Category Archives: Movie Reviews

The Work That’s Never Witnessed — “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

by Gabriel Valdez

“So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

James 2:17

“Now, we are feeling what not having hope feels like.”

– Michelle Obama

After Donald Trump was elected, several people sought me out because of the work I’ve done in politics. They told me, “I’m willing to die opposing him.” I told them that attitude made them useless.

Show up to a march with the idea that you’re willing to die, and you’ll see everything that happens in that light. You’re so focused on the idea of a noble, meaningful, romantic act of sacrifice…that you won’t even think about protecting the person next to you. You become so obsessed with fighting something that you forget that you’re there to save something.

Who do you think builds something? The one there to nobly sacrifice themselves, or the one there who doles out water, who helps the elderly who grow tired, who communicates from the front of the march to the back what to look out for, or who is ready with first aid supplies in case of violence.

I don’t want someone willing to die. I want someone willing to make sure the person next to them lives.

Do you think the people who have died in marches wanted to? They wanted to live. They were scared for their lives. That’s what makes their sacrifices meaningful. They were there for a purpose. They were there to do work. They were there to hold each other up in an effort that would have been impossible on their own.

Resistance is not a romantic thing. It’s not built on some great act of sacrifice unique to you. It’s not an identity. In fact, it’s not about you. Resistance, and faith, and hope are all built from the same single thing: you show up day after day and you do the work of it.

That work is sometimes grueling and heartbreaking. It wears you down. It tests your spirit. It tests your boundaries. It can break you. There is often no witness for it, especially when the work is performed by women or people of color (or LGBTQ, or the disabled). There is often no reward.

You do the work and it joins with the work of all those around you, and maybe something terrible happens anyway. Was the work useless? Or did you prevent something even more terrible from happening? How do you measure it? How do you assess the amount of work every person did? Often, the only thing you know is that there’s more work to do.

You often feel penned into a corner. How does the universe keep going like this? What use are you? Are you even denting the things you seek to stop? Doesn’t matter. There’s more work, and that work helps people.

“The Last Jedi” is built around being worn thin. It’s built around desperation. It’s built on the back of a Rebellion that has dwindled, but keeps on doing the work.

Many of the heroes willing to sacrifice themselves keep trading on everyone else’s credit. They may come close to death, but as they escape it, it’s others who pay the consequences for their heroism.

“Star Wars” has always relied on building myths, and it’s built some good ones. “The Last Jedi” cares deeply about those myths. It also doesn’t feel beholden to them. It doesn’t feel as if those myths are sacred. In fact, it considers many of those myths downright dangerous.

Myths make us believe that our single heroic action can save the day. And our heroes? Well they’re our saviors. What’s the point of doing all that grueling work day after day if we can just tag a savior in? Hamilton electors, Jill Stein’s recount, Obama’s press conference, the Steele dossier, Mueller, impeachment, Susan Collins for a minute, Jeff Flake for two seconds, Bob Corker for half a breath, all of them saviors at some point since the election.

And yet…somehow we go unsaved.

It’s almost as if the work is up to us.

Some of these things have produced useful results, and some might yet, but only if we do the work that gives them the space to make a change. This is what “The Last Jedi” is about. It’s about persisting, about not putting all our hope in saviors, and not putting faith in our noble ideas of romantic sacrifice. It’s about enduring. There’s sacrifice here, but the only meaningful sacrifice is that which saves someone else. Otherwise, it’s not really a sacrifice, is it?

We find ourselves in the face of a moment that threatens to overwhelm us. As we grow tired, we grow separate, we lose our ability to trust – not just in each other, but that what we’re doing makes a difference. We rebel not just against them, but against each other. We do the work of breaking ourselves for them. And that’s the strategy of how they win, how they erase democracy. They do so by tiring us, by making us grow lonely and hopeless because each of us begins thinking we’re willing to die for something, instead of thinking we’re willing to keep on doing the work day after day.

If you came here for a review, “The Last Jedi” is superb. Writer-director Rian Johnson takes the style and filmic grammar of all the other “Star Wars” entries, even the prequels, and folds them into what feels like an entire trilogy’s worth of story. There are beautiful moments here that feel like still pieces of art, planets that feel built from impressions of emotion. There is a deep melancholy to the film, and a resilient hope.

Yet it acknowledges from the first seconds that “Star Wars” is silly, and that maybe by not adhering to the strict orthodoxy expected of it, it can still be a flexible, meaningful place to tell stories. It’s rare that a film can achieve bleak despair and steady silliness, a tragic reality and a determined irreverence.

It’s not a perfect film, but I think the perfect “Star Wars” film that it could be would be something far lesser.

“The Last Jedi” is a film that can feed a certain soul, one that’s doing the work and growing weary, and feeling more distant from all the other souls doing the work and growing weary.

More than anything else, “The Last Jedi” establishes what it feels like not to feel hope yet to create it, to have your expectations of saviors undermined and realize the power you loaned them is your own. It makes you feel vulnerable and uncomfortable and at risk because you always were, but now you’re doing something about it. It also reminds us that faith in saviors, if it does not have the works or the work behind it, is meaningless.

Go see this thing. Go persist and be resilient.

And remember you’re not alone. The work you do is a spark that carries, that we’re all trying to feed, and our little corner of the universe is in the mood for light.

