Category Archives: Movie Reviews

A Scream in a Lullaby — “Fever Dream”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can watch “Fever Dream” on Netflix.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can watch “Nightbooks” on Netflix.

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

Is a Perfect Bad Movie Good? “Malignant”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resonant, Vicious, Sublime — “Kate”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can watch “Kate” on Netflix.

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

An Action-Adventure Classic — “Jungle Cruise”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can watch “Jungle Cruise” on Disney+.

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

Great Star Turn, Terrible Movie — “Jolt”

In “Jolt”, Kate Beckinsale plays a woman with intermittent explosive disorder. According to the movie, this gives her superhuman strength and martial arts talent that makes her a shoe-in for the CIA. After all, what intelligence agency wouldn’t want someone they can’t control? When we find Lindy, she’s in between jobs as a bouncer.

Lindy controls her violent outbursts through a vest that delivers jolts of electricity. Anytime she feels an impulse coming on, she presses a button, receives a jolt, and calms down. After her boyfriend is murdered, she sets off on a path of vengeance to find the killer.

This is a pretty bad take on intermittent explosive disorder, but sometimes we overlook a film’s problematic core when it’s just one of a host of glaring issues. It becomes a “forest for the trees” situation as you watch.

“Jolt” is like when you nail your elbow on a door but you’re distracted by that really uncomfortable numbing sensation by slamming your shin into a table, causing you to step on a Lego and rush upstairs for ice so fast you cram your head into a low-hanging pipe. At that point, picking the worst problem is less about what to do and more about taking a moment to appreciate just how much of a mess can be created at this one focal point in the universe.

The first blaring klaxon is that we’re introduced to Beckinsale’s Lindy by way of a needless prologue. It’s narrated by someone we won’t see or hear from again for an hour-and-a-half – but don’t worry, it won’t even matter then. I’m all for a good narrator, but not one who dominates the first few minutes and then completely disappears. What’s more, “Jolt” is determined to keep Lindy mysterious and ill-defined. This could be a strength, but it directly undermines a prologue meant to ground us with the character.

Each new scene in “Jolt” introduces a new failure on the movie’s part. Despite a few brief flashes of violence Lindy imagines, there isn’t a real action scene in this action movie until 40 minutes in. It’s also an action comedy, which the police officers pursuing Lindy will remind you of as often as they can. Bobby Cannavale and Laverne Cox play such incompetent cops that they feel lifted out of “Reno 911”, “Police Academy”, or real life. Cannavale’s entire motive for being convinced Lindy’s innocent is that he wants to sleep with her and misreads the kind of person she is. Cox’s entire motive for Lindy’s guilt is that Cannavale’s reasoning for believing she’s innocent is absolute nonsense. I mean, she’s right even if her conclusion is wrong, and there’s a lot you could do with this, but there’s no consequence attached to any of it. It’s just an excuse for them to bicker in some of the worst writing that’s ever been put to screen. Every moment they’re on-screen plays like a farce, when nothing else in the movie does.

Look, don’t get me wrong. When you go in for a Kate Beckinsale actioner, you’re expecting a competent, mid-budget throwback determined to carry the torch of 90s gothic action movies. You’re not expecting hundreds of millions in visual effects or a who’s who of action stars. You’re looking to see heroes and villains toeing the line of BDSM fashion while hotly debating vampire bylaws, taking occasional breaks to see which werewolf can cleave a distinguished English actor’s jaw the furthest. I like to think this is how golf started.

They’re an acquired taste. You’re not looking for “Avengers”, you’re looking for costume design, dry wit, efficient pacing, enough extraneous lore to fill a Ken Burns miniseries, and quick bursts of splattery violence.

Beckinsale can sell an action scene. This ranges from the superhero-esque choreography of the “Underworld” franchise to the martial arts of the “Total Recall” reboot and the more practical, realistic fights in films like “Vacancy” and “Whiteout”. Whatever combination of Beckinsale and stunt actors has played these roles has conveyed extremely solid action scenes again and again.

All this is getting round to stressing that “Jolt” utterly fails her. Beckinsale is there, she’s doing the work, she’s delivering the dry wit, she’s hauling the entire film forward clenched between her teeth in as fun a way as someone can, but outside of her, this is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.

What’s frustrating is that “Jolt” can’t settle on what the hell it is. Beckinsale’s scenes with Jai Courtney are a romance where she feels seen for the first time. Her scenes with the designer of her electroshock vest, Stanley Tucci’s Dr. Munchin, are some of the film’s best and are full of acerbic wit. Her scenes with the detectives are straight-up farce and it’s often hard to tell how intentional this is or isn’t. I mean, the baby-tossing scene obviously is, but often the film communicates this too late and it doesn’t fit at all into the rest of the world “Jolt” is painting.

What is that world? It’s the dark, bleak, gothic, “It can’t rain all the time” universe you expect out of a Beckinsale action movie, complete with an old, scenery-chewing English villain so bad he’d be twirling his mustache if he hadn’t, you know, like outlawed mustaches altogether so he could eat people’s faces more easily. Not literally, that’s not an aspect of the plot, but if it had been I wouldn’t have been surprised. In fact, I would have been pleasantly surprised because at least the film would have been clearer about what it was trying to be.

