Category Archives: Movie Reviews

A Difference, but Not a Departure — “Eternals”

I like “Eternals” because it’s different. I might be more critical if it were part of another franchise, but the MCU desperately needs entries that are different. That may seem like a strange claim after the last year of fresh choices Marvel has made, but after 27 movies and 17 series, that renewed creativity can feel as much like a survival mechanism as an artistic choice. Too many of these still boil down to fistfights and fireballs. I once thought I could never get enough of those two things, but the MCU can hit the repeat button too often.

This may be one of the factors that informs whether you like “Eternals” or not. Do you want something different out of the MCU? If the answer’s yes, then this may be the place to find it. If the answer’s no, you may find “Eternals” shifts too many of the narrative priorities you’re seeking, or even tackles too many at once.

The film follows 10 alien superheroes called Eternals. They’re sent by a Celestial (a member of an ancient race) to protect Earth from Deviants, a species that feeds on sentient life. Thankfully, that’s where the homework ends. In almost all ways, the story of “Eternals” happens separately from anything having to do with the Avengers and pre-existing MCU properties. That means you can watch and understand the film without having to know the interpersonal drama of two dozen brand names.

The Eternals spend thousands of years helping humanity to advance and protecting us from Deviants, eventually wiping out Deviant presence on the planet. Without a mission the last few hundred years, they’ve gone to separate corners of the world to live. Some choose quiet, unassuming lives, others become celebrity dynasties. Some take part in society, others isolate themselves from it. That is – until a surviving Deviant attacks two of them in London.

Now the Eternals have to get the old team back together, all while unraveling a deeper mystery as to their own purpose. This last part is really the film’s core. “Eternals” has action, but at its heart it’s a conversation between these characters about whether they should fulfill a divine purpose or use their personal morality to determine their own. The contrast between the never-changing Eternals and the always-adapting Deviants highlights this.

Director and co-writer Chloe Zhao has spoken about how “Eternals” engages Taoist concepts, and in many ways the film acts as a conversation between Taoism and Buddhism. Do the Eternals trust in the path of the universe they’ve been assigned, or do they treat what they find as an opportunity for rebirth? Can these things co-exist? Can the answers be different for different characters? Both ethical and unethical decisions are shown being made out of logic, and both are shown being made out of emotion.

OMG, what’s this all doing in an MCU film? Please. Captain America is half-Jesus allegory, half a season of “Daredevil” takes place in the Confessional, and Kenneth Branagh got a cool $150 million to make Henry IV, Part 1 but with more capes. Every infusion of meaning has been a good one, so let’s not be upset something non-Western finally makes the cut.

There’s also an underlying conversation happening between feminism and toxic masculinity here. Free of their mission for hundreds of years, how have the Eternals chosen to fill that void of purpose? One chooses empathy and community. One focuses their connection to humanity on only their partner, one social link who now bears all their emotional burdens and processing for them.

Does the nature of this change when someone focuses on another by choosing sacrifice and care; rather than expecting sacrifice and care be provided them from someone else as a burden? It’s not the focus of the film, but it guides characters’ motivations in important ways.

This range of perspectives makes for a unique and intriguing personal dynamic, especially in a film featuring Gemma Chan, Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden, Salma Hayek, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry, Ma Dong-seok, and more.

I’ve seen these concepts engaged more complexly, but certainly not in a superhero movie. “Eternals” has some of the most interesting conversations because it sets aside many of the MCU’s cliches. The witty banter was great for the first 30+ projects, but it’s become awfully plug-and-play. For instance: I really enjoyed “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” and what it had to say, but the Sam-Bucky back-and-forth felt awfully similar to Steve Rogers-Tony Stark, Thor-Loki, Natasha-Clint, Doctor Strange-Spidey, the list goes on.

There’s a mix here of that banter alongside more deliberate jokes, a splash of prop humor, and Jolie delivering superb one-liners. Not all of it works, but all of it does help “Eternals” establish its own space instead of feeling like the Avengers rehash it could have been.

It also might be the most beautiful MCU film. Its storytelling hops around history to fill in backstories and realizations, and fuses together a history of sci-fi imagery. Zhao draws from Golden Age sci-fi, 60s B-movie, 80s horror, today’s superhero cinema, and anime. The result is pretty cohesive.

I liked the action because each Eternal has one or two superpowers and is otherwise pretty limited. They have to function as a team. When they don’t, they fail. The tension of the action scenes is less about whether they can out-punch the Deviant and more about whether they can agree on tactics when they’re otherwise not communicating well. That echoes the core conflict at the center of the film and allows these disagreements to be communicated by the action itself, without the traditional in-suit cutaways of heroes pausing fights for a debate. It also enables the action to help tell the story, rather than waiting until the set-piece is done.

Even if I thought a few of the powers are kind of silly, it still makes the action scenes smoother and better-paced when they’re chiefly about action instead of bickering. More importantly, it grounds me in the consequences of that moment.

Some of the Avengers team choreography feels like it’s made to be an impressive visual, and it succeeds at that. Because it succeeds so well at that, I’m rarely concerned about whether the Avengers will out-rocket, out-punch, and out-magic their foes. Hell, they’re doing so well they can pause for multiple team photos; they’ll get there in the end.

In the “Eternals”, we get an ebb and flow of messy vs. controlled, interspersed with one character’s ability to transform objects in ways that become a sort of fighting by way of magical realism. It’s a cool blend, albeit one that requires more suspension of disbelief. We know how rockets and shields and punching hard works. We don’t so much know how turning a bus into flower petals does.

There are also visual moments influenced by French cartoonist Moebius, Stanley Kubrick, David Lean, the Wachowski sisters, Kenji Misumi, and – my personal favorite – a gorgeous homage to one of John Carpenter’s most shocking creations. This is melded within Zhao’s own meditative style, a patient and incisive visual approach that recalls Terrence Malick, Byambasuren Davaa, and Zhang Yimou.

All this put together should make “Eternals” the best film in the MCU. In some ways, it may be, but there’s also a sense that it needed to pull even further away than it has to truly become what it wanted to be. It can feel like a large number of priorities mashed together at times, and that can sabotage pace. “Eternals” is two hours and 37 minutes. What could it have been as a three hour-and-ten minute meditation? That might test an audience’s patience, but so does a film that doesn’t entirely get where it wants to go.

At some point, much like its Hal Hartley-meets-Wong Kar Wai styled Netflix shows once did – and some of its Disney+ series start to before getting scared – the MCU’s got to deliver something that’s truly of another genre and approach. “Eternals” is maybe 70% of the way. It’s a different take on the MCU aesthetic and narrative philosophy, and that’s what I love about it most. Yet what the MCU needs a film like this to be is a complete departure from the aesthetic and narrative philosophy that can still exist within that cinematic universe.

The differences in “Eternals” are its strengths, but those strengths can also feel like a limitation’s been put on them. It feels like there’s an MCU ceiling of “this is how different you can make it, but no more”, regardless of whether that’s a studio decision or Zhao’s own. The result is a film I like and place among the better MCU movies but stop short of putting in that elite few. Nonetheless, it’s one I may be more interested in revisiting than a “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, simply because “Eternals” hasn’t had a dozen semi-faded copies of it made yet.

You can watch “Eternals” on Disney+.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write articles like this one.

The Clinical and the Expressive — “The Unforgivable”

“The Unforgivable” has a lot of plot to sell you – even more than I think is wise. That doesn’t change the fact that it does so exquisitely. Based on a British series from 2009, “The Unforgivable” stars Sandra Bullock as Ruth Slater. She’s just been released early from prison, after serving 20 years of her sentence for the murder of a police officer. Ruth tries to jump-start a new life while tracking down her sister Katie, who was five when Ruth was arrested.

This is the bare premise for what follows. I went in expecting an examination of the experience of an ex-con trying to rebuild her life and reconnect with family. The ex-con and family legal drama genres are there, but the scope of “The Unforgivable” expands well beyond that. It reaches into an investigation of trauma and sacrifice, but also into the bounds of thriller.

Director Nora Fingscheidt helmed one of the best films of 2020, “System Crasher”. That film followed a young girl with rage issues who had exhausted every resource the social system had to care for her. She became a danger within group homes and with foster families alike, so she was shunted from one place to another. As each reached its limit and passed her on, she became unable to form permanent or stable bonds.

Despite the narrative being very linear, Fingscheidt tells that film in a dual manner. She has command of a documentarian, clinical approach to depicting systems. She meets this with an eye for sensory expression: departures through visuals and syncopation in editing that draw us extremely close to the kind of protagonist we might not otherwise seek out.

That’s on show in “The Unforgivable” as well. The system Ruth navigates is bluntly, clinically depicted. As the audience, we see that story in order, but her experience within all this is a jumble of memories, tensions, and anticipations introduced out of order. In this way, Fingscheidt delivers a linear narrative and a nonlinear emotional experience.

This is merged with an incredibly internalized performance by Bullock. There are moments of explosion and outburst, sure, but for the most part Ruth is contents under pressure. The tension in the film isn’t about seeing her burst, it’s about wondering how she hasn’t yet. The tumultuous moments are well acted, but it’s all those other moments of emotional suppression that define the film.

Bullock has a rare ability to carry movies almost single-handedly (just see “Gravity”). Here, she’s constantly surrounded by people, but her performance feels no less isolated or desperate. It’s among her best performances, if not her best work altogether.