The feature image of Daisy Ridley as Rey is from Cosmic Book News here.

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The Burden in the Blink of an Eye — “The Revenant”

by Gabriel Valdez

“The Revenant” contains two important blinks. The first is cruelly unavoidable, called out in the script as a way of inviting a man to ask for his own death. The second is easily missed, nothing more than a silent and passing recognition. These are two of the most important moments in the film. They are witnessed by no one else, and they are both meaningless outside of the two people sharing them.

“The Revenant” follows Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass, the guide for an 1820s fur trading expedition. I won’t ruin any details, but he is left for dead, 200 miles from the nearest safe haven, and has to survive in the harsh winter of Montana and South Dakota with a broken leg and wounds so deep they expose his ribs.

To classify this as a Western or a Survival movie, or much of anything in particular is to view “The Revenant” through a very partial lens. Noir is deeply embedded in its bones. Noir doesn’t need to take place in back alleys and be spouted by suits. It can wear pelts in the cold Rocky Mountains and require almost no dialogue. Noir is just fatalism: the determination that your story is the only one in the universe that matters, juxtaposed against the realization that your story doesn’t matter to the universe in the least. Yet even this stops short of communicating what “The Revenant” is or does as a piece of art.

I’ll describe some of my favorite atmospheric movies as tone poems. Yet for all its natural atmosphere, this isn’t what “The Revenant” is. This is a thick novel, a Hemingway kind of tome. It’s built less for analysis and more for impermeability; less to say something and more to live something. In that way, objective definitions of what “The Revenant” is fail.

Impermeable concepts become malleable – they mean something different to each of us. Each character in “The Revenant” questions the nature of God or the Creator in his own story, particularly through the nature of loss and the cruelty of one’s own survival in the face of that loss. Concepts such as purpose, revenge, forgiveness, and balance become uniquely personal to each. There is no right answer. There is no wrong. There’s no reason to keep going and there’s no reason to stop.

“The Revenant” tells a story in a way that almost acknowledges that the story doesn’t need to be told. Every other character you look at has suffered a story of loss and heartache. The film keeps reminding us that every other human being you encounter, every other animal even, is essentially living out his or her own survival story. What makes Glass’s any different? What makes it matter? Nothing, the film keeps reminding us. There is no point in Glass’s survival. There is no point in his death. There are moments in the film where you’ll want each. There are moments where Glass’s sheer survival is an act of will that brings out the divine in him. There are moments where Glass’s suffering and the clear peace and beauty of release seem the kinder choice by far. This isn’t a film where you root for something to happen, but it is a film where you have to know what happens.

For the intensity of its subject matter, there are very few traditionally dramatic moments in “The Revenant.” Tremendously dramatic things happen – the entire movie’s a tense progression of mounting disasters. There’s just never any particular dramatic moment that’s made to give the audience release – a heartbreaking moment of weeping or an inspired monologue. If DiCaprio wins an Oscar (and he should), I can’t imagine what they’ll select out as his acting clip. He barely has any dialogue. Yet this is the best performance he’s ever given.

I have no clue how to recommend “The Revenant” or to whom one should recommend it. If I listed its trigger warnings, I’d be here all day. It’s a brilliant place to visit; it would be horrific to live in it. No one should see it – it’s abominably and relentlessly cruel. Everyone should see it – it seeks the divine in each of us, no matter how ugly.

No one should suffer it – its world is a profoundly bleak and lonely place. Everyone should joy in it – it is as close to a spiritual revelation as film gets.

No one should see it – when the credits rolled, I felt like my soul had been emptied. Everyone should see it – when the credits rolled, I felt like my soul had been emptied.

Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women on film. I’ll save us a bit of time, since there’s not much to go into via the regular breakdown. There are two women with speaking roles in “The Revenant,” they never meet, and the events of the film are not kind to either. Then again, they’re not kind to anybody.

This is a good film, but it’s not one that affords many opportunities to women.

The featured image is from Electric-Shadows’ review of the film. On a separate note, I’d also check out Consequence of Sound’s review.

The Power of Myth, The First Act of Violence — “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

by Gabriel Valdez

“The demon that you can swallow gives you its power, and the greater life’s pain, the greater life’s reply.”

– Joseph Campbell, “The Power of Myth”

“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.”

– bell hooks

These are not mutually exclusive ideas. They share words like “power” and ideas like spiritual pain. Campbell would seem to say you should swallow your pain. Hooks would seem to say the pain itself is unneeded.

Yet reverse these concepts and consider them in steps.

I grew up learning to be a man. I psychically self-mutilated myself. I look upon that demon in me now. What is it? An enemy, or just an entity? Do I reject its very existence, or acknowledge the pieces of itself it buried deep inside my spirit? Do I refuse to acknowledge this part of me, or do I greet the demon when he looms and sit down with him?

It is not the only demon that I know.

My descent is half-Mexican, half-European white. I was born in 1983. My heroes in movies were white men like Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise. If a Hispanic was in a film, he would be the villain. He would be evil, untrustworthy, and bested in the end. If there was a Hispanic woman, she would be a reward for the white hero.

When I stepped outside the door of my house, our media, our politicians, our world, and especially the children who were my classmates reinforced the pride I had in half of my ancestry. The other half? They reinforced the shame I should feel at being Mexican.