Worst of all, the film’s central metaphor works on Lindy finally “uncaging” herself from her electroshock vest and learning that her anger is something she can use to solve a problem. It is a power and something she should have allowed herself much earlier. That can be an amazing metaphor for women taking hold of their anger to make change. It’s a really shitty metaphor for people dealing with mental health issues such as the intermittent explosive disorder the film builds itself around. It’s especially shitty given that we’re shown numerous flashbacks where Lindy doesn’t control her anger and maims and kills innocent people as a result.

Those flashbacks were fine in the moment because they’re comedic and it’s communicated they’re not meant to be taken at face value…except we’re then asked to hold those kinds of actions accountable in order to cheer for Lindy and see her freed from a form of impulse control in a way we’re expected to take at face value. Lindy’s reckless cruelty is meant to be a dark humor we don’t take seriously – yet when the film asks us to take the power of her anger more seriously, we also have to take the casual murder of innocents, baby hurling, and blowing up residences where others live more seriously.

Is it a farce making fun of action movies and cliché dialogue? In the cop scenes, yeah. Is it trying to be a successful action movie? In assault-the-tower, torture, and fight scenes, yeah. Is it a witty comedy? When Beckinsale and Tucci go at it, yeah.

Half the problem is that it never fully gets there. A lot of the farce doesn’t play and the physical comedy is terribly blocked out. The chase scenes are awful and serious action is so delayed it becomes compartmentalized from the rest of the film. Beckinsale and Tucci deliver on the verve of witty comedic scenes in order to make up for where the dialogue fails them.

The other half of the problem is that “Jolt” doesn’t commit fully enough to any single aspect. I love films that cram together divergent genres. Last week’s “Gunpowder Milkshake” effortlessly glided between genres, influences, and styles of art. Or if you don’t sell every genre you’re going for, you can go all in on at least one of them. That makes an anchor for the others to work off of – look at “Shadow in the Cloud” from earlier this year.

“Jolt” just doesn’t have follow-through on any of these aspects. Every time we shift genre, half the cast feels completely out of place. Beckinsale visits the physical comedy farce despite never existing in it. Cannavale and Cox visit the action despite never existing in it. No one burrows into one of these genres deeply enough for it to make those shifts feel consequential, and no one glides between the genres in the way needed to guide viewers through those shifts. That’s not a criticism of the actors – that’s the fault of direction and – here at least – the screenwriting.

Above all, I’m shocked that this is something Tanya Wexler directed. Her film “Buffaloed” came out last year, and it is both a successful comedy and a biting social commentary. The performances are all phenomenal, led by Zoey Deutch and Judy Greer. Hell, the woman even made Jai Courtney interesting. Wexler was able to glide everyone and everything across genre and commentary in a way that is often sublime.

Her prior film “Hysteria” is a comedy about the invention of the vibrator that’s considered one of the more unique and creative comedies of the 2010s. Wexler was on something of a roll, until now.

Above all, I blame this on Scott Wascha’s screenplay. Maybe this was intended as a more straight-up actioner. Maybe it was supposed to be a “Hudson Hawk” style send-up. Something, somewhere along the way got unbelievably muddled and lost.

None of this torpedoes my faith in Wexler. Her talent for witty slam cuts of flashbacks and imagined violence are one of the few comedic aspects of “Jolt” that works. The art design is inspired in moments. She has nothing to prove, and every director has a bad movie in them.

Tucci does what he can in limited screen time. Cannavale and Cox just don’t seem to be in the same film as anyone else, and that’s not their fault. Courtney’s already the internet’s punching bag for his performances and whether deserved or not, I don’t think there’s a whole lot of point in trying to sink the Titanic even deeper.

As for Beckinsale, it’s a mark of success that it’s taken this long in her career for an action star like her to deliver a truly bad movie. That’s not a period of competency that Jason Statham, Dwayne Johnson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Sylvester Stallone can claim.

Hell, Bruce Willis came out with three movies this past week that wish they had the scores of “Jolt”. You have to add the IMDB scores of “Cosmic Sin” and “Out of Death” together (5.6) to match that of “Jolt” (5.5). His standout is “Midnight in the Switchgrass” at 4.3. As a rule, I hate IMDB scores, but you get the idea.

Beckinsale is by far this film’s strength and she combines sheer charisma as an action hero with timing that can make a bad line of dialogue feel intentional and weighted. It’s rare that you can watch a movie you think is a failure and come out thinking more highly of the star who at least dragged it halfway out of the well.

Beckinsale elevates this film from completely unwatchable to a bad film that has its moments. That doesn’t sound like praise, but believe me it is. It’s almost worth watching to see someone do that, but at the end of the day the key word there is almost and that’s the strongest possible angle of endorsement I can give “Jolt”.

You can watch “Jolt” on Amazon.

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

“Gunpowder Milkshake”, Late Stage Capitalism, & Spaghetti Western Pop Art

“Gunpowder Milkshake” is a Spaghetti Western that takes place in abandoned commercial spaces where smart light panels blaze inconstant, shifting colors into the night. Only robber barons and their armies dare to tread there. They shuttle between the defunct, collapsed memories of malls and the nostalgic retro-pastiche shops that act like anchors when everything real just…stopped one day.

Karen Gillan plays an assassin named Sam, after a job goes belly-up and her employers turn on her. It leaves her protecting a child through ever-more ridiculous action sequences. More importantly, Gillan leads us through a funhouse mirror reflection of action movies, built more from John Woo than “John Wick”, constructed on the bones and intentions of Sergio Leone Westerns, and strung with a deeply macabre and explicitly violent humor.