The film’s written well in terms of its moment-to-moment dialogue. It carries multiple threads efficiently. As for the direction the plot takes, it can feel like a ride that jerks you back and forth a few times too many. The amount of cushion for this is going to vary by viewer. A subplot about the children of the police officer Ruth killed – now grown up and seeking revenge – feels like it visits from a less realistic universe.

In the hands of a lesser director, or lesser actors, the number of left turn additions would collapse the whole thing. Yet Bullock is joined by Jon Bernthal, Viola Davis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Rob Morgan, and Aisling Franciosi, among an even larger ensemble cast that more than pulls its weight.

Every revelation too far or late genre shift too many is so perfectly anchored by the performances and filmmaking that I was willing to go along. Pushing around suspension of disbelief as you go is a tricky maneuver, but there’s such an ample well of talent on tap that tension and motivation are pretty well maintained. The intrigue to know what happens next, and how it’s acted and told, outpaces the deluge of plot development.

I did find myself questioning whether these extra shifts were really needed, but I think the film ultimately pulls them off. The initial pitch can seem like “Maid” without the (admittedly well-done) sentimentality, especially when talking about the contrast between an uncaring systemic experience and the personal emotional experience. I don’t think this comparison lasts long, though.

“The Unforgivable” reminds me of a very different genre that nonetheless uses a similar narrative structure. We don’t have to look further than Ben Affleck’s early directing career in “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town”, or to Scott Cooper’s rustbelt noir “Out of the Furnace”, to see other good films that share a similar mentality of excess additions and twists within an otherwise deeply realized, practical, and gritty world. I’d say “The Unforgivable” is better than at least two of these.

There are some key differences. Fingscheidt’s direction doesn’t go toward noir. While all three directors have a keen interest in people screwed over by the system, Fingscheidt’s is the only one that really communicates a clear view of what that system is beyond plot impetus. Furthermore, at least in “The Town” and “Out of the Furnace”, anger at that system merely serves as an excuse for violence. I’d say in “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Unforgivable”, there’s a deeper contemplation of the messy intersection between idealism, accomplishing change, and mitigating harm. Fingscheidt did the homework in substance and not just style.

There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes talent at work here, too. Guillermo Navarro was Guillermo Del Toro’s go-to cinematographer for the first two-thirds of his career. This includes work like “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone”, and there’s a similar visual sense of empathy for traumatized characters whose ability to express themselves is stunted and discouraged.

Hans Zimmer joins David Fleming in composing an exceptional score. Fingscheidt’s “System Crasher” editor Stephan Bechinger is joined by Denis Villeneuve’s go-to editor Joe Walker. It’s a blend of sensibilities that works beautifully to create a unique rhythm.

Fingscheidt’s vision for fusing such different approaches is what makes the unwieldy scope of “The Unforgivable” work. Bullock’s performance is spellbinding without ever letting us into this walled-off, incredibly internalized character. It’s not the sort of thing we’ve seen from her before. A performance like that needs Fingscheidt’s ability to present a narrative in two simultaneous tones: the clinical, systemic, and linear joined with the personal, chaotic, and expressive.

Putting these two elements together is what makes the film special. “The Unforgivable” constantly has to find a way to communicate what Bullock won’t, and it connects these fragments beautifully. Does it heap too much plot on and ask too much of your suspension of disbelief? Viewers will have different answers to that question, and that sheds light on the different ways we watch movies.

If your suspension of disbelief and your interest in the emotionally expressive half of the film are both pliable enough to meet, there can be a relatively smooth handover between them. For viewers who treat one or the other of these with more rigidity or definition, there’s a greater gap to cross. Instead of serving the film, that dissonance can be its breaking point for you. You probably have a very good idea which type of viewer you tend to be, and whether you like movies that cross those boundaries or stay within them.

You can watch “The Unforgivable” on Netflix.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write articles like this one.

An Unmatched Film — “Passing”

There are films where a laugh can be a dagger meant for the audience, where what happens between characters takes place as much in the unsettled places in your soul as it does on the screen. There are films so precise in their complexity, with so much to say in so little a time, that they give it to you all at once as neatly as could be so that they can take days afterward unspooling in you. There are films that make you feel like you can’t take as deep a breath as you might need because the air’s let out through all the doors they’ve opened. There is Rebecca Hall’s “Passing”.

It’s 1929, midday. Irene is in a hotel dining room, wary someone might register she’s Black and doesn’t ‘belong’. Clare recognizes Irene and introduces herself. They used to go to school together. Clare is passing. Her husband thinks she’s white; everyone around her thinks she’s white. He mistakes Irene as white as well.

We’ll see Irene go back to Harlem, with a husband Brian and children who couldn’t pass as white. She’ll forget the encounter, for a time. To say anything more would be too much.

What I will say is that “Passing” has more tension loaded into its dialogue, its lingering black-and-white cinematography, its tightly wound editing, than just about any other film could dream. Wherever you think that initial premise would go only scrapes the surface. Whatever ideas you think “Passing” may engage, it spirals through so many intersecting layers – through race, feminism, socioeconomics, all without ever feeling like the film is anything other than a portal into the lives of characters who feel vitally real and consequential.

Tessa Thompson as Irene and Ruth Negga as Clare give spellbinding performances that wind and wind until you’re very unsure who either really is, deep down as a person. There is so much suggestion, so much intimation in “Passing”. No word or look is wasted. A phrase might feel like a fever dream, a smile like an obscuring fog, a silence like an anchor, and yet it all comes together so naturally. “Passing” is described as a drama, but it conveys emotionally as a thriller, an old-fashioned one that requires and rewards patience.

The story in “Passing” is lean and tautly told, while the gestures of it feel like staring into the abyss and having no idea where to start measuring. If it feels like I’m being too poetic here or not pinning down what “Passing” is, it’s because it doesn’t feel like it has a limit, and something needs a limit to be described in full. If “Passing” has a limit, I haven’t reached it.

All this may make “Passing” sound experimental, and in some ways it treads there, but it’s hardly uncontained. It’s so tightly delivered, so compactly told, with no frills, not a wasted motion in sight, that it feels like a poem you can read in a minute and spend the rest of your life turning over. It contains in such an identifiable, digestible form a flood of meanings and evocations.

There’s an article rattling around in me that speaks to part of what “Passing” engages, from a Latino standpoint and context. That’s different from a Black-led conversation and context, but there are elements that are mirrored or shared. That article would tell you about the ways that whiteness can pervade. It would tell you about friends who married someone white and confessed that they breathed a sigh of relief when their children came out with light skin, when they knew their children could pass enough to dodge the bulk of abuse and violence they had known, and when they recognized the second after thinking this how completely and terrifyingly they had learned to practice the violence of racism within themselves, to hate what they are, to do the work of chasing out what little survives to make us who we are, to do the work of colonization and racism so ingrained in us that it’s half-done before racists even lift a finger. We do that work for free, willingly, echoing terror against ourselves, lessons drilled in across generations.

The number of people who have told me this makes me glad I don’t have children, makes me relieved I lack a part of my life I’ve always wanted. Look how that history of racism makes us happy to hate ourselves, that article would say. Look how they make us relieved to chase out anything that isn’t a copy of them, a begging plea to be accepted if we just commit that act of violence to self-mutilate our own image, our own value, our own uniqueness, to chase it out of mind, to eradicate it from our story.

That’s a lifetime of work to undo, and while it’s this subtle violence at the heart of “Passing”, it’s just one of many subtle violences the film speaks to, just one of the unfathomable, immeasurable violences that loom where we choose not to see them, and that “Passing” stares straight into. When a laugh feels like a dagger meant for the audience, you can’t help but wonder what it sees in you.

There are those pieces of art, those poems and paintings, those books, those films, those games that each build a house in who we are, that give us a comfort as we stare at that abyss of work knowing we’ll never see its end ourselves – there are those pieces of art that we know will accompany us from here on out. Whatever they see is something we desperately need to feel is shared, is recognized by others. It’s art that stores a piece of meaning in us, and in which we store a piece of ourselves. It opens doors in you that sometimes get jammed shut, that you need a piece of art to shake, to loose, to burst through.

I’ve said before that if you show me a perfect film, I’ll show you one that could have been more ambitious, more willing to be less than perfect in order to tackle more. I stand corrected.

You can watch “Passing” on Netflix.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write articles like this one.

The First Sin of Adapting “Dune”

The following article contains spoilers for “Dune”.

Duke Leto. Ultradad. Father Knows Best in Space. Every adaptation of “Dune” lionizes the man so that we know just how much his son Paul loses when House Harkonnen massacres his family. Yet the point of Duke Leto is the opposite. We understand Paul loses a loved one, but we also must understand how Duke Leto sets the themes of “Dune”. By transforming Leto into an enlightened ruler cut short, “Dune” immediately sets fire to the foundation of the themes Frank Herbert’s novel sought to develop.

Duke Leto in the novel is a man obsessed with aristocratic convention, hierarchy, and ancestry. He’s disdainful to servants, strict with Paul and his consort Jessica, he plots just as willfully and consciously as the Harkonnens. He’s not a good man caught in the trap of taking over Arrakis because others like him too much. He’s a man who’s shrewdly gathered power, spearheaded new military technology, and developed an army meant to rival the Emperor’s.

