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Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Terminator: Dark Fate

TERMINATOR: DARK FATE

** SPOILERS **

The venerable science fiction series about villainous killer robots, Battlestar Galactica, has a saying: "All of this has happened before, all of it will happen again." This credo also applies to producer James Cameron and Deadpool director Tim Miller's Terminator: Dark Fate, which, if you were to ask them, is Terminator 3. What's that, you say? There already was a Terminator 3? Silly rabbit, there have been several Terminator 3s: in order of release, this includes the Universal Studios theme park ride Terminator 2 3D: Battle Across Time (which boasted the three stars of Terminator 2: Judgment Day in its cast), then 2003's Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, then 2008's TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Three separate timelines, three sequels to Terminator 2. Well, Terminator: Dark Fate says to throw them all in a vat of molten metal and toss in 2009's Terminator: Salvation and 2015's Terminator: Genisys for good measure. None of them count anymore. There's only one Terminator 3 now and it's Terminator: Dark Fate, got it? Come with it if you want to live.

Like nearly every Terminator movie, Terminator: Dark Fate rehashes all of the (all-too) familiar beats of the original 1984 film, The Terminator: A killer cyborg from the future is sent to kill an innocent young woman who is destined to make a difference in a future war against the machines. The ragtag human resistance sends a lone warrior, a protector for that woman. This time, the target is a Mexican girl named Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) and her protector is Grace (Mackenzie Davis), an augmented human who can physically go toe-to-toe with a Terminator... for a little while. As a badass action heroine, Davis does her best in the reimagined and gender-swapped Kyle Reese with robot muscles role but, through no fault of her own, she ends up being overshadowed by the franchise all-stars, Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Coming for their heads is the newest Terminator model, the Rev-9 (Diego Luna) and, since this is the new Terminator 3, it's basically a newer version of the T-X (Kristanna Loken) from T3; the twist is that the Rev-9 can separate its liquid metal form (icky black goo like Venom, this time, instead of cool silver mercury) from its endoskeleton so they can tag team some humans. Luna plays the Rev-9 with a little bit of charm and it integrates better with humans than any other Terminator model in the movies. However, despite all of its abilities and killing power, the Rev-9 gets smacked around a lot and, amusingly, it seems to get real frustrated at how its targets uncooperatively won't let it do its job and terminate them. The climactic showdown even starts with the Rev-9 urging those defiantly-unwilling-to-die humans to just give up already. It's weird to see a Terminator negotiate terms after chasing them from Mexico City to Laredo, Texas. But what would have made Dark Fate really super-duper great is if the Rev-9's liquid metal form talked to his endoskeleton and they bantered and complained about what a pain in the ass this mission is.

Meanwhile, Hamilton reprises her role as a grizzled, grey-haired, heavily-armed Sarah Connor. A lifetime of fighting Terminators has ravaged her once-youthful looks and Sarah is more tragic than ever because, after everything she went through in the first two films, it turns out Skynet sent multiple Terminators after her son John Connor (Edward Furlong, who reappears as a 14-year-old via digital wizardry). A couple of years after they stopped Judgment Day in T2, one of those Terminators (Schwarzenegger) caught up with them at a Guatemalan beach and put a cap in John. And thus, the franchise that could never figure out what to do with John Connor followed the example set by Terminator: Genisys and got rid of him, seemingly for good. After all, there's no need for John Connor to lead the Resistance in a future that's now null and void. After John literally bit the bullet, Sarah spent the last 22 years following the marching orders of a mysterious sender of text messages; every text was the coordinates of where a Terminator was and Sarah somehow terminated all those Terminators all by her lonesome. Okay, sure. When one particular text sends her to Mexico City (she's wanted in all 50 states), Sarah Connor runs across Dani and Grace and finds herself involved in a brand new battle to save the future - but it's one that, for once, she isn't the centerpiece of.

Miller's Dark Fate serviceably checks off all the boxes in the Terminator movie checklist: naked Terminator coming through a time bubble, check. A car chase with the Rev-9, check. "I'll be back!" (said by Sarah this time), check. And so forth. For the most part, the tropes are done pretty well but Dark Fate also feels rote and overly mechanical because it's all too familiar. Still, even though it takes two-thirds of the movie to be over until he shows up, the highlight of Dark Fate turns out to be Arnold Schwarzenegger, who once more plays the classic Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 series T-800 Terminator... named Carl. Yes, he is the same Terminator who killed John Connor in Guatemala (something Sarah, understandably, has a hard time letting go of) but after that, Carl, a 72-year-old Terminator, gets interesting!

With his mission over - in fact, now that the timeline has been rejiggered, Carl is the only Terminator who has ever successfully accomplished a mission to terminate a target (but he's not one to brag) - and no Skynet in the future to come back to, Carl realized he has the rest of his life ahead of him. So he did what no other Terminator has done: he found himself a woman, helped her raise her kid, got a job cleaning drapes, bought a house, started drinking beer and watching football, and waited for Sarah Connor to show up in his doorway one day. What's great about Carl is that even though he terminated John Connor, he actually fulfilled everything John tried to teach his T-800 in T2: Carl learned the value of human life. Further, Carl felt such remorse for killing John that he was the one who secretly sent Sarah all of those texts telling her where all the other Terminators were. (He could have helped her hunt them too but that's neither here nor there.) As Carl, Schwarzenegger finally finds a new way to have fun playing the Terminator and, as he correctly points out, he is extremely funny. But he's also ready to join Sarah, Grace, and Dani to do some terminating and future-saving because once a Terminator, always a Terminator.

Unfortunately, Dark Fate's final act is actually its worst: the climactic action sequences involving the Rev-9 fighting all of the humans in a cargo plane, the humans escaping in a humvee that plummets into a lake, and then everyone fighting the Rev-9 in a hydroelectric dam ('the killbox') is so badly shot and staged, it's literally an excruciating eyesore to look at. Not to mention the frenetic action really should have killed everyone, especially old lady Sarah, long before they got to the dam. Regardless, when the T-800 and the Rev-9 go Terminator e Terminator some of the old thrills do emerge, especially during Carl's final sacrifice to save his human friends. Thematically, Dark Fate ends with a cool twist where Dani isn't the new Sarah Connor, she's actually the new John Connor, destined to be the leader of humanity in the future war against the new Skynet (which is called Legion in 2042). When Sarah and Grace end up being the final two left alive, the switcheroo that Sarah kind of spiritually gets her son John back in the form of Dani and Sarah gets to teach her how to be the future leader of humanity is a rather nice and poignant touch.