“Gunpowder Milkshake” is messy and imperfect, but it’s also unique and satisfying in a way so many other action movies aren’t. As in many Spaghetti Westerns, Sam has a chance at personal redemption by doing the right thing for once. That means turning on those she once worked for, with only her estranged gang of outlaws to offer support.

Pluck Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, or Eli Wallach out of yesterday’s Westerns and deposit them in “Gunpowder Milkshake”, and they’d feel right at home in the structure of it. The style, however, is anything but familiar.

There aren’t horses or sweeping desert landscapes here. There are bowling alleys, parking garages, a library acting much like the Western’s courthouse, a shake shop as the meet-up instead of a casino or brothel. The strange, sweeping music makes the Spaghetti Western connection more obvious, but “Gunpowder Milkshake” isn’t a straight analogue. It adheres to the framework of the Spaghetti Western, the meaning of it. The aesthetic is something altogether different, a suffusion of American realism and pop art, as if Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” was done by Roy Lichtenstein.

Where the Western was desolate landscape that reflected the barren souls of its characters and gave them a stage that stressed iconography, “Gunpowder Milkshake” is a retro diner, a run-down mall, an unbelievably sanitary hospital, all of them overwhelmed with calming pastels, or too-bright white, or neon-emulating light panels, anything to suggest a life and bustle that isn’t really there. It’s no less a limbo. “Gunpowder Milkshake” is a modern desolation, as empty as those deserts save for its murderers and the people who pay them. It doesn’t paint its own world so much as it interprets and abstracts our own.

It’s also funny, in particular during a series of escalating action scenes where Sam’s lost any motor function in her arms. Gillan plays her hero gruff and generally monotone, just like a Western hero, but it’s in these scenes that her comic chops shine through. Her sheer skill within action comedy can undermine that gruff approach, but she has a keen ability for Bruce Willicisms – eye rolls, exasperation, and that personally offended, put-upon reaction within shootouts and fist fights. This doesn’t really agree with the emotionless, lone rider approach she takes in some scenes, but it’s a trade well worth making.

I love everything that “Gunpowder Milkshake” is trying to do. I don’t know that it gets there with every note, but it succeeds on most counts. Even when it doesn’t, there’s still a phenomenal cast to watch beat fools up. Gillan is joined by Angela Bassett, Carla Gugino, Lena Headey, and Michelle Yeoh. I know, bury the lede, right? In particular, Michelle Yeoh reminds us that she may be the best action star in cinematic history.

There’s an anti-patriarchal message early and late, but it disappears through the film’s middle. It’s a thematic strength that “Gunpowder Milkshake” sometimes forgets to carry through in the narrative. This is made up in large part by the cast of women action heroes, who have been othered as both actors in their genre and the characters we see here. They’re much better suited than men to lead us through such a collapsing, late stage capitalist landscape. They inhabit it in a way the men they piss off never will. A cast of women can inhabit this abstraction of othering and economic decay because our culture asks them to inhabit versions of the same in our world. For a cast of Wahlbergs and Pratts, it would be nothing more than a diorama instead of a stage.

I’ll agree completely with many criticisms of the movie. You probably won’t like it if you go in expecting a straight-up action movie. This isn’t “John Wick” with women, and it’s not trying to be. It is a deeply weird, macabre Spaghetti Western that is also constantly excited and invested in its next ridiculous idea. It takes place in an abstracted, eroded commercial world – one that feels like elements of our own boiled down to the desolate iconography of late stage capitalism. If you can buy into and enjoy it at that level, it’s often a beast of a film.

The closest comparisons I have aren’t even in similar genres. They’re films that are both rooted in and playfully invert their own genres – yet if I say it made me think of “Dark City” or “Delicatessen” or “Six-String Samurai” in that way, I don’t want you to think it’s anything like those films. You can say two people approach their jobs the same way while understanding they do completely different jobs. That’s what I mean, and I think it highlights that there’s not a real comparison for “Gunpowder Milkshake” out there. Before it’s anything else, it is unique.

I certainly think there are places that could’ve been improved. The beginning is overlong, and uses a narrated framework that isn’t needed or maintained. There’s an overuse of slow-motion when nothing is happening early on, but this is solved by a constant deluge of events that make it useful later. While I think the sight gags and visual comedy of “Gunpowder Milkshake” are phenomenal, its comedic dialogue is hit and miss.

Are any of these enough to topple the ludicrous amount of fun that “Gunpowder Milkshake” is as a whole? Not at all. Don’t get me wrong – reviews for this from both critics and audiences are all over the place. This is definitely a “your mileage may vary” kind of film.

If you want to see a traditional action movie with a complex plot, this is likely too stylized, impractical, and episodic. It lacks interest in the connective tissue, fine detail, and storytelling mechanics of a latter-day “Mission: Impossible”. It also wants to abstract and get to the cinema of it all where more gothic action films ranging from “The Crow” to “John Wick” to “Justice League” would prefer to use their foundation of atmosphere for philosophical expression.

Neither is it a good corollary to the MCU, whose films and series are plenty witty and colorful, but before this year often misplaced their viciousness and were too restrained for the meta-pastiche, art-before-narrative attitude of “Gunpowder Milkshake”.

This is something told through good, creative action scenes, and uses these to pursue becoming a funhouse contemporary art installation. It’s engineered to be both entertaining and eerily uncomfortable around the edges. It has a fairly simple plot to complement a world that’s meant to be interpreted instead of told outright. If that appeals to you, then you may find one of your favorite films.

