Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Meh. Also Whitewashing. — “Bullet Train”

“Bullet Train” is two hours of my life I could’ve better spent force-feeding myself straight vinegar. It’s like they watched that episode of the Simpsons where they go to Japan as their homework for what Japanese culture is, saw the ScarJo “Ghost in the Shell” whitewashing and were like “But what if entire movie”, and then thought the basis of a good screenplay is the characters constantly complaining to each other that the dialogue fucking sucks. “Bullet Train” isn’t bad enough to be exhausting, but it’s not good enough to be bad enough to be good, either.

I’ve written a lot lately about films I find beautiful, or even finding the bittersweet in films I don’t, so I don’t really want to go off…but “Bullet Train” is like that Jeff Goldblum monologue about being too busy wondering whether they could that they didn’t stop to ask if they should. Except it’s not about cloning dinosaurs but just reading the instructions on Play-Doh where it says you shouldn’t eat the shit. How hard is it to not egregiously whitewash a movie in 2022?

In an adaptation of Isaka Kotaro’s Maria Beetle, Brad Pitt plays a snatch-and-grab specialist who goes by Ladybug. He finds himself on a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. A simple job erupts into a mess when he realizes assassins and gangsters are also among the passengers, their targets and interests at odds. It’s not actually a very convoluted plot, it’s just told that way so that Ladybug can reflect on Fate.

You could’ve at least gotten a “Con Air” out of this if the writer and director weren’t so set on thinking Brad Pitt playing a manbaby tourist who’s a professional thief in Japan (who knows nothing about Japan) was enough to hold up two hours of movie. You could’ve gotten even more out of it if they’d gone with some Japanese filmmakers and actors for this movie that takes place entirely in Japan and centers itself on Japanese concepts of luck, fate, and karma. Instead, Pitt mumbles his way through them for a story that thinks Japanese religion and culture are all just great fodder for repeating variants of the same joke over and over again.

There are places where the conversation about whitewashing can get more nuanced and contextual. Say, if you set this on a cross-country train in the U.S., it might make sense to adapt characters out to include the specific diversity of the U.S. By similar logic, if you took “Die Hard” and adapted it in Japan, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the roles replaced with Japanese actors. This conversation often has to incorporate a number of considerations. There is plenty of sensible room to adapt these things by changing who plays a role, but “Bullet Train” doesn’t deserve that conversation since the entire plot is still set on a bullet train in Japan. It’s not transposed to another country or culture. It just changes numerous Japanese roles to be white characters and one Black character.

In fact, there are surprisingly few Japanese people on this bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. Exactly two supporting roles are played by Japanese actors, and one of them doesn’t even show up in any meaningful way until the last 20 minutes – a wasted Hiroyuki Sanada who’s there to offer brief snippets of wisdom about fate that the American performers fail at turning into witty banter. That fucking legend barely gets more screen time than a Channing Tatum cameo whose only purpose is a repeating gay joke. Otherwise, Japanese characters only appear as brief obstacles that serve as comedy props for our white dudes.

Don’t get me wrong, “Kate” was one of my films of the year last year, and I’ll die on the hill that it’s one of the best action movies I’ve seen. Its director, Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, is not Japanese. Neither are that movie’s leads Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Woody Harrelson. But in the Japan sequences that amount to 95% of that movie, every other actor (save one hitman) was. Crowds were. Extras were. It got some set details wrong, but it also somewhat successfully entered into a conversation about colonialism that made it clear the white people we follow are interlopers. And “Bullet Train” director David Leitch was one of the producers of “Kate”, so he should know better.

It blows my mind that “Bullet Train” cost four times more than “Kate”, yet couldn’t seem to find a tenth of the Japanese actors. Oh, but unlike “Kate” it was filmed almost entirely in Los Angeles. You know, in California, home to the largest number of Japanese-American communities in the U.S. Couldn’t find any actors of Japanese descent? That means they didn’t even try.

I’m not trying to pass off “Kate” as massively successful at this. I bring it up because it hits the minimums on this. There are places where it does better (like the fully Japanese soundtrack that features some deep cuts), but mostly it hits the minimums. My point is that even just achieving those minimums is enough to allow the film a sense of immersion that in turn lets its story be told in a captivating way.

I’m not even comparing “Bullet Train” to something that does this side of things well. I’m comparing it to something that simply avoids fucking it up. “Bullet Train” can’t even get that far. There’s a larger point to be made about representation and inclusivity, but we can’t even get to that if you haven’t even done the minimum to achieve immersion. You can’t even get to immersion if you can’t even get past whitewashing.