Ultimately, bringing James Cameron back to the franchise indeed worked necessary wonders because, at its best moments, Dark Fate does legitimately feel like a real Terminator movie and not like the clunky fan fiction the scrap heaps of Rise of the Machines, Salvation, and especially Genisys felt like. All in all, like a slightly better version of a cell phone, Terminator: Dark Fate does turn out to be an upgrade as the new Terminator 3, if only incrementally. While it wraps up in a tidy fashion, Dark Fate's ending leaves the door open for another movie, unfortunately, and it's not hard to imagine that, despite Carl's promise that he "won't be back", somehow they can finagle Arnold to come back again for another one if Dark Fate makes money. So, now that the newest model of Terminator 3 has arrived and doesn't completely suck, the next step (if there is one) for the franchise is finally stop rebooting Terminator 3 and start rebooting Terminator 4.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Joker

JOKER

** SPOILERS **

Watching Joker, I imagined how his Gotham arch criminal cohort, Harvey Two-Face, must feel like all the time. I was of two minds watching director Todd Philips' film: it's impossible to deny that Joker is a stunning cinematic achievement from an acting, direction, production, and cinematography standpoint. Joker creates a startlingly authentic Gotham City (New York City overdosed on steroids and vomit) circa 1981 and plunges a degenerate fiend into the very heart of it. Alternately, Joker is a grotesque journey into that degenerate fiend's heart and mind; sometimes the movie asks you to empathize or sympathize with Joker and his miserable - unfair in certain ways - existence, but in the end, it's impossible to (and if it isn't, if you agree with Joker, please keep it to yourself). Joker is the riveting and absorbing tale of who the murder clown is and how he came to be but, to quote his predecessor Jack Nicholson's Joker 30 years ago, "I didn't ask."

A supernatural Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, the sad sack who is destined to become the Joker. Life hasn't been good to him; physically and psychologically abused as a child, Arthur developed a neurological condition that makes him laugh hysterically at inappropriate times. He's on 7 different types of medication and none of it seems to help. Perpetually down on his luck, misunderstood, and offputting, the laughter makes him a pariah and a target of ridicule and abuse. He's eternally puffing on a cigarette held by fingers with nails he's chewed off. Arthur dreams of "bringing joy and laughter into the world" by becoming a standup comedian but he is the opposite of funny. Scoping out nightclubs and scribbling notes and his own original "jokes" as he surveys stand up comedians, Arthur can, at best, replicate the physical beats but he has no understanding of actual humor. Yet, Arthur worships Gotham's favorite late-night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) and yearns to be his guest and make the audience laugh.

Instead, Arthur ekes out a grim and thankless living as a clown for hire until, one day, he brings a loaded gun into a children's hospital, which gets him fired. This puts his dire financial situation in even more jeopardy since he is the lone caregiver of his elderly and sick mother, Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy). Mother Fleck subsists by writing desperate letters to Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), Gotham's top billionaire who's making a bid to become Mayor; Penny was a maid for the Waynes in the 1950s and claims that Arthur, whom she nicknamed Happy, is Thomas' bastard son. She dreams, in vain, of the great Thomas Wayne whisking them both away from their squalor.

One night on a train, Arthur's uncontrollable laughter provokes three drunken Wayne Finance stockbrokers who were about to molest an innocent woman. The assholes violently attack Arthur, who pulls out his gun and shoots them all dead - this is the flashpoint that gives birth to the Joker, or rather, released the Joker within Arthur - while also setting off a powderkeg in Gotham. Suddenly, Gotham's underclass regard the Clown Vigilante as a hero, which sparks protests and riots with hundreds of people donning clown masks. To Arthur, it means he's finally being seen and he takes it as proof of his existence. But when he discovers that his mother believes he's the son of Thomas Wayne, Arthur decides to visit Wayne Manor: he gets as far as the gate but he meets the 8-year-old Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olson), who is destined to be his greatest enemy in a future we'll never see (of this version anyway), but we also know Batman and Joker are destined to do that dance forever. When Arthur forces his way into Wayne Hall to confront Thomas Wayne, his "father" (who really isn't) disappoints him with a punch to the face. The final straw that breaks Arthur and turns him into Joker is when he learns his mother was an inmate in Arkham State Hospital, was delusional about Thomas, adopted young Arthur, and she stood by while he was abused as a child. Admittedly, matricide is a crime the Joker hadn't committed before but Joker checks that off his long list of career murders.

Powerfully (and quite obviously) evoking producer Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, the newly and fully clownified Joker achieves his dream of appearing on The Murray Franklin Show. To say Joker a nightmare guest is an understatement but it's in the crucial final act that Joker and Joker shift the blame fully onto society for his crimes and murders. It's true Gotham's brutality bears the brunt of the blame for Arthur Fleck's miserable life but his multiple murders are, ultimately, no one's fault but Joker's. And yet, rather sickeningly, Joker is held up as a hero, applauded by the clown-masked rioters who have 'taken Gotham back' in their "Kill The Rich" riots - which includes Thomas and Martha Wayne (Carrie Louise Putrello), who are shot dead in an alleyway by a Joker acolyte (as they are destined to be), leaving young Bruce an orphan. 

What we're left with at the end of Joker is the awe that is due for an admittedly mesmerizing display of cinema attempting to elevate the 'comic book movie' to the level of high art coupled with the harrowing feeling of watching an empty vessel caked in clown makeup murdering people who 'aren't nice to him' unchallenged. There's nothing aspirational or inspirational in the Joker's origin and his self-actualization is Joker embracing his destiny as a homicidal maniac, so... ha ha? Altogether, Joker is simultaneously enthralling and disturbing, absorbing and repellant. Most of all, Joker illustrates how much he needs Batman and, further, how much any Joker story needs the counterbalance of Batman - even more specifically, Joker proves how much we, the audience, need to see the Joker punched in the face by Batman over and over. Many Bat times and many Bat punches.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Downton Abbey

DOWNTON ABBEY

** SPOILERS **

Downton Abbey, creator Julian Fellowes and director Michael Engler's splendid feature film of the Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning TV series, is a pristine snowglobe where you peer into a lost and impossibly luxurious world that may never have existed quite like that but that's escapism of fantasy, isn't it? Downton Abbey picks up 18 months after the series finale and continues the stories of the Crawley family upstairs and the dauntless servants who live downstairs. As always, there's so much to do and there's no time for introductions; just as one cannot simply enter the magnificent estate of Downton Abbey and poke around willy-nilly, the film isn't for first-timers or someone just wandering in off the street. You have to know your Lady Marys from your Mr. Molesleys to truly appreciate what's happening. Downton Abbey may be for fans only but for the devotees, this is a glorious reunion that puts everyone's best foot forward.

