‘The Invisible Man’ Review

Wow it is really upsetting to see Elizabeth Moss being controlled by a sinister force that seeks to strip her of her individuality and define her actions and beliefs in increasingly upsetting ways.

Anyway, on a totally separate note, I saw The Invisible Man recently.

Leigh Whannell hits another solid one out of the park, crafting a horror thriller that’s equal parts scary and upsetting (and seemingly doing it on a pretty low budget). Whannell understands that with a concept like the invisible man, even a simple camera pan can convey terror as you have no idea if the villain is actually standing right there.

Moss is doing top tier work here. At one point she has a conversation WITH A DOORWAY that is one of the most mesmerizing pieces of acting I’ve ever seen. Her performance really elevates this  material.

Other random notes:
-The opening sequence of this film is a masterclass in showing instead of telling.
-I saw this movie in Dolby Atmos and I’d recommend that presentation (or IMAX) if you can, as the sound design in the film is truly excellent. For much of this film you’re only hearing the action as opposed to seeing it.
-I wasn’t a fan of the later plot developments in the film, which I thought gave the whole thing a much more muddled and ambiguous message.

‘Birds of Prey’ review

There’s a scene in Birds of Prey where a character is breaking into a prison and accidentally activates the sprinkler system before she starts fighting the prisoners one by one. Why? Because it looks really cool when people are fighting in slow motion in puddles of water!

That’s the aesthetic driving force of this film: Because it looks cool!

And indeed, it does look cool. None of the characters in this movie have super powers, so in place of the typical CG-heavy razzle dazzle that we’re accustomed to, the movie features extremely well-choreographed and performed hand-to-hand fight sequences. All the actors, Robbie especially, do a great job selling these sequences and they are a joy to watch.

But is there any substance behind the style? Birds of Prey focuses primarily on Harley Quinn and poses the question as to whether this character, who has often been defined by her relationship to another character, can support her own film.

To make that happen, the movie throws a ton of ideas at the wall. It introduces a colorful cast of characters, including Ewan McGregor playing a scenery-chewing villain and Rosie Perez playing a cop who is straight out of an 80s TV show (a fact that’s remarked upon by several of the other characters). It tells its story Fight-Club-style with a first-person narration and rapid time jumps just to make sure you don’t lose interest.

But the fundamental problem with making a film based off of a villain is that at some point the villain needs to be someone you can root for. Harley Quinn always struck me as one of the scariest characters in the DC Universe. When I’ve seen depictions of her in the past, as in Batman: The Animated Series, I always found her psychosis to be terrifying. How could someone who was once a regular, functioning member of society be changed to a killer over something like love? If it could happen to a psychiatrist like Harley Quinn, it could literally happen to anyone. Such was the Joker’s persuasive power and madness.

The film doesn’t do anything to explore that dynamic. Instead, it gives her a redemptive arc – one that I didn’t find particularly convincing. Whether you feel the same way will dictate how much you appreciate the film.

It sure is a lot of fun to look at, though!

1917 in IMAX

Last night at 9:45pm, I had a chance to watch 1917 in true IMAX at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. It was the final IMAX screening of the film in the city, and I’m a bit sad that more people aren’t able to experience it in this format. Alas, its run got abridged by Rise of Skywalker on one end and Birds of Prey on the other.

This was my third time watching the film, but my first in IMAX. In this format, I was able to fully appreciate the meticulous details within. The background work is incredible. As the leads walk through the trenches, we see literally hundreds of soldiers alongside them, each playing out their own mini-narrative. They are sleeping, eating, washing clothes, smoking, praying. You appreciate these details more when the screen is five stories tall.

You also can see how much goddamn work went into these sets. There are decaying horse carcasses and rusty nails and bloated cadavers and worn out bunk beds and you can take them all in and marvel at the artistry.