It’s like someone took the concept of world building for a world that already exists cause hey look, under your feet, there it literally is, and he didn’t have to build it, he didn’t have to do much work beyond matching it, and he noped straight out of clearing the lowest bar imaginable even when he can hire consultants to gently nestle the bar under his feet. I’ve seen bad world building before, but it is rare when someone straight-up mistakes world breaking for any kind of productive or immersive storytelling. No amount of whip pans, smash edits, and cameos can make up for the rare laziness and disinterest required to arrive at such an apathetically constructed world. It bears no resemblance to anything consequential that I can remotely care about as a viewer.

There are ethical and cultural conversations to this that are far more important, but something the “just cast the best [white] actor” argument misses all the time is that this is a qualitative argument, too. Cut out the talent pool that naturally fits your movie, fits its setting, understands the source it adapts, that grew up with access to the humor and action “Bullet Train” wants to culturally transplant, and what you’re left with is a bunch of clueless actors drawn from a narrower talent pool, who lack so much experience in what you’re trying to convey that all they’re left with is to pantomime exaggerations, exoticism, and stereotypes, making the mistake that the embarrassing mess they’re acting out is somehow clever or accurate because no one bothered to hire anyone who knows better.

There’s no reality to “Bullet Train” because it’s not interested in any. Elevated reality requires a foundation to hoist it up; this is just swampy drivel. It’s just Brad Pitt thinking his inept supporting character in “Burn After Reading” makes a good basis for a lead in a movie about highly-skilled assassins in Japan and Japanese spirituality.

The humor isn’t translated. It acts out what it thinks is Japanese humor, which is: Americans making fun of what they think Japanese humor is. But if you watch any amount of Japanese media, you know this ain’t it.

Pitt is 58, which doesn’t mean anything on its own. Hell, Sanada’s 62 and he would’ve been great in the lead. But neither is Pitt a Keanu or Charlize Theron finding their second stride. He looks pretty done when it comes to a role this physical. Your other lead fight performers are Brian Tyree Henry? Bad Bunny? Aaron Taylor-Johnson makes some sense if you’re willing to risk his one-film-good, one-film-wallpaper-paste performance rotation. Michael Shannon is great at a lot of stuff, but it sure as hell isn’t sword fighting.

Hell, the one who maybe had some business being here is Joey King, who plays a narcissistic mastermind known as The Prince. Earlier this year, she John-Wicked it up in “The Princess”, a movie that’s basically one extended stairwell fight. In “Bullet Train”, she’s just a babe-in-the-woods take on the femme fatale. I kept waiting for her to go off, but she doesn’t get to punch a thing. King’s Prince pales next to her Princess performance; the whole thing’s a royal waste.

What are we left with? Characters constantly complaining each others’ dialogue annoys them? Hey, I apologize for being wrong, the script is accurate about something.

The fights are boring and rely on actors who just aren’t up to them, while actors who’ve proven they can do this work with verve sit on the sidelines. The humor relies on the energetic, mile-a-minute sight gag editing of Japanese satire, here delivered at the much slower and over-explained pace of Western star-vehicle comedy. The witty banter isn’t. The venerable Hiroyuki Sanada is diminished into the role of whatever we call the “Magical Negro” trope when we do it to Asian people. The only thing “Bullet Train” succeeds at is how completely it hits its disgusting target of whitewashing Japanese people out of Japan. Fuck this movie.

You can watch “Bullet Train” on Netflix.

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

Empathy for the Abyss — “Qala”

As I write about “Qala”, I keep having that moment where I feel…how the hell do I convey the experience of watching it? Qala is an immensely popular singer on Indian films in the 30s. She was raised by her mother to continue her father’s musical legacy, until her mother found an orphan boy whose maleness offered an easier path. What’s Qala’s own road to success after she’s forgotten and discarded within her own family?

But describing “Qala” doesn’t tell you what it’s like to witness it. The Hindi-language film is immediately one of the best musicals and horror films I’ve seen. It’s not a musical where everyone breaks into song, but it’s more focused on music and performance than most musicals where that does happen.

I’ve seen musicals that meld with horror before, usually in campy, fun ways that reassure and comfort. “Qala” has some of the most beautiful, gossamer-silky songs I’ve heard, their comfort, peace, and elegance increasingly transformed by story, performance, and meaning into tension, abandonment, desperation. The music here conveys horror in a way I’ve never seen or felt.

