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Long Shot (2019)
5/10
Contradictions Writ Rom-Com
18 October 2019
Warning: Spoilers
The modern rom-com must be one of most stiflingly difficult genres to innovate. Many try to do something different, but end up repeating the same formula and, in the process, often contradicting the values that the story supposedly supports. "Silver Linings Playbook" (2012), for instance, is about accepting and celebrating people with different behavioral and mental disorders, but the narrative ultimately conforms to the same rom-com order of unlikely pairing who momentarily breakup over some contrived conflict before the climactic, grand (generally public) romantic gesture, as the leads are supported all the way by quirky side characters (generally, friends or family who are also coded as unlikely pairings--often along lines of sexual orientation or race (i.e. the gay or black friend)). "Don Jon" (2013) derided rom-com's as porn, while itself being a rom-com. "I Feel Pretty" (2018) celebrates the beauty of women within, but is also about selling cosmetics and a woman who gains confidence by a brain injury causing some sort of reverse body dysmorphia. The list goes on, including this one, "Long Shot."

Here, we have an attractive politician (Charlize Theron) coupled with, well, Seth Rogen, the two of whom have a conflict between the desire for honesty and integrity in life and their relationship against the conformity and deception of politics. Cleverly enough, the movie's president of the United States is a guy who got elected after playing the same POTUS role in a TV show. Indeed, "Long Shot" starts out promisingly enough. Theron and Rogen are fine comedians, as is June Diane Raphael as a political adviser, and there's plenty to laugh at here (Rogen infiltrating a neo-Nazi meeting, Theron leading a hostage negotiation while high). The closer it gets to the conflict and resolution, however--the more the characters supposedly embrace those values of honesty and integrity, the more the movie conforms to the deceptive formula of rom-coms. The race for love, annoyingly escalating score, to the grand romantic gesture and the public confessional displays of love. Never mind that you've seen this a bazillion times before in everything from "Bridget Jones's Diary" (2001), to "Hitch" (2005), to over-and-over again in "Love Actually" (2003). And never mind that we hardly learn a thing about that environmental policy or actual politics, let alone love and values, here at all.

It's those ideals to be something better or different that is the unlikely pairing with the rom-com, but there are few to no happy endings here. That this one is amusing and clever at times raises it above many others of its type, though. Besides the TV president, Theron's secretary of state performs her campaign based on polling data. The entire romantic comedy begins when she hires a writer, Rogen, who, understandably enough, writes himself into a romantic relationship with Theron. The resolution only happens when she literally goes off script. If only the filmmakers could've approached the genre formula with same spirit of rewriting.
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3/10
Third Ragnorok from the Sun
18 October 2019
It's not that "Men in Black" International" fails to live up to the legacy of the first three installments in the franchise; it does, and that's what's deficient about it. Sure, it's perplexing as to why this fourth iteration is generally more panned than its predecessors and for the very things those other movies were, too: thinly plotted, unimaginatively manufactured, CGI bloated and relying upon the chemistry of the two leads. Indeed, that's what the entire series is about. It's a series about aliens, the great complexities of the universe and the hunt for knowledge, but it took four pictures before the agents ventured beyond New York for most of the runtime, and, then, it's only to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Some meager time traveling last episode aside, the Men in Black possess neuralyzers, which wipe and reorder memories, but the movies remain largely linear, predictable and, overridingly, simplistic, if riddled with plot holes and dull red herrings.

So, this time we get the stars from "Thor: Ragnorok" (2017) instead of Tommy Lee Jones feigning indifference to Will Smith's antics. Maybe some find it to be less fresh (prince of Bel-Air) this time, but it's essentially the same thing they've repacked over four movies now. If anything, the casting of Thor and Valkyrie recalibrating their repartee here only highlights the earthbound tiresomeness of the formula and brand compared to an MCU that has firmly expanded intergalactically since "Guardians of the Galaxy" (2014). As with any at least half-hearted attempt at franchise building, a couple of veteran stars are also placed in supporting roles to lend the appearance of legitimacy; in this case, Emma Thompson returns, and Liam Neeson is added. And, this may not be the Men in Black crossover picture we were led to believe was happening, but the MCU borrowing is made more complete with the addition of a green pet to get in the middle of and to lighten the load of the lack of otherwise-expected sexual chemistry between the two leads. Pawny, Hulk, or Frank the Pug, for that matter--they're basically the same thing.
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Big Business (1929)
7/10
Tit-for-Tat Hilarity
17 October 2019
After viewing "Stan & Ollie" (2018), I decided to see some Laurel and Hardy films, many of which I'm shamefully unfamiliar with, but I've been disappointed. I don't find their brand of knockabout especially funny, and it hardly seems enough to sustain a feature-length production such as "Way Out West" (1937). I don't even particularly care for their Oscar-winning "The Music Box" (1932). This earlier, silent short, though, "Big Business," holds up well. I'd seen it before and laughed heartily, and it continues to have the same effect. The tit-for-tat destruction of each others' property, between Laurel and Hardy and James Finlayson, for whom the duo try to sell a Christmas tree, works.

It's not only the petty vandalism, as each side initially stands by calmly watching the other before retaliating, but also the nonplussed expressions of pedestrians and a police officer looking on. Other silent slapstick--I'm thinking particularly of early cinema or the later Keystone ones, such as say "Tillie's Punctured Romance" (1914)--made the mistake of having the on-lookers laugh at the spectacle of the main action, which for me at least, seems to have the counter-intended effect of suppressing any chance of laughter on my end. The comicality comes from the faux earnestness of those on screen.
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4/10
Cracked Nuts and Yokels
17 October 2019
"County Hospital" is not one of Laurel and Hardy's best productions. The same gag, the supposed humor of which escapes me, of Stan eating an egg at Oliver's bedside was reused in the biopic "Stan & Ollie" (2018). No matter how many times Hardy repeats, "hard-boiled eggs and nuts," it's not funny. The short also ends with some lousy rear-projection shots for a traffic accident. The middle part where Laurel drops one of the eggs, to the doctor precariously dangling from an upper-story window is better. The latter almost has a Harold Lloyd daredevil-comedy aspect to it. Not that Lloyd is my favorite cinema clown, but speaking of which, if you want to see a comedy direct traffic with cinematographic competence, see the Lloyd feature film "Speedy" (1928).
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The Music Box (1932)
6/10
Steep Slapstick
17 October 2019
Managing to extend a gag of moving a piano to half and hour, I suppose, is a feat in itself. Even in a feature film of theirs, such as "Way Out West" (1937), the narrative was secondary to Laurel and Hardy extending jokes as far they could. In that sense, then, these earlier shorts better suit their style. Very little of this works on its own, but rather builds upon itself as series of stupid blunders, knockabout and destruction. Even the film itself, "The Music Box," is a remake--building upon the routines the duo previously employed in the now lost "Hats Off" (1927). (Changing the silent film's washing machine in for a piano in this early talkie was apt, too.)