I know there are a lot of people down on this film but I still think it’s a masterpiece. It’s interesting to me how people have reacted differently to the film’s one-shot technique. While some (like me) find it immersive, others think it puts the viewer at a distance to the action. The videogame-like structure to the film makes people feel like it’s a heartless simulacra of war, as opposed to a heartfelt tribute to its heroes. It sometimes seems like people would prefer a Spielbergian Saving Private Ryan-esque shaky cam to fully convey the horrors of war, but I believe that different techniques can bring to light different elements of the experiences depicted. As is obvious, though, your mileage may vary.

The only thing that continues to grate on me about this movie are all the cameos by famous people. An alternate version of this movie in my mind would have been populated by complete unknowns. This way when the characters are introduced, there’s not a big party that goes off in your head, screaming “HEY IT’S MARK STRONG! SHERLOCK AND MORIARTY ARE BOTH HERE! ROBB STARK IS MY BOY!”

It’s possible this movie will get limited runs in the future as part of a “Best Picture Winner” series. If you have the chance to see it in IMAX, I’d urge you to make the effort. It’s worth it.

The Top 10 Films of the Decade

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I recently invited film critic Tasha Robinson from The Next Picture Show podcast to join me on Culturally Relevant to count down our top 10 films of the decade. It can be difficult enough to count down one’s top 10 films of a given year, so asking a fellow critic to count down one’s top 10 of the decade is downright sadistic.

Nonetheless, I was grateful to Tasha for participating in this exercise with me. It was a clarifying experience, as it forced me to look back on the decade and consider not only which films I enjoyed the most, but which films I felt represented my decade in filmgoing. What films contained the ideas, the techniques, the themes, and the characters that I feel will make an indelible impression going forward?

I’ve listed my choices below, but you should listen to the podcast episode to get the full discussion, plus hear Tasha’s choices too.

Without further ado, here are my top 10 films of the 2010s:

10. Nightcrawler (2014) – No other film better captures the spirit of vulture capitalism that has come to define this decade. In Nightcrawler, a sociopath shows that by using some ingenuity and a take-no-prisoners approach he can accumulate wealth and power and destroy his enemies. It’s a chilling tale of how our society can shapes its contributing individuals and hone them to value profit above literally all else. Jake Gyllenhaal transforms into Louis Bloom, an always-hustling, cutthroat businessman, and Rene Russo is tremendous as the woman who ends up becoming vulnerable to his machinations.

9. The Raid 2 (AKA The Raid 2: Berandal)  – The Raid 2 is the Godfather 2 of action movies. It takes the scope of the first film and blows it up, while amping up the ambition and carnage of the action scenes tenfold. It’s rare in this day and age to get an action film that strives to be epic, where the emotions are meant to be as large and complex as the action choreography. I don’t know that this film achieves what it sets out to do but I’m so glad it tries. It’s my favorite action movie of the decade and that’s why it’s on my list at this spot.

8. Avengers: Endgame (2019) / Avengers (2012) (it’s a tie, which is cheating, but it’s my list, so…) – We are in the era of the extended universe, which is dominating both our box office and our cultural conversation. No other films have done a better job proving that you could have all these disparate characters combine into one movie, and do it in a way that was satisfying, enjoyable, even a must-see event. I still remember when the idea of any one of these characters getting their own films at all was a pipe dream, let alone teaming up. When Avengers proved it was in possible, I was in awe. When Avengers: Endgame proved you could tie it all up and bring this thing to a close, I was in tears. Lots of people are unhappy with what Marvel films have done to the cinematic landscape but regardless of where the MCU goes from here, I’ll always be grateful I was able to take this incredible journey with them this decade.

7. OJ: Made In AmericaOJ: Made in America is a towering work of documentary filmmkaing. No other documentary I saw this decade did a better job at unearthing footage that consistently made me say, “Wow, I can’t believe they got that.” But it’s not just the footage itself – director Ezra Edelman assembles it all in a compelling way that makes the outcome feel sadly, inevitable. There’s a reason the OJ Simpson case continues to retain such power up until this day. It symbolizes how we in America remain intensely divided and how the legacy of our past and present crimes around race can manifest themselves in our justice system in surprising and unfortunate ways. [Hey, at least I didn’t put Twin Peaks on my list.]