When Downton Abbey begins, tremendous news arrives: King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) are touring Yorkshire in the North of England and will stay at Downton for the night. This is a great honor for the Crawley family - Robert, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), Cora, Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery), Tom Branson (Allen Leech), and Violet, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) - but for the servants below-stairs, the arrival of the Royal staff only means one thing: invasion. Chuffed that the Royal Family will sample their food and hospitality, Downton's irrepressible servants Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nichol), Daisy (Sophie McShera), Andy the Footman (Michael Fox), Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle), Mrs. Baxter (Racquel Cassidy), Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) are furious when Mr. Wilson, the Royal Butler (David Haig) and the snooty Royal Chef Monsieur Courbet (Philippe Spall) lay down a new pecking order: they have all been replaced by the King's men and women. Meanwhile, Lady Mary is concerned that Barrow (Robert James-Collier) isn't up to snuff as Downton's butler and recruits Carson (Jim Carter) to return to lead the staff and defend Downton's reputation. Carson, surprisingly, finds himself in over his head but so does Barrow, who discovers his first gay night club and gets himself in trouble. Luckily, his new friend, the King's valet Mr. Ellis (Max Brown) is there to bail him out. 

While all that happens downstairs, there's plenty of drama upstairs. Indeed, Downton Abbey has more characters and concurrent storylines than Avengers: Endgame. Violet is ready for a confrontation when she hears her distant cousin Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) is joining the King and Queen at Downton; Bagshaw refuses to name Robert Crawley the heir to her estate and instead plans to leave it all to her maid Lucy (Tuppance Middleton) - which prompts Isobel, Baroness Merton (Penelope Wilton), Violet's best frenemy, to serve as peacemaker. Captain Chetwode (Stephen Campbell Moore), a mystery man, recruits Branson - who's both Lord Grantham's son-in-law and an Irish Republican - for some sort of plot against the King. Edith, now Marchioness of Hexam (Laura Carmichael), arrives with her husband Bertie, the Marquess of Hexam (Harry Hadden-Paton) with happy news that she's pregnant but she receives unhappy news that the King requires Bertie to go on a tour of Africa just as their child will be born. The Crawleys also learn that Princess Mary (Kate Phillips) is unhappy in her marriage - oh, the Royals! They're just like us!

With so many characters and stories and so much opulence and pageantry, it's fascinating who falls into mere supporting roles (Lord Grantham, Mr. Bates) and who emerges to the forefront. As much as anyone's, the movie belongs to Tom Branson, Daisy, and Anna Bates. Anna masterminds the defense of "the glory of Downton". She leads the revolution downstairs where Downton's staff engineers the dismissal of the King's people so that they would have the honor of cooking and serving the royal dinner - which Mr. Molesley almost ruins in the film's most gasp-inducing moment. Daisy, more confident and spirited than ever, reveals that she's not a monarchist and asserts herself throughout the film before deciding it's time to marry Andy (a story thread that will perhaps be picked up in a sequel). And cheerful, noble Branson is literally the hero of the hour: he prevents a dastardly assassination plot on the King and finds a new romance with Lucy, who, it really comes as no surprise to anyone who remembers Lady Edith's storyline with Marigold, is actually Lady Bagshaw's daughter. Of course, if Tom marries Lucy, her vast inheritance would go to him - a delicious scheme Violet is calculatedly perpetrating from the shadows. Speaking of Violet, there's a moment between her and Lady Mary that harkens back to Spock telling Valeris that she is meant to succeed him in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country that's both sad and lovely - no doubt, it will work out better for the Crawleys than it did the Vulcans.

Despite the rich drama (and the notable absences of Lily James as Lady Rose and Samantha Bond as Aunt Rosamund), there is lovely heart and humor all throughout Downton Abbey and nary a villain to be found upstairs. Even the King and Queen turn out to be decent and affable people who are "quite used to people acting strangely" around them. Indeed, the film, like Downton Abbey the series, is about second chances, looking closer past a facade to find the (often beautiful) truth underneath, and celebrating people above and below, in all stations of life. Thankfully, Downton Abbey saw no need to reinvent the wheel or transform what the series was into something it isn't to please the masses. As a feature film adaptation of a beloved TV series, Downton Abbey is superior to and more fulfulling than its peers like X-Files: Fight The Future, Star Trek Generations, and the Veronica Mars movie. Downton Abbey, like the great house, the Crawley family, and the traditions they cling to, refuses to change (too much) and, in these troubled times, that's its greatest and most reassuring strength.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

IT: Chapter Two

IT: CHAPTER TWO 🎈🎈

** SPOILERS **

In IT: Chapter Two, the Losers Club return to their haunted home town of Derry, Maine after 27 years to solve the same problem they faced as tweens: How do you kill a CGI clown? In IT: Chapter One, they beat IT with the power of friendship, a united front, and by hitting it over and over with whatever blunt instruments they had on hand. But IT, also known as its preferred form (for some reason), Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgard), is awake again and launched a new reign of terror over Derry. The lone Loser who remained in town, Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) sends out the TroubAlert ordering the rest of the Losers back to Derry to honor the solemn vows they made as children. They all shit their pants when they get the call and they continue shitting their pants all throughout IT: Chapter Two as the Losers face their old enemy and the memories of the horrific trauma they all suffered at the hands of IT.

Structurally, IT: Chapter Two is something to behold - and you're forced to because the movie three hours long and feels it. Just as the adult Losers are plunged in a cycle of repetition as they remember the awful moments of the summer of 1989 (when none of them watched Batman), the audience is also plunged into a cycle of repetition. IT: Chapter Two takes about a half-hour to check in with each Loser and how they're doing in their adult lives before they reluctantly return to Derry. Then, once they're back in Derry and meet for Chinese food, they split up like an old Justice League comic book and we have to follow each individual Loser as they collect a special magical token and confront their memories of events we didn't see in IT: Chapter One. The young actors who played the Losers, including Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh, Jaeden Martell as Bill Denbrough, Jeremy Ray Taylor as Ben Hanscom, Finn Wolfhard as Richie Tozier, Chosen Jacobs as Mike Hanlon, Jack Dylan Grazer as Eddie Kaspbrak, and Wyatt Oleff as Stanley Ulis, return in the flashbacks and while they don't quite blow the adult actors out of the water, the kids still bring more heart and emotion than their grown-up selves can muster, try as they might.