But praising “Qala” doesn’t tell you what it’s like to sit there as it reshapes itself as only the best gothic horrors can, or how its beautiful, classically-minded Indian songs evoke quiet screams from inner landscapes. “Qala” is a “Frankenstein” or “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” or “The Invisible Man” emotionally codified to represent how women must switch between each in a world that sets them aside for men, trades them to be rid of them, expects servitude in exchange for opportunity.

In her two films, writer-director Anvitaa Dutt has clarified that the physical fantasies of torn identity in gothic horror are emotional realities for women. Her approach to horror isn’t one of surprising you with the twist. She brings you in on the ‘what’ of things pretty early so she can tell you the ‘why’ and ‘how’. Her horrors are about the very real ones that force those in fiction to arise.

Like the best of Guillermo del Toro and Julie Taymor, Dutt finds a way to fuse the relentlessly stylized to the utterly human. Much of this rests in her trust in Triptii Dimri, the lead who carries Qala through vast emotional ranges. In my review for “Bulbbul”, I compared Dimri to Anthony Hopkins in a particular way. Each knows that if you pick the right moment to go over the top, you can change the mechanics of how people watch a film. You can act a character in such a way that makes those around them act for her. By choosing moments where the supporting cast becomes audience not through structure or script, but simply through sheer will of a lead performer, we take up our seats as support – or even enabler – and become a part of that world.

By shattering our immersion with precision, that immersion re-forms with a greater gravity, encompassing us. What once laid outside our suspension of disbelief now orbits the performer. These performances move the norms of our immersion. Few performers can pull that off. Dimri is one of them. Few directors know how to empower this. Dutt is one of them. Usually it’s lightning in a bottle for such an actor and director to find each other. It’s even rarer still to maintain such a charged balance for long. Across two films now, Dimri and Dutt may’ve become the best actor-director pair working today.

But telling you that doesn’t communicate what it’s like to experience “Qala”. A lot of what I write for film begins as a meander. At some point, I know I’ll lock into a groove that embodies something about the film. I find a handhold, and then recenter my thoughts around that path into the film. Anything written before this gets cut or edited around that route, because a description or analysis means very little without conveying something about the experience of what it’s like to sit and watch.

But “Qala” is sheer, indivisible. It’s not impenetrable, it’s very easy to access, but to pull at any of its layers risks losing the context and empathy that shape them all. Pulling any single thread enough to show it to you misshapes the others. As elevated and wide-ranging as its style can be, there’s something pristinely real and consequential about the shape of “Qala”, something that makes us commiserate and understand horrible things because how else does one escape horror if it’s all they know?

A handhold into “Qala” feels like it swallows your arm. The film is sumptuous, if a film that feels like drowning could ever be described that way. The best way to describe “Qala” would be through a book of thoughts and reflections, or the kind of brief poem a poet only ever gets right once or twice in their life. The best way I have to describe “Qala” is that I can’t, not fully. I’m not sure I’d want to. What’s the emotional route into quicksand? How do you review an abyss? How do you describe awe except to say you were there to feel it?

You can watch “Qala” on Netflix.

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

Jokes Hide Shadows and It’s Quiet Outside — “Falling for Christmas”

“Falling for Christmas”, you’ll be shocked to know, is a Christmas movie. The first in Lindsay Lohan’s multi-picture deal with Netflix, it perfectly captures the streaming platform’s ability to churn out movies you’ve seen before, but this time with that one person who makes you go, “I haven’t seen this movie I’ve seen before with that one person in it”. Why did I watch it? Pretty much the thing I just said.

Lohan plays Sierra Belmont, spoiled daughter of a ski resort mogul. When her even more spoiled influencer boyfriend Tad Fairchild proposes to her, Santa hurls her off a cliff because a little girl wants her dad to meet someone. I…wait, what?

Jake Russell is a dad who doesn’t want to meet someone because he mourns his wife and his bed-and-breakfast/ski resort is struggling in the face of clearly buying tens of thousands of dollars of Christmas decorations. He probably could’ve just gotten away with a nice tree and some of those icicle lights.

Russell is played by Chord Overstreet, which would have been a much better name for this character. His plan to avoid meeting anyone is helped by a charm that’s conveyed by smirking and leering at inopportune times like a serial killer.

His daughter Avy makes a wish for him to meet someone, and a nearby Santa who gets some weirdly discomfiting close-ups taps his nose like he’s playing charades with a more kindly Santa from another film who doesn’t hurl women off cliffs.