These demons are twins, and I wrestle with their shadows still. They each play off the other. Sometimes they win, sometimes I can sit down with them and be a friend. If I can calmly understand more of their nature, I can understand and change more of my own.

In this wrestling, I can open whole parts of myself to those I love, and yet I still protect so fiercely my innermost natures, my most closely-held beliefs. I once protected them from the self-mutilation that was asked of me, and that’s a difficult survival mechanism to break. I protected them from the criticism of half of who I am. It is hard to learn when to stop protecting, or even that I am, so I can sometimes exist too externally in my closest relationships. There’s a guarded cross-section of myself, right over my heart, where it’s difficult to allow vulnerability. I can resent this guarded nature in myself, but at the same time struggle with why the world can’t communicate better with it.

So: What the hell am I going on about?

General Leia has sent her best starfighter to search for Luke Skywalker. That’s what the opening scroll to “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” informs us.

Note that Leia is recognized for the role she played most often in the original trilogy now – a general in a war room, not a princess in a metal bikini.

Her best starfighter is Poe Dameron, played by Oscar Isaac. He’s not done up to look white, as he has been in some of his films. There’s no effort to mask his Guatemalan-Cuban ancestry.

You see, some viewers would sooner see giant slugs with sex slaves on-screen before they’d allow a Hispanic or Black or a woman hero to save the galaxy.

And that’s when we meet Finn, played by John Boyega. As a storm trooper, the First Order makes Finn kill indiscriminately. They demand his violence on behalf of the militarized dictatorship that’s succeeded the Empire. When he displays feelings like hesitance, regret, and empathy, he is sent for “re-programming.”

Finally, and most importantly, we meet Rey, played by Daisy Ridley. She’s a scavenger in a desert wasteland, a woman who stays put in a hopeless existence because she still has hope her family might one day return for her.

How these characters come together, I’ll leave for you to discover. The space battles are wonderful, the visual effects are grand and colorful, the droids and aliens full of life and personality. Yet “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is far more interested in its conversations and the sweeping vistas of its lonely planets. It feels the crucial emotions of the relationships its characters share. It builds a living archaeology of the original trilogy all around them. It makes the myths we saw as children seem as myth to them.

Director J.J. Abrams manages to translate these characters’ inner struggles onto screen while rarely speaking them aloud. A look, a glance, a quick juxtaposition: these are lived-in lives, powered by what spiritual sustenance characters can manage amid fear and loss. These are no longer archetypes bounding about a space western. These are no longer heroes and villains. These are people who stumble across their own story and exist with one foot gently in and one foot squarely out of wanting to take part in it.

As spoiler-free as possible: Later in the film, we are presented with the ultimate moment. One figure is possessed by anger and wrath. The film’s villain, Kylo Ren, is a man who’s carved emotional chunks of himself out so that he can embrace power. He is spiritually unfulfilled, and so rages at the universe around him. He has created a figure of himself, and strives to be closer to this figure, this icon. This draws him further from himself – he is nothing but the external image of who he believes he should be.

The other figure is possessed by loss and disappointment. Rey is a woman who has nothing left, yet is driven by hope, by self-chosen beliefs and convictions. The crushing realities that the universe has made her suffer are experiences that draw her closer to herself. Yet she erases the external. She remains herself. She chooses to be closer to her inner life, no image, no shield, no guarded nature.

Kylo Ren wears a mask, not because he is mutilated visibly like the original trilogy’s Darth Vader. No, he wears it because he is mutilated inside. His pursuit is spiritual self-mutilation. He rages at his demons, making more room in himself for them to reside, multiplying them, mistaking the rage of his own dissatisfaction for power he can turn against others.

Rey is bright-eyed and intelligent, savvy, confident without being cocky. She is introduced wearing a mask. She removes it, and we never see it again. She suffers alongside her demons, accepts them, embraces the calm that arrives from acceptance, the patience she’s practiced through hope, the faith she’s chosen in herself and the convictions she’s embraced – even after that hope’s been dashed.

No “Star Wars” film before this has so succinctly or successfully captured the notions of a dark and light side, of why these things matter as more than simple storytelling devices. “The Force Awakens” makes these things matter.

I’d set “The Force Awakens” as the second-best of the “Star Wars” films behind “The Empire Strikes Back,” if such things must be measured. As a sequel for the original trilogy, it not only succeeds in telling its own story, it also succeeds in having a reason to be told, and in giving the previous films added weight.

Yet “The Force Awakens” is the best “Star Wars” film in one regard. It is the best of these movies off-screen. It is the one that matters. This Christmas, children will take their action figures and Legos and video games or just go outside and grab some sticks. And Rey will save the galaxy by coping with loss. And Finn will save the galaxy by rejecting the spiritual self-mutilation that’s been asked of him. And Poe Dameron will save the galaxy by being friendly and trusting.

They will save the galaxy millions upon millions of times, in millions upon millions of hands. A woman, a black man, and a hispanic man will save it from a man who believes anger is power, while love and sympathy must be carved out of himself to achieve it. And his weaknesses in believing this will be exposed again and again and again.

If play is practice for adulthood, those children will have excellent training. “Star Wars” has always been culturally significant. “The Force Awakens” makes it culturally important.

Children will step out of their door and young women, young blacks, young hispanics all will feel like more than they were before, because now they have heroes in the world’s biggest franchise who represent them fully.