While I respect the craft, I don't find this sort of slapstick especially funny. Largely, it seems to me to be a better-paced variation on what Keystone was doing in the early silent era--what better comedians, like Charlie Chaplin, abandoned over a decade prior. Sure, Laurel gets in one malapropism, regarding "bounding over your steps," and there's the double entendre of the nursemaid being kicked in the middle of her "daily duties," but the humor is otherwise derived from the tit-for-tat butt kicking, pratfalls and general bumbling and mess making. In this world, even the cop enforces the law by poking and beating the boys with his stick. At one point, Hardy literally slaps sticks together before the two start dancing to piano music. That's purity of form, though, I'll give them that.
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Way Out West (1937)
5/10
Laurel and Hardy Slapstick with Musical and Narrative Interruptions
17 October 2019
I wanted to see this after viewing "Stan & Ollie" (2018), for which "Way Out West" is cited there as the zenith of the comedic duo's career. Perhaps, they were at their peak popularity circa 1937, but this can't be their best work. Laurel and Hardy's brand of escalating knockabout has its moments, but seems over-stretched in a feature-length vehicle and outdated even by then. The transparency of the caricatures (as good, evil and stupid) and the plentiful reaction close-ups come across as especially juvenile. Moreover, while the clowns do their work, the camera remains static, with the most obvious cinematic effects being the horrendous rear-projection shots and the splices for the running thumb-lighter gag--a filmmaking trick invented back in the 19th century. I could do without the dancing and singing cowboy stuff, too.

The best jokes here, methinks, are the slightly risqué ones, beginning with Laurel showing some leg in a parody of Claudette Colbert hitching a ride in "It Happened One Night" (1934). Later, Laurel helps Hardy strip some of his clothing off in front of another couple, and a woman ends up tickling Laurel in bed. The rest is mostly cartoony violence, pratfalls and breaking things.
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Stan & Ollie (2018)
7/10
The Show Goes On
17 October 2019
I tend to enjoy movies about classic and early films and filmmaking--"Singin' in the Rain" (1952), "Chaplin" (1992), "Ed Wood" (1994), "Boogie Nights" (1997), "Shadow of the Vampire" (2000), and 2011 alone featured at least three: "The Artist," "Hugo" and "My Week with Marilyn," to name a few. Even though I consider Laurel and Hardy middlebrow as classic comedians (I prefer Chaplin, Keaton and the Marx Brothers, but I'll take them over, say, Harry Langdon or Abbott and Costello, the latter three of whom are fairly derisively referenced in this movie) and that this biopic focuses on their last tour together on stage instead of their filmmaking heyday, there's still a lot for me to like here. Their stage routine and the outer narrative are framed by the brand of physical comedy in some of their most popular films; plus, Steve Coogan and a heavily-made-up John C. Reilley are terrific as the eponymous duo.

"Stan & Ollie" begins with a long tracking shot of them walking onto the set for "Way Out West" (1937). Later, they hope their theatrical tour will earn financing for a Robin Hood parody, which Laurel is writing and running by Hardy. At one point, a scene from this never-made production is imagined. Their Oscar-winning short "The Music Box" (1932) (itself a remake of the now-lost "Hats Off" (1927)) also gets a couple references, including their losing their grip on a suitcase that slides back down a staircase being reminiscent of the piano moving in that picture. Moreover, they perform on stage the same or variations on the bits they'd immortalized on screen: the hospital bed one from "County Hospital" (1932) and the singing and dancing from "Way Out West," to which they add the best of the bunch with the double-door routine.

This is a love letter to the comedy team and to the classic film buffs who continue to appreciate Laurel and Hardy. It makes me want to view or review their films right away.
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2/10
Badly Broken
15 October 2019
Warning: Spoilers
A feature-length sequel to the "Breaking Bad" TV series, "El Camino" is an otherwise-pointless exercise in fan servicing. Besides the, by TV standards, sensationalism of an anti-hero and drug-and-murder-related subject matter, "Breaking Bad" was effective because of dramatic character development and the downward spiral of character interactions, as Walter White set out, originally, to help his family, but left everyone close to him worse off in his wake. The one beacon of hope was Jesse Pinkman driving away from the crime scene and his imprisonment. Nothing in "El Camino" can compare to the wonder of what the audience imagined his future may entail after finally being set free from his association with "Heisenberg" and the underworld of crystal meth. Not only that, but this movie doesn't even try to; it's entirely concerned with elaborating on the details of his escape, as, apparently, there's an extensive police manhunt for him, as well as with him revisiting other characters from the show, the living or, thanks to flashbacks, the dead, and it ends essentially where it began, with Jesse driving away to the promise of a brighter future.

It's two hours of no character development and needless plot development informed by flashbacks mundane enough that one would've believed they were cut from the original show if not for the obvious aging of the cast. Briefly, Jesse's PTSD holds the promise of something new, but that storyline is dropped as soon as he finishes a shower. There's some attempt to create grander vistas to justify the movie's limited theatrical release, and there are intentional references to the Western genre, but it's all pretty pathetic. The Western-style shootout even comes across as unimaginative compared to the elaborate schemes Walter came up with during the series, from the train heist to a machine gun booting out of his car. Worst of all are Jesse's reunions with other members from the cast, which tend to elaborate on the same theme of what's next for Jesse. It's the worst sort of repetitiveness and cameos for the sake of cameos characteristic of TV programs--especially ones worse than "Breaking Bad," which was supposed to be one of the more-cinematic TV shows. It's ironic, then, that now that the TV show-turned-franchise has debuted in feature-length form and theatrically, it turns out to be, for the most part, anti-cinematic.
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Booksmart (2019)
6/10
A Not-So-Smart Party Movie
11 October 2019
Smart girl learns important lesson that she's not better than her middle-to-upper class peers; she's better than the rest of us.

Regardless of the rave reviews from critics, I didn't expect much from a movie that was celebrated as a progressive gender-reversal of "Superbad" (2007) for a new generation. And, it's largely just that. I didn't care much for "Superbad," however, nor much of the stuff Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg do. Sure, it was funny in parts, but ultimately vacuous. Ditto the crude humor mixed with sweetness formula also employed for "Booksmart." It's another one-night teen party movie starring twenty-somethings--you know, because, apparently, it's a good idea to have some sex appeal in your movie about high-school seniors. The leads let loose for a change, get into some high jinks, quarrel briefly, embrace the bittersweetness of their looking forward to the next stage of their lives and, of course, learn some lessons along the way, such as the one in the paragraph above.

I think it's the coming-of-age party formula that's the problem, not the generation and certainly not the reflecting back the values and experiences of the spectator, as much as some viewers seem to care about that sort of thing. I don't know whom you have to be born to get into a high school where half the student body of underdeveloped stereotypes is accepted to the Ivy League or is otherwise going to attend a prestigious university or go work for Google. Molly's home situation is conspicuously underdeveloped, but for those who aren't, they come from wealthy families. In one scene, Molly naively exclaims that, "You can't buy people's affection." Jared, correctly, replies, "No, I'm pretty sure you can, because I've seen it a lot. My parents did it. Their parents did it." But, it's not as though "Dazed and Confused" (1993) is any better because of its seemingly-more-realistic aimlessness and lower-class characters. And, just so it's clear that I'm offending every generation growing up on teen films: John Hughes is overrated, too.