It turns out most of the adult Losers are doing great, at least on the surface: Bill (James McAvoy) is a successful screenwriter, even though everyone hates the endings he writes, including director Peter Bogdonavich. Ben (Jay Ryan) is a rich architect. Richie (Bill Hader) is a successful stand-up comedian, even though he still tells the same foul-mouthed jokes he did when he was 12 and didn't evolve his material to be more sophisticated. Eddie (James Ransone) is a successful NYC business guy of some sort. Stanley (Andy Bean) is also rich and married.  Poor Beverly (Jessica Chastain) is a millionaire fashion designer but she's trapped in an abusive marriage (and she has the scars on her wrists to prove it, which none of the Losers ever mention). Only Mike is living in a ramshackle fashion in the attic above the Derry Library, but he's spent 27 years communing with Native Americans trying to figure out a way to kill IT. Yikes, look how long this review is already just name-checking everyone and trying to get up to speed. I haven't even mentioned the other characters from Chapter One that reappear, like Beverly's sicko dad and Henry Bowers, the psychopathic bully who turned into a psychopathic adult bully/killer/servant of Pennywise. Also, Stephen King lives in Derry and runs the thrift store because of course he does.

As the Losers get reacquinted with their past lives in Derry, old buried traumas bubble to the surface, always accompanied by Pennywise terrorizing them but never going for the kill for some reason. Bev remembers the postcard she thought Bill sent her but it was really Ben, who loved her from afar and still does. Richie confronts a secret he's long buried (he's gay) that Pennywise taunts him about but no one else discovers and why is it such a big secret in 2016 anyway? (Maybe the reason is this movie contains a sickening amount of literal bashing of gay men.) Bill has to reconcile his guilt where he believes he's the reason that Pennywise killed his little brother back in '89. Eddie has to face that his mom was fat... or something? Poor Stan killed himself rather than return to Derry; he explains this later in a letter that he "took himself off the board" and thereby did the Losers a solid since he's "the weakest one". Meanwhile, Mike has the thankless job of trying to wrangle all of the Losers and explain his half-baked plan to do a ritual to kill Pennywise, using an old Native American thing that has a drawing of six people holding hands (so I guess it's convenient that Stan couldn't make it).

It (and IT) all culminates in the cavernous bowels underneath the obvious haunted house in Derry where the true origin of Pennywise is revealed: IT came from outer space! The malevolent entity is a space alien of some sort and the remains of his meteor are still deep beneath Derry. The Losers have to muster all of their bravery to confront IT in its domain, but unlike when they were 12, only one of them brought a weapon: a fireplace poker fueled by the power of belief. Yet, in the end, the Losers defeat Pennywise not by hitting it with stuff but with a new, even more effective method: by yelling at it a lot and bullying the clown into submission - then they literally tear its heart out and smush it. Sure, why not. And with that, the Losers finally triumph over the ancient evil that infected their hometown, although no one else in the town is any the wiser.

IT: Chapter Two is best broken up into thirds: one third is very good, specifically the children and their relationships back in 1989, which are hearteningly resolved. One third is quite fine, specifically the adult Losers, who labor in the shadows of their childhood selves. The final third is complete schlock, specifically the jarring tonal abnormalities of the relentless comedy awkwardly jammed into this movie all throughout, and also Pennywise himself, a CGI monstrosity that's scary if you're absolutely terrified of pixels. IT: Chapter Two relies on the same moves over and over: LOUD noises and showing the clown briefly behind someone, wait until they turn around, and then the clown attacks them as a PlayStation-caliber CGI thingamajig that they escape by screaming and running away. And yet, despite the machinations of the jump scares, IT: Chapter Two is held together with a poignant underlying message of loyalty, unity, and caring for one another. Just as they did in IT: Chapter One, it's really thanks to the young Losers that IT: Chapter Two is occasionally elevated above being IT: Chapter Schlock.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Ready Or Not

READY OR NOT

** SPOILERS **

Regardless of everything else that happened in the gleefully gruesome Ready Or Not, Grace (Samara Weaving) accomplished something none of the X-Men were able to do in 7 movies over 19 years: get married at the X-Mansion. The opulent estate that once housed Charles Xavier and his mutants stands in as the home of the Le Domas family - or the Le Domas Dominion as they like to be called. Grace is overjoyed to marry into a clan of billionaires who created an empire from selling board games and playing cards, but her delight lasts until exactly midnight before the Le Domases hunt her in a deadly game of hide-and-seek. For Grace, the Le Domas family is literally the in-laws from Hell.

Grace is an orphan who grew up in foster homes so the prospect of marrying Alex Le Domas (Mark O'Brien), heir to the dominion, and being part of an actual family is a dream come true for her. But while Alex is the prodigal son, he's no prize: he neglects to tell Grace about his family's little tradition that anyone marrying a Le Domas has to play a game with the family to prove they're worthy of being "one of us". Most times, it's a harmless board game but when Grace draws the card that says "hide-and-seek" from the family heirloom, a black box given to the patriarch Victor Le Domas by a mysterious Mr. Le Bail in the 19th century, the game turns deadly right away. Grace has to hide in the mansion, which is on lockdown, while the family, armed with weapons, hunts her. If she can make it to dawn, she wins - except the family has to kill and sacrifice her or else they'll all die themselves.

The great news is Samara Weaving is sensational and she's all-in as Grace, who literally has to fight off all of her in-laws and endures a night of pure torture. No one has suffered so much to be accepted into a family: Grace is shot and a hole is blown through her left hand, she's bloodied and scarred, she's tranquilized, survives a car crash, is stabbed in the shoulder, and she falls into a pit of goat and human corpses. Grace climbing out of said pit and forcing a nail through the hole in her left hand is one of the standout movie moments of 2019 along with Captain America ordering the Avengers to assemble and Brad Pitt beating a hippie to death by pounding her face into a wall. In fact, Grace can match Pitt in the face-pounding department, as her mother-in-law Becky (Andie MacDowell) found out.