Young men and women of all races may learn that they have fewer demons to face, and better tools to face them. Here’s to children growing up with fewer demons, and being able to accept, face, and understand the ones they still must sustain.

The feature image of Daisy Ridley is from Collider here.

Book of Job Redux — “In the Heart of the Sea”

by Gabriel Valdez

There’s no way to put this simply or without making a really bad pun, but critics are missing the boat on “In the Heart of the Sea.” It’s too many films, they say. It wants to be a seafaring adventure, an epic test of wills between two men, an environmental paean, and an allegory about the pitfalls of vengeance.

Very broadly based on the destruction of the whaling ship Essex by a whale in 1820 and the struggle of its stranded survivors, the story is framed by author Herman Melville’s visit to the vessel’s last living crew member in Nantucket, Mass. Though Melville did base American classic “Moby Dick” on the story of the Essex, this visit never actually happened. It does provide a nice frame story about confession, however.

Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com echoes a complaint many critics have had. He specifically criticizes the film for lacking Spielberg’s famous storytelling notion of “an idea you can hold in your hand.” This is a misreading of the film – it has no interest in being held. “In the Heart of the Sea” is about what choices you make upon facing the fury of God, or the majesty of the universe, or the sublime in nature – pick your preference. That’s an idea that can barely be held in the head, let alone the hand.

Look, I’m as Socialist Pinko Liberal as the next Socialist Pinko Liberal, yet even I have to admit that there’s a blind spot in film criticism when it comes to movies about religion. (Many of them are bad, yes, but how does that make the genre different from any other?)

And make no mistake, “In the Heart of the Sea” is a film about how we come away from facing God. Do we rage at loss? Do we double down on our own narcissism and place faith in our superiority? Is the universe unfeeling and arbitrary, or have we been personally selected out by it? Do we look at what happens around us and respond with the anger of violence and vengeance?

Or do we see ourselves as a speck in the universe, and find beauty in that? When we face the sublime, that which is more meaningful and permanent in nature than ourselves, do we respond with humbleness and respect? Or do we seek to master it? Is ours to master the world around us, or to acknowledge the world around us does not need our mastering it?

Survivors and whale

Every year, there’s a film that tackles “Book of Job” territory. “In the Heart of the Sea” is a more obvious gambit, and it suffers for its obviousness. Seitz criticizes the movie for not being a darker adventure filmed by Werner Herzog or Terrence Malick. Not to put too fine a point on it, but 99% of all movies would be better if filmed by Herzog or Malick. “In the Heart of the Sea” isn’t even the best “Book of Job” riff about being stranded at sea and facing the overwhelming wrath of God/Nature – that would be my call for best film in the last decade: “Life of Pi.”

That said, “In the Heart of the Sea” is a good film. While it travels fast and feels a bit obvious at points, it is a solid and fulfilling yarn.

There are many of the same problems here that have burrowed into director Ron Howard’s recent films – the “historical” movie that makes 90% of its plot up, the near-complete disinclusion of women, and a misplaced belief that Chris Hemsworth can do accents.

The whale also stalks the survivors for quite a while after sinking the Essex. This never happened. Whaling was huge business in the 1800s and whale oil was somewhat equivalent to the petroleum industry of today. Whales are intelligent animals, and there are several accounts of whales targeting whaling vessels and deliberately sinking them. Whether this was a direct predator-prey response, or the animals had a more complex notion of what was happening, whales did target, attack, and sink whaling vessels on multiple occasions.

The whale here is more akin to the wolves in “The Gray,” the monsters in “The Descent,” or the debris field in “Gravity.” The wolves didn’t act like real wolves because they weren’t real wolves; they were the existential nature of loss and desperation closing in on you. The monsters in “The Descent” didn’t act like real echolocating, underground manbeasts because real echolocating, underground manbeasts don’t exist; they were the demons of a life punished. The debris field in “Gravity” doesn’t care by the end if it’s on schedule or not. It’s coming for Sandra Bullock one more time, physics be damned, because in movie language it is not a debris field; it is the universe breaking a human being unfeelingly.

The whale is the universe, the existential nature of loss and desperation closing in on you. Look it in the eye. It has broken your life. Do you rage against it and lash out? Or do you let the moment pass, and one day become yourself again?

“In the Heart of the Sea” is not a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination. But it does have a damn good reason for being. It has no single, simple idea to be held in the hand, but rather one to be gazed at in the night sky, in the flight of a bird, in the quiet whispering of trees, and yes – even sometimes in the raging of the world unfeeling against you.

Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.

1. Does “In the Heart of the Sea” have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Michelle Fairley plays Mrs. Nickerson and Charlotte Riley plays Peggy Chase.

2. Do they talk to each other?

No. Nickerson exists in the frame story and Chase within the story being told. They are both wives to more plot-consequential characters.

3. About something other than a man?

Not applicable.

With the exception of “The Missing” and Cate Blanchett’s utter domination of her role in what is super-secretly my favorite Ron Howard film, Howard is an awful director when it comes to giving women any kind of leading role in his films (serving as Tom Hank’s bright-eyed, half-his-age, ingenue-of-the-moment in Dan Brown adaptations does not count).

