Tag Archives: feature

New Shows + Movies by Women — September 30, 2022

When I can find the information, I always try to say something about how a filmmaker started. Sometimes, they just appear on IMDB, MyDramaList, or other resources without much information about prior work. Perhaps a number of short films are listed, in which case they probably went the festival route and worked their way up raising finances for a longer film.

Other routes include starting as an actress before shifting over to directing, or starting in a writers room, which provides a well-used but no less difficult path into production, series creation, and showrunning.

These aren’t the only routes, however. Last week, I highlighted “Lou” director Anna Foerster, who started as a visual effects specialist in films like “Independence Day”, and worked as a second unit director and aerial director of photography. This led into series directing and, eventually, film directing.

I’ve written about my favorite cinematographer, Natasha Braier, before. Starting out as an assistant cameraperson and working as a cinematographer on short films eventually led to feature film cinematography and her first directing gig – helming an episode on “American Gigolo”. I’m excited to see if she continues exploring directing.

Anne Fletcher is the director of this week’s “Hocus Pocus 2”. She got her start as a dancer and choreographer. She served as the animation reference in “Casper”, the 90s equivalent of a motion capture actor. Then she danced in films ranging from “Tank Girl” to “Boogie Nights” and “Titanic”, moving into assistant choreography with “Boogie Nights” and lead choreographer on “Bring It On”. You’ve almost certainly seen her work – choreography on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly”, “Step Up”, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”, Academy Award ceremonies – and eventually directing on films like “27 Dresses” and “Hot Pursuit”. We’ve probably seen her work in front of or behind the camera a dozen or more times, but hers isn’t a name we know.

Knowing these routes that people take is important, though. As hard as it is to get to the point of showrunning or directing, it’s even more difficult for women to break through a system that’s built to resist their promotion. We could each name dozens of men who direct, and probably even recount to each other the paths they’ve taken, their humble rags-to-riches personal stories. What do we know about women who direct? What about the two most successful films by women in theaters right now? Can most of us name the director of “The Woman King” offhand? Do we know anything about Gina Prince-Bythewood’s story? What do we know about Olivia Wilde’s work on “Don’t Worry Darling”? All that’s in the news about the film is who she slept with and who might be upset about it.

Men get mythologies and cults of worship. We can trace and analyze how every film they ever glanced at sideways may have influenced their vision. Women get obscurity or publicly shamed. Their vision is treated as spontaneously generated, sparked once as an exception to the rule that there’s nothing to see here, as if whatever we might mistake for vision is a chance occurrence evolved from nothing. We treat men in filmmaking as working and earning their place, worth studying, and women as having tripped and fallen into a position it’s assumed they haven’t earned and can’t repeat, so why bother learning how they got there? We need to bother learning, and this goes for men especially. Know someone’s story. When you watch a film by a woman, learn how they got there and what influenced and shaped their vision the same way we would for almost any man. As viewers, as creators, as critics, there’s so much to learn and appreciate that we’re trained to overlook. What does that do to our visions? How much does that limit what we can draw from? The only way to cure that is to seek it out.

This week, new series by women come from Germany, Japan, and the U.S., and new movies by women come from Australia and the U.S.

NEW SERIES

The Empress (Netflix)
showrunner Katharina Eyssen
co-directed by Katrin Gebbe

This German historical drama recounts the love affair between Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary and Elisabeth von Wittelsbach, the Bavarian princess and sister of the woman Franz must marry.

Showrunner Katharina Eyssen came over to directing from acting. Katrin Gebbe directs with Florian Cossen. Gebbe has directed tense German films like “Pelican Blood” and “Nothing Bad Can Happen”.

You can watch “The Empress” on Netflix. All 6 episodes are out now.

Reasonable Doubt (Hulu)
showrunner Raamla Mohamed

Jax is a defense attorney in Los Angeles who goes up against a justice system she perceives as broken and biased. Emayatzy Corinealdi and Michael Ealy star.

Showrunner Raamla Mohamed has written and produced on “Scandal” and “Little Fires Everywhere”.

You can watch “Reasonable Doubt” on Hulu.

I’m the Villainess, So I’m Taming the Final Boss (Crunchyroll)
directed by Habara Kumiko

A chronically ill girl finds herself taking on the role of the villainess in one of her favorite games. Knowing how the game ends, she does everything she can to succeed as the villainess and undermine the game’s ending.

Habara Kumiko previously directed “I’m Standing on a Million Lives”.

You can watch “I’m the Villainess, So I’m Taming the Final Boss” on Crunchyroll. The premiere is out now, with a new episode arriving every Saturday morning.

NEW MOVIES

Alice (Starz)
directed by Krystin Ver Linden

Keke Palmer plays Alice, who escapes from the plantation where she’s been enslaved to discovery a shockingly different reality outside of it. Common and Jonny Lee Miller co-star.

This is the first film from writer-director Krystin Ver Linden.

You can watch “Alice” on Starz, or see where to rent it.

Hocus Pocus 2 (Disney+)
directed by Anne Fletcher

Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy reprise their roles as three witches brought to life from the past. As in the 1993 original, they wreak havoc on the modern day Salem.

Director Anne Fletcher has helmed episodes of “This is Us” and “Love, Victor”. She got her start in the industry as a dancer and choreographer.

You can watch “Hocus Pocus 2” on Disney+.

Sissy (Shudder)
co-directed by Hannah Barlow

A decade removed from their best friendship as teenagers, Cecilia and Emma bump into each other. Emma invites Cecilia on her bachelorette weekend, but past wrongs left simmering lead to horror shenanigans.

Hannah Barlow directs the Australian horror with Kane Senes, as well as taking on the role of Emma.

You can watch “Sissy” on Shudder.

Take a look at new shows + movies by women from past weeks.

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

The Most Real Star Wars Has Ever Felt — “Andor”

The slowest, most personal story in Star Wars may also be its most expansive and meaningful. “Andor” tells the story of Cassian Andor, one of the heroes of Star Wars prequel movie “Rogue One”. This is a prequel to that prequel, which sounds like a lot of homework for the viewer – but no previous Star Wars knowledge is actually needed to understand and enjoy it. It’s a refreshing change in the franchise that we’ve got something which could easily stand as its own science-fiction entry.