Leto is altruistic, though often with a goal, hoping the stories of his magnanimity reach others. He’s kind in many moments, but he can be cruel in others. At times his kindness is honest, at times it’s a leverage or exchange. It’s crucial in every adaptation that Duke Leto envisions himself as being a righteous, enlightened man. It’s a foundational mistake that every adaptation sees him this way as well.

The most accurate portrayal in director Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of “Dune” is Rebecca Ferguson’s Lady Jessica. I understand the idea that she’s portrayed in an overly emotional way, but Villeneuve’s mistake isn’t doing this – she’s emotional in the book, too. This guides many of her decisions, and even ways in which Leto and Jessica use each other. Ferguson maintains Jessica as both intimidating and empathetic. Villeneuve’s mistake is not making Leto and Paul just as emotional. No, they’re supermen. Even if Paul is inconsistent, unsure, and often afraid of his visions, he’s still only a scene away from calmly piloting through a storm or going full John Wick.

This directly points to the thematic failure of Villeneuve’s “Dune”. In the novel, Duke Leto envisions his actions on Arrakis as righteous no matter how colonial his presence is. Paul is torn between the keen awareness of his mother even as she tries to subvert and accelerate prophecy, and the aristocratic determinism of his father.

It’s very appropriate that House Atreides views itself as noble, enlightened, and righteous – it envisions its leadership can bring peace to Arrakis, rather than recognizing that by definition its presence is yet one more act of violence. Simply because it’s not as brutal or wholesale a violence as House Harkonnen doesn’t mean it isn’t still violent. Of course Duke Leto views himself as righteous, but it’s a major, foundational problem that the film does, too. “Dune” misses an opportunity for this to be an object of discussion between Leto and Paul. They talk about who Paul wants to be when he’s older, but the pressing matter on Paul’s mind throughout the movie is one that he never directly voices to his father.

Every adaptation of “Dune” has treated House Atreides as noble and tragic when they participated in a cycle of direct occupation. In the novel, Leto sees Arrakis as an opportunity. He might even be described as foolhardy in his willingness to engage the danger. He jumps at the chance. Yes, everyone knows the Emperor has set a trap, but Leto also views this as the culmination of his own efforts to challenge the emperor. He certainly views it as the result of generations of his ancestors building power. It’s not just a situation he falls into cause he’s just such a gosh darn good space dad. It’s one his family’s been aiming for over generations.

In the novel, Arrakis isn’t a solemn duty Leto’s willing to martyr himself for as he tries to nobly empower the indigenous Fremen. To Leto, Arrakis is his family’s manifest destiny, and the Fremen are a tool that can be useful against both House Harkonnen and the Emperor. This sets the entire thematic foundation for Jessica and Paul’s later manipulation of the Fremen.

It also sets a comparison for author Frank Herbert’s criticism of “charismatic leadership”, wherein he offers an example of its danger in antiquity and monarchic history through Leto before engaging its modern populist version through Paul. Leto illustrates that this type of marketing of a hero or messiah isn’t something new that only inhabits a strict definition that’s easy to recognize. Through Leto and Paul, Herbert argues that it will always exist, hide in new forms, and define itself through whatever evangelizes a population into believing it uniquely embodies a manifest destiny.

Paul’s struggle isn’t between the goodness and idealism of his father and the awareness and shrewdness of his mother, as in the film. His struggle is whether he lies to himself and justifies it like his father, or he holds the awareness of exactly what he does and the damages he causes like his mother. Does he justify his manipulation of the Fremen to himself as enlightened fate, or does he recognize the violence he impels are his own decisions? This is why it’s important that his visions offer multiple paths; they’re about how much he chooses to lie to himself out of his own emotional shortcomings.

Leto and Paul are both emotional, unreliable, and narcissistic. It’s crucial to both that before they market their righteousness to anyone else, they’ve sold themselves on it. As a Bene Gesserit with a broader view, Jessica has no need for this. She doesn’t need to convince herself of her own righteousness like Leto and Paul; she has awareness they lack. She sees their occupation of Arrakis is itself an act of violence. She is comfortable committing that act. The problem in the film isn’t that Jessica is emotional, it’s that Leto and Paul aren’t even moreso.

Perhaps Villeneuve fails to show Leto or Paul in this light because of a male gaze that wants them to be more stolid and stoic. Perhaps he only sees the anti-colonial and anti-populist thread in Lady Jessica, and fails to in Leto and – to this point – Paul. Those reasons are worth discussing. What they arrive at is a lionization of Leto that directly undermines and sabotages the foundation of the novel’s themes. Villeneuve could go either direction with Paul – a hero’s journey that every adaptation of “Dune” has thus far embraced, or the criticism of the hero’s journey that Herbert actually wrote. With Villeneuve’s Part Two on the horizon, I’m willing to treat the jury as still out on Paul.

Yet by failing to recognize or engage this at all with Leto, Villeneuve has already shown a lack of recognition for, or a willingness to ignore, the thematic foundation on which the rest of “Dune” is built. Paul’s entire journey is one of balancing Jessica’s awareness and long view with enough of Leto’s narcissism and self-justification to overcome his doubt. He gets the worst of both of his parents, weaknesses we often dangerously mistake for strengths. Without showing what those weaknesses and dangers are in Leto, Villeneuve fails not just Leto’s character, but Paul’s as well.

Here, Leto is just a Golly Gee Awesome Space Dad in a Bind (if Chuck Tingle uses that title, I want royalties). Oscar Isaac is very good in that role; that role just isn’t useful in “Dune” unless you’re making a hero’s journey for a Chosen One – exactly what “Dune” was written to criticize.

Changing Leto for the film adds some drama to the premise for House Atreides, but it does so at the cost of meaning in relation to the Fremen, the novel’s themes, and the very characters of Leto and Paul. Instead of viewing the Fremen as enduring one more viceroy, no matter how “soft” his colonialism acts, we now view Leto as a tragic victim.

Villeneuve’s “Dune” wants to have later conversations about colonialism, but it misses the most important opportunity to build a foundation for these. Every adaptation of “Dune” has been too preoccupied and worshipful of the classically tragic nobility of House Atreides, and that’s excused any of these adaptations from giving its leaders the more complex presentation they need.

Because the Duke is sold as enlightened, we avoid engaging him with the same critical eye “Dune” turns toward everything else. That means the very first thing Villeneuve’s “Dune” does is ignore the same ideals the rest of the film seeks to criticize. Simply because every adaptation likes the Duke too much, we fail to engage this first act of harm. Our first lesson in every “Dune” adaptation is to ignore the very conversation “Dune” wants to have. Because it’s a “softer” act of harm, or one we feel Duke Leto has no choice but to commit, we begin an anti-colonial narrative by first excusing an act of colonialism. We’re taught to treat a viceroy who sees Arrakis as an opportunity for his own advancement as the real victim of colonialism. Then those adaptations want to talk to you about colonialism as if they haven’t already started by excusing it.

“Dune” somehow manages to trick its storytellers into undermining themselves despite Herbert expressly detailing who Duke Leto is. No adaptation has actually managed this first hurdle because none of them are willing to sacrifice the hero’s journey and the justifying incident that it requires.

Every adaptation of “Dune” commits a first sin of failing world, theme, and character. We only even see half the Duke’s tragedy. By wanting to love his character so, we overlook that his fall is also the result of his self-serving nature. To be a classically tragic leader, the Duke must be capable, kind, and admirable. So we get a classically tragic Duke – but he’s also meant to be tragic in a much more modern sense. He might understand the politics of the universe beautifully, and he’s educated himself on Arrakis well. Yet in lying to himself about his role in relation to the planet and its people as an enlightened ruler who can save it – instead of as an imperial viceroy whose participation in saving it is simply a continuance of a violent colonial act – the idealism that makes us view him as noble and enlightened is itself a lie. The whole point of his character is that the narrative he holds of himself is a lie. As a novel, “Dune” is clear on this. What he sacrifices himself for lacks meaning, and first requires the sacrifice of those who follow him. That is the tragedy. The point of the Duke is that populism of any sort kills itself when it buys into its own marketing, and in doing so it will sacrifice everyone else first.

In the classical sense, the Duke is tragic because he thinks he can succeed at making things better – and this contributes to his death. In the modern sense, the Duke is tragic because his self-marketing makes him believe he is playing a role far more righteous than it is, one he can manifest, one that his aristocratic history and adherence has led him to. His surprise with the quickness that he loses is because he thought his ascension was determined, trap or no trap. He’s not an idiot; he knows the danger. He just thinks it can’t touch him. This is specifically observed by other characters in the franchise, such as Princess Irulan (who you’ll meet later).

Adaptations of the novel choose the righteous half of that description – they believe what Leto believes about himself. They forget the self-righteous half – the role Leto plays, and that his belief does not define fact. The noble act he dies for is itself a lie he believes. Missing this in “Dune” means we once more have an adaptation that fails to fully grasp the conversation on which it wants to spend hours more philosophizing.