At least, "Booksmart" is well made--a promising start for director Olivia Wilde. There's a bit of amusing blending of fantasy sequences, which are largely drug induced. The score effectively moves things along. I especially liked the underwater pool photography and its musical accompaniment. The acting is good, too, including some comedy veterans for the adult parts. Kaitlyn Dever is especially impactful in her dramatic character arc even though it's a clichéd awkward sexual adventure. If you're wondering whether the main characters all find a romantic coupling by the end, or whether friendships are mended, then you've clearly not seen many of these movies. "Booksmart" is more of the same, and there's nothing particularly smart about that.
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2/10
The Mystery of the Leaping Fish
11 October 2019
At last, a movie that lives up to the hype. "Holmes & Watson" is as awful as audiences and critics forewarned. I'm not a fan of Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly's brand of comedy. Sure, they're fine when they've worked separately on something seriously clever (Ferrell in "Stranger Than Fiction" (2006), e.g., or Reilly in "Stan & Ollie" (2018)), and even their other picture teamings can produce a few laughs from me, but this one is a complete dud. Perhaps, Adam McKay (who directed the other Ferrell-Reilly movies, but not this one) is just a better director than I suspected. Regardless, together, Ferrell and Reilly are like the Abbott and Costello of today: broad slapstick, juvenile banter, flat jokes, and probably better off on TV. I imagine Abbott and Costello may've done something similar with the material of Arthur Conan Doyle. Strip the source of what made it interesting in the first place, pretend anachronisms are funny on their face, add an unimportant romantic subplot for no good reason, revel in regional differences between people (in this case, Americans and Britons) and, when in doubt, act stupid. Maybe if McKay did this one, the timing would've at least been better, or maybe the digs at the gimmicks of the Robert Downey, Jr. versions of Sherlock Holmes would've been amusing.

There's a rich tradition of parodying detective Holmes and his stupid friend, surrogate author Dr. Watson, but you wouldn't know it from viewing "Holmes & Watson." And I have no plans to see the also-panned "Sherlock Gnomes" (also 2018) anytime soon... or anytime, really. One of the earliest in film history, if not the first, was the 1916 silent short "The Mystery of the Leaping Fish," which stars Douglas Fairbanks. In it, Doug effectively lampoons Sherlock's drug habit (as opposed to here, where the mere mention of "cocaine" is supposedly funny) while, ironically, employing his detective skills to thwart drug smugglers. I recommend seeing that over-100-years-old film instead of this soon-to-be-forgotten bore.
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4/10
To Terminate an Idea
11 October 2019
Warning: Spoilers
"In the Shadow of the Moon" begins as an intriguing mystery, full of action and promising the sci-fi thrills of time travel, but the more it unfolds, as everything is painfully and simplistically spelled out for the spectator, it becomes clear that the central conceit of the picture is utterly trite. Ironically, the story is about traveling to the origin of an idea to prevent it from ever being, but the space-time-continuum-splicing plot kills the fun of trying to figure out the idea of the movie--it does so by expressing that idea. By following the detective protagonist, we share in chasing after the idea, but by chasing it we come to realize we shouldn't have bothered chasing it in the first place. I would prefer to recommend viewing this to the end of the 1988 segment, or perhaps the beginning of the 1997 part, and have one try to fill in the blanks themselves, rather than to suggest watching the entire movie.

This is the second time-travel picture I've seen recently released and streamed by Netflix. The other, "See You Yesterday" (2019), takes the Back to the Future series as its basis. "In the Shadow of the Moon," however, is in the tradition of The Terminator franchise. Except, here, the human time traveler is in the position originally occupied by the machines--trying to kill the man responsible for a movement that would prove their demise. Originally, before the sequels and franchising took over--and will continue with another soon-to-be-released installment, "The Terminator" (1984) worked because it wasn't spoiled by the future being unfolded for us. The more the sequels have entered the territory of the idea(s) behind the rise of the machines and past the judgement day, the less interesting the endeavor has become. So, too, here, as our human time traveler sets out to, basically, abort racist John Connor.

And, to think of all the potential this one had to begin with. Before she, as the time traveler says, "volunteered to untell the story," my mind was filling in possible avenues. The puncture marks could've had vampiric allusions with all of its sexual and xenophobic implications, as reinforced by the Moon, with its connection to werewolves (that is, originally, with "The Wolf Man" (1941), the werewolf was a deviation from the "Dracula" formula, much as with this movie being that of "The Terminator"). There was the film noir implications of a detective in a timeline that he's unable to alter--always a victim of fate, while he chases after a time traveler moving in the opposite direction altering fate. The ideas could've become more complicated the more they unfolded. But, this ends up going another way.

It goes the way of presidential biography, the books of which we're repeatedly shown during the murders. They're early presidents, too--the ones leading up to and through the Civil War. And most of the picture takes place in Philadelphia, the birthplace of the United States. She travels back in time to prevent another Civil War; another characters ponders what it would take to have prevented the first one. Race is central to both, and our time traveler is biracial. Racially-charged street marches spring up in 1997 as a consequence of events in 1988. It may not be a coincidence, either, that the current POTUS has, let's say, a controversial record on issues of diversity and that the movie's future takes place in 2024. Currently, the US is entering another quadrennial presidential election season, and it won't do so again until the run-up to 2024. This isn't so much an idea that should be buried, although the filmmakers would've done a favor had they done so, but it's inept. The Terminator movies look to the future of our reliance upon machines and technology, but this one is fretting over white supremacists. At least, "See You Yesterday" dealt with race in a realistic and contemporary way (although, arguably, too much so), as well as explicitly paying homage to the "Back to the Future" films by casting Michael J. Fox. Here, instead, we get the ridiculous notion that killing a few bigots will prevent global, or at least national, catastrophe. The idea is not that powerful. A deeper narrative is untold.
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4/10
Childish Banality
11 October 2019
I'm not directly familiar with manga, comics, or young adult fiction, but there's obviously a trend from these pulpy sources for teenage sci-fi dystopian franchises that has made its way into movies over the past several years now. There's the four "Hunger Games" movies (2012-2015), "Ender's Game" (2013) and its rumored sequel, the "Divergent" series (2014-2016), "The Maze Runner" trilogy (2014-2018) and, now, this, "Alita: Battle Angel," among others, I'm sure. Despite featuring stars in supporting, if not leading, roles (this one wastes the talents of Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Michelle Rodriguez and Edward Norton), loads of CGI action, sci-fi and apparent political and religious commentary, it's depressing how alike these pictures are in their blandness.

I understand that children tend to lack for life experiences, and I'm taken aback by how much full-grown adults read this fluff, but still, is there nothing more than puppy love, sports and exams? Essentially, all of these movies are school nightmares. The dystopia part seems to merely represent the childish confusion with the adult world, for which all that training in games and tests are supposed to prepare them. The sci-fi, wars and class conflict of these worlds tends to be too simplistic to be of much interest, as they're generally reduced to the saccharine teen romance anyways. I mean, c'mon, the upper class literally living in a city above that of the lower class. The religious symmetry is the same, too, and as blatant. There's even cyborgs, or robots, or AI, here, but regardless of her 300-years-old-heart, presumable inability to procreate and indicernible sex organs, she nevertheless has the hots for a meatbag who rides a futuristic motorcycle--and vise versa. Meanwhile, we spectators are supposed to be awed by the picture's spectacle, while, as in "The Hunger Games" series as well, the televised spectacle within the narrative is employed by the oppressive regime to mollify the poors. Is that supposed to be ironic or just insulting?