Ready Or Not triumphantly (if a bit awkwardly) weaves black comedy, survival horror, a labyrinthine mythology about the Le Domas' family history, and pointed social commentary about how dirty and rotten the 1% can really be. Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett have fun staging the whacked-out theatrics but they don't do a particularly splendid job utilizing the geography and layout of the Le Domas mansion to place the audience alongside Grace as she tries to escape her confinement. Along with Weaving, Adam Brody as Alex's conscience-stricken "weak" older brother Daniel is a standout, as is the family's lunatic patriarch Tony (Henry Czerny). Vitally, the ending delivers the goods, with a insanely gruesome sequence of events where the Le Domas family get their just desserts - not unlike how Professor X met his end thanks to Jean Grey in X-Men: The Last Stand. The unforgettable sight of the completely blood-covered Grace at the end is right up there with Florence Pugh covered in flowers at the end of Midsommar as two of the most fucked up climactic movie visuals of the year. 

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood

ONCE UPON A TIME... IN HOLLYWOOD

** SPOILERS **

Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood is a vivid dream of a Tinsel Town that existed once - not quite like that - but we wish it did. A lovingly detailed, freewheeling immersion into the 1969 Los Angeles of Tarantino's memories and desires, Once Upon a Time... is also the most genuinely endearing of the nine feature films he's directed. In fact, not only does Tarantino persuasively recreate the era of 1969 Hollywood, complete with the sights and the sounds of an epic soundtrack, but by the end, Tarantino shockingly does reality one better and saves Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) from the tragic fate that would befall her in real life.

In Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Rick Dalton, an actor immensely worried about his place in the burgeoning New Hollywood movement. Rick was the star of a 1950s cowboy show called Bounty Law but he quit to go into the movies, only to get passed over for the lead role in The Great Escape. The guy who got the part? Steve McQueen - something that rankles Rick to this day and partly drove him to alcoholism and endless anxiety. Rick gets a rundown of his career from his agent Martin Schwarz (Al Pacino), who suggests the cure for his career troubles is to spend six months in Rome shooting spaghetti westerns. This confirms it for Rick: "I'm a has-been!" he moans to his best friend and stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt); Cliff calmly replies, "Don't cry in front of the Mexicans."

Honestly, Rick's not doing so badly. He may no longer be a star but he's a working actor who wisely invested in a nice home in the Hollywood Hills. But he gazes longingly at the house right above him on the hill, which is now owned by Roman Polanski, the director of Rosemary's Baby, and his wife Sharon Tate. If Polanski would just cast Rick in one of his movies, that would be his ticket to movie stardom but alas, he's never met his neighbors. Instead, a hungover Rick goes to his guest spot on a pilot for a Western called Lancer, where all of his anxieties rise up. Rick meets Trudi (Julia Butters), an 8-year-old actor who's wise beyond her years and gives him a better peptalk than any adult he knows. When Rick musters up his talent and wows the cast and crew of Lancer, Trudi rewards him with praise he's been longing for: "That was the best acting I've ever seen in my whole life." Better than any five-star review in the papers, Rick's heart is buoyed and he's "Rick fuckin' Dalton" again. With Rick's arc, Tarantino creates perhaps his most endearing lead character; Dalton may be a drunk and temperamental, but thanks to DiCaprio baring Rick's heart to us, he's someone we truly root for.

Meanwhile, Tarantino pulls a more subtle trick with Sharon Tate; without anywhere close to the amount of dialogue Rick gets, Tarantino's camera follows Sharon through some of her adventures, like partying at the Playboy Mansion. The next day, Sharon goes to Westwood Village to buy a book and she decides to go to the movies to watch herself in The Wrecking Crew with Dean Martin. With her bare feet up on the chair in front of her (Tarantino's foot fetish is on full display in this film), Tate listens delightedly as the audience cheers and laughs at all the right places. Purely through her performance, Robbie makes Tate as endearing as Rick Dalton, and we get a pit in our stomach dreading what is bound to happen to her according to history.

While all that's going on, however, Cliff Booth goes on his own adventure. The stuntman is shunned by the Hollywood community because he's known as "the guy who killed his wife and got away with it". (Whether he did or not is up to the audience to believe.) Hence, Cliff sticks close to his buddy Rick and is satisfied being his driver and gofer, despite his poor career prospects. While Rick is shooting Lancer, Cliff picks up a hippie chick named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) he's seen hitching around Hollywood Boulevard. Decades older than her, Cliff knows enough not to do anything that'll land him in jail. Besides, his stuntman sense starts tingling when she says she and "others like her" live in Spahn Movie Ranch, where Cliff worked as a stuntman 8 years ago.

At Spahn Ranch, Cliff unwittingly discovers the Charles Manson Family, though he escapes unharmed never realizing who and what they are. One of the most intense set pieces in the film, the Spahn Ranch sequence also pays off the lecture Rick's agent gives him earlier: Schwarz gives Rick a breakdown on how audiences perceive an actor based on the choice of roles they take. At Spahn Ranch, it all comes into focus: the audience knows and sees Brad Pitt is a movie star so, even though he's surrounded by hippies and in danger, the audience never doubts Cliff could whoop those hippies' asses. And that comes to pass in the film's finale.

In real life, the Manson Family breaks into Sharon Tate's home on Cielo Drive and murders her as well as her three friends staying there. Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood brings events right up to the precipice of that grisly tragedy and then inserts an X-factor the real world didn't have: Rick Fuckin' Dalton! In a brazenly bravura action sequence, a very inebriated Dalton and a very high-on-acid Cliff run afoul of the four hippies Manson sent to kill Tate and violently dispatch the hapless interlopers while reaffirming their tried-and-true friendship.

Thus, Quentin Tarantino rewrites history for the better because in his universe, one of the seminal tragedies of 1969 Hollywood never occurred, while he simultaneously reaffirms the power of movie stars. What's more, Dalton's Old Hollywood ended up saving the life of Tate's New Hollywood, while never quite realizing he did so. At the end of Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, Rick finally meets his next-door neighbor Sharon, opening the gate to possibly getting his dream role in a Roman Polanski picture. With that, Quentin Tarantino closes out his fantastic and fantastical dreamland version of 1969 Hollywood - one of his all-time best films - on an unexpectedly uplifting note of hope.


Sunday, July 14, 2019

Crawl

CRAWL

** SPOILERS **

Apex Predator All Day

"I never thought it'd end like this," Kaya Scodelario tells her father Barry Pepper in Crawl. No doubt. How could she ever think she'd die in a watery basement eaten by alligators during a Category 5 hurricane? That's a very specific way to die but in Alexandre Aja's Crawl, that's exactly the life or death scenario Scodelario and Pepper find themselves in. Crawl is a perfect storm in more ways than one: beyond just the hurricane, which has caused floods and broken levees in South Florida, it's beyond unfortunate Pepper's house is right next to an alligator farm. Going up against one gator would be bad enough but there are multiple gators in Crawl, each hungry for Scodelario and Pepper's limbs - and they definitely get their licks in.