“In the Heart of the Sea” is a film about men, blah blah blah, and yes, it happens on a whaling vessel in 1820, where you wouldn’t find women working…but considerable portions of the film happen before or after the ship and its crew are involved. There were opportunities here. Howard just isn’t a director who’s typically interested in telling stories about women outside of their relation to leading men.

Where did we get our awesome images? The Essex before the storm comes from FastCoCreate. Survivors in the water looking up at the whale comes from The Hollywood Reporter.

So You Don’t Have To — “The Ridiculous 6”

by Gabriel Valdez

In the first five minutes, hell – the first 30 seconds – “The Ridiculous 6” establishes itself as intentionally offensive. The new Adam Sandler movie is a Western spoof, and these first five minutes involve racial slurs, unwanted groping of a woman, and rape threats of her by five men.

Now, the racial slurs might be claimed as “historical accuracy,” but nothing else in the film is concerned with any kind of historical accuracy. More importantly, those slurs are used in ways that aren’t historically accurate. So, there’s really no leg to stand on here, though I’m sure someone will try.

Here’s one of the film’s early jokes:

Attempted rapists call an Apache woman “Pocahotness.” Don’t worry, her real name is “Smoking Fox.” She’s saved by the white orphan her tribe raised. That’s Adam Sandler. His name is “White Knife.” He’s special. Why? Because he’s better at everything his tribe does than they are. He can run at super speeds, throw knives with pinpoint accuracy, and shoot arrows and catch them in his teeth.

Indigenous Americans are posed as warlike and savage. When a white traveler happens upon their tribe’s riverside camp, everyone hollers and brandishes a weapon, including a toddler with a hatchet at the ready. That’s all these people are, the film says: violent, savage, uncultured. Adam Sandler is our window into their souls, and he is better at all they do than they are because he is among them, but not of them.

All the Apache women want him, but they don’t want the actual Apache men they’re with. The white man among them has genetic supremacy, breeding supremacy. Breeding supremacy is the kind of shit we once argued so that we could justify the rape of indigenous peoples. By forcing them to have half-white babies, the idea was we were breeding the genetically inferior parts of them out. It’s “Manifest Destiny: The Fucking Movie.”

There are some jokes at the expense of whites, but the film uses these briefly and early before forgetting them, as if to clean the slate so that it can get away with being profoundly racist toward the Apache and then say, “Oh, but we made two jokes about whites.”

Take Rob Schneider. He plays a Mexican who has sex with donkeys. When we first meet the donkey, it shits all over the wall for 10 seconds. That’s his special power. The donkey projectile shits all over people. Mexicans, amirite?

Poor Taylor Lautner, who actually delivered a decent parkour film earlier this year in “Tracers,” is the leading Native American actor in the film. The first thing we learn about his character is that he’s a virgin (breeding supremacy). Actually, the first thing we learn about him is that he’s mentally handicapped (genetic supremacy). Don’t worry, though, he’ll get a blowjob from the donkey in his second scene while Rob Schneider looks on approvingly and pets the donkey. A Native American actor, a Mexican character, and animal sex. Only the white actor playing a white man looks on disapprovingly.

The joke is that all of these people are White Knife’s brothers from different women. In order to rescue their father, they need to band together and steal $50,000.

Jorge Garcia is next. The Chilean/Cuban actor made famous by being the most charming character in “Lost” here plays a mentally handicapped man who can communicate only in grunts (genetic supremacy). The joke is his mother’s too ugly for anyone to have ever had sex with her (breeding supremacy). Yes, there are two mentally handicapped characters in the film, treated with all the sensitivity of a boot.

Luke Wilson and Terry Crews join on as the final two brothers. Thankfully, Crews gets away without too much racism aimed his way (aside from sexual stereotypes). There’s even a scene where Crews reveals to the others he’s Black, just in case they were thinking of making slurs without knowing. Given the cachet Crews has in the industry, one has to imagine he wouldn’t have done the movie if the same hate was directed toward Black characters.

Others don’t have that sway. Here are the other Apache women named:

Never-Wears-Bra

Beaver Breath

They’ll come across a man in the wilds inventing baseball. He’s got a team of Chinese workers, but they need a team to play against. The jokes contained here are that the Chinese are bad at everything (genetic supremacy), scared of the ball, and they’re short (breeding supremacy). What wit.

The jokes about baseball itself actually work. Because he keeps losing, the inventor makes the rules more and more complicated as he goes. It’s a rare moment of actual wit and creativity in an otherwise profoundly lazy-ass film.

The only other humor that works:

“Sometimes, the white man speaks the truth. Like, one in 20, 25 times. I believe this is one of those times.” In fact, any of the lines Saginaw Grant says work – he’s the most accomplished comedian here. He gets about three real jokes, two of them aimed at whites. These are the only jokes made about whites in the whole film. That’s fewer instances than Rob Schneider sings about a fucking taco tree.

The pairing of Will Forte and Steve Zahn as outlaws is effective, though very underutilized. Really, a buddy film about their characters and interplay might have been more worthwhile.

That’s all I’ve got on things that work.

There are things that should work, but don’t because the film’s already lost so much trust. The stunt casting of Vanilla Ice as Mark Twain fails. David Spade as General Custer is pointless. Whitney Cummings is essentially used to show off her breasts. It’s all just names on the packaging that get you to watch and wait around for their 30 seconds apiece of screen-time.