I probably watched this at the wrong time. I recently read Lewis Carroll's Alice books, which may well surpass all children's literature. Carroll didn't pander to the familiar, the banal, of childish lives as do these school nightmares, even though his books, too, can be read as a child's nightmare encounter with the adult world. And the books remain clever and complicated enough to also satisfy mature minds. "Alita" does do one curious thing, though--curiouser certainly than its excessive CGI and motion-capture obsession, twirling fight moves and absurd hero poses. In one scene, the titular Alita enters a bar named "Kansas," where she's followed by a little dog and, eventually, three men who aid her. Clearly, the reference here is to "The Wizard of Oz." Interestingly, L. Frank Baum's book was something of an Americanized (and dumbed-down) imitation or variation on the Alice books. In the franchise age of movies, there seems to be no end to such inanity of repetitious imitation. More variation would be appreciated, though. I hope the Wizard of Oz, James Cameron's other upcoming franchise additions, for "Avatar" and "The Terminator," turn out better, but I have doubts.
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Mary Shelley (2017)
4/10
Authors of Monstrous Men
11 October 2019
"Mary Shelley" is the most strictly-biographical picture of a large chunk of the life of the eponymous author, most famous for the novel "Frankenstein," that I've seen, but Mary has appeared as a character in a few Frankenstein films that I've reviewed in my quest to see a bunch of adaptations and reworkings (now numbering over 50) after reading the book. Her first and briefest appearance was in the the framing narrative of the classic "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935), with the same actress (Elsa Lanchester) appearing in dual roles as also being the monster's bride. Later, Mary appeared in "Gothic" (1986), which treated the ghost-writing competition at Lord Byron's as a drug-induced carnival, "Haunted Summer" (1988), "Rowing with the Wind" (also 1988) and, most stupidly, "Frankenstein Unbound" (1990), where some middle-aged scientist goes back in time to meet the "real" Frankenstein and his monster, as observed by the teenage Mary, whom the old time-traveler, then, beds. As far as movies saliently covering the inspirations and real-life events behind Shelley's story, "Rowing with the Wind" is easily the best. It's especially haunting in its realization of the milieu of 19th-century Romanticism in which she wrote and the environmental significance on her creation of the Year Without a Summer, all of which is lacking in this version. "Mary Shelley," instead, meanders through a series on inspirational events in her life, from the knowledge of her mother's death from giving birth to her through the stay at Lord Byron's, but mostly focusing on her relationship with Percy Shelley.

Unfortunately, most of this plays out as a drab colored and lit 19th-century forbidden-love melodrama. Mary and Percy have a series of bland squabbles over his marriage and children, the death of Mary and Percy's child, his "free love" philosophy, and the gender politics of publishing her book. Meanwhile, there's the long setup of everyone expecting Mary to one day be a great writer, at least of the likes of her father and late mother, while she walks from one inspiration to the next for that future novel, from her mother's grave, to the death of her child, to a play-within-the-play demonstrating galvanism, to "The Nightmare" painting by Henry Fuseli, and to her dreams and that writing competition. All of which has been covered in previous films. The difference is in the monsters. As a picture written and directed by women about a female author, there's the added feminist message of a woman's struggle to publish in a male-dominated business. Moreover, it's the men in her life who are the monsters--with the notable exception of Dr. Polidori, who also suffers from not being credited as the author of his published work, "The Vampyre." Mainly, there's her withdrawn father who abandons her because of her affair with Percy, Percy with his egotistical idealism and philandering, and Lord Byron with his cruelty towards her sister. Polidori specifically points to Byron as the bloodsucking monster of his story, whereas Percy is the source of the tragic fallacy of male-centric creation in that of Mary's. Mary and her sister Claire are compared to Frankenstein's abandoned creature.

It's a novel twist on a familiar story, but there's too much dreary retreading and dull melodrama to get where seemingly every narrative concerning Mary Shelley inevitably is about: "Frankenstein."
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Joker (I) (2019)
8/10
Masked Mirroring
10 October 2019
Warning: Spoilers
"Joker" is a controversial picture, although I suspect some of the political criticisms and, more so, the fearmongering over the threat of life imitating art will die down in time, and the latter is surely fueled largely by memories of the Aurora, Colorado shooting during a screening of "The Dark Knight Rises" (2012) and, due to this movie's similarity to "Taxi Driver" (1976), the history of John Hinckley Jr. taking inspiration from Martin Scorsese's film in his attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan. Otherwise, the divisiveness, in a way, suits an origin story of Batman's psychopathic and sadistic arch nemesis. He's not a hero; he's the clown prince of crime. Despite the uproar, there's nothing especially groundbreaking about "Joker." It's a darker and more realistic and serious comic-book movie in the tradition of the Dark Knight trilogy, "Logan" (2017), or some of Zack Snyder's superhero adaptations (i.e. not "Justice League" (2017)). Other supervillain origin stories have followed different well-trodden paths: "Venom" (2018) is the usual mostly-bloodless and CGI-intoxicated light treatment, as most successfully branded by the MCU; "Split" (2016) and "Brightburn" (2019) are part of the horror genre; and "Suicide Squad" (2016) is garbage. It's all been done before. The novelty of "Joker," then, is that it doesn't feature the usual dual narrative (also common of musicals such as the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film "Shall We Dance" (1937) that Arthur Fleck watches on TV in one scene) of superhero and supervillain, although a young Bruce Wayne is an ancillary character here, or the focus on an entire team of superheroes as in the other dark comic-book features.

While some commenters seem to forget the basis of "Joker" in that respect, every critic worth their salt has mentioned--and often denounced as derivative--the picture's debt to the films of Scorsese, namely "Taxi Driver" and "The King of Comedy" (1983). Most films are derivative, although I suppose "Joker" goes further with its mirroring those films' storylines and themes than, say, the general genre borrowings of the Dark Knight trilogy with film noir or "Logan" and the Western. As in Scorsese's films, the protagonist here is a mentally-ill loner with a precarious grip on reality. Like Travis Bickle, Fleck goes on a killing spree amid a political election (in this case, Bruce Wayne's father running for Gotham mayor on the Ayn Rand plutocracy ticket). And, like Rupert Pupkin, he's an aspiring and unsuccessful stand-up comedian and avid follower of a late-night TV talk show--including, inevitably, confronting the show's host. Much has been made, justifiably, of Joaquin Phoenix's performance, which compliments nicely as a character study to the more symbolic role, of a Joker without origins, inhabited by Heath Ledger in "The Dark Knight" (2008). Perhaps, not enough has been said, however, of the perfect casting here of Robert De Niro. Obviously, the Joker can and has been portrayed well by different actors (and not so well by still others), but the part of Murray Franklin, the talk-show host, wouldn't work with anyone besides De Niro. The homage to the Scorsese films and De Niro's parts in them as Bickle and Pupkin would be lost otherwise.

"Joker" also reminds me a bit of "Fight Club" (1999) in its "mind-game" film-type shifts between fantasy and reality, with an inversion of the delusion over a romantic relationship. Both pictures also feature violent, populist retribution being taken upon society by mostly, if not all, white men, although "Joker," like most mainstream fare, is intentionally too ambiguous to pin down a coherent socio-political message. Is Thomas Wayne's labelling some people "clowns" reminiscent of Hillary Clinton's "deplorables" remarks? Does it recall fellow-proclaimed-billionaire Donald Trump's habits of name calling or his involvement in the so-called "Central Park Five" case and the term of "super-predator" employed in the 1990s? Does it matter? The Joker even insists that he has no political views--right before he begins a diatribe on those very views. He's an agent of anarchy and chaos, as was Ledger's iteration. His killing spree is born of self-defence and expands to filling the void in his life left by no romantic love, no friends, lack of social services and medical attention, professional setbacks, mommy issues and daddy issues, repeated abuses, and his socially-stigmatizing involuntary laughter.