Diego Luna stars as Andor, down on his luck and fusing scheme to scheme as best he can to survive. One night, he goes to a club in a company town hoping to track someone down. Two security officers harass him for no reason other than having the privilege of doing so without repercussion. It goes badly for them. Andor may only have days to find a way off-planet.

This, we’re given to understand, is his origin story on joining the fledgling Rebellion against the Empire. Yet it’s not his only origin story. Flashbacks show a very different life, as part of an indigenous people on a planet the Empire’s gutted for minerals and metals. The two origins increasingly echo each other, the twin backstories reflecting tragedies as large as genocide, and as personal as being trapped in a cycle of endless false starts.

It’s enough to make you angry, and this is where “Andor” might be one of the truest Star Wars entries in a long time. The original Star Wars trilogy drew from westerns, samurai films, and fantasy, sure, but it also drew from the other popular genres of its time: conceptual sci-fi, protest films, spy cinema, and exploitation movies.

These threads have largely been dropped from other Star Wars properties. “The Last Jedi” might be a standout commentary on the need for protest and rebellion, but it does so in a very modern way. I love it for that, but much of that original Star Wars aesthetic was replaced. The prequel trilogy and other shows have left those genres behind, too, so it’s hardly alone. The major genre throughlines we recognize – the samurai, western, and fantasy elements – they all survive.

Those less recognized elements have given way. Dystopia and exploitation in Star Wars has become a passing set design rather than a core motivation, and you can’t really get existentially angry at a passing set design. “Rogue One” stands out as special because it touches on some of those lost threads, but it only has so long to do it. “Andor” gets twelve 40-ish minute episodes, so it dwells on these lost ethics, considers why they exist and why they give this franchise life.

“Andor” is an evolution of those 70s genre threads the original trilogy utilized, where the climax is held off as we learn about a world and its people, its dystopia, how it became this way, how that way reflects our own path. Some might call it too slow. They’re absolutely right: “Andor” is extremely slow and those viewers may rightly be disinterested. If you took a look at “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” and you found that too slow, it’s a car with enough jet engines strapped to it to make some bad decisions on a salt flat when you compare it to “Andor”.

“Andor” is the slowest series I’ve seen all year. Is that a bad thing? What’s too slow for one person can be a meticulous build-up for another if the show’s done work to make it meaningful and put its details in the right places. “Andor” knows exactly what to do with slow. Slowness is a paintbrush in writer Tony Gilroy’s and director Toby Haynes’ hands. Would I want all Star Wars series to be like this? Not a chance. Do I want a franchise with this many entries to be able to do this at some point? I’d say its a requirement – if you’re not going this far off-piste by now, you’ll just be stuck in endless repetition.

Outside of “Andor”, the franchise has become too obsessed with tying all loose ends together. A backwater desert planet like Tatooine is now the central hub of destiny for half its named characters. It’s like if the MCU suddenly realized everyone had connections to Dayton, Ohio and we had to spend the next four films tying everyone together there in ways that are more and more contrived. That Star Wars has vaguely made it work across the underrated “The Book of Boba Fett” and a solid “Obi-Wan Kenobi” is a testament to the skills of its writers, artists, and actors…but you can see in how immediately classic “The Mandalorian” has become just how much they could accomplish if let loose on some new parts of this universe.

Disney hasn’t made a bad Star Wars live-action series, and what I’ve seen of the various animated series has also been good. At the same time, they are absolutely running up against the point of diminishing returns when it comes to all these series having to reference and tie in to both current and previous work in the franchise. The suspension of disbelief about everyone tripping over each other in the same corner of this supposedly vast universe has become extremely elastic. It feels on the verge of snapping hard. If Star Wars is a road trip across the universe, Tatooine is the driveway you never leave.

That’s why I’m thankful for “Andor”, which treats the Star Wars universe as far-reaching enough that a relatively unfamiliar character and a new location can exist in our minds without ever needing to name-drop or tie-in. This is sci-fi, it’s supposed to extend into places unknown. What’s alien out there can make us reflect on what’s alien in us, what we would or wouldn’t accept for ourselves, how we accept others or fail to. It can’t be unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and tense if it’s holding our hand and throwing our favorite guests at us with the speed of a late-night show.

Show me a universe that sweeps from tale to tale and I’ll keep asking if we can spend longer at the new stops. Sometimes there’s value in not being able to, since our imaginations can yearn for all these aspects we’ve only glimpsed. Yet to be a storytelling universe of consequence, you’ve got to focus in on one person in a new place from time to time.

Game designer Warren Spector once described his dream game as a “One City Block RPG”. It would simulate one city block perfectly, immersively, and let you interact with anyone and everything in it. It would be so detailed, with so many daily routines, that it could exist as a world unto itself, as perfect a simulation of reality as can be achieved.

Needless to say, we play games to enjoy art and escape, and there would need to be something else involved in order to grab very many players. The ethic of this idea has rung true in many modern designs, however. “Gone Home” simulates one house with engrossing attention to detail. The upcoming “Shadows of Doubt” looks to do this with a city so long as the detail you want is voxel noir. Immersive sims have long sought to achieve a selectively deep take on this level of detail in service of knocking people out and stealing their fancy candlesticks.

Before I go too far afield and you wonder if I accidentally dropped part of another review in, the point is that this same ethic can serve a series. You can show me every place in a universe, but if I don’t get to visit one city block in it for an extended period of time to understand how a place and its people fit into that universe, then what do all those places really mean? How do a people see their place in it, how do they dream about it, what dreams about it have broken or run their course, how do they fight for and struggle against their roles in it? That’s what gives a universe meaning. You can stay there too long without coming up with a cogent take on it (hi, Tatooine), but “Andor” gives us someplace new that defines itself by this level of detail. Sometimes that’s sad or haunting, sometimes that’s angering or frustrating, but every one of those emotions is an investment in the story being told that helps us identify with its characters and the risks they take.

“Andor” takes this approach with a bit more than a city block, but the majority of its story does focus in a company town that exists to serve a salvage yard. By doing this, by focusing in so precisely, in such minute, studied detail, we understand how one incident – Andor’s run-in with the police – can spark a cascade of repercussions, each bounding against the city’s limit and swelling back to intersect with another repercussion, creating some new, stronger wave that smashes into those limits and comes surging back. By knowing characters’ daily routines, we can see how the small interruptions to those routines speak to monumental sea changes in the direction of that city. It’s a stunning way to look at the Star Wars universe, on a deeply personal level that hasn’t been explored before, with a respect for its reality as a universe unto itself, all mounting toward a sense of shattering that as a viewer I both feared and needed.