Regardless of all this, the film is already dragging inside the first 10 minutes. Most of what Adam Sandler does is stand still, look stoic (read: disinterested), and grumble. Sandler has done anger surprisingly well as a dramatic actor – just look at “Punch Drunk Love.” Yet it’s something he can’t succeed with at a comedic level. That’s especially true at this point in his career, when he’s sleepwalking through so many roles for the paycheck. Whatever manic energy he was able to capture when young has left him. There’s nothing he brings to this that any other comedic actor couldn’t double.

Even without commentary on its negative social value, the film just doesn’t work as a comedy – even in the Adam Sandler style. It’s a shame Crews, Garcia, Lautner (yes, Lautner), and Wilson aren’t used in different ways. Sandler and Schneider are sleepwalking through this. The number of missed opportunities later in the film is ridiculous.

As a satire, it’s non-functional. It doesn’t understand anything more than the most basic cliches of a Western. It has nothing to say and it doesn’t understand what it’s lampooning. Less than five minutes of making fun of baseball – that’s really the only satirical thing that you’re sitting through the film to see.

Your time is far better spent re-watching “Blazing Saddles,” a film that understood its genre, why satire exists, and didn’t struggle with the most basic comedic timing in acting and filmmaking.

Or stick with “The Lone Ranger,” which had so much more to say than critics realized and boasted some beautiful cinematography and action scenes. Or check out Natasha Leggero’s “Another Period” for this style of genre satire done right. Or just watch “Drunk History” for something with a true awareness of how the world sees it.

“The Ridiculous 6” is hands-down the worst movie I’ve seen this year, and I had to watch Nicolas Cage’s Chinese martial arts epic.

Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

If you read my reviews, you know I’d normally give this section a more thorough rundown. “The Ridiculous 6” doesn’t deserve it. There are a few lines shared between women, but they’re all about how desirous they are of Adam Sandler. This film forgets women except during brief moments to make fun of the idea that women have sexuality or to pose women as damsels to be saved from rape and murder.

Secretly a Hell of a Lot of Fun — “The Last Witch Hunter”

Vin Diesel in The Last Witch Hunter

This weekend saw the wide release of a movie about a strange cult threatening the world. They worship an unnatural god who thinks humans are here only to serve. But enough about Apple users and “Steve Jobs.” Instead, let’s talk about a movie based on Vin Diesel’s Dungeons & Dragons character: “The Last Witch Hunter.”

The film’s opening is visually stunning. We find Kaulder (Diesel) and his band of medieval warriors launching a last-ditch assault on the fortress of the evil Witch Queen. This fortress is a vast tree that stretches across the entire horizon, and the warriors are faced with strange magics and shapeshifting beasts once inside. From the beginning, “Witch Hunter” lets you know it’s not quite playing by the same rules as other action movies.

Kaulder achieves his goal but is cursed with immortality in doing so. Fast-forward 800 years to present day, and he’s working as the enforcer to a secret alliance between the Catholic Church and the Witch Council. He helps keep the balance between magic users and humans.

The world-building at play here is very good. The film takes time to explain things, but the real standout here is the way magical battles incorporate outlandish spells. Most of the “Harry Potter” series is better overall, but too often that franchise devolved magic battles into faux gun fights. Wizards just shot sparks at each other as if they’d whipped revolvers out at a saloon. It hardly felt powerful.

Last Witch Hunter's Witch Queen

If witches and wizards are so powerful, they should be calling tree limbs out of the ground, teleporting, partitioning rooms into different parts of time, turning into swarms of flies at the drop of a hat, and trying to trap each other within dreams and memories mid-battle. “Witch Hunter” gets this very right. It’s one of the only films I’ve seen treat magic this ambitiously. It also does a stellar job of making this all accessible without slowing down the pace of a fight. For this alone, it’s worth the watch.

The exceptional makeup design by Justin Raleigh, Danielle Noe, and their crew is also worth mentioning. The Witch Queen is a fantastic practical creature design and, somehow, Vin Diesel doesn’t look ridiculous as a Viking. Well, he looks ridiculous, but in just the right way. Director Breck Eisner also manages to get the practical special effects and the CGI visual effects together on the same page. It all feels part of a world. The two are blended very well.

The film’s other elements are here and there. The set design is occasionally visionary, occasionally ordinary. The costuming contains personal detail, but is often ill-advised in concept. There’s a single, needless line of voice-over narration when the film’s already 20 minutes old. That narration never comes back. Michael Caine is completely wasted in his role as a priest who advises Kaulder.

Diesel himself is uneven at best. His anger only knows one level, and that’s shouting. There are scenes where Kaulder can threaten a witch by his very presence, essentially playing good cop while his 800-year old reputation plays bad cop. He’s charming and funny during these moments. There are other scenes in which Kaulder just resorts to yelling at someone. These don’t fit, and make the character seem much too immature for his centuries-old age.

Last Witch Hunter Vin Diesel and Rose Leslie

It’s up to Rose Leslie and Elijah Wood to hold the scenes down around Diesel. Despite her youth, Leslie’s a veteran of costume fare, via “Game of Thrones” and “Downton Abbey.” As the witch Chloe, who grudgingly allies with Kaulder, she creates a character we’re able to invest in more than Diesel’s. Wood gets limited screen-time, but riffs off of Diesel when he gets the chance. As a young priest charged with recording Kaulder’s history, he manages to create the kind of quirky character he’s known for outside of “Lord of the Rings.”