This nose-tapping unveils Santa’s control of the weather, conjuring a great wind that sends Sierra hurtling down the mountainside. Ultimately, she is concussed. Jake finds her and Sierra wakes up in the hospital without her memory. She has suffered amnesia because we live in a fatalistic world where a deterministic Santa does not mark down who’s naughty or nice, but rather declares it on a whim, trapping us each in a cage where our decisions mean nothing in the face of a capricious god.

I’ve got to say, it’s a breath of fresh air. I’ve always been a fan of Old Testament Santa.

What follows is “Overboard”-lite, except Russell doesn’t actually know who Sierra is. Russell’s defining characteristics are taking advantage of the situation to make Sierra work as an unpaid maid, and having a daughter with way more personality than him. Thankfully, other people keep telling Sierra how great he is.

Meanwhile, fiance Tad is lost in the wilderness with an ice fisher, an increasing number of stereotypical jokes suggesting that Tad is gay. These are the worst jokes in “Falling for Christmas”, but it seems like the film eventually realizes this (a lot of bloopers during the credits are scenes involving him that didn’t make the cut). The movie quickly forgets that Tad exists until he’s needed for the climax.

“Falling for Christmas” is exactly the movie you expect it to be. Quite weirdly, that’s exactly what I wanted. You got me again, Netflix, and just in case I didn’t know it, they sneak in an ad for last year’s Brooke Shields Christmas retread, “A Castle for Christmas”.

Now, I don’t want to cast aspersions on an ensemble that really doesn’t have much to work with, but “Falling for Christmas” is carried by Lohan solo. Millennials like myself will recognize that in the early 2000s, Lohan was poised to be an absolute star. Her work in “Freaky Friday” and “Mean Girls” was more than just being a good comedy lead. As Roger Ebert wrote in his “Freaky Friday” review, Lohan possessed “that Jodie Foster sort of seriousness and intent focus”.

That may seem ridiculous to read in 2022, but it was accurate. Lohan had serious comedy chops and an underlying intensity that elevated the consequences of otherwise wacky premises. That focus took center stage with more dramatic work in smaller films like “A Prairie Home Companion”, “Bobby”, and “Chapter 27”. Addiction, DUIs, and disappearing from set derailed that. The burgeoning online celebrity gossip industry of the 2000s also chewed up young actresses while praising men for courageous fights where they did the exact same thing; there wasn’t a more complex or useful conversation to be found. It’s hard to say where Lohan could’ve gone if she’d been able to corral her demons and build on her best work.

Maybe she could’ve been a star, won awards, had an MCU role, who knows…but those concerns feel less consequential than the simple idea that she could’ve enjoyed the opportunity to continue delivering performances that were uniquely hers. Her last film role before this was in 2013’s “The Canyons”, a massively overlooked performance of tolerating obsession and abuse in a film that really should be overlooked – the behavior of the other names involved since (James Deen, Paul Schrader, Bret Easton Ellis) make it an utterly garbage assembly of human beings before any judgments on Lohan.

Of course, as I researched this article, I realized Lohan has waffled terribly in the last few years between opposing Brexit and authoritarian types, then defending fascist leaders like Putin, Erdogan, and Trump, then trolling them, and that’s without talking about her initial defense of Harvey Weinstein. This last is complicated by Lohan’s stated anger at the press’s lack of coverage when she suffered domestic abuse. She was nearly killed by her former fiance, evidence including police phone calls and domestic abuse documented in two videos that collectively point to at least two years of suffering life-threatening violence. Ultimately, the news saw a public dismissal borne from how the 2000s gossip industry trained us to view her. A domestic violence survivor was treated as just Lohan being Lohan, as if it was her fault. There was no public response of empathy, and she connected this in follow-up statements to her anger that others were receiving the empathy and action she’d sought. It doesn’t justify or legitimize her response in any way, but on a human level I can grasp the desperation that shaped it.

That’s no reason to justify any of Lohan’s harmful statements across the board. What it may do is contextualize the role she assumes in defending that harm. Many victims are trained to do just that: defend the harm of others. They seek to legitimize that harm because failing to do so once threatened their own survival. Spend enough time surviving that way and you stop thinking there’s any other.

Rose McGowan, who survived a Weinstein assault, suggested, “Please go easy on Lindsay Lohan. Being a child actor turned sex symbol twists the brain in ways you can’t comprehend.” This too, is both complicated and demonstrated by McGowan’s long history of homophobia and transphobia, and going full QAnon in the last few years.

Part of me wonders if Lohan’s experience as a child actor plays into her gravitation toward abusive, toxic, harmful male figures. We’ve been told again and again how bad things are for many child actors, including physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, labor violations, wage theft, drugging, the list goes on and on.