6. Before Midnight – I know it sounds naive and maybe even silly of me to say, but I I learned a lot about love from Richard Linklater’s Before series. Before Sunrise (1995) taught me about young love and how exciting and dynamic it is. Before Sunset (2004) taught me about the disappointments of middle age. And Before Midnight (2013) taught me about the miracle of companionship and what it takes for partners to survive in the long term. The film series spans 18 years in the lives of its characters as well as the actors portraying them, and it is a huge accomplishment in showing the evolution of a relationship on screen. Before Midnight puts a capper on the whole affair, bringing the trilogy to a satisfying conclusion while never straying from the grounded realism that made the series so memorable in the first place.

5. Parasite – I think one of the main themes of 2019 films has been this notion that we as a society need to grapple more with privilege. How much of it do we have, and what are its impacts and implications? This is something that Parasite does wonderfully, telling the story of a lower-class family who goes to work for an upper class one and all the tensions that result. There are twists and turns, and more than a handful of shocking moments. Beyond this, the film is impeccably composed with frames that are bursting with meaning. It’s the one film from 2019 that I feel pretty confident saying we’ll still be talking about 10 years from now.

4. Gravity – I think when we look back at this decade, Gravity is going to be one of the films that we will see as the most technologically groundbreaking. The film is nearly entirely CGI, but even to this day, I find the illusion to be complete. If you look at how this film was made, it’s a miracle that it works at all. A lot of the film was created with Sandra Bullock harnessed into a high-tech moving platform while LED lights were blasted at her to simulate the lighting conditions what the CG images would end up being. Bullock’s performance, as a woman who believes she has little to live for down on Earth, helps keep this space movie grounded.

There’s a line in the movie where the astronauts have lost communication with Houston and they start prefacing all their communications with “Houston in the Blind” because even though they can’t hear any responses they have faith people are listening. Director Alfonso Cuaron has said in interviews this is how he felt making this film, hoping blindly that his vision for this film would work on a fundamental level. We can all be grateful he took that leap because Gravity is thrilling filmmaking that manages to make us ponder mankind’s place for the universe.

3. Get Out – Jordan Peele has said that in the aftermath of Obama we were living in a post-racial lie — the idea that racism had somehow been solved because we had a black president. I think our real-life politics soon showed that that lie was temporary, but Get Out illustrated it in through a tense horror film that is thematically rich and interesting. The idea of white people wanting to take over the bodies of black people has so many parallels and so much resonance with modern day society that it’s literally scary. That’s the visceral terror that Get Out brought to life. It’s also a film that has made so many cultural contributions, including the concept of The Sunken Place or the quote, “I would’ve voted for Obama for a third term,”— the words of a performative ally. Get Out also represents this decade in low-budget filmmaking and a vindication of the Jason Blum method of production, in which you place many bets on low budget films, and not all of them hit. Get Out of course hit, landing over $175 MM in domestic box office, and it showed you could still get folks to the theater with an ambitious idea and flawless execution.

2. Under The SkinUnder the Skin is one of the most visually arresting movies I’ve ever seen. Jonathan Glazer has created a story that feels dreamlike and terrifying. But the film was also innovative from a filmmaking perspective. Glazer pioneered new camera technology to be able to film strangers in tight enclosed spaces, much of which was done with Scarlett Johansson literally just walking around and picking up guys on the street. Johansson herself delivers a bold, chilling performance as a woman whose body is used for ends beyond her control. Under the Skin is one of those rare films that makes you reflect on how cruel and inhumane our society might seem if viewed from the outside.

1. Mad Max: Fury Road – I can’t get away from it: Mad Max: Fury Road is still one of the most bold, spectacular pieces of action filmmaking. The stunts are jaw-dropping, the pacing is propulsive, and the performances by Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron are transformative. It’s relentlessly watchable and chilling in its depiction of a future in which natural resources are hoarded by a handful of malevolent forces — a plot which feels strangely relevant today. George Miller has created a masterpiece and action filmmakers will spend the next decade trying to best it.