That’s why I make the “Dark City”, “Delicatessen”, and “Six-String Samurai” comparisons – not because any of these films are much like each other, but because the kind of art they become utilizes popular genre conventions to deliver a film that’s more expressive than particular, landscapes and realities more suggested than defined, a world that is meant to leave you turning it over in terms of how you felt toward it rather than how you understood it. The place where you understand these worlds isn’t on the screen. You’re not connecting to what’s already formed and just needs to be grasped. You understand them by what they evoke in you. These are films that can establish a home in your imagination.

Is “Gunpowder Milkshake” on the level of those films? It’s close enough – and this type of film evoked on this scale is rare enough – that I love it. I’d call “Gunpowder Milkshake” a good film. A great one? That would require it to behave itself more. The challenging thing about contemporary art is that it defies the idea that it should be judged as good or bad; you judge it on whether it makes you feel something in a way nothing else does. “Gunpowder Milkshake” does this, and a film like that is far rarer than a great one. When something like that plants roots in your imagination, that unique emotion or sensation that only it gives you is something that you now get to carry with you. Do I think “Gunpowder Milkshake” is great? Who cares when it’s something even better?

You can watch “Gunpowder Milkshake” on Netflix.

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Enough to Get the Job Done — “The Tomorrow War”

Humans from the future arrive in the midst of the World Cup. They have a message to deliver to its global audience. Humanity is at war 30 years in the future, and they’re losing. They need to recruit from the past. A draft is installed, and former Green Beret Dan Forester is recruited to fight in the future.

There are a ton of details incorporated into the fairly quick opening act of “The Tomorrow War”: time travel here only works if someone doesn’t exist on one end or the other. The only ones who can travel back in time are those who weren’t born yet. Only people who’ve died in the interceding time can travel those 30 years ahead. The film’s chock full of neat sci-fi details like this that could’ve used more time, but ultimately are never the focus. Instead, what we get is a reasonably-ish successful action movie.

I’ll be honest with you: I think the premise to “The Tomorrow War” is pretty silly. That puts it in line with a lot of big-budget sci-fi. The silliness doesn’t discount “The Tomorrow War” any more than it would “Stargate” or an “Avengers” film. What’s past that silliness? Is it something that elevates beyond its premise, or that spirals into an abyss? Yes.

The Forever War

“The Tomorrow War” is long for an action movie at 2 hours, 20 minutes. The surprise here is that – if anything – it could have been longer and still worked. What makes “The Tomorrow War” most unique is that it keeps on tackling additional stories. It’s an “and then” film. One thing leads pretty naturally into another. You could say there’s a complete film here that ends under two hours and is emotionally and thematically complete. Then there’s a very relevant extra episode that’s needed to finish the story.

“And then” films are really difficult to make work on a big-budget scale. You want your three acts, which “The Tomorrow War” has, and then you want to walk out satisfied. “The Tomorrow War” just keeps piling on acts. You get a prologue, an opening act, a core movie with three compartmentalized action scenes, a dedicated montage two-thirds of the way through, an epilogue, and then another mini-movie after it that has its own three-act structure. It’s weird. It almost never works.

Here, it does. “The Tomorrow War” is a derivative movie that cobbles together from various, more successful sci-fi movies, but with this weird, good, extra bit Frankensteined onto it. That weird difference is the most valuable and unexpected thing about “The Tomorrow War”. That it works makes the movie before it work much better than it should.

Replicas

The thing about “The Tomorrow War” is that it constantly reminds me of something that did a particular idea better. An early firefight in future Miami Beach pales in comparison to the much maligned, hugely underrated, but excitingly tactical “Battle Los Angeles”. Some of what’s in here will remind you of “Starship Troopers”. One scene is very reminiscent of “World War Z”. These aren’t homages – those will come later in the form of “Alien” and “The Thing”. They’re just action elements that other films have done better.

What few films have done better is to tack a big, old mini-movie on the end that’s so fun to watch that it improves what came before. The movie’s just like, “We’re gonna pin the sequel on the end because it’s a lot tighter and it’ll soften your opinion of the previous two hours”. And they’re right.

Overall, I enjoyed it. I was never bored during the runtime, even if I could often think of other films I wanted it to be more. A lot of supporting elements help smooth the film’s progression – the creature design is superb, the production design is generally good, and there’s some solid action choreography when it isn’t undermined by the editing.

Pratt Fall

The biggest misstep “The Tomorrow War” makes is miscasting its lead. Chris Pratt is fine. He’s not bad in the role, but he’s not special in it. He gets the job done, more or less. The issue is that Chris Pratt is not an action star. He’s an action comedy star, and this is not an action comedy.

Sure, “The Tomorrow War” has its share of one liners and jokes. A lot of them land flat because the film also wants to be dire and full of loss. It never chooses a lane, and it certainly doesn’t fuse these two lanes together in a way that elevates either. What’s more, almost none of the comedic lines are spoken by Pratt. He’s not here to quip, which is why you cast yourself a Chris Pratt in the first place. He’s here to be charming (close enough), be serious and military (eh…), and be believably emotional in heart-wrenching scenes (um…)

The frustrating thing is that the film did cast the perfect lead, just not as the lead. Betty Gilpin, of “GLOW” and “Nurse Jackie” fame, plays Dan’s wife. That’s who should have been the lead here. That’s who can be winning, serious, and anchor a scene with emotion. She’s already shown with “The Hunt” that she can lead an action movie. Here, she’s miscast as the worried, supportive wife – a role she usually breaks out of with a vengeance. Turns out the role is pretty strained when she can’t.