Stylistically, "Joker" seems derivative, too, in the gritty look of a mid-budget arthouse production and shaky camera focus on the disturbed head of its protagonist. The Gotham here is decidedly a reflection of 1970s-1980s New York. I'm more interested in the cinematic self-reflexivity, though. The frequent shots of Joker looking in mirrors reinforces the character's psychology, but mirrors may also be considered as analogues to motion pictures, which likewise captures images and reflects them back to us. Ditto the fantasy-reality dichotomy in a movie that aims for realism in the superhero genre dominated by fantasy--and within an art form that already is arguably both objective recorder of reality and instrument of illusion making. The mirror motif is especially apt for a movie that conspicuously imitates other movies and which features films-within-the-film. Besides the Astaire-Rogers musical, the Joker's dancing also reflects back upon Charlie Chaplin's silent masterpiece of the Great Depression, "Modern Times" (1936)--specifically, the roller-skating sequence. It's ironic, too, that while Joker sneaks into the theatre, in the guise of an employee, the wealthy Waynes sit in prized seats for the Tramp's, the most famous clown of the silent era, comedic social commentary on economic inequality. The other apt film reference here is one that has apparently been around in Batman lore for a while now, which is to Zorro films. Douglas Fairbanks basically became the first film superhero when he put on the mask and began swashbuckling in "The Mark of Zorro" (1920). For the early '80s setting of "Joker," the showing the Wayne family exits on that fateful night this time is "Zorro, The Gay Blade" (1981).

To top if off, this is the most performative Joker yet. He's always been disguised as a clown, which suggest performance, but here he's employed as one. Moreover, he aims to be a stand-up comedian, and he appears as a talk-show guest on TV after spending most of the movie as mere spectator to the boob tube. His killing of three yuppies also inspires others to wear clown masks and, eventually, to make performance art into a riot. Sure, "Joker" is disturbingly violent art, but art nonetheless.
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Hellboy (2019)
3/10
Alice, Arthur, Hellboy, Jekyll and Hyde, and Leni
8 October 2019
The idea here seems to have been to throw a bunch of threads from various sources at the screen and to hope something sticks, or at least to continually lunge forward in the hope that the momentum will keep it afloat. This "Hellboy" reboot seems to have stirred a considerable amount of nostalgia for Guillermo del Toro's prior two Hellboy movies, but I never liked them. They were as full of clichés (remember the swooshing-and-whooshing blade twirling nonsense?) and references that went nowhere (de Toro was especially fond of clocks and puppets, for whatever reasons, as well as trying to associate his pictures with classic Universal monster movies). And, so, with this "Hellboy" reboot, we get the swaying camera, long-take fight sequences, to rock music, instead, and a slew of references to seemingly-irrelevant material: to Lewis Carroll's book "Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Saw There," to the King Arthur and Merlin mythology as remembered through other movies, to Leni Riefenstahl filming the Nazi scene we've already seen another version of 15 years ago, and a Jekyll-and-Hyde type creature (he even injects drugs) who is an utter bore. Some horror-film gore is added, too, for an R-rating rather than the absurdity of bloodless PG-13 violence in the prior installments, as well as in most comic-book superhero fare. It's an obnoxious hodgepodge of horrific fairytale creatures nonetheless.

This "Hellboy" is sorely overloaded with backstories, subplots and set-ups for sequels that will never happen, including stupid mid and after-credits scenes. The origins story is basically the same as the 2004 version, too, so you'd think they could've cut more of it out. Adding Riefenstahl there to film Hellboy's arrival to Earth was a nice self-reflexive touch, but the rest of the movie doesn't follow through on it. Likewise, the Alice and Jekyll/Hyde characters straddle two worlds, as did Lewis Carroll and Robert Louis Stevenson's protagonists, but that's the extent of the references. With Hellboy seen reading Carroll's book in one scene and another where Alice recites the Jabberwocky poem, I especially expected more of a connection there. I've recently read the Alice books, too, as well as having read Stevenson's years ago, so this was disappointing for me. On the other hand, that the picture does go through with a firmer through-line to the King Arthur stuff is eye-rollingly bad. It's as though someone wanted to remake "Hellboy" as a slasher film with a slight Gothic-horror allusion, while another wanted to imitate the MCU but with long takes instead of rapid cuts, while still another filmmaker had just seen two of Disney's lesser feature-length cartoons and so threw in the Alice and Arthur stuff, with the result being a plot that rapidly jumps around too much to be much about anything. It's disorganized and unengaging.
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4/10
Howdy Doody Time
8 October 2019
Added to the clockwork motif from the first Hellboy movie, for this sequel, is puppetry. This is established early on with a flashback of young Hellboy being a fan of "Howdy Doody" on TV (a puppet show that also featured a clock in its opening) and hearing a bedtime story from his father that is visualized as a puppet show about the Golden Army, which are magical militaristic puppets to their master. Writer-Director's Guillermo del Toro's admitted fetishizing of objects seems to even extend to the supernatural creatures here. The troll market, reminiscent of the cantina scene in "Star Wars" (1977), may be the best example of this, with a multitude of monstrous creatures serving only as objects of curiosity. The irony is that the story concerns Hellboy and company being ostracized from human society. In a sense, they're objectified for their appearances.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn't follow through very far with this thread and, instead, mostly focuses on the romantic coupling of the "freaks." Moreover, the X-Men movie series had already better-developed the theme, as it had better incorporated Nazis into the same framework as opposed to the Indian-Jones-type nonsense of "Hellboy" (2004). Even the quick glances here of Hellboy's TV showing Universal's classic monster movies such as "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935) and "Creature from the Black Lagoon" (1954) come off as lazy shorthand to latch onto what other films followed through on. Otherwise, "Hellboy II" wastes time setting up another sequel that, as of over a decade since (and a reboot, to boot), has never materialized. There's no other reason, but to setup a subsequent movie, for the sequence involving and leading up to the encounter with the Angel of Death. Additionally, again, as in the first movie, there's a sword-swirling baddie, with all of the silly swoosh-and-whoosh sounds effects. There's also some other twirling about, some slow-motion action, and this sequel seems especially fond of characters sliding backwards on their feet during fight scenes. On the other hand, Hellboy and the merman drunkenly singing is a nice change of pace from the usual clockwork of this superhero franchise, and the creepy tooth fairies were rather effective at making me feel itchy.
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Hellboy (2004)
3/10
Like Clockwork
8 October 2019
Stop me if this sounds familiar: a wise-cracking hero combats baddies who are occult Nazis, which leads the hero and his pals into a booby-trapped tomb. Or how about a baddie who seemingly twirls daggers merely for the generic swoosh-and-whoosh sound effects--even Indian Jones couldn't be bothered to put up with that nonsense. (By the way, does anyone else feel that the unlocking of Hellboy's chamber looks and sounds a bit too much like that motif in the X-Men movies for unlocking Cerebro?) Then, there's the typical superhero-action-movie squishy monsters that incinerate instead of bleed, and, to further ensure that PG-13 rating, clothes hardly burn up in fire, either. If all of this weren't predictable enough, there's also the repetitiveness of the fight scenes, whereupon Hellboy fights the same sort of squishy monster three times, each with their own mini-cliffhangers, lots of punching sounds and such, and a combination of wire-work practical effects and loads of villainous CGI. Plus, he also fights another--even bigger--squishy monster in yet another scene. Hellboy even eavesdrops on his paramour with another guy twice. Soap-opera love triangle screenwriting for a superhero movie, c'mon.

