in so doing reveal masculinity itself as a fundamentally compensatory projection. That there were no Oscar nominations for “Titane” is a disappointment, but perhaps not surprising.

“Titane” may exist more as something to think about after the fact than as an experience that can be digested during its viewing. I find that it takes up residence alongside some of my favorite films, and ones that all engage gender dynamics and ingrained cultural violence – albeit in very different ways. Aside from Sciamma’s work, “Titane” also recalls Claudia Llosa’s “The Milk of Sorrow”, which engages colonialism and generational trauma from a perspective that’s similar, though through a sense of magical realism instead of body horror.

More directly, Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” follows a similar premise of a serial killer finding a place to become more human. Like “Titane”, there are questions as to whether this is done out of empathy, or finally finding a place of safety that allows her to know herself better. They take these concepts into different places and the reality of that safety is opposite in each, but they offer a perspective on some of the same questions.

Perhaps most unexpectedly, “Titane” makes me reflect on John Carpenter’s “The Thing”. In college, I found a book that analyzed “The Thing” as a parable for man’s fear of the feminine. I remember thinking it was silly when I read it. It’s one of my favorite films and I thought I knew what it meant, but the more I’ve thought about it since, the more I’ve realized it’s entirely accurate. I’ve searched for the book since, but I can’t even track down its name. It may’ve been a student thesis that was never officially published.

Regardless, “The Thing” works as an almost direct inversion of “Titane”, similar to seeing the movie from the perspective of the firemen watching Alexia dance as Adrien. “The Thing” is most fun when taken literally, but thinking of it metaphorically, it mirrors how men view the feminine in themselves. It’s a hostile threat that produces fear of being taken over, met by men who question each other and doubt each other’s masculine wholeness. It takes you over without your even realizing. The Thing itself often takes shape as a sort of vagina dentata in appearance, likening the loss of self to a castration of its cast of exceptionally manly men. Unlike the more phallic horrors of the time, it doesn’t stab or pierce or penetrate but rather absorbs and envelops. A number of analyses have been done on “The Thing” from this perspective (Tracy Moore’s rundown at Mel Magazine is a good starter).

Reflecting on these other films and their engagement with gender boundaries is my door into describing “Titane” as clarifying. It adds perspective. As taut as it is, as good as the performances are, as stunning as its visuals are, it’s one of the most unfilm-films I’ve seen. This is because it’s not really about what’s happening on screen as much as it’s about what’s happening in each of us as we watch it. I’ve mentioned this about some films before, but I think “Titane” takes it even further.

What connections do we make to “Titane” from other works of art, what questions does it spur, how does it make us look back on our discomforts and whether we’ve come away from them? The most remarkable feat of “Titane” is that the line between what it projects into us and what we project onto it isn’t a boundary. It’s a thread, the same each way. As a mirror for our projections about gender dynamics, what it ultimately clarifies to us are our own personal fables, fears, perhaps even lies – those projections we take into our lives because we decline to understand or confront where they take root in each of us.

For all its tension and body horror, “Titane” asks if our projection of who we are has enough empathy for who we really are to dismantle itself. Of course, it can’t give an answer on our behalf. All it can do is get those two pieces in the same room together. The rest is up to us.

You can watch “Titane” on Hulu, or see where to rent it.

If you find articles like these important to you, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write articles like this one.

Our Portable Realities of Grief — “The Sky is Everywhere”

I hated “The Sky is Everywhere” until I loved it. I wanted to turn it off 20 minutes in because it was overwritten. In turn, that asks a degree of overacting to deliver it correctly. There’s so little grounding in the moment-to-moment of its opening act. What changed? Me. Stay with the film and begin to match its rhythm and pace, and it’s immensely rewarding.

I’ll give you one very early example to show what I mean: Lennie has lost her sister Bailey very suddenly. It’s her first day back at school in two months. She’s challenged for first chair clarinet. The music teacher says it’s inappropriate given the circumstances, but Lennie accepts. Setting aside that her challenger is played like a cartoon villain all but twirling a mustache, let’s just go with it.