In Crawl, Scoledario plays a swimmer for the University of Georgia, Gainsville swim team. She's estranged from her father but goes looking for him when a hurricane hits and she finds him unconscious and badly wounded in the filthy crawl spaces of his basement. Unfortunately, Pepper's not alone: there are two gators down there too, with more on the way. That's it, that's the movie - Scodelario and Pepper have to somehow survive as the storm gets worse and worse, flooding the town and turning it into a gator party. Within this simple premise, a father and daughter reconnect and go to extremes to survive. They don't necessarily make it out with all of their limbs intact. They also have a dog, a wonderful pup named Sugar that the filmmakers wisely don't use as gator feed. Mostly a two-person and one doggo show, Crawl has a few extra characters who the gators make mincemeat out of. Meanwhile, Scoledario is in nearly every scene and she's a champ whether she has a medal for swimming or not.

Unlike sharks, the basic factoids of which have seeped into the collective unconsciousness ever since Jaws and the annual Shark Weeks and Sharknados, Crawl takes advantage of the fact that most of us don't really know a lot about alligators (I sure don't). Besides the obvious basics like avoiding the jaws, the ins-and-outs of fighting gators are a mystery, as Scoledario finds out when she dodges a gator's snapping mouth but gets whacked in the face with its tail. We wonder whether a gator attacks because its visual acuity is based on movement, like a T-Rex. And we're not exactly sure if a champion swimmer like Scoledario can swim faster than a gator - but it's fun finding out. The gators act like movie monsters when they need to and come out of the water for jump scares, but they also stay in the shadows when necessary to effectively build tension. 

Crawl starts off a bit like a crawl but then ramps up nicely. Pepper and Scoledario both get bitten quite a bit and are badly injured throughout the movie; it's probably not as easy to shake off multiple gator bites as they both make it seem and, in reality, they likely should both have bled out and died from their nasty wounds. There's one moment where a gator clamps onto Scoledario's arm and takes her on a death roll but at that late point in the film, Scoledario has been bitten so many times that she just takes it in stride as she tries to reach a flare to electricute the gator with. 

Overall, considering how Pepper, Scoledario, and the other actors and crew must have spent weeks in a wet, cold, filthy set, everyone comes out of Crawl looking like champs for their total commitment. Especially Scoledario, who holds the movie together with determination and gusto; she even has to swim through rancid water with her eyes wide open which should earn her an award of some sort just for being a great sport. Crawl is as good a father-daughter v alligators movie as you could ask for. And Crawl could even be a segment from Batman V Superman; when Scoledario and Pepper are on top of their house waiting for help, if they'd drawn a giant S shield on the roof, Superman probably would have shown up hovering over them.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Aladdin

ALADDIN

** SPOILERS **

Hold Your Breath, It Gets Better

"The monkey knows the way," Aladdin (Mena Massoud) tells Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) as they both escape the palace guards after them, and anyone who has such loyal friends as Abu the monkey and the Magic Carpet is well worth knowing. Director Guy Ritchie's dazzling Aladdin brings the classic Disney cartoon and the splendorous fictional Arabian world of Agrabah to life in all its vivid, colorful glory. This is a nearly miraculous production full of endearing charm, genuine wit, and eye-popping beauty, starting with its two leads and their meet-cute: he's an orphaned thief who's dismissed as "riff-raff" and a "street rat" while she's an intelligent and headstrong princess forcibly sheltered in the palace since the death of her mother. They're both stunningly attractive, clearly into each other, and they obviously belong together. "You should be Sultan," Aladdin later assures her and it's clear that when all is said and done, Jasmine will not just rule Agrabah but Aladdin's heart as well - and he'll thoroughly enjoy being ruled by her for the rest of his days.

We all know the story: the malevolent Grand Vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) wants to be Sultan but he needs the power of the Genie (Will Smith), who lives in a magic oil lamp hidden in the Cave of Wonders (voiced by Frank Welker, the voice of Megatron), to make his evil wish come true. Jafar kidnaps Aladdin, the "diamond in the rough" and the only person allowed to enter the cave (although Abu goes with him so the magical cave is clearly okay with a monkey tagging along). Inside the Cave of Wonders are treasures and riches beyond imagination, unless you're Scrooge McDuck or Smaug, in which case, you're familiar with piles of gold coins you can swim in. But there's also the lamp, which Aladdin retrieves, which means he's now the master of the Genie and the Three Wishes he can grant.

Following in the late Robin Williams' footsteps as the Genie is a daunting task but Will Smith rises to the challenge with a performance that's funny, razor-sharp, and unexpectedly emotionally moving when it counts: he's both exasperated mentor and supportively loyal friend (reluctantly at first) to Aladdin as he turns the street rat into the fictional (fresh) Prince Ali of the even more fictional kingdom of Ababwa - complete with Smith leading a musical number accompanying Prince Ali's arrival in Agrabah that brings the house down. But there's a key difference with this Genie: he's all man too and he has the hots for Dalia (Nasim Pedrad), Jasmine's eligible handmaiden who is quite interested right back. But the relationship between Aladdin and the Genie is sharply-written and poignant, especially when Aladdin ultimately delivers on his promise to free the Genie so he can live a normal life.

With a clever screenplay by Ritchie and John August that adapts the classic cartoon but also adds a few interesting new touches - mainly modernizing Jasmine with a fierce independent streak, progressive worldview, and a new, ultimate destiny - Aladdin astoundingly hits all of the high points of its beloved magic carpet ride. The costumes, sets, and production design are spectacular and,  thankfully, Scott is a powerful vocalist who belts out her part of "A Whole New World" and has an additional new song all her own. Meanwhile, Massoud is a charming Aladdin while Abu and the Magic Carpet are each remarkably loyal and endearing sidekicks. Ritchie's Agrabah is a sight to behold: a wonderous, immersive kingdom that should be its own Disney theme park. Although Kemzari's version of Jafar is a different flavor of sinister from the cartoon that takes a little getting used to and perhaps Gilbert Gottfried not voicing Iago the parrot is a bit of a letdown as well, even then, the movie just clicks and delivers genuine pleasures. Happily, Aladdin is a gorgeous fantasy and a new fantastic point of view of one of Disney's best fairy tales.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Spider-Man: Far From Home