Pair this with Andor’s twin origin stories – one speaking to surviving an “incidental” environmental genocide, the other speaking to a sense of survival that only treads water – and you have a story that’s presented with cold, painstaking procedural detail, and the towering ache of surviving the horrors with which that meticulous build-up eventually lashes out.

What is justifiably slow to some viewers will be absorbing and emotionally captivating to others. I found “Andor” to be charged and resonant, a masterwork of escalating tension, its glimpses of beauty and loss like a gut punch because every morsel of our attention and emotional investment is recognized and accounted for. “Andor” is the most real the Star Wars universe has ever felt. To some, that’s a disappointment, and that’s fair. To others, it opens up a universe of possibilities.

You can watch “Andor” on Disney+.

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

New Shows + Movies by Women — September 23, 2022

We’re catching up on the last two weeks. The focus for this feature is still on what you can access digitally. Obviously, there are films in theaters like Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “The Woman King”, which came in #1 at the U.S. box office this past weekend, as well as Olivia Wilde’s “Don’t Worry Darling”, starting its platformed release in a limited number of theaters this week. These are two of the larger, most-talked about films by women this year.

You can judge whether it’s safe for you to go to the theater where you live. Check out your state’s and county’s COVID information to see where you stand. For the time being, I’m going to maintain the focus on what can be accessed from home.

This is for a few reasons. I have friends with autoimmune issues – the world where we tolerate COVID and accept it as part of life is still one that can easily kill them. The lesser risk I would take is a life-threatening one to them. Even if they remain bubbled and I don’t see them, I just can’t get on board with treating where we’re at as normal when that normal assumes a world where they can’t go outside again. To leave them behind is to treat them as lesser, to treat their humanity as fungible. If my normal is their daily terror, then why would that be my normal?

I also have family living in states that have scrapped COVID tracking and monitoring entirely. I may be comparatively safe going to the theater where I live, but they aren’t where they live. I don’t just write for the people where I live, and I don’t want to normalize going to the theater in states where COVID remains a larger risk. Beyond this, I have readers in other countries. I have no idea where some of them are at in terms of COVID, nor where their laws land.

Is this being too careful? I don’t think so, but if so, so what? I’ve done my fair share of nonsense that risked my health, safety, and even my life once or twice. If I’m too careful in a pandemic, good. We’ve seen what not being careful enough is like.

Please understand that I’ll cover films like “The Woman King” and “Don’t Worry Darling” just like I cover films by men – once they arrive on streaming and can be accessed from home.

It’s not the way I want to cover things; I miss going to the theater and certainly I take a hit by not covering some of the larger films that are currently in theaters. Only you can judge how safe and responsible it is to go to the theater where you live. I’m looking for a time when I can return to covering films in theaters and I hope that’s coming up soon. Until then, the focus on this site and in this feature will remain what can be watched from home. I hope you understand.

New series by women come from Australia, Brazil, Thailand, and the U.S. New films by women come from France, Spain, and the U.S.

NEW SERIES

Vampire Academy (Peacock)
showrunners Marguerite MacIntyre, Julie Plec

After the death of her parents, Lissa returns to a private academy for vampires. Her best friend can sense all her thoughts, and the two try to keep their friendship intact amid the unpredictable political machinations of both vampires and boarding school.

Showrunners Marguerite MacIntyre and Julie Plec have worked together on various vampire shows, including “The Vampire Diaries”, “The Originals”, and “Legacies”, so this is their wheelhouse.

You can watch “Vampire Academy” on Peacock. The four-episode premiere happened on Sep. 15, with another coming yesterday, so five of the 10 episodes are out already. A new episode arrives every Thursday.

Thai Cave Rescue (Netflix)
co-showrunner Dana Ledoux Miller

This Thai series tells the story of 12 boys and their soccer coach who are stranded within flooded caves in 2018. It’s based on the real rescue attempts.

Dana Ledoux Miller showruns with Michael Russell Gunn. She’s written on “Narcos” and “Kevin Can F**k Himself”.

You can watch “Thai Cave Rescue” on Netflix. All 6 episodes are out.

Heartbreak High (Netflix)
showrunner Hannah Carroll Chapman
mostly directed by women

Rebooting a classic 90s Australian show, “Heartbreak High” follows the lives of students navigating the social pressures of high school. It’s gotten particular praise for its portrayal of autism, with an autistic role for once played by an autistic actress in Chloe Hayden.

Showrunner and writer Hannah Carroll Chapman has written on some major Australian shows of the past few years, including “Home and Away” and “The Heights”. Directors include Gracie Otto and Jessie Oldfield.

You can watch “Heartbreak High” on Netflix. All 8 episodes are out immediately.

Only for Love (Netflix)
directed by women

Two lovers start a band. At their first success, one is offered a solo career. She pursues it, but as they try to maintain the relationship, the band’s new singer complicates matters.

The Brazilian series is directed by Ana Luiza Azevedo, Gisele Barroco, and Joana Mariani.

You can watch “Only for Love” on Netflix. All 6 episodes are out.

NEW MOVIES

Gagarine (MUBI)
co-directed by Fanny Liatard

In this French film, young Youri dreams of being an astronaut, but already that dream is threatened as he fights to save his housing project from demolition.

Fanny Liatard directs with Jeremey Trouilh. It is her first feature film.

You can watch “Gagarine” on MUBI.

Do Revenge (Netflix)
directed by Jennifer Kaytin Robinson

A mash-up of “Strangers on a Train” and “Clueless”, “Do Revenge” finds two social outcasts at a private high school agreeing to commit each other’s revenge. As a dark comedy, it skillfully deals with issues of revenge porn, privilege, and performative allyship. I praised it as a big surprise in my review. If I’m honest, the trailer conveys the aesthetic but doesn’t necessarily do the story or its comedy justice.

Director and co-writer Jennifer Kaytin Robinson ought to be a major name before too long. She co-wrote “Thor: Love and Thunder” with Taika Waititi, produced on “Hawkeye”, created and showran “Sweet/Vicious”, and wrote and directed “Someone Great”.

You can watch “Do Revenge” on Netflix.

Lou (Netflix)
directed by Anna Foerster

A girl is kidnapped as a storm rages. Her mother can only turn to the mysterious loner next door for help. Jurnee Smollett stars, with Allison Janney as the badass loner.