Along with the nominal romance, most of the characters here are bland. The baddies sure are, and even the merman is more interesting as comparison to the similar Creature from the Black Lagoon that Guillermo del Toro developed more fully later on in his Best-Picture-Oscar-winning "The Shape of Water" (2017) than he is as an actual character in "Hellboy." Perhaps, the most apt character in this one is that dagger-twirling Nazi, because he runs on clockwork--much like the movie does. Mechanical, predictable and repetitive. "Hellboy" doesn't even manage to do anything interesting with its meta comic-book within the comic-book movie. Years later, "Logan" (2017) would. Neither does del Toro do anything compelling with all of his stylish characters and cinematic imitations. At least, in "The Shape of Water," he played some with expectations by reversing the colonialist message of "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" (1954). "Hellboy," on the other hand, is probably what you'd expect it to be because you've likely seen many other movies that are just the same. It's like clockwork.
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Glass (2019)
8/10
Glass is Reflective: A Comic-Book Movie About its Own Making
7 October 2019
Warning: Spoilers
The final part in M. Night Shyamalan's superhero trilogy, "Glass" is clever as a meta-narrative about its own making. "Unbreakable" (2000) was similarly--although, media-wise, more limited--a movie about a comic-book enthusiast (Mr. Glass) creating a superhero ("the Overseer"). I think "Split" (2017) is the disappointment among the trilogy because it largely failed to realize its potential of a character as analogous to cinema and of an actor playing multiple characters in an actorly manner; it was as disparate and disorganized as the mind of its villain. "Glass" takes these notions of meta-narrative to the next step--beyond the simple deconstruction of "Unbreakable" or something like, say, "Scream" (1996), where characters act as though they're in a movie. What Mr. Glass does here is construct the superhero movie, as informed by comic books. It's a glass-mirror image reflecting the same thing Shyamalan has done in making this very picture.

Unfortunately, the last time Shyamalan employed this type of self-reflexive meta-narrative, it was one of his most-widely-panned releases and certainly his most pathetically self-indulgent effort in "Lady in the Water" (2006), which starred the writer-director himself as the genius author with a martyr complex whose work is misunderstood by a movie critic. Seriously. Years later now, the Shyamalan cameo in "Glass" is a man who admits that he's done some bad things in the past, but he's since turned his life around. At least, it appears he's since become a little less blatantly egotistical in his work since "Lady in the Water," as well as, perhaps, less pretentious in his subject matter by turning his attentions here to the popular subject of superheroes instead of water nymphs and whatnot.

Nevertheless, "Glass" features a mastermind storyteller and director (although played by Samuel L. Jackson instead of Shyamalan), who is tormented by his critics--there being a clandestine organization seeking to prevent him from exposing his stories to the world. Even the way they are depicted here meeting in restaurants seems aimed to make them look like snobs. Anyways, they lock Glass and the other two supers in an asylum for this purpose of shutting them up and to berate them with psychobabble in an attempt to convince that their stories are mistaken--not unlike what many a film critic will do to movies. Meanwhile, us movie-goers are represented on-screen by our surrogate spectators and fans of superheroes: the mother, the son and the orphaned friend. They--and thus, supposedly, us--believe in the awesome power of the superheroes despite what the critics say. In the end, "Glass" implies that it doesn't matter what the critics say--they can try to beat his creations to death--but they can't stop him from telling his stories. Mr. Glass finds a way to get his cameras and to distribute the footage to the world, so that all that's left is for him to direct his comic-book-informed characters in a climactic showdown for all to see.
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Split (IX) (2016)
4/10
24 Frames of Mind
7 October 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Although some critics and fans--backed up by box-office receipts--claimed this as writer-director M. Night Shyamalan's comeback, "Split" is nevertheless an exploitative, derivative and incongruent horror movie. Like some of Shyamalan's other post-"The Sixth Sense" (1999) debacles, one can see how it could've been a better picture had the project not been of such an errant mind--straying all over the place--and, ultimately, relying upon a series of clichés--most blatant of which is the filmmaker's trademark twist endings.

There's a lot of trash here: it's yet another movie about a psycho abducting, holding captive and terrorizing people--usually young women or teenage girls. Dissociative identity disorder is exploited for the fear of people with mental illness (although, I suppose, it's good that filmmakers seem to have finally learned that schizophrenia has nothing to do with multiple personalities--good riddance "Sybil" (1976)). Sexual abuse is exploited for some screwy, Nietzschian moralizing regarding that which doesn't kill you only making you stronger. Both the mental illness and the child abuse are tied into Shyamalan's usual pseudo-religious supernaturalism. And, perhaps worst of all, the supernatural here extends to one of the most flagrantly contrived and tacked-on surprise endings when "Split" is tied-in to a shared universe with "Unbreakable" (2000), via a cameo from Bruce Willis in an utterly stilted scene, and setting up the subsequent cap to the trilogy, "Glass" (2019). The coda of "10 Cloverfield Lane" (2016), another movie about a young woman trapped with a nutcase, almost seems organic by comparison. Perhaps only "The Mummy" (2017), in failing to launch the Dark Universe, has done so poorly in recent memory to establish a shared cinematic universe and been such an excruciating example of MCU piggybacking.

Of all the divergent threads here, the one I think was promising was the potential self-reflexive allusion to cinema. "Unbreakable" succeeded in this respect by reference to comic books, and "Glass" extends this further cinematically. Several elements for something similar are presented in "Split"--beginning with the actor/spectator dichotomy established at the outset with the well-made abduction scene. Although the main girl, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), is first seen as an object to be viewed, as the other two girls and one of their dads look on, the abduction scene places her firmly as the watcher, or the surrogate spectator for us movie-goers. The other two girls are oblivious nitwits throughout. A series of car mirror shots and obscured views from Casey's point-of-view support this. James McAvoy's madman is the actor in both senses: that his actions tend to advance the plot and that his split personalities form a performance for Casey to observe--whether to see his reinterpretation of Norman Bates from "Psycho" (1960) through a crack in a door or to watch him dance by invitation.

He also makes webcam movies of his various personalities, which Casey views. In fact, this is what helps set her free. Yorgos Lanthimos made this self-reflexive connection much better in "Dogtooth" (2009), another and far-more-disturbing and intelligently-made film about captivity and perversity. In "Dogtooth," the captivity of the characters became a metaphor for the spectator's illusion of being held captive by the film itself. In "Split," however, one wonders whether Shyamalan even meant to do anything that wasn't entirely superficial. For instance, I doubt the reason McAvoy's character has 24 personalities has anything to do with classic film having been photographed at 24 frames per second--especially given how far removed movies are from such standards (like most movies nowadays, "Split" is all digital), and, besides, we only see McAvoy portray six of those characters. One could just as well read in an equally pointless exercise in numerology that 24 refers to the number of hours in a day.

Additionally, the Beast personality hinted at the promise of "King Kong" (1933)-like self-referentiality--where the monster's attack from a stage after being captured by filmmakers suggests his being analogous to cinema. Thus, it might have been intriguing had Casey emerged from beneath a movie theatre instead of--of all things--from a zoo. (They're all held captive--get it?) On second thought, for a movie and script that is this crowded and unfocused--like a zoo, as the idiom goes--that may be the most appropriate setting.
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Unbreakable (2000)
7/10
The Super Sixth Sense
7 October 2019
Although "Unbreakable" is essentially writer-director M. Night Shyamalan's prior film "The Sixth Sense" (1999) remade as a superhero movie, it does integrate the world of comic books into what was an effective formula in the first place. Once again, there's a young boy who believes in something that Bruce Willis is partly oblivious to. Again, that boy cries over the secret in a revelatory moment with a parent. Again, Willis's character has marital problems, and the picture is crammed with pregnant pauses--mostly of Willis looking away wistfully, as though that's his idea of acting in something other than a "Die Hard" sequel or retread. This time, however, Willis has the sixth sense--plus, he's unbreakable, and Samuel L. Jackson substitutes in the way of an adviser to the person with supernatural powers. I also like the obligatory (in a Shyamalan movie, that is) twist ending even though it's humorously abrupt, which is incongruent with the otherwise somber treatment and subject matter.