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME

** SPOILERS **

In Spider-Man: Far From Home, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) goes to Europe in pursuit of "Peter Tingles". He gets them, in more ways than one. Director Jon Watts' sprawling and entertaining follow-up to Spider-Man: Homecoming is also the 23rd Marvel Studios film, the final film of MCU Phase 3, and a sequel to both Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame (whew). That's a lot of weight to put on Spider-Man's slender shoulders, Spider-Strength or no. As such, before Peter and his school chums from Midtown School of Science and Technology, including his trusty man in the chair Ned (Jacob Batalon) and MJ (Zendaya), the girl he has the Peter Tingles for, get to go to Europe, there's some MCU admin to get out of the way. Far From Home handles this irreverently, looking at the events of Thanos' mass genocide from the teenagers' point of view: the Decimation is now called 'The Blip', the dead Avengers (Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, and Vision) are memorialized with a video set to Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You", and everyone wants to know if Spider-Man is going to take the late Tony Stark's place as the next Iron Man and the leader of the Avengers (if the Avengers are still even a thing). 

Of course, Peter Parker can't just go on vacation, especially when the world is threatened by Elementals, other-dimensional monsters made of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Not long after Peter and his friends land in Venice, the city is attacked by the Water Elemental and Peter encounters Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), a new superhero who no one seems to notice is wearing the most ridiculous costume ever, complete with a fishbowl helmet. The Italian news dubs Beck 'Mysterio' and he takes a shine to the moniker (a lot more than Peter does to Spider-Man's European name: Night Monkey). Soon, Peter is recruited by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to help Mysterio save the world from the Elementals. Oh, Beck is from another dimension and the Elementals destroyed his world and now they've come for Earth. If that story sounds like horse shit, congratulations, you've got [insert your first name here] Tingles! Thing is, Peter doesn't want to join in on this world-saving crusade; even though it's been 8 months since he's been to space and fought two Thanoses from two different time periods, all he wants to do is go to Paris and tell MJ he has the Peter Tingles for her.

Meanwhile, even though Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is dead, Iron Man lives on in his tech and the late Avenger bequeathed his protege Peter a new toy: his favorite sunglasses, which contain E.D.I.T.H. (Even Dead I'm The Hero), an A.I. that gives Peter access to Stark's entire network of weaponry, including killer drones he can launch from Stark satellite. Peter doesn't know what to do with E.D.I.T.H. (besides accidentally use it to kill the kid who also likes MJ) and he dumbheadedly hands the tech over to Beck, playing right into his hands. For you see, Mysterio is not who he appears to be! Beck is actually a disguntled former Stark employee heading up a cadre of disenfranchised fired Stark employees and they all hold a grudge against Tony. Mysterio wanted E.D.I.T.H. to manufacture an Avengers-level threat so he can swoop in and become Earth's new Iron Man. Beck explains this in the movie's best scene: a hilarious speech of pure exposition where Gyllenhaal chews the scenery as he gleefully explains his master plan even though everyone in the room already knows it. But once Peter realizes he's been bamboozled, he throws all hope of his vacation aside to stop Mysterio.

Spider-Man: Far From Home doubles down on everything that worked in Spider-Man: Homecoming. There are more scenes with Peter and his endearing gang of buds, plus their goofball teachers, and there's just heaping amounts more of everything, to the movie's detriment. Even before they're revealed as illusions, the Elementals are letdowns as villains since, as giant water and fire monsters, they're not enemies Spider-Man can fight with his tried-and-true weapons of webs and punching. While Far From Home zips along through gorgeous European locales like Prague, Berlin, the Netherlands, and London, it feels overstuffed when the movie could have been leaner and meaner. Whereas Spider-Man received a new Stark Tech suit in Homecoming, now he has a half-dozen costumes. And while he was mostly operating alone in Homecoming, now he's got tons of help, from MJ, Ned, Nick Fury, Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), who happens to be dating Peter's Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). And while it seems there's no problem Spider-Man can't solve with enough Stark Tech, Peter does Spider-Man-up in Far From Home and the film addresses his Spider-Sense, making him earn one of his classic superpowers so it ends up being the difference-maker against Mysterio's incredible illusions. All the while, Holland easily plays an immensely likable Peter Parker, Gyllenhall is a dynamite Mysterio (I wish there was even more of him in the film), and the whole gang give Americans a good name all over Europe.

There are also big surprises in Spider-Man: Far From Home and the ones with the most ramifications for the future of Spidey and the MCU come at the end. Far From Home's final minutes finally bring Spider-Man to the familiar concrete jungles of Manhattan so that Tom Holland's webhead now swings across the same cityscape that his predecessors Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield did. (Only this time, MJ hates swinging along with Spidey, unlike her predecessor Kirsten Dunst.) After four films (counting the Avengers movies) of the MCU's Spider-Man avoiding the tropes of the Maguire and Garfield films, Spider-Man truly comes home to New York City - and he's hit with a double shock: the return of J.K. Simmons as (a bald) J. Jonah Jameson, who then reveals doctored footage left by Mysterio exposing Spider-Man's secret identity to the world. In the words of May in Homecoming's final seconds, "What the fu--?!?" And this is before the big Skrull reveal that seems to set up Captain Marvel 2. So despite Spider-Man's NYC homecoming in Far From Home, he's now in unfamiliar territory with the whole world knowing Peter Parker is Spider-Man. You might say it's a Brand New Day for poor Peter Parker.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Yesterday

YESTERDAY

** SPOILERS **

Danny Boyle's Yesterday posits an alternate reality where The Beatles never existed, which turns out to be both great and terrible news for Jack Malik (Himesh Patel). Mostly terrible, really. Jack, a struggling musician living in Clacton-on-Sea, UK, is run over by a bus during a global blackout that lasted for 12 seconds. When Jack comes to, he soon realizes that no one understands the Beatles references he drops, nor do his friends recognize the song "Yesterday" when he plays it for them. Panicked Google searches soon reveal the stunning truth: somehow, the blackout wiped The Beatles from history (among other random things like Coca-Cola, cigarettes, and Harry Potter). 

From this wacky high concept, Boyle and his screenwriter Richard Curtis hang a sweet, awkward, but frothy story of a man who is nothing particularly special seizing the opportunity to pretend that he is the sole author of some of the greatest rock songs ever. At first, Jack performs and records the Beatles' music just to preserve them but soon, the magic of the Beatles' hits lands him TV spots, which leads to Ed Sheeran himself showing up at Jack's door to invite him on tour. Poor Ed is exceedingly jealous of this nobody who somehow writes and performs songs that are instantly legendary, and Jack is quickly scooped up by an L.A.-based record label. Jack's record deal comes with a new, ball-busting manager (Kate McKinnon), but this means Jack has to leave behind his previous manager Ellie Appleton (Lily James), who has unrequitedly loved and supported Jack since they were classmates together in 2004. 