The challenge is blind – the two girls play from behind a curtain. The challenger plays…all right, it’s not great, and the class waits for Lennie to play. When the curtain drops, it’s revealed she’s run out of the room and into the woods. The music teacher awards first chair to the challenger as a forfeit, instead of – I don’t know, saying that it’s clearly not the right time and they can run a challenge at a later date. At this point, the film is less about Lennie and more about what teacher in their right mind would go through with this.

The solution is, of course, to send another student running out of school into the woods – and not to bring her back to school, but to play guitar for her in the woods, and at this point I’m less concerned with Lennie’s grief than I am with when this dude is getting fired because he has no business being a teacher, let alone one who apparently has multiple students trying out for Juilliard because I guess the school is that good at music despite stuffing its 20-piece ensemble into a room that barely fits it.

What happens plotwise in this sequence is easy to understand, and yet nothing in it makes the slightest amount of practical sense. That’d be fine if it was the flight of symbolism “The Sky is Everywhere” makes its bread and butter. I love its departures into dance, set deconstruction, and touches of animation, but this is the plot part that’s supposed to sustain those flights. We’re made to understand that these events happen – perhaps with some added flair and style – but that they essentially happen as we’re shown.

At this point, I felt like the movie was forcing its premise to be secondary to its quirky affectations, rather than letting anything evolve naturally. And yet…. “The Sky is Everywhere” isn’t just overwritten and (perhaps) overacted, it’s also overdirected, and when something has gone that far over in so many ways, sometimes you wonder why the hell you haven’t, too.

“The Sky is Everywhere” is overdirected by Josephine Decker in the way that Michel Gondry, Julie Taymor, Baz Luhrmann, or Jean-Pierre Jeunet overdirect, which is to say that it’s directed exactly the way it needs to be, and if anyone else had directed it any other way, it would be woefully underdirected.

The film mentions “Wuthering Heights” every other scene for its first half, which quickly had me thinking, “I get it already”. It’s all Lennie reads because in mourning her sister she identifies with the characters and their obsession with misery. I was sick of the movie reminding me how much Lennie loves “Wuthering Heights” when I was also reminded five and 10 and 20 minutes ago.

But here’s the key point: I was being an idiot. Imagine watching Baz Lurhmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” and thinking it’s odd everyone’s talking like Shakespeare wrote them. Of course he wrote them, it’s “Romeo + Juliet”. Yet “Wuthering Heights” isn’t as immediately recognizable a cultural touchstone as Shakespeare is, my last Bronte kick was years ago, and “The Sky is Everywhere” is influenced by it rather than being a straight adaptation. Where Lurhmann doesn’t really need to remind anyone, “Hey, watch this like you’re watching Shakespeare” even once, “The Sky is Everywhere” apparently really did need to remind me five or six times, “Hey, watch this like you’re reading Emily Bronte”.

When I started reading the film as “Wuthering Heights”, or at least from the emotional standpoint of a gothic romance, it was like a key opening a lock. I really did need the film to remind me several times before it dawned on me to listen.

Once you turn that key and the lock falls open, an entire emotional reality comes pouring out of “The Sky is Everywhere”. It’s filled with beautiful sequences that bring emotion alive through fantastical production, choreographed dance, and a host of scenes that exist as metaphors. That incredibly self-focused, overwhelmingly internal, streaming monologue that had struck me as overwritten is the foundation for gothic romance. When I started viewing the film with that in mind, I recognized that what I had viewed as shoving the foundation aside actually was the foundation.

It does help that the supporting roles eventually get more time to develop past their heavily quirk-forward introductions. Cherry Jones, Jason Segel, Jacques Colimon, Pico Alexander, Ji-young Yoo, and Havana Rose Liu are all very good, once they’re given space to flesh out their characters.

Through it all, Grace Kaufman gives a superb performance as Lennie. This is the second time in recent weeks a Gen Z actress has delivered a rangy, realistic portrayal of grief. While Jenna Ortega in “The Fallout” concerns very different subject matter, there is something that’s resonant and modern in both their portrayals of grief that we typically haven’t seen before.

I’d suggest the reason for this is casting teenagers as teenagers, instead of casting people in their late-20s. Different generations process grief differently, especially as that processing is shaped by a world that introduces new grief on a daily basis, but also seems able to connect and communicate grief more openly than before. This allows a more accurate and relatable portrayal of grief that’s fit for the 2020s instead of the 2000s. Because of their subject matter, these two films take very different conclusions from grief, but they’re both real, accessible, timely, and they help create films that will still be relevant and speak to us a decade from now.