Roger Ebert often wrote that a movie needs to be judged on whether it accomplishes its own goals. “Witch Hunter” isn’t trying to be anything earth-shattering. It’s just trying to be fun, and you know what? It is. If it were part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it would be smack dab in the middle in terms of quality. It’s a satisfying film with some very vibrant moments and some disappointing ones.

If you liked “Blade” or “Constantine” and you’re looking for similarly dark superhero-styled fare, “Last Witch Hunter” is for you. Vin Diesel isn’t as dynamic as Wesley Snipes or self-aware as Keanu Reeves, but he gets the job done. The closest comparison to “Witch Hunter” may be “John Wick.” Although the two are in completely separate genres, they share a similar ability for hinting at deeper worlds beneath a glossy presentation. They also share a creative knack for presenting action in ways we haven’t seen before. They do both lose some steam by the end via formulaic climaxes.

“The Last Witch Hunter” is getting slammed by many critics, but it doesn’t really deserve it. As a viewer, trust your gut on this one. If the concept or actors intrigue you, go see it. If you watch the trailer and the visuals impress you, the rest of the film is just as inventive. If you think this kind of B-movie sounds ridiculous, this won’t do anything to change your opinion. There are certainly far better (“Sicario”) and more visually creative (“Crimson Peak”) movies in the theater right now.

Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.

1. Does “The Last Witch Hunter” have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Rose Leslie plays Chloe. Rena Owen plays Glaeser, the leader of the Witch Council. Julie Engelbrecht plays the Witch Queen. Bex Taylor-Klaus plays a witch Diesel helps on a plane, Bronwyn. Dawn Olivieri plays the tricky Danique. Lotte Verbeek plays Kaulder’s wife Helena. Sloane Coombs plays Kaulder’s daughter Elizabeth.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Briefly.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes.

The number of speaking roles for women is about on par with the number of roles for men, especially considering that most of the incidental male roles take place in just a pair of scenes in the past. I’d say there’s more room for “Witch Hunter” to make these roles more consequential, but that’s true of pretty much every character.

Given that everything’s so Diesel-related, and that there are almost no scenes requiring more than one person to interact with him at a time, I’d say the movie sits on a fine line when it comes to the spirit of the Bechdel-Wallace Test. It technically passes, though only in the briefest moments when Chloe threatens Danique or is threatened by the Witch Queen. Spiritually, it’s not a sale. Chloe is a strong character, and Leslie gives her an admirable mix of courage and gumption. She lacks Kaulder’s skill in battle, but that doesn’t exactly stop her from jumping in and doing what she can. The film makes some conscious effort to avoid making her a romantic interest, an ingenue, or a pet. There’s a bit of complexity to her back story, and Kaulder treats her as an ally instead of a damsel.

The core group is Diesel, Leslie, Wood, and Caine. Leslie doesn’t enter into the fray until at least a third of the way through the film, so you can see how opportunities for women to share scenes are further limited.

Overall, there’s some modest success with Chloe as a character who doesn’t succumb to the normal pitfalls of women sidekicks in films like this. There are also a number of speaking roles for women, though many are brief or contained to a single scene. “Witch Hunter” makes some effort, but could have made much more.

Where did we find our awesome images? The feature of the burning tree is from Comic Book Resources. Viking Vin Diesel up top is from Screen Rant. The Witch Queen is from Bloody-Disgusting, as is the image of Diesel and Leslie facing camera.

Ghosts, Bloodshed, and Jessica Chastain — “Crimson Peak”

Crimson Peak ghost

Guillermo Del Toro’s latest film is a very old-fashioned ghost story, albeit with a modern sense of bloodletting. “Crimson Peak” is a fairly perfect fit for Halloween, equal parts tense chiller and delectably intentional melodrama. It’s also one of the most beautiful looking films you’ll see this year.

We follow young Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), an idealistic writer who is swept up in a whirlwind romance by Baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). Being the end of the Victorian era, he whisks her away to his lonely mansion on a windswept hill. They are joined by his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) and a bevy of ghosts with dire warnings.

Del Toro’s critically lauded for his quieter, profoundly haunting Spanish-language films such as “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone.” He’s loved by audiences for zanier, louder English-language endeavors like “Pacific Rim” and “Hellboy.”

Few directors can successfully make films across such a broad spectrum. To which does the English-language “Crimson Peak” belong? It’s altogether something different, neither quiet and meditative like his smaller films nor brash and cheeky in the same way his big-budget fare is. Instead, Del Toro has crafted a riff on Gothic romances like “Jane Eyre” and “Rebecca.”

“Crimson Peak” treads increasingly into that genre’s deliberately melodramatic mood, while dressing everything as if Edgar Allan Poe had imagined the sets into existence. “Crimson Peak” is scary, yes, but it’s not interested in the overwhelming terror of which Del Toro is capable. Instead, mystery and atmosphere are front and center. While all of Del Toro’s films have enjoyed fantastic designs and incredible atmosphere, “Crimson Peak” reaches even greater heights of macabre beauty.