Anna Foerster has directed on “Westworld”, “Jessica Jones”, and “Outlander”. Her journey’s an interesting one. She started out as a director of photography for visual effects units in films like “Independence Day”, “Alien: Resurrection”, and “Pitch Black”. This led to jobs as a second unit director and aerial director of photography until she got her first directing break on “Criminal Minds” a decade ago.

You can watch “Lou” on Netflix.

Mighty Flash (MUBI)
directed by Ainhoa Rodriguez

“Mighty Flash”, or “Destello Bravio”, is a surreal Spanish drama that tells the story of a village stuck in time going back generations. Only older people remain, repeating traditions as the town dies.

This is the first film from Ainhoa Rodriguez after directing on Spanish TV series.

You can watch “Mighty Flash” on MUBI.

Take a look at new shows + movies by women from past weeks.

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

Clueless with a Vengeance — “Do Revenge”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can watch “Do Revenge” on Netflix.

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

The Shot When I Knew “Arcane” Was Special

When I write about “Arcane”, I cry. When I search for images of it to run in an article, I start shedding tears. When I go through videos to see which one shows off its animation without too many spoilers, I’m overwhelmed. It wasn’t always this way. I went into the show, based off the video game “League of Legends”, with no detailed knowledge. The trailer looked interesting, the animation a potentially complex blend of oil painting, art nouveau and art deco, splash art, graffiti, scratch art, pop art, you name it. It was a shot in the dark, though. I had no expectations. Its opening scene is abruptly powerful and I was visually impressed by its opening heist, but content-wise, it’s any old cutscene. Then the street fight happened, and one shot told me I could be watching something remarkable.

You see the shot above. Vi has just returned with her gang from a botched amateur heist. Another gang tries to take the sack of stolen items that’s their only reward. The two sides fight, Vi’s younger sister Powder backed up against a wall and gripping the bag for dear life. Amidst a gritty, dusty, sloppy fight, we get a wide shot in slow motion, the blue-haired Powder at its center.

There is terror here, the fear of a child in danger, worried for her sister and friends yet incapable of helping in any way. The best she can do is cower and not get in the way. There is also a reverence to the shot. Its symmetry, stillness, and the separation of characters evokes the tableau of a stained glass window, as do the rays of light.

The sepia suggestions, that reverence, it begins to suggest nostalgia for this moment in a show we just started watching. And yet these are the good times, a moment of golden, preserved memory before far worse arrives. The music evokes a longing and yearning, as if you shouldn’t want this moment to pass.

The reason I react to “Arcane” the way I do, even a year later, is because the show is about losing what’s important – people who’ve died, illusions of fairness in the world, even memories and realities that are questioned. This moment is real. As violent and terrifying as it is, it serves as an anchor point in the middle of trauma.

It also describes Powder’s inability to help, and how Vi is torn between becoming a leader and taking care of her sister. One distracts from the other, and Powder is keenly aware of this. It describes Vi’s gang as the best at their amateurish level of theft and fighting, before a world they can’t possibly contend with crashes down on them. It’s their last moment in a reality when this is the worst they have to face, when they can go toe-to-toe against what threatens them. This will be gone soon.

The moment is deeply worrying for Powder, and it describes Vi’s inability to both fight and protect her. Yet it’s also a halcyon state, one memory that’s incorruptible amid so many that are. Powder’s later memories are represented through scratches on the film, a reality she aggressively tries to remove and overwrite for herself no matter how much it haunts her. As the show gets much, much darker and the audience grapples with just how much is erased and taken from certain characters, this shot and this scene also become more meaningful to us. It’s the last moment where ideals remain intact, where these characters preserve a more innocent understanding of their place in the world, and likewise the audience preserves more innocent ideas of what these characters will have to endure, as well as our preconceptions about Western animation’s ability to discuss trauma.

When I named “Arcane” the best show of last year, I said it was one of the best series ever made. I told you that if you take its trio of three-episode acts as films, it’s the best trilogy since “Lord of the Rings”. You’d think those kinds of strong feelings for a show would fade. Sometimes that happens; it’s only natural for your top choices to shuffle over time. Hell, I understand if you think I was just being hyperbolic or overexcited. Yet I just keep thinking of “Arcane” and what it does. The more I look back at it, the more I revisit scenes, the better I think it is. There are so many visuals in it that can be pulled apart to reveal what it’s saying for its characters and world. There are so many echoes throughout, visual themes that dominate each character’s story, movements and shots that repeat as characters betray or become who they are. The entire story is told early on, but only in ways you can understand if you’ve already watched it all. Foreshadowing isn’t everything, it’s just one tool out of many for a storyteller, but I’ve never seen anything master that tool the way “Arcane” does.

Rarely does analyzing a shot or scene evoke so much emotion, yet the entire show is sequences that can be unfolded just like this. “Arcane” gives us this shot of poor Powder backed against the wall, scared for herself and her loved ones, desperate yet unable to help. It’s one of the first sequences in the first episode. It tells us this is a cherished memory. If this is what’s cherished, how much changes for her? If this violence is nostalgia, how will her norms be shaped? If Vi can’t protect her as a child, how is there any hope of doing so as the world closes in around them, seeking and persecuting them? Rewatching “Arcane” is to realize the storytellers have already made the answers to these questions obvious, we just don’t always want to see those answers until it’s far too late. If we won’t see them, how can these characters see them, as children? And if we shield ourselves from those hard truths in a story, in a safe place with storytellers we learn to trust, then how do we practice that in our own world, with less safety and trust?

“Arcane” is built to resonate, over and over within its own structure until it keeps on going when you’ve finished it, when you’ve put it away and moved on to other things. It keeps on going when you haven’t watched it for a year. It’s still as fresh in mind as when I first saw it, still contains surprises and thoughts worth dwelling on. This is the shot that convinced me “Arcane” was special, but it’s hardly alone, and even then I had no clue how remarkable or important it was, as a shot or as a show. There’s something about both that speak beyond the confines of a series to an era where our norms and realities are moved on a daily basis. “Arcane” wrestles with the erosive effects of traumatization when most shows – fantasy or reality-based – won’t even acknowledge there’s a need to be processing these thoughts right now.