There’s another work that “The Sky is Everywhere” brings to mind, and this may be more personal. “What Remains of Edith Finch” is a video game that’s similarly almost overbearingly quirk-forward. Once you’re able to crest that, it uses its design and a very particular literary tone to reel you in. Because you’re expecting metaphor to come alive, you also expect a contrast that highlights it. When that contrasting foundation itself is so stylized and metaphorical, you can feel unmoored – as if the film or game can’t decide on its own tone. Yet the more you watch or play, the more you sync up to that tone and understand the movable foundation it uses – a kind of emotional reality as foundation rather than a plot-centered one.

That difference is huge because one of those foundations is inherently shifting and subjective, while the other is concrete and, from a story’s perspective, not just objective but omniscient. The former enables those stylistic, metaphorical flights to go even further, but because you’re being asked to see an entire world subjectively through a character’s eyes – instead of seeing that character in a steady world through omniscient eyes – there’s a much higher suspension of disbelief when it comes to plot and world detail.

That asks a greater level of trust be given over to a director, without knowing whether they’ll come through on it. Like “What Remains of Edith Finch”, that unmoored foundation means you have to sync up well enough with “The Sky is Everywhere” to be swept off at the same pace. If you can, it really does deliver and it does things a more tethered movie never could. At the same time, some viewers may not be able to or may not be interested in doing that.

I compare “The Sky is Everywhere” to “What Remains of Edith Finch” because they both ask you to inhabit emotional realities that shape the world around you, that shape other people’s stories. They don’t just present a situation or character going through grief, they ask you to be a part of coping with that grief and see the world from the perspective of the grief-stricken. Reality isn’t reality. Every emotion is supersaturated, idealized and romanticized until it’s rejected, the world takes the shape of your perception. It’s not so much that “The Sky is Everywhere” can’t find it’s tone or sense of reality initially, it’s that the concrete foundation we’re so used to stories providing us isn’t there from the start. Most films about grief give us that anchor, but like “What Remains of Edith Finch”, “The Sky is Everywhere” doesn’t want us to have it. To embody grief, we cannot have it, or else we would have an out from that embodiment.

We start from a place where reality is already gone, suffused in this case with gothic romance and monologues that are overwritten until you start feeling them instead of analyzing them. It’s beautiful once you can get close enough to where it’s coming from, but trekking that far out is difficult and not what everyone wants out of a film like this.

Even loving it, I still have criticisms of “The Sky is Everywhere”. The characters are initially defined by such an overwhelming level of quirk that it’s hard to read any of their relationships beyond this. Without enough of anything else, they can come off as creepy in place of caring from time to time. This means getting to know them later places them at a deficit that doesn’t feel intended.

Dialogue scenes where the characters struggle to put shape to their grief are brilliantly done, but it takes about 25 minutes to get to a single one of them. Plot aspects like whether Lennie will get into Juilliard, which are so central in the film’s opening act, become somewhat forgotten later. Of course, this becomes less important to Lennie, but I do think the film focuses a bit too much on some practical initial stakes to get you invested when it’s not really about those stakes. The opening act gives us those stakes and descriptions of grief, but it fails to let us see a character interacting at length with the film’s focus on grief until it’s shifting us into that second act. It’s important we know these details, but they shouldn’t dominate the film’s opening to the exclusion of everything else.

All that said, if you can ride out that opening act and get that key to click for you in terms of its gothic romantic storytelling, “The Sky is Everywhere” is a gorgeous, beautifully designed, well-conceived film with a strong central performance. If it never clicks for you, that’s understandable – its storytelling approach will lack enough of an anchor for many. If it drives enough curiosity to see what it wants to show you next, “The Sky is Everywhere” can ultimately be extremely rewarding.

It’s a challenging film, perhaps even off-putting, but if you can sync up with its sense of metaphors springing off the back of a metaphorical reality, it has a lot to say that’s worth hearing.

You can watch “The Sky is Everywhere” on Apple TV.

If you find articles like these important to you, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write articles like this one.