As far as I can tell from limited research, these red flags don’t crop up in Lohan’s story directly, though she has a complicated history with her family. Nor does every survivor wish to talk about what they’ve endured. It’s tempting to think the shape of what’s missing from a story – or what’s similar to so many other stories – can be evidence, but conjecture would be irresponsible and uninformed.

I didn’t watch “Falling for Christmas” because I thought it would be good. It held up its end of the bargain there. I watched it because I wanted to see if Lohan still flashed that talent that’s gone so unfulfilled, and I figured either way I’d get a review with some good jokes. The talent’s there in spades, showing through briefly despite the material and direction. The jokes are there – not in the film, but if you want to talk about an angry, vengeful Santa, absolutely. But think about it too long and something else is there, too – some shadow of who we become in the face of repeated cycles of abuse, of what’s lost – forget talent-wise, but in our humanness.

None of this is on the screen. This is exactly that movie you can start and not pay attention to, turn on in the background, glance at only once or twice and know precisely what’s happening. Look too long at the shadows it casts, though, and the shape of things change.

You look at someone who’s suffered abuse and turns around to justify others’ abusers and…criticism and empathy both are owed, right? It’s just…how do you tell when? How do you tell what measure of each? Many moments are apparent. You stand against somebody supporting a dictator or a rapist, or as we see among other celebrities right now, espousing hate. That’s the uncomplicated side of the equation.

We’re talking about a celebrity, but we know this in our own lives, too – especially over these last several years. It’s complex to oppose someone for whom you still feel empathy, whose lashing out from pain you might be able to understand. It might be the only way they know to survive. Criticism of harmful stances is warranted, necessary, and needs to be seen and repeated, even if somewhere in there you know it might induce the same panic in the criticized as abuse once did. But ease off too much and empathy for one enables them to continue defending abusers and systems that target many. The world isn’t built in a way where we can always offer both, and we’re not built in ways where we can sustain offering empathy to both without becoming hypocrites and making each job harder. It’s often a good judgment not to offer both. It’s often our own survival mechanism. A community can’t sacrifice itself for one person to feel comfortable.

The reality of empathy is that we can’t act on it everywhere. We have to prioritize by who needs it most, or by how many need it – our empathy for someone causing harm, even when caused by pain or panic, can get in the way of our empathy for someone being harmed. After the damage passes, maybe we can go back and offer what we can, but sometimes that moment’s passed, too. There’s no regret to that. Empathy has to help those who are being punched down furthest first. It’s the right decision, it’s the kind decision. In the quieter moments though, I wonder if the empathy we couldn’t offer or could only offer too late, is still worth mourning. Just as a recognition for the way the world is. Just to remember that we saw it, that we witnessed the need and aren’t training ourselves to ignore it. Just to yearn for kindness. Who knows what Lohan’s story is, but hers reminds me of so many others I do know, and it carries an eerie similarity to a world that’s all too eager to think everything’s a fight for survival that requires harm. What we live in breaks my heart sometimes; that’s why I opened with jokes.

You can watch “Falling for Christmas” on Netflix.

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

Implicit Systemic Horror — “Watcher”

“Watcher” sucks the air from the room. It’s the kind of horror film that only makes you jump once or twice because that’s all it needs. It’s ratcheted up the tension so much by the time you would jump that it doesn’t even need to shock you. It doesn’t need to make you catch your breath when it’s already taken it. It just needs to keep on coming step by step to where you know it’s already going.

(This is for the new movie “Watcher” starring Maika Monroe on AMC/Shudder and VOD. It is not the new series “The Watcher” starring Naomi Watts on Netflix.)

Julia has moved with her husband Francis to Bucharest, Romania. He has a new job there, and their apartment is a dream. Before long, she spies a man watching out his window. It’s hard to tell if he’s looking at her, or just out at the world. Soon, she’s followed by a man – the same one or someone new? The premise shares some similarities with Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and writer-director Chloe Okuno uses our expectations for that format smartly, but “Watcher” more closely mirrors some of the best of 70s horror, particularly giallo like “Deep Red” and “Don’t Look Now”.

Still learning Romanian, Julia has very few people in whom to confide. Francis sides with her at first, but invariably all the men in the film are useless in the ways we’re best trained to be – to dismiss a woman’s concerns for her own safety, to turn them into a joke, to take one instance of her saying, “I think” and exploit it to doubt her entire recollection. Even though there’s a serial murderer of women taking lives, it’s more reasonable for them to doubt Julia than take sustained interest. None of this feels unreal – here is a horror where a woman is stared at and stalked and takes the right actions to document it, and the world around her dismisses her as hysterical.