Crimson Peak hall

All that said, this is a very particular kind of movie. It has the same fun with its material as “Pacific Rim,” but instead of riffing on the giant robot movies we know all too well by this point, he’s riffing on Gothic romance fiction. It’s not territory that will seem as fresh in many viewers’ minds, but if you’re willing to go along with Del Toro, this is his best job yet of treating genre as his playground.

To understand the movie is to understand Chastain’s role as Lucille. You may recognize Chastain as the lead from “Zero Dark Thirty,” the grown-up Murphy in “Interstellar,” or Matt Damon’s best chance at rescue in “The Martian.” From whichever role you know her, she’s something altogether different here. Her very first scene, Lucille is introduced playing the piano. Her fingers dance across the ivories with both a practiced skill and a flexed rigidity. The camera travels up the back of her dress, not evocatively, but to show that the design on its back resembles a satin vertebrae.

This is the level on which “Crimson Peak” works. Every scene holds a new detail if you’re paying close enough attention. Every piece of design and every edit hints at something crucial. Even the lighting in a painting quickly glanced can tell you whom to trust. The design is stellar in how it’s all put together to subtly direct the viewer. The way it’s filmed understands every nuance of that design. You could pick apart certain shots like you would paintings.

“Crimson Peak” will suffer with viewers somewhat because it’s been advertised as straight-up horror and there isn’t necessarily a large audience with a well of knowledge regarding Gothic romance. That’s really how you might best enjoy the film, recognizing how it exists both inside of and as a commentary on Gothic and Victorian literature. Without that background, the film may seem beautiful but outlandish. Fans of such literature, lovers of costume and set design, those who appreciate old-fashioned ghost stories, mystery fans, and even (perhaps especially) fans of giallo filmmaking will love “Crimson Peak.” Those expecting a more modern horror, or something particularly oppressive or jumpy in its scares, may be disappointed. “Crimson Peak” is a creepy film with beautiful tone, not really a scary one designed to make you leap from your seat.

Crimson Peak Hiddleston Chastain

In an odd way, “Crimson Peak” feels close kin to Tim Burton’s 1999 take on “Sleepy Hollow.” Both movies are gorgeous to take in, featuring some of the best set and costume design ever put to film. Both are filled with performances that are more clever in their melodrama than seeking to be real, although Chastain’s master-class performance in “Peak” somehow manages to encompass both extremes. “Sleepy Hollow” is more action- and comedy-oriented where “Crimson Peak” is literary-minded. They are both utter joys to watch, but more for the sake of their stunning craftsmanship and the fun the actors are having than as complete crowd-pleasers. Suffice to say, I plan to make them into a Halloween double-feature one day. Perhaps “Clue” can be the chaser for that cocktail.

On one last note, I very occasionally have synesthetic reactions to films. It’s not often – I can count the number of times it’s happened on one hand. I don’t imagine it’s a reaction most viewers will have, but to describe just how complete and different “Crimson Peak” is as an exercise in design, it brought me to that place in a powerful and overwhelming way. The woodwork felt tangible. The colors haunted me. You could feel the suits and dresses, taste the cold in the air, huddle at the dark of its night. It didn’t give me goosebumps through its scares, but rather because I could feel the temperature drop and the drifts of its blizzards on the back of my neck. If you are at all interested in seeing the film, don’t wait for a second. See it in the theater, see it on the big screen.

Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.

1. Does “Crimson Peak” have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing. Jessica Chastain plays Lucille Sharpe. Leslie Hope plays Mrs. McMichael, Emily Coutts plays Eunice, and Sofia Wells plays Young Edith. Briefer speaking parts include Joanna Douglas as Maid Annie, and Karen Glave and Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah as a pair of unnamed maids.

There are also women ghosts with speaking parts, but these are played by men, including Doug Jones, who is Del Toro’s go-to creature actor.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes.

“Crimson Peak” is a film with feminism in mind. Edith is a writer who isn’t taken seriously because she’s a woman. She even types a manuscript up because she believes her handwriting betrays feminine qualities. Her father has faith in her ability to do as she will, but the rest of the world doesn’t understand why she rejects the game of suitors and marriage prospects. Wasikowska plays her as a smart mix of idealistic yet practical, and she’s most often in the hands of saving herself.

Lucille is a challenging role that could’ve gone rather badly in lesser hands, but Chastain absolutely obliterates the part. She’s not just threatening, she is the very idea of threat itself. You’re not waiting for the other shoe to drop here, you’re waiting for Chastain to close jaws on your jugular. It is a testament to Chastain that inside of three weeks, she’s delivered my favorite hero of the year (via a supporting role in “The Martian”) and my favorite villain in “Crimson Peak.”

Crimson Peak Jessica Chastain

Yes, Tom Hiddleston matters and gets more screen time than Chastain, but he’s really in the middle of things here. (Wasikowska easily gets the most screen time.) This film is really about its two women leads, the agency they exert over each other and their surroundings, and the game of cat-and-mouse they play.

This includes the dialogue they hold, the nature of it, and the topics covered. Equally importantly, it covers the way they’re portrayed, especially as the film inhabits something of a commentary on the nature of Gothic romance, the studio system of filmmaking, and the expectations of women within each.

Where did we get our fantastic images? The feature image with the yellow dress is from Slip Through Movies trailer article. The house and ghost images are from The Busybody’s Review in Pictures. The last two images, both with Jessica Chastain, are from a Bloody-Disgusting image feature.