This isn’t a more-women-leads thing either. I mean, it could be, we could have that conversation, there need to be more women leads (Yvonne Strahovski does get to be pretty badass in this), but that’s not the point I’m trying to make right now. The point is that Pratt is just OK here, and the actor who could’ve been superb was right next to him.

That said, Pratt doesn’t really send anything off the rails, either. He’s exactly who you expect him to be, which holds the film back a lot, but also gives you a known quantity.

Jumper

The other major issue with the “The Tomorrow War” is that it’s unrelentingly addicted to jump cuts. Or leap cuts. Characters will climb a fence and in the very next shot you’ll see them bounding across a barrier 50 yards away. Are those new characters in a different shot? Nope, same ones, the film’s just leapt us ahead a minute or two without telling us. This isn’t part of the time travel, either. It’s just how the film is edited.

At one point, characters arrive somewhere new. In the same, very brief conversation where they express this is somewhere no one’s ever been before, they then blow up an extensive series of bombs one of them has set. Obviously, there should’ve been an interstitial scene here of them waiting/eating/connecting while the explosives are planted – they could’ve had the dialogue that’s often instead shoved into the middle of action scenes. These moments are often laughably obvious.

It’s a limited quibble, and it’s easy enough to make sense of, but it happens all the time. It can jar you out of the action, but it’s a much worse filmmaking offense when it happens in dialogue scenes. We’re used to seeing contiguous dialogue and action scenes, and we’re used to seeing montages that do this kind of skipping. When the film shifts between the two of them without giving its audience separation and markers that this is what it’s doing, it makes an audience lose its orientation within a sequence. There are scenes where everything will be contiguous, we’ll skip ahead, and then everything will be contiguous again. An element within a scene will skip ahead without the other elements in that scene doing the same thing.

It doesn’t make anything difficult to follow for longer than a second or two, but if it’s happening every three or four minutes in a 2 hour, 20 minute film, that adds up to 40 times that you’re jarred into re-grounding your orientation to what’s happening or, at best, just waving it off. That’s a lot over the course of a movie. Like I said, it’s a limited quibble, but it is a repetitious one. There’s only so many times you can go, “Oh, ‘The Tomorrow War’, you’re so silly”.

That style of disorientation can have a purpose. It can be used to incredible effect in action movies – look no further than Tony Scott’s entire career. Hell, Scott even directed a time travel movie that used that approach to exquisite effect (“Deja Vu”). Yet here, it seems as if there’s already so much runtime, we’re just leaping ahead mid-scene in order to keep it under 140 minutes. That’s not a unique, intriguing film editing grammar used to paint a disorienting world. That’s just disorienting in a world that isn’t designed to communicate that way in the first place.

It’s hard to say whether this undermines the film’s atmosphere, or if it just never builds that much atmosphere to start. You can’t help but feel that another filmmaker could’ve given the scenes and characters more breathing room, and the whole world more atmosphere, without necessarily making it longer. For a film that’s so interested in efficiency in its gigantic story, taking more artistic chances and going slower in a few areas can have their own way of making other elements more efficient.

Director Chris McKay has previously helmed “The Lego Batman Movie”, and there can be a feeling at times that the broader strokes used in CGI-styled animation lack some of the specificity we look for in live action. McKay is a lot like Pratt here – very serviceable, but he leaves you wondering how much more could have been done with a film like this.

More than anything else, I look at the $200 million budget and wonder where it went. I don’t think it all shows on-screen. I can’t help but imagine how a Francis Lawrence might’ve drilled home the harrowing psychological elements of “The Tomorrow War”. Here, they’re never more than a brief flavor. What about a Gore Verbinski who leaves every dollar of that budget dripping off the screen? In some alternate universe, there’s a deeply weird, tense, nerve jangling version of this directed by a late 90s auteur making a comeback like Alex Proyas. I can’t help but think back to what Roseanne Liang did earlier this year with a very uneven but atmospherically spectacular “Shadow in the Cloud” on only $10 million.

This is a lot of negatives for something that I did like. If this is your kind of big-budget fare, dig in. Yet while I enjoyed “The Tomorrow War” and found it fun, it could have been so much more in so many different directions.

Time Lapse

One critique making the rounds that I completely disagree with is that “The Tomorrow War” hearkens back to 90s movies. It doesn’t. “Independence Day”, “Stargate”, “Total Recall”, hell – even worse movies than this like “Congo” or “Godzilla” – focused on character and elements of mystery. They took their time with reveals and revelations.

“The Tomorrow War” may be the most late 2010s movie we’ve had yet: it has a schedule to keep, characters speak in exposition, emotional moments are chiefly dumped into the middle of action scenes, there’s an overuse of POV, scenes need to stop regularly to present a tableau. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a way to fuse these elements well: just look at the last two “Avengers” movies.

90s big budget sci-fi was defined by a focus on character duality, an ebb-and-flow pace, and a self-effacing, dry sense of humor. “The Tomorrow War” is defined by on-rails character arcs, a more-more-more pace, and the infallible hero. This is nowhere close to a 90s throwback and the critics saying this are…look, just don’t ask them to watch your kids or make sure no one steals your laptop at the coffee shop while you go to the bathroom; they cannot be trusted.

“The Tomorrow War” works well enough, and for a movie that keeps tacking more on, that’s actually pretty impressive. The next step after that is seeing how much more it could have done, how much potential it leaves on the table just working well enough. It’s an enjoyable film, but in a strange way what’s almost as enjoyable is the giant shape it leaves in my mind of everything else it could have been. It creates an afterimage that I also find pretty fun to think about, which is a unique but exciting extra gift that makes the film more memorable than it should be.