It must be because she’s unable to deal with the stress of moving, with the loneliness of her husband being away so much at work. What is she to do alone all day except to let her imagination run wild. She saw the news reports of the murderer and descends into paranoia. Poor, troublesome thing.

So many films before this have created suspense from the idea that their main character is imagining things, that they aren’t reliable and thus what the film tells us must be questioned. Suspense in horror arises not just from the main character being under threat, but also being wrong about something key. Not so here. We see what Julia does and, even if it’s circumstantial, it’s enough for us to believe her. We’re the only ones who do. Her entire support system either refuses to help or makes things worse.

As her only friend in Bucharest tells her, the best case scenario is she protects herself and lives with the uncertainty – better than dying with the words “I told you so” on her lips. The horror in “Watcher” isn’t about whether Julia is interpreting reality correctly, or who her stalker is. The horror is that no one else is interpreting reality correctly, or believes her when she tells them who her stalker is.

Similarly, we’re not given a woman-on-a-mission style of horror or vengeance movie. Those can be great, but “Watcher” dials down the movie horror in favor of a realism that feels cinematic in a very different way. Its consequences feel more identifiable than aspirational. They don’t feel removed by the abstraction we usually see in horror. They feel grounded in the everyday.

Okuno delivers such an array of visual suggestion, red herrings, and Chekhov’s guns, but because they all feel so normal, so real-world, presented patiently and without fuss, we can get lost in identifying which are telling us something. It mirrors Julia’s own inability to focus in decisively when her real understanding of the situation is so isolated from everyone else’s.

We can foresee what will happen as the audience, but because there are so many different pieces our mind can put together and foresee as horror, we’re unable to truly guess at what the outcome will be. This is how Okuno achieves horror without the need to question what we know as viewers, and thus avoid our questioning Julia. The mystery’s solved enough early on; the horror rests in Julia trying to make this mean anything. We see too many possibilities for what can happen. Like Julia, we aren’t able to narrow down what we know into a solution, into a step-by-step process for resolution. We’re not guessing at an answer, but rather frozen in Julia’s place with the answer in hand at a branch of choices that each go nowhere. That’s how Okuno creates implicit systemic horror, a tension based not on whether the mystery will be solved, but on whether anyone will put a woman first enough to help.

We’re not the audience for the “Watcher”. The ensemble is the audience, supporting characters each guessing, dismissing, gossiping, entertained. Okuno maneuvers us as the audience into Julia’s shoes – knowledgeable, accurate, wary and tense because of it, frustrated because this could all be addressed if anyone listened.

Okuno’s created a masterful inversion, made possible by Maika Monroe giving one of the best performances of the year as Julia. She’s now starred in two of the most important horror films of the last decade, “Watcher” joining “It Follows”. Her performance here deserves to be talked about at the end of the year, but horror films are largely forgotten when awards ceremonies roll around.

“Watcher” also boasts some of the most effective sound design I’ve heard. The use of white noise and room noise – always organic to the location – achieves a soundscape that’s profoundly unsettling. Across the board, it’s rare that a movie is so efficient, so streamlined, yet infuses every moment with an unmistakable artistic tone.

“Watcher” truly rattled me because so much of it is identifiable. The plot is suspense horror, but the elements that go into it are real. I stopped watching horror for about two years after a death threat I received. It coincided with also having two ongoing stalkers. Horror is my favorite genre and I just couldn’t touch it anymore. I couldn’t go to it for fun. I’ve since returned to it, but I was worried “Watcher” would send me back down that path to some extent.

Its points are largely about what women face; I can’t speak to that and I don’t mean to compare my experiences to that. From my standpoint, I can say that “Watcher” made that point in my life feel visible and recognized. I was able to enjoy “Watcher” as an incredibly tense horror movie in part because it speaks to the mechanisms and systems that allow versions of that horror to exist in the real world. It doesn’t pretend or emulate, it doesn’t use a trigger for a cheap shock. It understands the horror stalkers impel by creating isolation and loneliness in their targets. Even if the movie that follows is incredibly tense, I felt like the part of me that went through that could feel less compartmentalized, less isolated, more understood.