Appropriately, Jackson's character invests in comic books instead of the prior picture's psychobabble, too. They inspire him to seek out a real superhero. For the most part, "Unbreakable" is filmed in an identical manner of realistic supernaturalism as in "The Sixth Sense" and quite apart from Shyamalan's more Hollywood, off-the-assembly-line products that comprise his subsequent oeuvre. But, there are flashes--like the hero's sixth-sense visions of others' misdeeds in the story--of comic-book-like imagery, although this is mostly reserved for the superheroic stuff. "Unbreakable" also benefits today as a contrast to the explosion since its release of big-budget and doggedly light and unrealistic action-packed superhero fare from the MCU and elsewhere. In that sense, it comes across as both familiar and refreshing.
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The Valiant (1929)
7/10
Opening Up
6 October 2019
Of what interest "The Valiant' may be of today is probably mostly due to its receiving a couple of nominations from the second Academy Awards (Paul Muni for Best Actor along with one for Writing) and for those interested in surveying Hollywood's transition to talkies or Muni's career, with this being his first picture in an oeuvre that would include six Oscar nominations and one win. Three years later, he would star in two of his best roles, "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" and "Scarface" (both 1932). Here, thankfully, he's relatively restrained, although the line readings for most of the cast tend to be very stilted, which isn't helped by the creaky and primitive sound-recording technology. Being based on a one-act play, however, "The Valiant" is an interesting adaptation that "opens up" the play to about-an-hour-long feature-length film, while commendably leaving much of its story unexplained, or open. Looking beyond its primitive deficiencies, it's even a subtly powerful picture in its treatment of war.

Technically, "The Valiant" is superior to some other talkies from this period; although, silent cinema was at an artistic peak and remains better than these early sound pictures. The first scene makes good use of off-screen action as indicated by sound (a gun shot) and shadows. There are also a few crane and dolly shots throughout the picture. A hold-over from the silent era, the film is divided by five title cards that set-up the proceeding acts. The lack of a musical score is probably beneficial here, as it would surely be overly mawkish otherwise; what music there is consists of three diegetic musical scenes: a Jazz band in prison and a dance party and piano playing in the country house. I've seen quite a few films from 1929, and it seems that even the "silent" ones included such diegetic musical scenes. At least two other 1929 prison pictures, "Thunderbolt" and "Weary River," also include the playing of musical instruments. Evidently, it was a popular notion for exploiting the new synchronized film-sound recordings. Fortunately, the dialogue is clear, too, and the picture, overall, is relatively restrained. Even the hokey superimposed flashbacks and thoughts of the mother are forgivable compared to the over-the-top melodramatics of some other contemporary films, and they play well into the film's implications about war and the perceptions of it.

The narrative has a John Doe (he uses the false name "James Dyke") sentenced to be executed for murder after he turns himself into the police. But, he refuses to admit his true identity and, eventually, invents a story of himself dying in WWI. He also writes articles for the newspaper "warning the youth on the folly of crime." From the press coverage he receives, his mother and sister suspect that he's their long-lost Joe, with his sister traveling to meet him setting up the scene from the one-act stage version. Although rather creepy, their past of quoting "Romeo and Juliet" to each other is central to his identification.

There's the clichéd theme of the corrupting city contrasted with the idyllic country, with James/Joe killing a man in the city, while his mother oversees the wholesome coupling of her daughter, Mary, with an upstanding young man named Bob (who's so dull he spends the entire picture staring at Mary like one of her dogs waiting for attention). More interesting is the past of the Great War. The protagonist hasn't seen his family since it; at one point, he openly wishes he'd died a soldier. "The Valiant" doesn't answer every question raised in the plot. We never discover why he abandoned his family, the reason he murdered a man, or what his true involvement in the war was. It's as though the war did take away his life.
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Super (I) (2010)
6/10
In Between the Panels
5 October 2019
As others have criticized, there have been a few of these regular-people-as-superheros movies, including "Kick-Ass" having been released earlier in 2010. Moreover, take away Batman's billions of dollars and high-tech assets, assistants, ninja and whatever-else combat training and muscular physique, perhaps weaken his moral code some, and remove those playboy looks, and you've basically got the Crimson Bolt. Yeah, I guess, he's just a vigilante wearing a mask who attacks mostly low-level drug-related criminals and people who merely annoy him, beats them with a wrench, and, then, takes revenge on Kevin Bacon for stealing his wife. To call "Super" a "realistic" superhero movie would be missing the point, though; the appearance of realism is the joke. And, Rainn Wilson, of "The Office," Ellen Page and Bacon do well in making this a fun romp of comedic patheticness, violence and faux superheroic earnestness. On that latter point, it does get a bit wishy-washy in the end, but, for the most part, this is a picture that doesn't ask to be taken seriously--thankfully.

The inclusion of comic books and the parody of the culture surrounding them is appreciated, too. There's a ridiculously-bad religious superhero show viewed twice on TV, as well as in comic-book form, which inspires one of the supes. His sidekick, however, is in it more for the psychosexual rush. Which raises the question: why do we readers and viewers enjoy it? I suspect for largely similar reasons.
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Brightburn (2019)
5/10
The Horror of Superboy
4 October 2019
Warning: Spoilers
There's definitely a deluge of superhero movies nowadays; moreover, that deluge is flooded with inversions and repetitions. "Brightburn" is blatantly a twist on Superman's origin story. An alien baby in a spaceship crash lands on Earth, he's adopted by an otherwise-childless farming couple, there's the red cape, and the boy displays similar powers to those of the man of steel. On top of this, there's the conflation of this supernatural genre with that of another, the supernatural horror movie. I recently reviewed "Avengers: Age of Ultron" (2015), for one, and it does likewise by reworking themes from Mary Shelley's Gothic horror novel "Frankenstein," along with other shocker elements, including a (scarlet) witch. But, this has been done several times before, too. Tim Burton's "Batman Returns" (1992) borrows from Gaston Leroux's "The Phantom of the Opera," as well as featuring a Moses-like narrative for the Penguin similar to that of the Superboy here (child turning against his adopted homeland with godly powers, like Moses against Egypt). Perhaps, even more relevant to the apparent marketing and tacked-on franchise-building of "Brightburn" is M. Night Shyamalan's superhero trilogy--especially the specifically horror-genre-based second installment.

"Brightburn" is also strikingly similar to Amazon Prime's streaming series "The Boys," which is based in comics dating back to George W. Bush's administration. That show's superhero team is basically a parodic inversion of DC's Justice League. In the afterward scenes during the credits of "Brightburn," a similar thing seems to be being pitched. In addition to the Superman in this movie, the conspiracy-theorist host reports on a "witch woman" whose modus operandi resembles that of Wonder Woman, an Aquaman type, and there are pictures on screen of an alien-looking creature (presumably a variation on the Martian Manhunter), as well as of the Crimson Bolt from the same director, James Gunn's "Super" (2010) (given that character's lack of superpowers, he could potentially be their Batman), and there's a question mark, too, which I guess could indicate the Flash or Green Lantern to round out the league.