“The Tomorrow War” is like one of those worksheets they give you in grade school, where you have to find all the mistakes in a picture. That picture’s always fun and busy and interesting, but so is circling all the mistakes in the drawing. “The Tomorrow War” is a good enough film, but where it truly excels is as a conversation piece. Take anything in it and it could have been done worse, or better. What a time to be alive.

You can watch “The Tomorrow War” on Amazon.

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

A Defiance / A Reassurance — “In the Heights”

Many musicals seem shy about the fact they’re, you know, musicals. They’re tentative about people breaking into song, and even then the songs are intentional set-pieces compartmentalized from dialogue scenes. They don’t seem to believe that people would come to a musical to witness music, and they certainly don’t want to risk any plot happening during the songs. They want to shift you gently – even slyly – into the fact that the film you’re about to watch contains singing. “In the Heights” is the complete opposite.

Don’t get me wrong; there is dialogue if that’s what you want. You can see it out the window, way out in the distance, as you speed by from one song to the next. Dialogue regularly drifts into song as if characters are reminding each other: do you even remember what movie you’re in? There are sequences within “In the Heights” that shift between three songs and set-pieces that actively tell the story rather than put it on hold.

We follow Usnavi, a young man who runs a corner bodega in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York. He has dreams of moving to the Dominican Republic and running a bar there, but he has ties that anchor him in New York. He cares for his young cousin Sonny, he can’t leave without him or his Abuela Claudia, and he’s in love with Vanessa – a friend he hasn’t really asked out. A lot of this is what you’d expect in a musical, and we’ll get to that in a minute.

First off, is it a good movie? “In the Heights” is the best live-action musical since “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”. It isn’t just a spectacle, it isn’t just flash and song and dance. It’s all the heart that musicals have completely forgotten since well before I was born. It doesn’t enter screen scared that you might not appreciate a musical. It enters set on the idea that for these two-and-a-half hours, musicality is how the world works and speaks and feels.

And then it does so much more than that. Being Latino in the United States, I grew up with this seed of an idea in my head that I didn’t measure up. Everything in the entertainment media around me told me that if I worked hard and did everything right, at best I might one day be considered equal to white: if I deferred enough, if I kept quiet enough, if I passed well enough. The love and reassurance I had from my family only shields you so far in a culture set on wearing it away. My accomplishments were only ever catching up to where so many others started without accomplishing anything. I could get straight A’s, do taekwondo, band, 4-H, volunteer, be the tallest kid in class, be the one everyone wanted to be paired with on a project, the one everyone came to for answers – but the minute I stepped out of that class, that gym, that lab, I was one of the handful of Latine kids, who had to be tested, harassed, distrusted, confronted at every turn.

I heard at home I could be anything. I heard everywhere else that if I did everything right, maybe I could know the people who got to be anything, maybe I could hide the half of me that couldn’t be anything. Maybe I could perform and emulate the part of someone who got to be anything. I pushed the Mexican half of myself down throughout my childhood.

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

Other forms of bigotry can work in similar ways. White supremacy, even in its polite suburban fashion, can ask a young Latino to carve away half of himself, to suppress a part of himself to act the part, to become white enough, in fear of the harassment, ostracizing, confrontation, and violence he faces.

As I became an adult, uncovering that half of myself I’d so buried, so disappeared, was like learning how to crawl, to walk, to run all over again. I’d denied half of myself real development, pride, trust, acknowledgment. That I made it far enough to do that is a testament to the support of my family and what community I did have, to lucking out and having one teacher who knew a school that allowed me to escape my town.

When I look at the impostor syndrome I struggle with, this is its root. It’s sunk into the foundations. I might know better now, I might’ve developed that other, buried half of myself and learned to love it and learn from it, but the training we get as kids is something we never fully leave behind. That sense that I am incapable of being good enough plagues nearly every task, effort, piece of writing. I have constant anxiety that I will lose the approval of anyone and everyone in my life. Why? Because I spent the first two decades of my life believing that about half of who I was, believing it so completely that I tried to erase it in myself. Do that to yourself through your entire childhood, believe that nothing you do will ever be good enough to get to the starting point, and even the perfect – the best job you can ever do – there’s a part of you that will always be convinced it only gets you to where everyone else starts before they even try.

At its heart, “In the Heights” is about a generation of Latines struggling with forms of impostor syndrome – not this form exactly, but one in which their humanity, their community, their legitimacy, their history is confronted with erasure and dismissal.

I think there’s a favorite character for everybody, but for me it was Nina, who comes home after having gone to Stanford, a prodigal daughter who bears the weight of everyone’s expectations. That burden is too much for her in a place that treats her as out of place; she’s dropped out.

Are there some issues with “In the Heights”? Sure. The focus on music and dance over dialogue means that the story can feel a bit loose, zooming out to a broad perspective and then focusing in on a much more personal one at the drop of a hat. The story is told in a way that can often mirror sensation. A scene doesn’t stop to have a musical number, it just progresses into one naturally. When this happens, the story can shift from precise dialogue to the feeling of how a conversation plays out. It requires some inference on the part of the audience. It’s as if we get the feelings and sensations a dialogue would create, without knowing exactly what the dialogue is.