When I saw this shot, I knew the show was special within its own space as a series. When I look back on it, I know it’s special outside of those confines. That’s why I cry when I start to write about this show, because in a world of constant trauma, where people’s norms are shoved aside by cults and con artists, I’m reminded that art serves as an anchor for our norms. I cry because being moved by something gentle can make me immovable against what isn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sigh.

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

LESLIE: The whole thing?

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

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

ANDY: Not if there’s two baby dinosaurs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BEN: [sighs] Just roll initiative.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exquisite — “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power”

An elven warrior refuses every call to give up her quest hunting a dark power. A nomadic hobbit keeps safe a man who fell from the sky. An elven diplomat tries to broker peace with dwarves in pursuit of an architectural dream. A human woman and her elven lover are split apart by creatures seeking an ancient tool of power. “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” follows a far more thoughtful approach to its storytelling than I anticipated. Character comes first in beautiful ways. Flowing dialogue creates dissonance between the achingly detailed halls of fantasy that describe a culture and the complex, messy, often painful realities that define it.

The scene that ought to tell you whether this is your kind of show or not is early on. Galadriel and Elrond – elves who are here hundreds of years younger than the events in “The Lord of the Rings” – debate between knowledge and theory. Galadriel is a warrior obsessed with the idea the dark lord Sauron survives and awaits his enemies’ complacency. She wants to hunt him, even if she has no support in doing so. She’s met by Elrond’s reasonable arguments. He theorizes on what the consequences are if she’s right, and if she’s wrong. They are friends and empathize with each other – even recognize how one sees what the other cannot. Galadriel’s translating what she knows and can evidence against her obsession and PTSD – albeit conveyed in a removed, elven way. Elrond is trying to tell her she’s fought enough, that even if her fears are true, others can pick up that fight and continue it. Galadriel’s concern is about duty as an ethic, Elrond’s is about responsibility as a practical concern. They talk in a hall of monuments, each hero carved from wood as they looked in death. The two friends feel empathy for each other, they understand each other, they care about each other’s thoughts, and they trust each other – yet they’re each talking past the other in a core way. This is translated in flowing, flowery speech full of metaphor by actors hitting every note. It’s the kind of character-intensive work that “The Rings of Power” is absolutely landing an hour an episode.

Some fantasy meets you halfway, acknowledging that it’ll be a little cheesy and at the end of the day, we’re all just along for a fun ride. Other fantasy swings for the fences and looks to convince you of every world-building element and detail. Many of these fall short because if they falter even once, an intricately woven cinematic tapestry starts to unwind. We’re only two episodes in to “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power”, so there’s still time for that to happen – but thus far it looks like they’ve nailed every element.

We follow Galadriel’s quest in defiance of her elven lord. We also follow a mischievous Harfoot hobbit named Nori, Elrond himself as he engages in elven politics, and a tense situation between humans and elves at the far reaches of civilization. We don’t yet know how these various threads will come together, but each story is captivating.

Is it true to J.R.R. Tolkien’s vision? Does it land every detail in the right place? Dunno. I don’t mean to be irreverent in saying that, it’s just…we have Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy already, one we love in large part for the places where it folds the story into something more elegantly film-ready. It makes some big changes, and we mostly understand why. I’m not a “Silmarillion” lore fiend, so I can’t tell you how loyal “The Rings of Power” is to its source material, but Tolkien’s original vision for “The Silmarillion” was for it to disagree with itself, to be a mythology brought forth by many writers of his own fictional creation, each writing in a different style and arriving at different conclusions. It was edited together into something more consistent by his son Christopher and assisting authors after J.R.R.’s death, from an even wider array of drafts and notes that go through many changing versions. In some ways, the published “Silmarillion” itself isn’t necessarily consistent with Tolkien’s vision of having various versions that could each be interpreted as part of the truth. If Tolkien’s goal was for it to be taken as a mythology viewed from multiple angles on what could be understood as truth or not, then there is no correct interpretation. It’s purposefully a framework. As long as you’re in the ballpark, you’re watching the right game.

That leaves me having to do what I was going to do anyway, and judge the thing on its own. Is it good? Through two episodes, it’s phenomenal, bolstered by some gorgeous writing, stunning cinematography, and a pretty restrained implementation of visual effects given that the series is saturated in them. The best part is the acting – not just the performances, but the way they’re presented and given proper space within the story. “The Rings of Power” is smart enough to back down on everything else when it comes to letting the actors and writing carry it.

Some of the dialogue in this is gorgeously and poetically written. There’s a turn of phrase that treads the line of becoming too generic-fantasy in one or two places, but it overwhelmingly hits the mark and there are far more moments where the use of metaphor is striking and moving.

We’ve come to understand “The Lord of the Rings” on film largely through Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy. There is a sense of being overwrought in places, of being as dramatic as possible and trusting that the director and actors can lean into that hard enough to sell those embellishments. It’s always risky because the only thing past that is camp. Yet if you’re able to keep that sense of elevated theatrical drama on track, the whole thing can blossom as an entire world you get to watch take shape.

To do this correctly means creating an actors’ playground first and foremost. For all the towering scenery and sumptuous visual effects, every scene focuses in on the characters and what they’re doing in a specific place. It doesn’t matter that the story just swept hundreds of miles across the world, it matters that this character is here now, and that the actor believes in what they’re doing so hard that we’re given no choice but to do the same.

Morfydd Clark’s Galadriel and Markella Kavenagh’s Nori deserve particular praise, albeit in nearly opposite ways. Clark’s Galadriel elf warrior is a driven powerhouse, translating concepts of PTSD in a very elven way that can feel familiar and alien by turn. She feels constantly unstill, as if being caged in her body or in this place is an untenable necessity. It’s an intriguing but consistent turn with what we’ve seen of Galadriel in other projects. It’s also incredibly refreshing after so many elves with light, nondescript English theater accents to have one with that Welsh pronunciation and accent shining through. That’s what Tolkien based the Elven language and culture on, so when we talk about things in terms of accuracy, this is at least one element “The Rings of Power” gets right that other adaptations have failed.

Kavenagh’s Nori is a wide-eyed hobbit youth who tests boundaries and wants to see the wider world. She’s impish in that she misbehaves and wanders afield, but when she gets others to join her, she’s responsible in that she’s the one who watches out for them. The “youth who wants to see the world” archetype can often feel too familiar, but the blend of early hobbit culture with Nori’s own ability to manage chaos makes her feel more capable from the start than a typical child thrown into a hero’s journey.