To understand how Jessica and Paul move forward as they do, especially as manipulators of the Fremen and not just a Chosen One and his mom, we need a more complex understanding of Duke Leto. Because we don’t have it, “Dune” in adaptation after adaptation trips into becoming a heroic Chosen One narrative regardless of its intentions. Like Leto, adaptations of “Dune” have made the mistake of thinking they’re more noble than they are. Their stories employ violence as episodic set piece without a deeper grasp of “Dune” as a story about cultural acts of violence. They mistake their protagonists as heroes in these set pieces, rather than as characters who see the violence of these set pieces as markers to exceed when they get their chance.

Like the 1984 film and the 2000 miniseries, the 2021 Part One of “Dune” is an exquisite adaptation of a hero’s journey, which means it fails the very first test of whether it’s a good adaptation of the novel. “Dune” as a novel understands the hero’s journey is marketing, that in the real world it covers over atrocities and builds populist consensus for war. Perhaps the newly greenlit Part Two of “Dune” will course correct this. Perhaps “Part One” is just a set up for how it all comes crashing down.

On its own, astounding as it may be in other ways, Villeneuve’s Part One fails to confront the questions that “Dune” as a novel is built around. It’s the third time in a row an adaptation screws up out of the gate. It fails to see that its thematic conversation starts with Leto at the very beginning, and not simply with Paul as a reaction. Leto isn’t just a premise or a sacrifice that evokes Paul’s vengeance and ambition; Leto is the prototype of it. Leto is a rough draft that ultimately fails, both literally and metaphorically poisoning itself. You can only engage so much of that conversation if you completely miss its foundation. You can only recognize a very limited amount of what “Dune” entails if you miss the bulk of where it starts and what it includes. Villeneuve’s “Dune” is a really solid “Game of Thrones” in space, but it’s not a good adaptation of the novel. I don’t care if the visual and technological details are painstakingly accurate when the theme isn’t. Science-fiction can only be so high-concept when it completely misses the concept.

This is the first sin of adapting “Dune”. No one who has adapted it so far is willing to treat its “soft” colonialism as violent, or its historical populism as a rough draft of Paul’s. Leto is treated as the first step of the hero’s journey: what is lost. He’s supposed to be the first step that argues against it: what justifies vengeance. That’s the foundation on which means are justified to achieve vengeance, on which violence is justified to realize those means, on which leadership is sold to make that violence achievable, on which a messiah is marketed to achieve that leadership.

Adaptations of “Dune” don’t just miss that first step; they directly reverse it. You can no longer argue, embody, or represent the themes of the novel when you’ve inverted the foundation to mean the opposite of those themes.

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“Dune” is Great, and a Fraction of What it Could Have Been

“Dune” is good. It’s great. It also stumbles at the first hurdle of adapting Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel. No matter how artistically impressive they’ve been, no adaptation of “Dune” has managed to follow through on the convictions of its source.

At least “Dune” conveys the plot in a straightforward and compelling manner. That already sets it above the cut-to-shreds 1984 movie and the overly somber 2000 miniseries. The Emperor rules the known universe, but space travel is reliant on Spice. Spice is found on one planet: the desert world Arrakis. House Harkonnen has ruled Arrakis for centuries, abusing the indigenous Fremen while growing in wealth and power enough to challenge the Emperor. Meanwhile, House Atreides has grown in power through leadership and alliance. The solution is simple. House Atreides is put in charge of Arrakis, setting up a war between the two powerful houses that should weaken both.

We follow the royal family of House Atreides through this: the idealistic Duke Leto, his consort Lady Jessica, and their son Paul. Here, Rebecca Ferguson carries the film as Jessica. Oscar Isaac and Timothee Chalamet are solid as Leto and Paul, but for such important characters can feel too broadly defined.

“Dune” is very deliberately paced without ever feeling slow or boring. It’s constantly interesting, full of exciting ideas and imagery that conveys cultures we’re only getting to peek into for a brief time.

It often looks like what David Lean might have filmed had he ever directed a sci-fi movie. That’s appropriate, given how the writings of T.E. Lawrence – the historical subject of Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” – influenced the novel. The movie is visually brilliant, hearkening back to the mythic and philosophical scope of 70s science-fiction.

All that said, this is part one of “Dune”. It adapts the first half of the novel, with the second part just given the green light for production. It feels like it. It has the attitude of a prologue. Even though there’s plenty of meat to the story and many things change from beginning to end, it can still feel like the shortest 2 hour and 35 minute movie you’ve ever seen. It ends right as it gets going. It’s a very worthwhile experience. It’s also an inherently incomplete one.

I won’t spoil where it ends, but it concludes on a character moment, instead of the two more epic moments that precede or follow it. I like that idea, but director Denis Villeneuve maintains a certain amount of distance from his characters, and doesn’t fully enough weave the themes of “Dune” through them. This saps power from their portrayal. Ending on a character moment means less when Villeneuve has built his film around world-building and plot, with his characters sometimes coming across more like chess pieces.

I suspect that part one of “Dune” will feel like a more complete experience after the second movie comes out and concludes the adaptation. What we’re really watching is the first act and beginning of the second act of an epic. We have the first half of a five hour-plus movie, which makes the experience both astounding and incomplete.

Amidst its art-house foundation of visions, philosophy, quiet emoting, and the beginnings of a conversation about colonialism, “Dune” loses some of its strong visual fluidity to its action scenes. It feels surprising to write that “Dune” has too much action, since it really doesn’t have much at all.

The problem isn’t the quality of the action – it’s both captivating and unique. The problem is that the action elements force “Dune” toward an episodic quality. We spend plenty of time with our core cast, but we don’t get a fluid sense of their experiences in these biggest moments of “Dune”. This is when we’re most distant from them, and when they become the most inaccessible. These moments are reserved for the action set pieces rather than character experiences. We’re already at a distance from these characters, which is fine, but we’re then held back from them even more when we most want to be close to them. We want to have a better sense of how they’re living these upheavals.

I don’t need to see the fight scene happen on one side of the door if the point of it is the emotional experience of the people on the other side of that door who can’t see it. We get the set piece in detail when we should be alongside our main characters, who are fearful, sad, and angry because they don’t know what’s happening in that set piece, whether someone they care for will live or die.

A good fight scene is like a good dialogue scene – something about a character’s understanding should change from beginning to end. This is when Villeneuve leaves the characters whose understanding is changing. He brings the details of these scenes while forgetting the point of them is supposed to be their impact. These details are phenomenal, but that doesn’t change the fact that their impact is left on the cutting room floor.

I do enjoy “Dune”. It is routinely captivating, if episodic. Part of me wonders if there’s a three-and-a-half hour director’s cut that maintains a better rhythm and fluidity. I am looking forward to the second part. “Dune” is a great movie that adapts many details of the novel. I also think it’s missing the entire point of the novel. No adaptation of “Dune” has held to its convictions that the story is a subversion of the hero’s journey, showing the danger of a charismatic leader. Every adaptation has instead turned its back on that idea in favor of presenting the very hero’s journey the novel argued against and sought to dismantle.

No matter how much detail you incorporate into your adaptation, if it skips the entire point of the novel, it’s not a good adaptation. It can still be a good movie about other things, a staggeringly beautiful experience about other things, and “Dune” is both. Yet these choices inherently gut the film of the bulk of its power and meaning. What we’re left with is something that deserves to be talked about among the best films of the year, but also a movie that is only a fragment of what it could have been.

You can watch “Dune” on HBO Max.

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A Scream in a Lullaby — “Fever Dream”

“Fever Dream” is a movie you come out of feeling weaker. You have to sense yourself under you, step deliberately, feel what’s in your arms and legs again. A word keeps repeating in my head: ‘hollowing’. “Fever Dream” hollows you. That’s not a bad thing. It’s simply patient with its urgency, lyrical in its revelations. It cradles you so you can begin to understand its staggering scale of pain.

Amanda is being dragged through the woods. She can’t move. Except that’s not right. She’s moving into her new home in Argentina. She moves with her daughter Nina on a regular basis. Her husband’s job requires it. She meets the neighbor, Carola, who brings over water because sometimes what comes out of the tap isn’t safe to drink. The two are immediate friends. Except it’s later, and Carola is confessing to Amanda a sacrifice she felt she had to make, something she fears will alienate Amanda.

“Fever Dream” is told like one, a foggy web of growing connections as it evolves. Stories are housed within stories are housed within stories. This is a magical realism tradition, an element of Latine storytelling that treats time as less important than understanding. It becomes easier to understand what’s happened, even when it’s very unclear what is or isn’t real, because we know so much by then about what it all means. As “Fever Dream” keeps reminding us, these larger moments aren’t what’s important. It’s the details that are crucial, the causes and consequences, the oversights, the inevitabilities.

The film’s based on Samanta Schweblin’s novel “Distancia de rescate”. That translates to “Rescue Distance”. It’s the sense a person has of how close they’d have to be to someone to rescue them. How far can Amanda go from the pool, and still be able to make it back in time if Nina falls in?

Director and co-writer Claudia Llosa always has a light touch with metaphor. She’s more focused on the emotional experience of the people inside those metaphors, what they see from inside them, the details they miss because they’re too busy living in them. There’s a power in this that so many directors overlook.

It’s easy to see the rescue distance also talks about communities suffering through environmental abuses, but the only reason it’s easy to see is because we’re living in that metaphor, too. We either live in the communities that are falling in quickly, the ones being poisoned or flooded or sold out from under the people who live there, or we live in the ones that have stretched the rescue distance to its breaking point, that have gone too far away to make it back in time.