I'm not a fan of this sort of repetition: "Super" following on the heels of "Kick-Ass" (2010), "Brightburn" on that of "The Boys," half the MCU movies imitating the tone of Gunn's own "Guardians of the Galaxy" (2014), and DCEU movies increasingly looking like MCU ones. (We also get another riff on Hans Zimmer's horns from "Inception" (2010) here.) Sure, some of them work in part, as does "Brightburn," but isn't there more potential variety for the emerging superhero movie genre? Perhaps, those ending clips were a joke, though, or maybe any franchise considerations go the way of "Hellboy" trilogies and reboots. As a stand-alone picture, "Brightburn" is novel in its twist on Superboy, and it's committed to its dark, slasher-movie style. Although probably of limited appeal, it can be a treat for comic-book and superhero-movie aficionados.
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Ma (I) (2019)
3/10
Misery-able Mammy
3 October 2019
"Misery" (1990) is the film that "Ma" is most an imitation of. The self-referential business of "Misery," where a reader assaulted the writer, however, is muddled here. Instead, Ma is trying to rewrite her past, hanging out with teenagers getting wasted, and including by rearranging school yearbook photographs. Perhaps, something cinematic could've been done here with the photography and smart-phone videos, but isn't. What there is a dull build-up to not much of anything interesting. That it also doesn't provide much in the way of producing usual horror-movie physical reactions seems secondary to me; it's that nothing especially clever is done, either, that's its main fault.

Octavia Spencer does offer another twist on the Mammy trope, as she was Oscar-awarded for doing in "The Help" (2011) (also directed by Tate Taylor), with her here serving mostly-white children. There's no struggle for narrative control here as with Kathy Bates and James Caan's characters in "Misery," though; Spencer carries this one. Meanwhile, the talents of the likes of Allison Janney and Juliette Lewis are squandered. Oh well, "Ma" could've been better; at least, it was copying another film that did do something self-referentially intriguing.
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3/10
Franken-Justice
29 September 2019
Warning: Spoilers
After rewatching "Avengers: Age of Ultron" (2015) and this, "Justice League," it seems that Joss Whedon, who co-wrote and reassembled this, along with being one of the main creative forces behind the former MCU installment, managed to rework Mary Shelley's book "Frankenstein" into the two biggest comic-book superhero movie franchises. Unfortunately, they're both among the most flawed entries in those respective shared cinematic universes, but it's an interesting similarity nonetheless. It's as though he wasn't content with his stitching together of the horror genre and superhero fare for the MCU sequel, or thought that Lex Luther raising a Kryptonian blood-brother of himself from the grave in the form of Doomsday in "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" (2016) wasn't enough of an homage to the 1931 film version of "Frankenstein," that he had to try again. Too bad this is the worst monstrosity of Franken-supes yet.

The production mess has been well reported, but the overriding aim was clearly to imitate the success of the lighter tone of the Marvel movies after the mixed record of Zach Snyder's grim visions in "Man of Steel" (2013) and, more so, "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" (2016). Personally, despite the faults of Snyder's prior two DCEU pictures, I'll take them anyday over "Justice League;" at least, then, we have two distinguishable behemoth comic-book franchises instead of an amorphous glut of repetition at the box office. Sure, when the imitation works, an "Aquaman" (2018) or "Shazam!" (2019) is largely indiscernible from an "Ant-Man and the Wasp" (2018) or "Captain Marvel" (2019), but what's interesting about that. On the flip side, when the temperament is off and the jokes are flat, you get a bomb such as this, and all that's left of any compelling nature, for me at least, is what sort of Frankenstein monster lurks within all that wreckage.

Sadly, even the Frankenstein stuff here is less intriguing and integrated than in Whedon's prior "Age of Ultron," where the entirety of the superhero team and their antagonist were part of the creation process and the monstrosities within the story. There were mad doctors (Tony Stark, Bruce Bannon, Ultron's manipulated scientist), monsters (Hulk, a Jekyll/Hyde type character, most obviously, as well as a (scarlet) witch and the AI robots) and even a god (Thor) to provide the spark of life. The mixture of magic and science fiction and, to a lesser extent, that of the horror and superhero genres worked. DC has its alien god, too, which was part of the appeal of Snyder's pictures, although Superman as a Christ figure had been a theme mined since Christopher Reeve put on the cape and tights. That's absent here, as Supes doesn't interact with regular people at all outside of an opening smart-phone interview by off-screen kids and his carrying an apartment building that presumably contains humans. Nope, here, he's merely an overpowered deus ex machina who's a bit confused at first, but then is just happy to be alive and save the day almost effortlessly. Batman and Alfred have the computers and tech savvy, but not along the lines of their MCU counterparts, and Cyborg seems to be content merely to hack into such gizmos and search the web. Meanwhile, Wonder Woman, Flash and Aquaman each have their own personal backstories that the narrative gets into and which have nothing to do with the Frankenstien theme or with anything particularly interesting.

What "Justice League" does have is magic. The infinity stones... I mean, mother boxes are employed for both of the movie's two Frankenstein-esque creation/resurrection episodes. Cyborg's dad, perhaps the only true mad scientist here, used one to save his son's life, who was otherwise legally proclaimed dead, and merge him with robotics and computer stuff in the process. The two of them will later discuss which of them is a monster. The same box, then, is made to bring the corpse of Superman back to life. Cyborg and Flash get tasked with digging the body up, too. The resurrection of Jesus Superman is somewhat intriguing--more so than the creation of Abomination Doomsday in the prior picture. Having the body in fluid is somewhat reminiscent of the Hammer Frankenstein films more so than any of the Boris Karloff versions. Moreover, Flash explicitly references "Pet Sematary," for which Stephen King's novel surely owes much to Shelley's work.

Curiouser yet, I don't recall the insides of the Kryptonian ship in the previous movies looking so vaginal. Just look at those corridors to the embryonic chamber. In this sense, Superman's corpse is the egg, of course, along with the "box," which is already slang for vagina. The spark of life--the penis and sperm, if you will, is provided by Flash. He backs up to the end of one of these vaginal canals, then races through it, past the cervix and uterus, to fertilize the magical super egg in the Fallopian tubes with his surging electrical charge. It's one of the more sexually-suggestive Frankenstein-esque creation scenes I've seen since Kenneth Branagh essentially alluded to masturbation in "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" (1994). And, in the Frankenstein tradition, Flash and Superman play out the myth of homunculi--fully formed humans from which fetuses were formerly misbelieved to develop.

It's all downhill from there. The fight between Superman and the rest of the League isn't bad, though, and the speed of Flash allows for the exploration of Superman's quickness, too. Everything else is bad. The CGI vomit that is the bland supervillain (Steppenwolf) and his army of insect clones is excruciatingly generic--proving the usual bloodless warfare for some PG-13 violence. The climactic battle is unexciting, and there's a peculiar focus on a sole family fleeing the carnage. Compare this to the better-integrated fates of civilians in the climax of "Age of Ultron." The humor is uniformly flat, including Flash's "racially-charged" fist-bump fail with Cyborg, and the running gag about brunch only rings true for middle-to-upper-class filmmakers--an unemployed young university student of poverty like Barry Allen would not be concerned about brunch. His pops is in prison, and he admits to having no friends, so who would he be going to brunch with anyways. At some point, it seems they just ran out of things for characters to say and so resorted to such uncompelling interjections between fight scenes as, "alright" and "booyah." Sometimes, the superheroes merely line up and pose for a few moments. Even worse are the several gratuitous shots focusing on Gal Gadot's posterior and the low-angle up-skirt shots while she's wearing her revealing Wonder Woman costume. It reminds me of how the MCU introduced Scarlet Johansson as Black Widow back in "Iron Man 2" (2010), including a prolonged look at her backside as she walked into a restaurant in one scene. Better MCU installments don't do that. Heck, DCEU's "Wonder Woman" (2017) didn't do that. But, hey, this was the DCEU's first attempt at being derivative. There are even scenes during and after the credits that aren't worth watching--one of which sets up another movie that may never happen because this one was so bad.
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