Robert Aramayo’s young Elrond took a second to grow on me, but it’s a joy to see how measured and diplomatic he is. “The Rings of Power” seems to understand that yes, sure, an action set piece now and then is nice, but what’s really exciting is the diplomatic jousting of an elf and dwarf through competitive feats of traditional rock-breaking. That’s plot moved by an element of world-building, and it’s what sells the fantasy in fantasy. People stabbing each other with swords? We did that for a couple thousand years in the real world. Diplomacy through a rock-splitting duel? Now you’ve got my attention.

There’s always a risk when handling so many different groups of characters, each of them encountering yet new groups of characters who add on even more story threads. Comfy, warm fantasy blanket though it may be, “The Wheel of Time” gets wobbly every time it tries to balance two plotlines at the same time. “The Witcher” takes two plotlines as a challenge to make them feel like 12, a willfully obstinate strength of the show I love, but definitely an acquired taste. “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” has at least four core narratives, and a variety of intersecting ones, with none of them going the same direction. Yet none of them feel rushed, and none of them feel as if they distract from or confuse the others. It’s easy and enthralling to understand and follow. Despite the vast amount of lore spilled open and referred to throughout the show, none of it feels like homework. Everything is crystal clear, paced well, and they’re finding the emotional core of each lead character very readily.

We’re two episodes in; can it continue this way? I hope so. Showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay clearly understand that what’s interesting about “The Lord of the Rings” is its world and how it works. The action is icing on the cake. It comes after the fantasy iconography, which comes after the plot, all of which sits atop these characters and their motivations. It’s brilliant and beautiful.

The one thing that gives me some pause is that these first two episodes had an absolute knockout director helming them. Juan Antonio Bayona is responsible for “A Monster Calls”, “The Impossible”, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” (the second best “Jurassic [area]” movie), a couple episodes of the excellent “Penny Dreadful”, and my pick for best horror film of the last two decades, the Spanish-language “El Orfanato”. He has a hugely empathetic eye for character amidst genre spectacle.

The upcoming directors are Wayne Yip and Charlotte Brandstrom. Yip’s directed on “The Wheel of Time”, Brandstrom on “The Witcher”. They’re quality directors, but Bayona is one of the best (and most overlooked) out there. Can the showrunners and these other directors keep the focus on the actors and writers the way Bayona’s helped establish? I really hope so, because if that’s the case you’ve got one of the best shows of the year and the best live-action fantasy going right now.

You can watch “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” on Amazon.

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

Is the Anger at “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” Accurate?

Nope. Good read, very efficient.

If you’re wondering what I’m referring to, I mean the rising anger and review brigading orchestrated by men on popular sites’ user reviews. “She-Hulk” Attorney at Law saw more than 40% of its reviews on IMDB hit 1-out-of-10 before it even premiered. The bulk of reviews overall came from men, but those who were registered on IMDB as 30-or-over were particularly negative. Right now, the show holds just a 5.5 after a perfectly good first episode.

I went over negative user reviews on Metacritic on Friday. There, it holds a 4.4. I’ll feature some of the choice quotes here again. See if you can find a theme: “feminist crap”, “constant misandrist whining”, “hatred of men”, “push social agendas”, “activist BS”, “overly feministic”, “a window into the feminists narcissistic and ungrateful, petulant brain”, “feminazism trash for the M-She-U”.

What’s the anger about? After lawyer Jennifer Walters accidentally gets an infusion of cousin Bruce Banner’s Hulk blood, she turns into a hulk. The thing is, she’s good at it. “She-Hulk” makes a point of the fact that she can manage her anger better than Bruce because – as a woman – she has to live with anger and fear every day. Whereas Bruce has struggled for a decade to mesh the dual personality of Bruce and the Hulk, getting stuck as one or the other for long periods of time, Jennifer is immediately good at fusing the two. Why? Because Bruce has struggled to control his anger, and Jennifer has learned to live with hers.

“Activism! Feminist BS!” Allons, to the fainting couch! Yes, Mr. BranFlakes5000, tell me in as angry a tone as possible about how ungrateful and petulant women are. I can’t imagine where anyone could have possibly drawn the conclusion that men have problems controlling our anger. 1-star reviews before it even premieres? You certainly don’t lash out in any way.

How could Marvel change the comic where Jennifer maintains her personality, emotional control, and breaks the fourth wall for jokes into a series where Jennifer maintains her personality, emotional control, and breaks the fourth wall for jokes? If your argument is that the MCU is ruining Marvel Comics by being accurate to Marvel Comics, and they need to stop being accurate to Marvel Comics and start being accurate to Marvel Comics, then you’re not actually reading this, you’re in a Christopher Nolan movie where you’ve found the tangible representation of a Schrodinger’s emotional state. It’s nothing but your childhood bedroom and if you go through the door, you’ll only find yourself in your childhood bedroom again. You fall forever. Turn back to page 1.

One of the more insidious criticisms of “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” has to do with the treatment of Bruce Banner’s Hulk. You see, they’ve turned him into a beta male, because the alpha-beta relationship is a thing biologist L. David Mech theorized about wolves in the 1980s before realizing oh shit, whoops, that theory didn’t pan out. Now, men’s rights con artists and incel MLMs will tell you that alphas and betas are a thing because apparently we all live in movies about Wall Street bankers set in the 1980s.

To fast forward, Bruce Banner has been turned into a smug, narcissistic beta who’s just there for comic relief. To which I ask: have you seen any of the MCU films? That’s his secret. He’s always smug. The worst scene (by far) in “Avengers: Endgame” was about Hulk not listening to Ant-Man trying to save everybody because Hulk was too busy taking selfies with adoring fans. Before that, he stood in Tony Stark’s way as he tried to double down on a prior mistake that had created Ultron and put the world at risk, until Tony appealed to Bruce’s ego and they tried again. Because Bruce is smug. Sure, he’s empathetic and complex and has anger issues, but he also has a strong dash of smug narcissist that has been present throughout Ruffalo’s portrayal of him.

But Tatiana Maslany’s Jennifer is a Mary Sue, who’s good at everything immediately? I’m sorry, let me call up “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” Tony Stark, who says that about himself to Captain America, who was the goodiest two-shoes to ever good a shoe but just needed a dose of Mary Sue juice to go full Sky Captain. Or should GBPP and America’s Ass rope Thor in, whose major character flaw was being too smug and got an entire “Henry IV” adaptation about how if he faces his smugness, he’ll be rewarded with Natalie Portman. All the Avengers are is smug, except maybe Hawkeye, and that’s because Jeremy Renner is too busy chasing his dream role as Droopy Dog.