“Fever Dream” never has to say it. It never even has to think it. It just has to give time to witness the people who live in and ignore the same metaphor we live in and ignore. Its horror is quiet because we’ve taught ourselves to understand it quietly.

To be blunt, when I started writing this review, I began with “There are no words”. There aren’t. It’s like trying to describe all the sensations you have in real-time. Any attempt is incomplete. To understand meaningfully, you’d have to feel it the same way.

This whole review could just be descriptions of how my body felt as I watched. It’s why it starts with how I felt as I got up after and still: hollowed. Like you could echo through me.

There’s a quiet in “Fever Dream” I recognize from being alone in the woods, when I let myself stop thinking for a moment, and I’m able to feel the wind and hear the sounds around me without intrusion or distraction.

There’s also a horror in “Fever Dream” I recognize from when I’ve worked and worked and called and asked for help and done everything I can to try to change something devastating, and still it barrels forth.

It bled tears from me, not in any overpowering moment, but in the gentleness with which it slowly, softly overwhelms, outlines what was always going to happen, because we let it happen all the time. Those tears haven’t stopped, not even as I write this. I’ll have to step away when this is done, distract myself, remember what ignoring devastation in the world feels like, the lifetime of lessons that have taught me how. We should feel hollow. We should be crying all the time. This is what I mean when I say “Fever Dream” cradles you so you can begin to understand its staggering scale of pain.

I’ve always been a fan of cosmic horror. Problematic though its roots are, the sense that there is something larger, mysterious, so unknowable it can make any human go mad at its scope…it’s thrilling when we know it’s pretend. The idea enraptures us.

The horror in “Fever Dream” is also of a scale that may be quantifiable, but that to any single person is so immense as to be unknowable, is so staggering in its scope it would make anyone who tried to grasp it in its entirety feel hollowed, lost. This idea…it doesn’t enrapture us.

I could tell you “Fever Dream” is a stunning piece of magical realism. I could tell you its story involves psychological horror, parable, even contemplative eroticism. I could tell you it intersects with motherhood, colonialism, environmental racism. The mix of layers Llosa and Schweblin find in a story that unanchors itself from reality and time, without ever losing the details of what happens and why, is astounding. The performances given by Maria Valverde and Dolores Fonzi are starkly, vulnerably human.

But what I want to tell you is that it hollows you. It gently undoes reality to remind us of the details that are important, that we overlook, that we make inevitable by the eye we turn away. It reminds us of the thread of rescue distance that we’ve snapped, and how it doesn’t come back. “Fever Dream” clarifies what so much magical realism does: that what makes its quiet, inevitable horror work so well is that we practice it every day, we quiet its presence every day, we treat it as inevitable every day.

You can watch “Fever Dream” on Netflix.

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A Playful B-Movie for Terrible Days — “Nightbooks”

The day I watched “Nightbooks” was a terrible day. Work was taking longer because of internet issues that had spanned a week. I had a D&D session with friends scheduled online that night. It’s one of the few things that’s kept me grounded and de-stressed during the pandemic. Nothing worked; I couldn’t join. Try being on the phone with Comcast at 10:30 pm; it’s an awful way to end the day. I needed something exciting, uplifting, escapist, dark but…cheesy at the same time. I needed something like “Legend” or “The Goonies”, something that believes B-movies speak to our soul in ways awards contenders never can.

Well, there was that film where Krysten Ritter plays a witch. Wait, what? Yes, the movie where it looks like our goth queen chews every piece of scenery in sight. I mean, you can’t go too wrong with that, can you?

“Nightbooks” is exactly the kind of film I wanted. It’s a young adult (YA) horror movie that delivers a mix of cheese, earnest fairy tale, and horror homage to remind the kid in you that it’s not all pandemic and work delays and late-night Comcast rendezvous.

Winslow Fegley plays Alex, a child who runs away from his parents in a fit of anger and embarassment. He loves horror movies and writes scary stories, but now he wants to destroy them all. He gets off at the wrong floor and is lured into an apartment by a slice of pie and a TV playing his favorite movie: 80s horror classic “The Lost Boys”. When he wakes up, he’s confronted by a witch. How can he be useful to her? By doing the one thing he’s sworn to never do again: write scary stories. He’ll have to tell her one a night for eternity. If he misses one, he’ll be killed. It’s “One Thousand and One Nights” as YA horror.

The witch, her cat familiar, and the apartment itself all hold secrets to uncover, and secrets give Alex the hope of escape. There’s also Lidya Jewett’s Yasmin, a survivor who’s been trapped in the apartment for years. Will she help him, or has she already given up hope?

It’s all painted broadly, but as Krysten Ritter’s witch Natacha reminds Alex, every story must be based on some element of truth. So what is the truth at the core of “Nightbooks”? Why is it so successful at what it does?

The broad strokes of “Nightbooks” are familiar fairy tale territory. The details can remind you of other YA adaptations. There are notes of everything from “The Thief of Always” to “Harry Potter”. “Nightbooks” shares some DNA with those classics. Alex’s story is compelling because it’s the story of every kid who’s dealt with anxiety, self-hate, creative block, or impostor syndrome.

Natacha is a scary witch who can do terrifying things, and Ritter rides a Tim Curry-esque line of hamming it up while still nailing the point home. What truly makes her frightening isn’t her powers, though. It’s not the threat of a fate worse than death. The moments that cut most deeply are the ones where she picks apart Alex’s stories, tells him an idea is stupid or inaccurate, that he’s disappointing her.

None of us know what a scary witch can do. Few of us are familiar with fates worse than death. Yet so many know exactly what sitting in that chair can feel like as the things we care most deeply about, the futures we envision for ourselves, the passions that allow us to find value and meaning in our lives – we know what it’s like to sit there and watch them be torn down one by one. We know what it’s like when someone does that simply to remind us that they have so much power and control they can end with words our entire idea of who we want to be.

We also know what it’s like to fight back against that. We know what it’s like to decide not to believe it, to realize that they are just words spoken by someone desperate to frighten and control us. Sure, “Nightbooks” is a fairy tale about kids trying to escape a witch, tale as old as time. The truth on which it’s built is about kids realizing that who they want to be isn’t someone else’s decision.

“Nightbooks” couches this within a movie that genuinely embraces horror. There is a ceiling to the level of scary it becomes – it’s a movie for kids, too, after all. Yet it pushes the boundary and lovingly recalls a host of horror movies. It’s not just empty reference either. By repeating visual themes adults might already be familiar with, it deepens many of the emotional moments for the characters on-screen. This is absolutely a B-movie, but it’s a B-movie that fully understands how the genre disarms us. It doesn’t have to find a way around our guard when our guard’s already down. It has a deep understanding for horror, camp, and kitsch movie history.

The technical aspects are great across the board. There’s some exceptional sound editing in “Nightbooks”. That may not seem like the most exciting factor to point out, but it does so much to anchor us in its world. The cinematography and art direction also excel.

Fegley and Jewett are good as child actors go, especially in a project that asks a lot of them. I wouldn’t say they sell us on their situation in a dramatic way, but in a film like “Nightbooks”, that’s not their job. Their job is to be as much kids as they are actors, and they find that balance.

“Nightbooks” is also surprisingly funny. Alex’s stories-within-a-story are told as if they’re melodramatic, silent movies he’s narrating. They’re constantly interrupted by the witch’s criticisms, many of which make Alex change his stories on the fly. The presentation of these stories is genuinely endearing, and Ritter’s delivery has a way of both cutting deep from inside the story while making us laugh at her timing.

That may seem mean, but the way this type of B-movie communicates is to have us appreciate and love the references and performances even as we inhabit and feel its world. We can laugh at the comedy in Natacha’s delivery without laughing at Alex, and we can feel bad for what Alex is enduring while still wanting to hear more of Natacha. This is the magic B-movies can find, watching them from the outside as a performance and feeling them from the inside as a story at the same time. It’s not so different from what Charlie Kaufman’s done in films like “Being John Malkovich” or “Adaptation”, where we can feel bad for characters inside the story while still being amused at what an actor’s doing to elicit those emotions. He didn’t invent that meta-approach, he simply transported it. It’s existed in B-movies for decades.

That dual way of watching “Nightbooks” is its greatest strength. Ultimately, it’s not a perfect film. The CG elements are hit and miss. A mid-film action scene feels out of place. It could’ve cut an entire sequence out of its ending. Yet watching this kind of film, it’s hard to care about those things when it constantly recovers with another good sequence, unexpected laugh, or meaningful moment. What does work here is often a gorgeous re-purposing of the genre.

I think kids can get a lot out of the themes of “Nightbooks”. They don’t have enough stories that really deal with complex issues like impostor syndrome and anxiety. They need to see work like this because these are things that they’re already dealing with, but don’t have many stories to help them process it. It’s definitely a movie to watch alongside them, though. There are genuine scares here.

The awkward reality is that so much of “Nightbooks” speaks to horror fans who can identify and understand all the references and elements happening. These can really deepen the scenes’ themes beyond an initial sense of recognition or nostalgia. Yet the target audience for this is kids, who are pretty unlikely to have seen “Suspiria”, “Evil Dead”, or “The Lost Boys”.