In my book, that’s awesome. Others may not like that as much, or may prefer musicals with more compartmentalized set-pieces. Compartmentalization has been the go-to for the few big, modern musicals we get, so folks may not be as used to seeing this more expressionist approach. If you’re a fan of older musicals, particularly Gene Kelly ones that could shift a conversation into gigantic set-pieces or aching ballads where people dance into regionalist art and sing the feelings they dare not speak, that describes this approach better.

One major issue about representation has been brought up. Some Afro-Dominican critics and residents have said that the Washington Heights neighborhood isn’t represented in an accurate way. Pretty much everyone on-screen is Latine, but there are very few Afro-Latines. The approach may’ve been to represent a larger group of Latine communities – there’s one song that features multiple shout-outs to the ancestries that make up the community. At the same time, if that’s the goal, then it should be realized whose representation may have been sacrificed in reaching it.

I love “In the Heights”. It was a damn blurry movie cause I was crying the entire time. I hope it’s at the top of every awards list for pretty much any category you can name. But loving something this much does not mean it is magically free of problems. If Afro-Latine people were underrepresented in a story about a largely Afro-Latine community, that is a problem. And let’s be real – Afro-Latine people are regularly underrepresented in conversations about Latine communities and who composes them.

My representation is not worth the sacrifice of anyone else’s. I can still love this movie and argue for it, while also recognizing that there is a place it could have done better and that this is worth discussing and learning about. If I love this movie and what it does for representation, what it does for arguing about where home is and the value we do have, then it requires me to say it also could have done better representing this group of people. That doesn’t change the impact of this movie. It asks what’s next, what do we do better the next time, and how do we listen this time in order to achieve that, because I’ll be damned if a salve to my impostor syndrome is simply to shift it to someone else.

“In the Heights” is lovely and beautiful and brilliant. At the same time, this kind of representation is our starting point, and we do not treat that starting point as exclusive or dismissive of someone else. We know what that feels like, and we do not pass that on. It’s a brilliant, heartfelt movie that addresses a piece of me better than any other I’ve ever seen. It also could have done better in this one place. Both are true, and part of the same conversation.

“In the Heights” is available on HBO Max and in theaters.

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A-F*cking-Plus: “Those Who Wish Me Dead”

“Those Who Wish Me Dead” is the action movie I want more action movies to be. It’s practical, it’s personal, and it builds tension from detail. It’s about how small, tactical decisions made by two opposing forces change the situation in ways neither expect. The script is smart as hell, and makes a familiar premise feel unique and refreshingly different.

Angelina Jolie plays Hannah, a smokejumper crew boss who makes a terrible mistake. Smokejumpers are firefighters who work against wildland fires. They parachute into remote areas in order to contain those fires before they grow larger and unmanageable. Hannah misreads the wind, and loses one of her crew and a family of hikers. There wasn’t really anything she could do, but the blame has to be pinned somewhere and she’s happy to heap it on herself.

Unable to pass the psych evaluation, she won’t be jumping out of planes anymore. Instead, she’ll be on firewatch in a remote tower. She keeps an eye out for any signs of fire and radios them in. The premise from here on is familiar. Assassins are after a kid named Connor, and an action hero stranded in the wilderness is the only one who can save him.

If the set-up is familiar, what makes “Those Who Wish Me Dead” special? The rest of it feels unique. The dialogue isn’t what we hear in a thousand Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or superhero movies. No one’s dropping one-liners.

The assassins are practical, smart, and efficient, but they’re hamstrung by their employers failing to provide a second team. Played by Aidan Gillen (“Game of Thrones”) and Nicholas Hoult (“Mad Max: Fury Road”), they make mistakes by trying to compensate and rush the job. The assassins aren’t some unbelievable cinematic team of unmatched evil. They’re not infallible in their choices. It’s their increasing desperation to finish the job and frustration with the situation that make them intimidating. They feel more human and that makes them more immediate and real.

One of the tensest moments involves the assassins instructing someone movement by movement how to throw his weapon away, kneel, fall forward, put his hands behind his back. It’s not played as a meeting of uber-badasses, or as a standoff where villains give someone 20 chances to growl about how they’ll rip their head off later. It’s not played with dramatic close-ups or emotional performances. It’s tense simply because it’s so practical, so matter-of-fact, because as viewers we understand how each step is a decreased chance of escape for the person being disarmed.

Hannah is creative, experienced, and trained to be decisive in life-or-death situations, but she doesn’t have the skills or equipment the assassins do. She knows the woods, but neither is she going full Rambo. She understands her environment and makes smart decisions in situations that soon involve lightning storms and a raging fire. She’s not making everything into a deadly weapon or doing anything superhuman. She’s mostly trying to hike out of the situation with Connor in tow, which is what any of us would do. This makes her feel more immediate and real, too.

It’s also easy to forget because she’s such an icon, but Angelina Jolie is one of the best actors in the medium’s history. She won an Oscar and Golden Globes three years in a row before most anyone knew her name. She’s delivered dramatic work as good as “Changeling”, and comedic work as capably as out-acting Brad Pitt in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”. It’s also easy to forget because “Those Who Wish Me Dead” is only the fifth live-action film she’s acted in across the last decade. (She’s written three and directed four films in that same span, though.)

She does superb work in a film that doesn’t focus heavily on emotional performance. There are no monologues, and the dialogue is terse and to the point. Nonetheless, her performance nails a sense of someone who’s not just traumatized, but who’s good at covering it up.