Someone’s lecturing someone else in an MCU property? Stop, don’t, come back. The movies would amount to one season of hourlongs if you cut out the lecturing. At least it’s about something now. It’s about how women control their anger better than men? They do. How is that even a conversation?

Every tupperware party of incels wants to sell that men are more aggressive, more violent, that other men need to fear their violence to know where they stand in the hierarchy, but also that men are super totes self-controlled and don’t act out their anger at all. Like, fucking choose one. Are you so uncontrollably violent other people need to fear you so much they “know their place” or can you control yourself like an adult? Which one is it? Insert Christopher Nolan’s Schrodinger’s Funhouse here, turn back to page 1.

Hell, look at this article. As a dude, I can use my anger to point out how ridiculous we as men are being about things like “She-Hulk” (and “Ms. Marvel” before it, “Captain Marvel” before that, the list outside the MCU is never-ending – see last week’s “A League of Their Own”.) There’s an entire language for male anger. I can write in it about others who have written in it. I can be condescending and snarky and make jokes and translate the ridiculousness of male anger by drawing on male anger itself, because so much of the language in which we write both fiction and criticism is based on dealing with male anger. This article is angry because male anger is so privileged that we can just write in it as the default. Male anger is how our culture is defined and described.

That’s why a portion of men get so angry about something like “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law”. The things that don’t just argue for women, but that sit entirely outside our description of the world through male anger? They threaten our worldview as men, don’t they? They threaten an entire universe of storytelling and writing that’s fundamentally based off of male anger: The Iliad, Beowulf, The Tain, the foundations of Western literature directly deal with the fallout of male anger and ego and have been translated over time to prize that anger, simplify their stories, and excise the criticisms that once existed as part of those tales. We’ve been trained in bastardized versions of our myths that champion anger. The Odyssey was once about PTSD, but read most translations today and it’s stripped down into a simple episodic adventure.

If superheroes are our modern mythology, they’re streamlined with the modern priorities we’ve used to overwrite that mythology. Some men feel threatened when they aren’t the only ones who get those worldviews confirmed by this modern foundation. Some men feel threatened when women or people of color assume any level of access to how that modern mythology is told. Incel Tupperware Party is out here upset that a woman briefly talks about having to control her anger when she’s sexually harassed or threatened, because her life often depends on her ability to remain calm throughout the situation. At the same time, Incel Tupperware Party wants to sell you on the idea that men somehow have a right to women and women just don’t know any better. They argue for a lack of self-control on men’s part that puts women at risk, and then get upset when women say they need to keep their heads to navigate the risk.

There is no greater critical achievement than to be brigaded with one-star reviews from incel movements. A lot of series are successful on-screen, but to be so successful on-screen that you can extend that success to pissing off the right people off-screen? Few things are that brave or that successful, and they deserve support and normalization. “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” says nothing untrue. My biggest problem with narrative consistency is that when Bruce hulks out, his wavy hair turns curly, yet when Jennifer hulks out, her curly hair straightens out. That’s the immersion breaker for me. First MCU plothole ever, I’m sure. Otherwise, “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” strikes every goal it aims for, both on- and off-screen.

You can watch “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” on Disney+.

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

“A League of Their Own” is the Storytelling I Want in the World

“A League of Their Own” feels momentous. I didn’t expect that going in. My read was that it would be a familiar property hauled out of storage for a quick cash-in. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I judge an adaptation or remake by the same question as I judge something original: does it have a reason for being? Does it succeed at that reason? “A League of Their Own” has more reason for being than the vast, vast majority of what’s out there.

You might know the story from the original 1992 movie starring Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Lori Petty, and Madonna. It follows the the women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, a league founded in 1943 to keep baseball going during World War II. The biggest difference between the movie and the series is that the subtext isn’t subtext anymore. Many players have spoken about how the AAGPBL had a number of queer players. What wasn’t allowed to feature in the 40s, or the 90s, can finally become the central story in 2022.

A Note on Remakes

Let’s get one thing out of the way. There are a dozen specials, features, and documentaries on Tom Brady. ESPN just ran a 10-part, 10-hour special on the dude, advertised every commercial break. More than 600 women played in the progenitor of women’s professional sports in the U.S. They’ve got two films and a smattering of documentaries. “A League of Their Own” was unlikely to be greenlit by any other name.

We salivate at rebooted Spider-Men from 20 years ago re-appearing, and get angry that Michael Keaton’s return as Batman after 30 years got shelved by HBO’s new ownership. But two “A League of Their Own” stories, how could we? What horror! And why? Is “Top Gun” or “Jurassic Park 6: Jurassic World 3” or “The Batman: Still Not the One from Red Son” or “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” making a statement that couldn’t be made 30 years ago? I like some of those films; I’ll watch dinosaurs read a phone book…but their reasons for being aren’t particularly strong.

It’s 2022. A series about the AAGPBL couldn’t be told honestly in 1992. Republicans and half of Democrats still couldn’t get over 80s rock music lyrics, let alone Hollywood bankrolling an honest, star-studded film about queer people. “A League of Their Own” is one of the few remakes out there that can take advantage of the 30 years that have passed since the original film. It’s one of the few reboots that can do more than simply make a statement – it can tell stories that we didn’t allow to be told except as coded, buried subtext 30 years ago.

On with the Review

We follow two stories, sometimes intersecting but more often parallel. Abbi Jacobson of “Broad City” plays Carson Shaw, a catcher recruited from Idaho who runs away from home while her husband is overseas fighting in the war. What she’s running away from may not be home so much as the perceptions of what’s normal for her. The team is its own bubble and, even if she didn’t plan for it, it’s a place for her to explore parts of herself she’s repressed most of her life.

We also follow Max Chapman, a pitcher who isn’t allowed to try out for the league because she’s Black. She wants to play more than anything, and brainstorms a way to join the local company team instead – which means getting a job there first.

The ensemble is excellent – Gbemisola Ikumelo is Max’s best friend Clance, who’s obsessed with comic books and their lessons. Max’s mother and father, played by Saidah Arrika Ekulona and Alex Desert, are realized beautifully.