For adults, I think “Nightbooks” is a lot better if you’re well-versed in horror and you’re content to put yourself in the mindset of a YA film. There’s a good amount of overlap in that Venn diagram, and you probably know if you’re in it or not. If you have any doubt, try having a terrible day first. “Nightbooks” can definitely help with that.

You can watch “Nightbooks” on Netflix.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write articles like this one.

Is a Perfect Bad Movie Good? “Malignant”

What if someone set out to create the most perfect bad horror movie ever made, and they hit every note? Would it be so bad it was good, or so successfully bad it was just bad? Do you need some old-fashioned, inadvertent mistakes in there to really make it sing? Is smartly designed badness enjoyable, or does the fun of watching a bad movie rely on the schadenfreude of others’ failures?

These questions join that study of philosophy that poses unanswerable dilemmas like Ship of Theseus, Yanny or Laurel, and what the hell a cat’s ever doing. Enter “Malignant”.

In its best (worst?) moments, “Malignant” can feel like a museum tour through the history of horror. Annabelle Wallis plays Madison, who witnesses a ghastly figure murder her abusive husband. She’s a suspect until that horror begins to stalk her. She boards up her windows and even resists the help of her sister Sydney.

It’s too late; a connection has been formed to whatever this horror is. Madison begins to psychically witness its murders in a sort of waking sleep paralysis, able to observe in her visions but unable to move in real life. Somehow, this all connects to a defunct lab that once experimented on children in a cliffside castle in the forests of Washington.

If you’re well versed in various horror genres, it’s a joy to see what a playground they become in director James Wan’s hands. Early scenes are reminiscent of his haunted house horrors like “Insidious” and “The Conjuring”, particularly when a barely visible shadow moves in fog and the murderous horror is presaged by electronics going haywire. It’s expertly done, and an early way of showing the audience just how capable Wan can be when he wants. This early showing off is important since the rest of the film goes in the opposite direction. Wan wants the audience to know that the filmmakers and actors could make a tense horror film if they wanted, but that they’d rather go for the height of campy schlock.

Every set of characters exists in a different horror genre, with that genre taking over when they’re front and center. The early haunted house vibe that Wan has resurrected and amped up from its 50s and more violent 80s roots gives way to 90s and 00s horror. Detectives Kekoa Shaw and Regina Moss exist in that era’s world, reminiscent of “Copycat”, “Murder by Numbers”, or lord help us, “The Watcher”. These are all from a time before CBS decided the procedural should be regularized to the point of homogeneity. The police station is a direct lift from “Se7en”, just with more vibrant lighting.

Each of the murderer’s scenes takes place within a different genre as well. One borrows from 80s slashers, with the eventual murder weapon highlighted several times over before it’s actually used. Another takes place in an apartment overlooked by a glowing neon sign that basks the room in a giallo-red, Wan giving you those same close-ups and highlights as (literally) red herrings but then refusing to use them. That playfulness is ever-present.

The murderer moves unnaturally, climbing ceilings, needing a haircut, and disturbing electronics like ghosts in Japanese horror films. Then we see the murderer’s lair, an homage to 90s goth industrial art direction like you might see in Alex Proyas’s “The Crow” or “Dark City”. Of course, there needs to be at least one room with a giant wall fan because horror beasties…I don’t know, have bad allergies and need good air circulation?

Do you want an underground chase scene that references the failed 1997 adaptation of “The Relic”? Because “Malignant” is how you get it.

As Madison is terrorized by the murderer itself and her visions, she increasingly delivers her lines in that stilted style once developed in the 70s from non-English speaking actors and additional dialogue recording in European giallo films. The style’s hallmark is immediately recognizable for being both monotone and overdramatic, with deliberately misplaced stressed syllables and unexpected rising inflections that achieve an unsettling uncanny valley that doesn’t feel human. It’s so specific and it takes a huge amount of skill to get right, but it’s also something that outside of a giallo world just becomes funny and absurd.

Meanwhile, Madison’s sister Sydney is off in her own modern horror movie doing all the research and uncovering yet one more genre that we’ll watch alongside her: found footage horror.

This is such a mash, and I was guffawing in disbelief every time a character didn’t just do the obviously stupid horror movie cliché, but pushed straight past it so much that it became a deliberate performance of that cliché. There’s still enough skill behind it all – in both cast and crew – that the movie can switch into more genuine horror complete with scares at a moment’s notice.

“Malignant” is neither farce nor satire. Instead, it’s closer to a nonsense work in the literary sense. Literary nonsense, such as the kind written by Edward Lear, seeks to subvert conventions for the express reason of: nonsense. That doesn’t mean it’s directionless, it just means that the direction pulls an element of logical reasoning away from the structure of a story or its world so that we can peer in and see how nonsensical everything else becomes without it. “Alice in Wonderland” is literary nonsense. “House of Leaves” can be understood as a type of nonsense work. “Being John Malkovich” explains a little too much, but in a broad sense it can be understood as belonging to the nonsense genre.

As an intentional genre, nonsense is rare in almost every medium. The only place that might break this is performance art, where replacing logical progression with non sequiturs elicits unpredictable reactions from onlookers.

A nonsense horror movie budgeted at $40 million from an A-list director is unthinkable. It doesn’t happen. That makes me really glad “Malignant” exists. That’s a separate question from whether I like it, though.

I love “Malignant” – but only up to a point. I don’t mean a general boundary that it pushes or a metaphorical point it passes; I mean there’s a minute in the movie where I think it drops the ball and leaves it there. It’s not the much discussed 540-degree turn in the last act – I was on board with the way it embraces the most absurd aspects of 70s and 80s horror.

It wasn’t an amount of gore either. I am not a fan of torture horror like “Saw” or “Hostel”. I don’t judge someone who is; it’s just really not my thing. We all have genres we like and dislike. “Malignant” is bloody, but it actually had less gore than I was expecting. What’s there is treated with a cool distance, and where the movie does enter into body horror, it’s done in ways that evoke 80s underground films. In other words, while the gore’s there, it lacks the misanthropic notes and hyperrealism of torture horror. It’s also more cinematic than voyeuristic. It instead evokes the budget-limited creations of 80s creature horror.

The point where “Malignant” lost me – and I’ll only speak about genre to avoid spoilers here – is when it descends from its museum tour of horror and just becomes an action movie. It becomes more of a spoof here, and others might like those notes more than I do. To me, I wanted to stay in those horror lanes the film had asked me to enjoy for its first hour-and-a-half. It hadn’t been an action movie at all, and being asked to suddenly shift from all these lusciously realized horror flavors to a bloody take on “Matrix”-lite action felt like a let-down.

I would have been happier with a “watch the skies” style ending of a slasher, the emotionally abrupt cutoff of a giallo, or a lingering-too-long conclusion to character horror. Perhaps these wouldn’t have been nonsense enough, though. Maybe dropping horror and turning into an action movie is that final step of nonsense and I just wasn’t willing to take it because I was so happy with all the horror elements.

On the other hand, action offers harder genre anchors. “Malignant” meanders on such a dreamy cloud of constantly-swapping rhythms that pace is completely unimportant. Becoming an action film suddenly gives it a hard, overly familiar rhythm that abandons that floating lack of pace. That’s what I found jarring. It may be a nonsense genre switch, but the realization of it abandons other elements of nonsense I was enjoying a lot more.

What does that amount to? As much as I enjoyed most of “Malignant”, it doesn’t stick the landing for me personally. That leaves me with that initial question:

You have one extremely talented director like James Wan who wants to make a really good bad film. Everything he wants to accomplish, every element of bad movie he wants in there, it’s all achieved note-perfect.

Another director makes a bad film by succeeding in enough places to make us continue watching, but failing in notable ways. We’re tentatively invested, but the floor keeps falling out on it. The movie becomes bad unintentionally, and those failures become enjoyable.

Which one is the better bad movie? The question isn’t really important, but it highlights how “Malignant” is unique, for better or worse. “Malignant” is so intentional about its badness that it becomes a performance of badness, rather than just being bad. Both approaches are still enjoyable in many of the same ways, but from something like “Malignant”, we begin to expect perfection. If it deviates from what we want, even if it does it well, it gets shaky and leans a little bit more toward average, which isn’t as enjoyable as bad can be.

Yet with an unintentionally bad film, we expect that shakiness. We begin to welcome it. We’re not looking for perfection in its performance of anything else; we’re seeking the opposite. In fact, when it deviates from what we want, it leans more toward that badness, which is what makes us enjoy it in the first place.

This is the key difference between a perfectly achieved, intentional bad movie, and a faulty, unintentionally bad movie. One has to be perfect and exceed our expectations. It has to perform its role exceptionally. That’s “Malignant”. The other has to be faulty and fail our expectations. It has to do everything but perform its role.

“Malignant” is so good at being bad that it creates a trap for itself. It’s so perfectly done that the joy you can get out of it as a horror fan is essentially unique. Yet it lacks that looser, organic element to a bad horror movie that just lets you go with the flow and accept wherever it stumbles. “Malignant” might be the most perfect bad movie ever made, but in being so, that limits how good of a bad movie it can be.

Ship of Theseus. Prove God exists. Or doesn’t. The Munchhausen Trilemma. The Grandfather Paradox. Cats (in a box, walking through walls, etc). And now “Malignant”.