The moments of dissociation she has, she shifts into a thousand yard stare. These aren’t tearjerking emotional moments. They’re part of her day, every day, an interruption to the performance Hannah puts on for others and for herself.

Jolie’s had intermittent Bell’s palsy, so I can’t say whether slack features on one side of her face in some moments was an intentional decision she chose, or an element of her as an actress they kept. Either way, including it goes a long way to deepening the reality of a character. Hannah has worked one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, and palsy can result from head injury or emotional trauma, among other factors. While I do think Jolie’s smudged make-up looks a little too designed after fist-fighting in forest fires, keeping this element helps the character feel more real. My understanding is that disability depends on the severity of the condition, but it’s great that someone who’s dealt with it sees it incorporated in a film. A lot of filmmakers would have edited those takes out or “corrected” it in post (which is a bullshit mentality). The character is more authentic, human, and representative for its inclusion.

I also like that the movie doesn’t make Hannah into a great mother figure. There’s no Ripley and Newt dynamic here. Hannah is shit with kids, and has zero interest in becoming a parental figure to Connor. She takes care of him as he needs, and protects him not out of some amazing emotional connection, but because it’s what the situation requires. It’s insulting when movies need to create these kinds of bonds to increase the tension of protecting a child. People don’t protect children because they create a one-on-one parental bond through extended dialogue in a high-stakes situation; they protect children because it’s what you fucking do. If you’re parenting a kid because it gives you a redemption arc, you probably shouldn’t be parenting that child. Hannah doesn’t always like communicating with Connor, and she doesn’t need to be good at it to risk her life protecting him. I’m glad to see the sudden mother redemption trope left out of the movie completely.

Others intersect with the assassins and Hannah, but not in the thoroughly useless or sacrificial roles where movies like this usually shove side characters. Most of them play an important part to what happens.

In fact, the cast is exceptionally deep. Finn Little delivers an incredibly strong performance as Connor. The usual child-panicking-in-a-movie notes aren’t hit because those notes are ridiculous. Connor is smart, traumatized, untrusting, scared, determined. He shuts off in some moments, he’s a kid in others, and sometimes he does what’s in front of him because it keeps him going. He’s erratic because that’s what happens in the midst of coping with trauma.

I’ve mentioned Gillen and Hoult as the assassins, and they land an odd-couple working dynamic. Gillen is the superior and more forthright, but also more emotional. Hoult doesn’t see the big picture as well, but he’s more reserved and less prone to drastic decision-making.

Jon Bernthal (“The Punisher”) joins in a large role as a sheriff’s deputy, Ethan. Jake Weber (“Medium”) also shines in a supporting role. Yet its relative newcomer Medina Senghore who steals the show in several ways as Ethan’s resourceful, pregnant wife Allison. She’s one of the most awesome and unexpected characters I’ve seen in an action movie. As if that weren’t enough, even Tyler Perry, Tory Kittles, and James Jordan show up in bit parts.

“Those Who Wish Me Dead” is a 90s action movie in style and pace, though I’d say it’s far superior to most of what the 90s had to offer. For one, you don’t have to put up with John Travolta. This is a film where situation, dialogue, performance, and patience between action scenes pays off.

Characters aren’t tumbling from one escalating set-piece to the next. They pause, reassess, make smart decisions, reverse old ones based on new information. When both sides make smart decisions, and those decisions go haywire because the other side isn’t standing still, we get to see an asymmetric cat-and-mouse game. A favorable firing position in one scene can turn into characters falling behind as they descend from it the next, and the movie translates these changing elements of give-and-take without ever having to say them out loud.

Nothing feels rushed here. “Those Who Wish Me Dead” takes its sweet time establishing the plot and how characters connect. It’s never complicated, but it is constantly evolving.

Intelligence often gets in the way of visual effects-heavy action movies. Genius is treated as kooky and explaining your plan as quickly and patronizingly as possible. Action screenplays tend to take one scene to insist someone’s intelligent, and then spend the next two hours with that character’s ego telling us the exact opposite.

There’s a dearth of action movies that treat intelligence as knowing how to fuse experience, patience, resilience, emotional maturity, and creativity. Don’t get me wrong, I love movies that are constant colorful explosions featuring ever-quipping sides of human beef. At a certain point, I do want more personal action movies, with a more focused scope, featuring intelligent people facing intelligent people, where a character weighing a decision can be far more tense than whether our explosions out-explode their explosions.

That doesn’t mean “Those Who Wish Me Dead” is gritty – it’s not. That doesn’t mean it isn’t outlandish – it is. It’s just refreshing to have an action movie where the characters in it feel intelligent and experienced in ways that are actually useful and have real-world applications.

I loved this movie. Part of that is because it’s really good, and part of that is because it feeds a desire for action movies that possess a different mentality and respect the time its characters take to think and not just act. It’s what I want out of traditional (i.e. non-superhero) Western action movies. It’s practical, it focuses on performance without being overdramatic, and the situation and scope are personal rather than epic. Rescuing a single child can mean a lot more on-screen than saving the universe.

It also brings back the action hero we never fully got in Angelina Jolie. Hell, you want to be pissed, look up “Salt” where they rewrote the screenplay when she replaced a man because the studio didn’t think a woman could rescue her husband.

Sign me up for “Those Who Wish Me Deader”, “Those Who Wish Me Dead with a Vengeance”, “Live Free or Wish me Dead”, and “A Good Day to Wish Me Dead”. I’m in. I will forward you ticket money.

“Those Who Wish Me Dead” is available on HBO Max.

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