Those are major, unique experiences in my life, however. I can point to the period in my life when they happened because I’ve been able to leave them behind. They weren’t the everyday fear that women often have to live with, and that women can’t leave behind, so I can’t say whether “Watcher” would evoke the same reaction for you. If you’ve gone through that and horror on film is something you still seek out, I think there’s something here that recognizes and legitimizes the experience of what you went through in a way few films do. If you haven’t gone through that, you’ve still got an impeccably directed, brilliantly acted suspense horror to watch.

“Watcher” has brief gore, but it’s not something I’d describe as gory. Its horror really does arise from its profound sense of legitimized paranoia and understanding of what it is for a system around you to leave you helpless by implicit design. I wouldn’t describe it as slow-burn so much as steadily escalating just out of sight. It’s a remarkable horror movie, with an even better point, delivered organically. It’s not the kind of thing you watch and put down. It sticks to you because the horror it highlights is something that really needs to stick to us in a way we recognize as real.

You can see “Watcher” on AMC+, Shudder, or rental.

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

Can We Nerd Out about the Visual Design of “Werewolf by Night”?

I did not have Frasier’s agent becoming the best MCU villain, but here we are. If you haven’t heard of it, “Werewolf by Night” is one the most under-advertised entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – or maybe the only one. It makes sense why. Marvel’s superhero films are extremely adaptable to different genres so long as they keep a colorful core visual style and comedic timing intact. There’s no place in that for a stylistically unique black-and-white, occasionally gory horror experiment that recalls classic monster movies.

The Halloween special seems to be an outlier that Disney doesn’t know how to quantify. At an hour long, it’s neither a series nor a movie, though I’ll call it a movie because it has the heft of one. It ties into no pre-existing MCU franchises (that may be a bonus for some). Yet it’s still canon and may introduce a few new heroes who’ll return later.

I will never tire of Laura Donnelly being mildly perturbed someone had the gall to run into her fist over and over again. A natural action hero and star of “The Nevers”, here she plays Elsa Bloodstone. She’s returned home to a gathering of monster hunters in order to challenge them for her late father’s powerful, stat-boosting gem. Gael Garcia Bernal is an arthouse legend who’s starred in “Mozart in the Jungle” and “Babel”. He has that rare quality of being able to infuse a film’s worth of character work into just a single scene. It works beautifully for him as an enigmatic and empathetic monster hunter.

Who’s the villain, though? Elsa’s mother Verussa, played by Harriet Sansom Harris. She steals the show, doing a legendary job of gnashing teeth at actors, scenery, and the human vocal range alike. Not that the MCU has a stable of tremendous villains (it still has to import its best over from 2000s Spider-Man), but she almost immediately becomes the best. Her and Killmonger, pretty much. I’d watch that show. And I knew I recognized her, but from where? She was the titular character’s diabolical temptress of an agent on “Frasier”. Naturally.

“Werewolf by Night” is phenomenal. One reason I don’t have a problem treating an hourlong like this as a film is because I think it immediately becomes one of the MCU’s best. As good as many Marvel projects are, their movies and series often have massive pacing issues. “Werewolf by Night” feels lean and effortless, which is pretty astonishing considering how much effort must have gone into achieving its visual design.

This is an exercise in style, but not an empty one. “Werewolf by Night” is built to pay homage to the dozens of black-and-white Universal monster movies of the 30s and 40s (“Dracula”, “Frankenstein”, “The Mummy”, “The Wolf Man”, just to name a few). Though they may have frightened moviegoers at the time, watching them today isn’t necessarily a scary experience. Instead, they bring deeply moody atmospheres, a patient sense of storytelling, and a comforting level of thrill. They don’t offer the terror of horror movies since, but they can feel like an autumn walk on a gray afternoon: atmospheric enough to want to slow down and imagine a world where what scares us is still fun. “Werewolf by Night” captures this so well. I didn’t find it scary, but I did find it soaked in atmosphere and that sense of thrill at falling in love with its world.

Some might be put off that it moves like a modern film. There are tracking shots, quick edits, and some of the clipped dialogue that reflects a typical MCU movie. There aren’t long takes, the classic two shots, or the kind of vignetted close-ups that helped define genre cinema of the 30s and 40s. “Werewolf by Night” draws lessons from a different era of horror, but it’s still not a modern one.

The black-and-white cinematography is impressively done, with unique and well-coordinated production design. There’s a focus on a tremendous amount of light sources on every set and in every shot, but the whole effect still feels very dark. It never is, the whole thing’s overwhelmingly lit, but by using so much light in concentrated places, any other texture feels dark simply by being in negative space. This is where the actors tend to move and be framed, so everything they do feels like it happens in darkness despite being so well lit. The whole thing feels like night when you can see everything with crystal clarity (many current fantasy efforts could learn from this).