On Carson’s team, the Rockford Peaches, the supporting cast similarly runs the comedic and dramatic gamut. D’arcy Carden’s Greta stands out because she stands out to Carson, and Roberta Colindrez’s Lupe, Melanie Field’s Jo, and Kelly McCormack’s Jess are also highlights.

I like the depth of representation apparent in “A League of Their Own”. The major experiences of focus are those of LGBTQ+ and Black characters, but there’s room for a range of characters. Clance’s husband deals with social anxiety. Kate Berlant’s Shirley Cohen copes with OCD and, even if we’re still at a point where it’s played for laughs at points, there are expressions of it I recognize and share that mean a lot to see on-screen without judgment attached.

There’s a running subplot of racism toward Latines that isn’t forgotten either, as Colindrez’s pitcher Lupe is announced as ‘Spanish’ so the crowd isn’t repulsed by her being Mexican (I’ve had ‘friends’ do this), is passed over for a job (got told it to my face), and is socially blamed for a fight she didn’t start (ah, junior high). That these are all still common show some things haven’t come very far.

To see these other experiences folded in so organically, as parts of the world that are acknowledged, that hurt and that characters we care about legitimately work their way through – it feels real. In between the comedic set-ups and often lighthearted banter, there’s a depth of realness at play in “A League of Their Own” that many shows don’t achieve.

I think this is aided by the crew being fairly diverse as well. If you’re writing something as if you know it, it helps to know it. Lead and co-showrunner Jacobson is bi. Ikumelo is one of the primary writers.

Jamie Babbit directs the first three episodes. Known for biting satire like “But I’m a Cheerleader”, her experience on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” equipped her to bring another era to life with texture and detail. The production elements – design, set, costume, they’re all top-notch. Babbit also knows how to present these experiences, being one of the earlier out lesbian directors in the industry.

Episode directors Anya Adams, Ayoka Chenzira, and Katrelle Kindred are all Black. The four writers who worked on seven of the eight episodes include Black, Iranian-American, and trans writers. Those brought in for an episode are two Black writers and a Latina writer. That’s not to give you a checklist of diversity; it’s certainly not the only thing that matters about them. It’s to say the stories being told are largely coming from the people who have lived them. That’s crucial, and it delivers a veracity that stories tackling these issues can sometimes miss.

Many films and series still tackling these experiences are still told by those who haven’t lived them, or by those who bring in a writer from a specific background for that episode in what’s still a largely straight, white, male writers room. You may have LGBTQ+ or Black voices as part of the mix, but that doesn’t often mean featuring them at the fore, and that’s what makes something unique in a landscape that’s always required those voices to be coded at best.

There are some hiccups, but none seem major. There are brief moments here or there where the pacing or rhythm of dialogue seems like it’s not settling into its groove right, but this is pretty common early on in period ensemble pieces. It’s usually ironed out over the first few episodes as the cast finds each others’ rhythms, and that’s the case here, too.

The approach to dialogue here is to meld speech of the era to modern ways of speaking that people can identify with more readily. The dialogue isn’t meant to be accurate to the time, but rather a meld and I think it works well once you realize this is the approach. The most important thing for a comedy is that it’s funny, and the lines almost entirely hit the mark while the personalities always do. There’s something more here, too, and that’s a sense of joy I’ll talk about in a minute.

The parallel stories “A League of Their Own” tells follow different paces. Carson’s story with the team is filled with interweaving arcs of her will they/won’t they relationship, power dynamics with their egotist coach, wins and losses, injuries, and the league’s attempt to make them “palatable” for men.

By contrast, Max’s story is one of not playing. She’s more isolated, and while she shares scenes with others, the fast-paced ensemble nature of the team’s storytelling slows here to a more isolated and singularly driven story. The slower nature of her arc, at least initially, means that the pacing can lurch between the two a bit.

Carson’s story can feel lean and efficient, evoking a whirlwind pace at times, while Max’s feels expansive and thoughtful, often settling into its longer moments. These ways of doing things are what each story needs, and they’re both done well. You do have to adjust to the pace of things accelerating or decelerating back and forth as the stories switch.

I’m a cishet man – I’m not qualified to be the judge of how important this is or how much it gets right when it comes to representing LGBTQ+ people or history. To me, it feels important. It feels momentous. It feels like it goes further than a lot out there is still allowed to because these characters are allowed to be fully human, complex, making mistakes and regretting missed opportunities. It doesn’t feel like we’re in an era yet where every LGBTQ+ character is allowed to be as complex as cishet characters have enjoyed for the entire history of film. Many are still emblems, there to represent something as much as they are to exist within the characters’ lives. That can be aspirational and important in many ways, but it’s also important to have enough out there, enough stories being told, enough characters represented that there are those who are realistic and imperfect and flawed as well, told by the beautifully real people whose history this is.

The characters in “A League of Their Own” feel deep, full, rich, complex, so real. They feel like they’re given the storytelling freedom that cishet characters have always enjoyed, and I wish that weren’t so rare as to be remarkable. This is beautiful queer storytelling about LGBTQ+ people and queer history.

The people who are given the financing and platforming to make series and films in the U.S. are still overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male, and overwhelmingly straight. At the same time, we complain about feeling like the same stories are told over and over again. That’s not because of adaptations or remakes like this. It’s because we see the same perspectives over and over again, the same storytelling priorities from the same narrow band of culture that’s dominated the stories that get marketed, the same narrow range of cultural touchstones.

“A League of Their Own” feels like a breath of fresh air because that’s exactly what it is. It’s told from a perspective that couldn’t have gotten a story this expansive or expensive on a major streaming service even 10 years ago. We know the story, we know the history, we know the framework of “A League of Their Own”, but much of what’s meaningful inside of it, the elements of substance inside of it and stories like it, have been watered down up until these last few years. We have culturally bottled up and forced entire histories to be subtext, allusion, metaphor, code.

“A League of Their Own” is beautiful because it gets to tell this story openly, bluntly, joyfully, and even if the era it addresses was the height of subtext and code, and it must address that fear and alienation, the perspective of how the story is told, of what is prioritized, of how it’s spoken into being feels so overdue. If you want something new, look for the voices that have always been there, but have only just now been given the platforms to tell their stories bluntly. Become enrapt in someone else’s joy for their histories never taught that can finally be told.

You can watch “A League of Their Own” on Amazon.

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

Gorgeous, Thoughtful Alien Splatter Action — “Prey”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can watch “Prey” on Hulu.

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