If you like those places where “Malignant” goes, you’re going to love it. It will be one of the most valuable and honest relationships to a horror movie you’ll ever make. It will be with you, whenever you need it, whenever you need to curl up under a blanket with hot cocoa and just smile and feel reassured at its ridiculousness for two hours – it will be there for you for the rest of your life.

If you can’t imagine why anyone would sit through anything I’ve described, you’re going to hate it. It’ll be like a date you realize is a mismatch in the first 20 minutes, where you’re either smart enough to get up and leave, or you will yourself to sit through it out of a misguided sense of politeness.

A lot of viewers may be like me. They may fall for it immediately and love where it goes, but feel betrayed when that horror movie fusion is traded out for another genre entirely. They may wonder where the movie they fell in love with went and why the movie wasn’t more forthright about everything from the start. Maybe it’s a commitment thing; the movie changed because it’s just not made to stay in the same place too long. That’s understandable. The viewer’s had fun and they’ve learned a lot. They’ll always treasure what really worked, but the magic has passed, and as much as it once felt right, this isn’t the movie they want to spend the rest of their life alongside. Maybe they can meet again, in a few years, once they’ve both changed a bit and can understand each other better. They’ll grab coffee. Maybe then, there’ll be comfort. Maybe they’ll just sit there out of politeness. Maybe they’ll go for it. Maybe the viewer will have moved on to James Wan’s “Malignant 2: The Patrick Wilson-Industrial-Complex”.

All three reactions are groovy. They’re just made for different viewers. People’s preferences for camp are all so specific and individualized that it may just be hard to tell whether you’ll like, love, or loathe it until you’re halfway in, giggling at its brash absurdity, wondering how humanity’s sunk this low, or both.

You can watch “Malignant” on HBO Max. Treat the movie as having content warnings for domestic abuse and miscarriage.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write articles like this one.

Resonant, Vicious, Sublime — “Kate”

Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s performance in “Kate” is one of the most powerful in action movie history. Before you dismiss performances in action movies, understand that yeah – the genre is relentlessly derivative. It repeats ideas and plot formulae we can recognize a mile off. “Kate” doesn’t dodge this; it’s what works. Instead, it uses what’s familiar to focus in on Winstead’s masterful embodiment of desperation and will.

“Kate” is a ticking clock movie, and one that poses physical degradation as a complicating mechanic. An assassin by trade, Winstead’s Kate is poisoned before a job. It’s radiation poisoning, giving her less than a day to live. She uses the night she has left to doggedly pursue finishing this last job. As the hours progress, her body starts to fail her. She becomes sloppier, blunter, less finessed, more vicious.

Ticking clock movies usually don’t take themselves too seriously. As dramatic as the concept is, it tends to be recycled in action movies that incorporate satire or comedy, from “Escape from New York” to the “Crank” franchise. “Kate” plays it seriously, though, using the opportunity to create a character piece around Winstead.

Ticking clocks are also used a lot in horror, and this informs its use in “Kate” better. This film isn’t part of that genre, but it is a survival action movie. Kate doesn’t show up and utterly dominate everyone, showing how much of a badass she is. She increasingly fights her way out of corners as she wears down. That’s no less badass, but what it does is remove ego from the equation. Her impending death forces Kate to confront uncomfortable realities about how she got here, emotional truths she’s held close that no longer seem to be as true.

She ends up paired with Ani, the daughter of a Yakuza leader she assassinated. While Kate had wanted to leave the profession, this isn’t a matter of the “strength through motherhood” trope that often gets foisted onto childless women action heroes. Instead, Ani is a reset – someone at the fork in the road where Kate took the wrong path. Kate needs to use her to complete the job she started, to finish that path in the little time she has remaining, but this increasingly forces Ani down that path as well.

Miku Martineau is capable of holding the screen on her own as Ani, which means that it doesn’t come off as a typical youth role. Winstead’s performance never has to carry Martineau’s. Instead, the two performances are both incredibly strong, and enable the two characters to embody their themes in the complementary and conflicting ways the film most wants to investigate.

Understand for the review part of this, “Kate” is one of my favorite action movies. Period. Not on Netflix. Not of the year. It is one of my favorite action movies ever made. It uses what’s familiar and has been done before as the meat of something that’s deeply emotionally resonant. It does this in a complex way that heightens action that’s already superb. I expect to be talking about it at the end of the year as one of 2021’s best films.

That’s the summary, but I’d also like to get into some more precise conversations surrounding “Kate”. I’ll do this without major spoilers, since a lot of this intersects issues of theme, influence, and culture.

The major comparison “Kate” seems to be getting is to “John Wick”. I couldn’t disagree more, so let’s get into the weeds on this. The takeaway seems to be that “John Wick” is better because the fight scenes are more elegant. The real difference is that Keanu Reeves is smoother and enables the filmmakers to incorporate some longer takes because he’s done several martial arts-heavy films before. If pressed, I’d say “John Wick” incorporates a more proficient fight choreo, but not by that much. This also treats fight choreography like it’s only capable of being one thing. It’s like saying “Lawrence of Arabia” has better music than “Jaws”. Sure, I guess, but those two scores aren’t even remotely interested in doing the same thing.

“Kate” involves its title character fighting her way out of corners the whole time. When done this well, and with the kind of performance Winstead delivers, that’s deeply compelling. “John Wick” is a B-grade movie with A-grade Keanu and gun ballet. Those are compelling in campier, more meta ways.

The desperate, ferocious fights in “Kate” carry a weight, involvement, and cost. The efficiency and elegance in “John Wick” are more exploitative, worshipful, and operatic. Neither intent is better nor worse, but comparing them as if they’re reaching for the same goal requires you to ignore what one or the other is really doing.

I don’t dislike the fight choreo in “John Wick” because there are movies with even better choreography out there, so why would I judge “Kate” like that? Frankly, I actually prefer the choreography in “Kate” because even if it’s more edited, it ties into a far more ambitious emotional thread. It has more to do with the movie surrounding it. Remember, fight choreo isn’t just there to impress – the best fight scenes also act like dialogue scenes, regardless of whether actual dialogue happens in them.

What that means is that a relationship changes or the audience gains a new understanding over the course of the fight scene. Something happens in that fight scene to give us access to a new perspective in the story. The fight scenes in “John Wick” are great set-pieces, but they’re the entire point. The fight scenes in “Kate” are great set-pieces that also progress the film’s themes, our emotional understanding of the characters, and the relationships between them.

It doesn’t hurt that “Kate” is a far better movie on the whole. Winstead’s acting within these action scenes is phenomenal, and reaches places that – much as I adore him – Reeves has only ever matched in a brief scene here or there.

If you’re assessing these films on which one makes the better “John Wick” movie, then “John Wick” is obviously going to win. Like, no shit, John Wick is the ideal John Wick, way to solve that one Plato.

The better comparisons for “Kate” are films like 1998 anime actioner “Kite”, 2006 anime series “Black Lagoon”, and – thematically and psychologically – the “Alien” trilogy. “Kate” draws heavily from both anime and cyberpunk influences. There are references to series like “Tokyo Ghoul” and the cinematography and editing are clearly influenced by touchstones like “Akira”, “Ghost in the Shell”, and “Blade Runner”.

Let’s tackle the “Alien” trilogy because that’s perhaps the weirdest connection to draw here. “Kate” explicitly calls out this connection in its costuming choices for Winstead, but why the two are so connected is more thematic than stylistic. While the “Alien” trilogy is primarily about a woman forced into situations where men ignore her and everything falls apart as a result, it also carries a theme and iconography of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley as a mother. The “strength through motherhood” metaphor is both explored (in “Aliens”) as Ripley constructs an ad hoc family, and later inverted (in “Alien 3”).

That metaphor is used beautifully in many films, yet when we feel women can’t exist as action heroes without this being incorporated, it turns many films about childless action heroes (or heroes who have lost children, like Ripley) into a criticism. The character arc they go through is having their motherhood – and thus strength – fulfilled, but this means what’s missing from them at the start is having a child. The character arc in many women-led action films treats them as lacking worth or direction until a child figure comes into their life and allows them to be a mother. This treats the initial fault in a character as that of not having children, which is pretty shitty to call a fault.

Yet the “Alien” trilogy also uses this, both in “Aliens” and “Alien 3”, as a theme for what’s been ripped away from Ripley. It’s not solely about becoming a mother, and this is where David Fincher’s “Alien 3” is often underrated and misunderstood as a thematic continuation for “Aliens”. It’s about the choices that have been taken away from Ripley. It’s not just Ripley’s family that have been ripped away from her, it’s her choices as to how she wants to live her life. Her choices have been repeatedly given away by a corporation that’s relentlessly willing to sacrifice her and the lives of those around her.

“Kate” plays with a lot of the same themes. When her handler, played by Woody Harrelson, asks her if she wants to quit to have a family, she tells him that’s her business. When she becomes responsible in a way for Ani, she’s not magically getting a child in her last day of life. Instead, Kate witnesses in her own actions toward Ani the very way that she was desensitized and trained toward violence. Kate’s not mothering Ani; she’s witnessing herself as a corrupting influence that teaches and perpetuates an ongoing cycle of violence. She is taking away choices from Ani in the same way choices were taken away from her. It’s not lacking a child that she needs to fix in her last day, it’s solving the cycle of violence for someone she put down that path in the first place.