This is an effect that’s not often used in black-and-white film. Those Universal monster movies tended to rely on brightly lit foreground spaces holding the actors. The approach was theatrical. Backdrops were dark and lighting was foregrounded to provide sharp contrasts. Look at this shot from “Dracula” for a famous example of the actor clearly highlighted against a dark backdrop.

The approach in “Werewolf by Night” is much closer to that used in a style of European horror called giallo. The hyperviolent and sometimes supernatural detective stories weren’t shot in black-and-white, but they often relied on placing the actor in the darkest of two unique tones. “Suspiria” alone utilized blue-and-red, green-and-black, lavender-and-blue, yellow-and-brown, the list goes on.

A brightly lit shot can be made to seem dark in any two-color scheme, so long as the actor exists in the “negative space” of the lighting – the part that’s underlit. That sounds pretty easy, but it means every shot has to be precisely coordinated with the production design. Any light or shadow in the wrong place, or any backdrop that’s light or dark in the wrong place, and the effect fails.

Giallo is hardly the only genre that uses this. Most of 80s horror owes a huge debt to giallo, and it’s almost certainly influenced American filmmaking more. And of course, early 2010s spy and action movies decided the visual effect could take the place of a screenplay. Yet each time it’s replicated, the effect gets watered down.

It’s surprising to see it embodied again so fully and originally. This is director Michael Giacchino’s first directorial effort after his considerable work as a film composer. He nails this visual style, thanks in large part to cinematographer Zoe White and production designer Maya Shimoguchi. They shoot the entire film translating this exacting design philosophy to black-and-white.

Moreover, it’s not the same trick over and over again. Highlights in the texture of a coffin feel velvety. Lights in the garden where the hunters track their prey are shown in several small globes or individual large cubes, whereas indoor lighting is concentrated in distant horizontal and vertical bars. The amount of coordination to constantly overlight in this variety of ways yet achieve the feeling of foregrounded darkness is exceptional.

There is one nitpick I’d bring against “Werewolf by Night”. The fight choreography is straightforward and grounded for both an MCU film and a monster movie, which I like, but I am done with the MCU’s addiction to having women do flying scissor leg takedowns instead of just kicking someone. At least the werewolf joins in on dodge-rolling like he’s playing “Dark Souls”. What gore there is (a lot for an MCU film, very little by horror standards) could have felt more impactful if joined to more deliberate fight choreo. That’s really my only quibble.

Among other things, “Werewolf by Night” highlights just how completely Universal mishandled their venerable classic monster franchises. Remember, “Dracula Untold” was the start of their shared Dark Universe, until it bombed, at which point the Tom Cruise “The Mummy” remake was the soft reboot of their shared Dark Universe, until that bombed and they realized the Dark Universe was a terrible idea, at which point they scrapped it until the excellent Elisabeth Moss-starrer “The Invisible Man” was a critical and box office success due to the freedom of its standalone nature…so they immediately made noises about the Dark Universe being back on. To think, they killed Guillermo Del Toro’s “Frankenstein” for all that.

I’m more impressed at the ability of “Werewolf by Night” to create and land its exacting visual design than I’ve been by any CGI feat in the MCU. Yes, they’ve done things that are more technologically impressive, groundbreaking, and much more expensive, while this is an approach mastered in the 70s through cinematography and production design. Yet it’s also an approach rarely achieved in such a qualitative way, let alone translated into black-and-white. “Werewolf by Night” is impressive for how incredible an artistic feat it is to nail that look not just for a scene, but for an hour straight in so many different yet consistent ways. It wouldn’t mean much if the film around it wasn’t good, but that 1970s design philosophy is utilized to bring the joyously thrilling feeling of those 1930s monster movies alive again. I think a lot of the MCU’s work is good, but it’s rare I walk away from one of its two-and-half hour movies or six-plus episode series thinking, “I want more”. I want more of “Werewolf by Night”.

You can watch “Werewolf by Night” on Disney+.

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

Clueless with a Vengeance — “Do Revenge”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can watch “Do Revenge” on Netflix.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

LESLIE: The whole thing?

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

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

ANDY: Not if there’s two baby dinosaurs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BEN: [sighs] Just roll initiative.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gorgeous, Thoughtful Alien Splatter Action — “Prey”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can watch “Prey” on Hulu.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can watch “The Gray Man” on Netflix.

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

Jane Austen as Charcuterie Board — “Persuasion”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can watch “Persuasion” on Netflix.

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