While Yesterday is an unabashed lovefest for the Beatles and their music, the film is clever enough to recognize and poke fun at the fact that those songs are from the 1960s and come off as dated in 2019. On one hand, "Let It Be", "Yesterday", "I Wanna Hold Your Hand", etc. remain as powerful as ever, but they're from an entirely different era, which is what makes them refreshing juxtaposed against today's heavily sampled and remixed pop music. And yet, some of the film's best jokes come at the expense of the Beatles' eccentricities: the album titles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band makes no sense and The White Album comes off as racist. Ed Sheeran also insists "Hey Jude" would be better and more contemporary if it was changed to "Hey Dude". McKinnon also hilarously (and correctly) sizes Jack up as "not attractive, out of shape" i.e. not a rock star. However, the novelty of one man supposedly writing and performing so many incredible songs in such a short period of time rockets Jack Malik to global stardom, but the guilt of being a complete fraud rips his soul apart, as does his realization that he also loves Ellie, who can't join him on this journey and has moved on romantically.

Boyle and Curtis wisely don't explain the hows and whys of the new reality, nor do they go into detail about the whereabouts of the surviving Beatles, and this lets them drop a huge surprise in the third act when the last Beatle anyone expected to see turns out to be alive. This leads Jack to finally listen to his conscience and tell the truth about being a fraud but, fortunately, he's not a fraud about loving Ellie. While James and Patel share an easy chemistry and she is at maximum Lily James-level charm, but Yesterday itself isn't Danny Boyle at his Danny Boyle-iest - the director only fleetingly dips into his bag of distinct cinematic wizardry. Rather, Boyle lets the actors and the music of the Beatles carry the load, and it all fuses into a lovely climactic montage of Jack and Ellie's life happy life together set to "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da ". While Yesterday isn't quite all it could have been, it packs enough irreverence, joy, wit, heart, and music that you recognize its deficiencies but just let it be.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Anna

ANNA

** SPOILERS **


"I work for the KGB, baby," Anna Poliatova (Sasha Luss) snarks to KGB chief Olga (Helen Mirren) at her job interview, but the truth is she doesn't want to. A former junkie and aspiring entrant to the Russian Navy (like her dead Soviet sailor father), Anna was recruited by Dracula Alex Tchenvok (Luke Evans) because she fits the profile for Hot Blonde Female Assassin in an Action Movie. And, since Anna looks like a fashion model, et voilà! She is both! As part of her deal, Anna must spend 5 years (1 in training, 4 in the field) serving her country as a government-sponsored assassin so the KGB sets her up with an ideal cover as a model in Paris. Anna books jobs, she has a Parisian girlfriend named Maud (Lera Abova), and when a shoot wraps, she jumps in a car, takes out a target, and reports her mission status to Olga via payphone. It's a great life but Anna hates it with a passion. She hates being a model and hates being a killer. What's option C for Anna?

Luc Besson's Anna is a stylish, efficient, Cold War assassin's tale. Set in 1990-1991, with flashbacks to 1985, 1987, and 1988 (the film keeps circling back onto itself to explain its various twists and turns), Anna's dangerous world of glastnost keeps her very busy. Though she's a reluctant killer, Anna is highly trained and can take out a room full of soldiers all by her lonesome without any type of superpowers. But what she really wants is to be free and not have her destiny dictated to her by men or women doing the bidding of their governments. Anna's dream is to go to Hawaii and live in the idyllic image of the postcard her father once brought home and stuck on their refrigerator; when she returns from a vacation in St. Tropez, she gives a similar postcard to Olga, who pretends she isn't touched by the gesture. Olga can't and won't make retirement in Hawaii happen for Anna - but the Americans can.

Enter The Scarecrow Leonard Miller (Cillian Murphy), a CIA agent working a long range plan of vengeance against the KGB. In 1985, the new KGB chief, Vassiliev (Eric Godon), asserted himself in his new position by executing 9 CIA agents in Moscow and sending their heads in boxes back to Miller at Langley Gwyneth Paltrow-in-Se7en-style. Five years later, Miller catches onto the tall, foxy, blonde killer the KGB has installed in Paris and sets a trap for Russia's best honeytrap. Anna then becomes a double agent, informing the CIA of her KGB-sponsored activities. Meanwhile, Miller personally walks into Anna's honeytrap himself, unaware that Anna has also had a longstanding relationship with Alex, her man in Moscow. The odd lover out is poor Maud, who is frozen out by Anna and kept totally in the dark (although why Anna remained in her cover in Paris after she eliminated the target she was sent there for in the first place remains a mystery). Soon, Miller makes Anna an offer she can't refuse: kill Vassiliev for him in retribution for the 9 heads-in-boxes and Miller will send her to Hawaii (though she can't pick which island). 

What results is an engaging spy thriller held together by the solemn but sincere charisma of Sasha Luss, who is a real-life former Russian model discovered by Luc Besson. Luss's Anna is ably supported by the acting firm of Mirren, Murphy, and Evans, three skilled veterans who make this whole enterprise work. While Anna is a B-movie, it's a sexy and entertaining one that includes a terrific montage of Anna's assassinations set to INXS' "Need You Tonight" and some amusing Eurotrash caricatures who evoke the over-the-top drama queen Chris Tucker played in Besson's The Fifth Element. Amidst the violence, there are indeed a few laughs, like Miller having to give a green light to Anna chopping off the index finger of her target. But the best joke in Anna is right before she kills Vassiliev during a game of chess: the old KGB spymaster compliments Anna on her successes and notes that usually, the KGB doesn't hire beautiful women like her because they cause problems. "That's why we hire the ugly ones," he explains, before adding, "Speaking of Olga..." Obviously, Vassiliev never saw Excalibur and how hot Helen Mirren was - she gave Anna a run for her money back then. Ask Merlin.

Dark Phoenix at Screen Rant

DARK PHOENIX AT SCREEN RANT

Dark Phoenix is the final X-Men film of the Fox era. The X-Men saga has lasted for 19 years and I was there since day one. In the long buildup to Dark Phoenix's release, I've been fortunate to write a lot of Screen Rant Features about the film and the X-Men franchise as a whole. Here they all are collected below:















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