Now, films that incorporate a white hero killing countless people of color can be extremely problematic. I won’t say “Kate” entirely avoids this, but it does take a number of left turns that comment on this cycle of exploitation. The film is staunchly anti-colonialist, but it takes a while to get there.

Complicating this is that we’ve got a French director, Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, making a film that takes place in Japan and intersects deeply with Japanese culture to comment on these cycles. “Kate” wasn’t entirely filmed in Japan, and little details can stand out. A scene that incorporates a vending machine doesn’t use a Japanese vending machine, for instance. Those details can be overlooked, but they’re evidence that not everything was done as cleanly as can be.

The influence of anime on “Kate” is complicated. Anime itself has undergone massive changes over the decades as it was influenced by Western cyberpunk, which was influenced by Beat literature, which was informed by Dadaism, which was also popular in Japan and gave rise to much of anime’s original look, and Dadaism was influenced by photomontage, which was influenced by Surrealism, which drew from both sub-Saharan sculpture and post-impressionism, which was partly influenced by Japanese Ukiyo-e, and the list goes on.

That kind of argument often gets employed to cover over appropriation, so it’s not a cover-all. I bring it up because it’s useful within context, delineating between something having a conversation with its influences vs. appropriating them. There are a lot of fuzzy boundaries with that. I would say that “Kate” leans more heavily toward conversing with these influences and referencing them in clear ways, but I’m also not Japanese, and so not best positioned to say that for sure. I’m also unclear how well it intersects with Japanese culture, something that Western action movies have a pretty bad track record of doing.

One thing I really enjoyed is that Kate doesn’t fight like a woman or a man. She fights like a fighter. I was personally bothered by the logic behind the fight choreo in “Atomic Blonde”, for instance. While the choreography for “Atomic Blonde” is exceptionally inventive, it also includes a lot that’s unnecessary. A kick by someone trained can deliver at least 5,000 newtons of force. That’s in excess of 1,100 pounds force (lbf). A punch can deliver at least 450 lbf. Understand that both of those are on the low end for someone trained in fighting, and it takes only a few hundred lbf to break most bones. Breaking a jaw, elbow, or collarbone are all well under 100.

There’s a reason that when you watch UFC or any martial arts competition, women don’t have some completely different fighting style from the men. Weighing less and having less reach is going to change some things, just like it does for anyone fighting a taller or stronger opponent, but the fundamentals and muscle memory connecting movement and technique are not completely rewritten.

Women train in the same arts with the same fundamentals to have the same muscle memory. Winstead isn’t doing any cinematic “but I’m a woman” choreographic adjustments. She’s not gymnastically somersaulting to plant her legs either size of a dude’s head to ridiculously throw him. Why do that when she can just punch him in the neck and grab something sharp? The fight choreo here is exceptional, and it’s largely the same choreography they’d give a man in the same role. That is still disappointingly rare on film, despite being more realistic to how fighters – regardless of gender – fight. Trained is trained, and it’s nice to see a film act that way.

This has been a banner year for action movies led by women. It might be the best we’ve ever had. “Black Widow” gave us a James Bond-like thriller better than the Bond franchise manages these days. “Gunpowder Milkshake” delivered a surreal, comedic, vaporwave Western. “Jungle Cruise” hearkened back to archaeology adventure classics of yore. “Shadow in the Cloud” built one of the most dread-filled atmospheres on film. “Those Who Wish Me Dead” perfected the form of the 90s disaster action hybrid. All these have been good, some have been exceptional. “Kate” is a god damned miracle.

You can watch “Kate” on Netflix.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write articles like this one.

An Action-Adventure Classic — “Jungle Cruise”

My new favorite action hero is The Woman in Pants. Everywhere Emily Blunt’s Dr. Lily Houghton goes in 1916, friends and enemies alike remark that she’s drawing attention to herself by daring to wear trousers instead of a dress. It’s one of a dozen running gags that fuel “Jungle Cruise”, which also happens to be one of the best adventure movies of the last 10 years.

Houghton journeys to the Amazon during World War I with her brother in tow. They’re searching for a flower that could revolutionize medicine. There she find’s Dwayne Johnson’s Frank Wolff. More than their boat captain, he’s a quick-witted con man whose motives are impossible to pin down. German soldiers want the flower for themselves, raising undead conquistadors in a tricky alliance. Soon, everyone is chasing The Woman in Pants down the winding rivers of the Amazon.

Before the superhero boom, action-adventures like “The Mummy” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” dominated the event movie landscape. “Jungle Cruise” absolutely belongs in that conversation, though it leans more heavily on its leads to carry it than those films did.

You might make the mistake of thinking this is a Dwayne Johnson movie, but the ubiquitous actor plays the 1b character here. No, this is an Emily Blunt action-adventure, and it frees up both actors to play to their strengths.

Blunt carries movies, period. She’s usually both the best dramatic and comic actor in her films. She has that special knack for looking the exact same in every movie yet being unrecognizable between roles. I refuse to believe this is the same actress who led “Sicario”. It’s just not possible, but in film after film she’s simply expanded her range with ease.

The extent to which Blunt claims her spot as one of our greatest action heroes here can’t be overstated. If you look at “The Mummy” as a prototypical action-adventure blueprint, Blunt is playing Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz at the same time. That she pulls it off so smoothly frees everyone else up to be John Hannah.

Don’t get me wrong, Dwayne Johnson can be a lead, and he gets fight scenes against a jaguar, undead conquistadors, evil Germans, the whole action-adventure bingo card. Yet he’s primarily here to be the comedic change-of-pace and potential romantic interest. Johnson plays off Blunt beautifully, and they put on a clinic when it comes to charm and timing.

It’s great to see Johnson in a role that stretches his comedy muscles more than his action ones. Frank runs cons on the wide-eyed European tourists who pour into the Amazon, faking adventurous boat rides and squeezing every cent out of his passengers. While Frank doesn’t know when to stop running cons on someone like the smart and self-aware Lily, he’s also empathetic. He’s constantly deceitful, but also kind in a way that suggests there’s more to be understood before judging him. That’s dangerous territory, but it’s conveyed with reason here.

Jack Whitehall plays Lily’s brother MacGregor. He’s superb, and as close to the archetype of John Hannah in “The Mummy” as anyone’s going to get. Jesse Plemons is Joachim, the Germany prince who’s stalking them. His comedy is much broader, and I’m still undecided how much it works.

“Jungle Cruise” is based on a Disney theme park ride, just as “Pirates of the Caribbean” was. It similarly utilizes elements of the ride in meta comedy moments, especially early as part of Frank’s cons. The movie smartly ditches the “savage natives” trope that Disney loved back then, and inverts and comments on it a few times.

That doesn’t change the fact that this is a movie taking place in the Amazon with barely any Latine or indigenous characters in it. Mexican legend Veronica Falcon plays an indigenous leader. The lead undead conquistador (a Spanish character) is the underrated Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez (my choice to play Geralt in “The Witcher” before Henry Cavill was cast). There are a lot of Latine actors filling out the backgrounds of settlements, but they’re never front and center. There’s certainly a missed opportunity here.

I went and saw this at the drive-in. I’m vaccinated against COVID-19, but with the Delta variant spreading, I still don’t want to encourage people (including myself) to go to theaters. A drive-in allowed me to stay in my car, outside, distanced from everyone else. I mention this to encourage it as an alternative to theaters until we better know how the Delta variant’s spread will look.

I also mention it – on a less important note – to talk about CGI. The drive-in I went to is a temporary installation put together during COVID. The picture quality is fine, but just a bit dark. I’ve heard some people have an issue with the CGI. I didn’t and I thought it was creative – especially with how the undead creatures are choreographed in action scenes. That said, a hint of light or darkness in the picture can do a lot for how CGI translates. I might have liked it more because I was seeing it slightly darker than I would have on my TV at home. That can make the eye fuse the CGI to its surroundings better, whereas a lighter picture highlights color choices and tone differences that can introduce uncanny valley qualities. I may have come away liking the CGI better than most because of that.

For me, “Jungle Cruise” is in the same conversation as classic action-adventures “The Mummy” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” (and I’d argue “John Carter”). I think I was locked in when, after the joke was strung across the movie, one undead conquistador commands another to “follow the woman in pants”. There’s a particular glee when a movie decides it’s going to live or die on a joke it thinks is really funny, and “Jungle Cruise” constantly decides to do this. It does help the movie feel more personal.

I did say at the start that it leans more heavily on its leads, though. “The Mummy” and “Pirates” were movies with tight foundations and successful storytelling that were then elevated into rare territory by fantastic ensemble casts. “Jungle Cruise” is successful because of Emily Blunt, Dwayne Johnson, and Jack Whitehall, which means it’s already leaning on them quite heavily by the time it needs them to elevate the film as well.

In its bones, I don’t think it’s as well-structured or ambitious as “The Mummy” or “Pirates”. It still gets to that elevated territory, but by repeating the same strengths. Those other films kept finding new strengths, which made them feel more universal and added to tension in their final acts. “Jungle Cruise” doesn’t have those additional strengths to find – but if you’re going to get trapped in that position, it turns out the best initial strengths to keep repeating are Emily Blunt, Dwayne Johnson, and Jack Whitehall.

You can watch “Jungle Cruise” on Disney+.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write articles like this one.