‘Frozen II’ Only Makes Sense If You’re From Arendelle

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CREDIT: Disney

In Frozen II, Elsa hears a mysterious voice calling out to her from the forest. There’s some gee-gaw mystical explanation by the end about what that’s all about, but its ultimate purpose seems to be making her realize that she ought to be living on her own out in the forest. It’s hard not to read queer subtext into that, if you’re at all open to the possibility that there could be queer subtext in an animated Disney movie. So that’s how that goes, and meanwhile, there’s plenty more going on elsewhere, as Elsa and Anna stumble across some soldiers who have been fighting each other for decades while also trying to understand the important messages their parents have left for them. Plus, Kristoff attempts to propose to Anna while she keeps misinterpreting him in maddeningly over-the-top fashion, Olaf keeps telling us that water remembers, when ALL OF A SUDDEN, I’m so overwhelmed that I’m now doing a Phil Donahue impression (or at least an impression of Darrell Hammond’s Donahue impression). Arendelle is a busy place. Sometimes it’s exhausting.

I give Frozen II One Million Voices out of a Million and a Half Water Memories.

This Is a Movie Review: ‘First Man’ Captures All the Stresses of Neil Armstrong’s Trip to the Moon

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CREDIT: Daniel McFadden/Universal

This review was originally published on News Cult in October 2018.

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Christopher Abbott, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas, Shea Wigham, Brian d’Arcy James, Pablo Schreiber, Olivia Hamilton, Ciarán Hinds

Director: Damien Chazelle

Running Time: 141 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for the Psychological Fallout of Preparing for Space Travel

Release Date: October 12, 2018

There are a few things I want to say about First Man, Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic. First of all, it’s the best I’ve ever seen a film portray the stresses of going up into space. That certainly is not to say that the likes of The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 have made takeoff and its aftermath look like a cakewalk, but in focusing on one individual, First Man burrows in and exposes so many extra levels of intensity. We’re right there with Neil as he staggers to the bathroom following a stint in a g-force simulator, and when he endures multiple tragedies. This is a man who must deal with the accidental deaths of multiple colleagues as well as the loss of a young daughter from disease. Accordingly, Ryan Gosling plays him as a man wearing the weight of the world on his face for basically 2 hours straight.

Next, I have plenty to say about Claire Foy as Neil’s wife, Janet. She gives a hell of a performance, displaying the sort of fiery emotion and desperate toughness that you can’t look away from. She is definitely enough of her own person that we can clearly see her as more than just a wife and mother. But this is very much Neil’s film with everyone else orbiting around him, and as such, Foy is playing The Wife. One example of such gender disparity between lead and supporting roles is not in and of itself a bad thing, but it is part of a Hollywood history that favors men’s over women’s stories. This is an issue that is better discussed than pontificated upon, so please, let’s continue to have these conversations. And let’s not place too much blame on First Man in the meantime, but instead work to expand what stories are valued by the historical record.

Finally, a note on some technical matters. Composer Justin Hurwitz triumphs with a quiet, but forceful score that gives First Man the stamina it needs to maintain its intensity over 2-plus hours. It is a bit of a lullaby that plants the expanse of space right into our souls in a way similar to how it surely felt for Armstrong. Linus Sandgren’s cinematography, on the other hand, while similarly technically accomplished, is more than a little exhausting. A constant (subtly vibrating) handheld setup is just too much to bear for such a significant running time. That’s just one little bit of too much intensity in a film that’s otherwise so acutely calibrated.

First Man is Recommended If You Like: Intimate Biopics

Grade: 3.75 of 5 G Forces

 

This Is a Movie Review: Jennifer Lawrence Goes Deep in the Graphic Spy Thriller ‘Red Sparrow’

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CREDIT: Murray Close/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in February 2018.

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Jeremy Irons, Ciaran Hinds, Bill Camp, Joely Richardson, Sakina Jaffrey, Mary-Louise Parker

Director: Francis Lawrence

Running Time: 139 Minutes

Rating: R for Nudity as Power, Pleasure, and Disgrace; Spycraft Violence; and Slice-and-Dice, Pounding Torture

Release Date: March 2, 2018

Red Sparrow is the latest spy story that hinges on a final act revelation of a mole. the logic (or lack thereof) of such a twist is something I often can’t make heads or tails out of. The narrative-consuming part of my brain just is not that wired that way. But as far as I can tell, this particular mole’s exposure does pass the plausibility test, though it is not especially impactful. But Red Sparrow’s intrigue thankfully goes beyond any straightforward conception of traitors and double agents. In fact, it questions and pokes at (without quite fully deconstructing) the entire concept of double agency when it involves someone who seems to be an ideal fit for the job but does not want anything to do with professional deception.

Jennifer Lawrence stars as Dominika Egorova, a Bolshoi ballerina who suffers a career-ending injury and then faces the crisis of how she will be able to continue to take care of her widowed mother. So her uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts) recruits her to become a spy at the Red Sparrow School, which essentially requires its trainees to sacrifice their entire identities to the Russian government. Meanwhile, CIA agent Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton) gets mixed up with Dominika as he hunts down high-level Russian spies. (He is temporarily suspended after making a huge mistake out in the field, but that does not affect matters as it much as it seems like it is supposed to.) Nash and Dominika’s motivations appear to match up, but of course there is that age-old question: can opposing sides truly trust each other when working together? In this case, the answer actually does appear to be yes, and a more pressing question is: is it possible for individuals to get what they want when insidious bureaucratic forces are pulling the strings everywhere?

Fundamentally driving Red Sparrow and several of its characters is the idea that the Cold War never really ended (it just broke into many pieces, as one of them puts it). That may sound a little over-the-top for a film aiming for some degree of verisimilitude, but then you see what former KGB agent Vladimir Putin is up to, and all the alleged Russian hacking in foreign elections, and on second thought, maybe this does not sound so farfetched at all. Even if it did, it would be perfectly legitimate to put something insanely conspiratorial on film. The problem is that we have seen this sort of cinematic Russian subterfuge plenty of times before.

That familiarity is overcome a decent amount by Charlotte Rampling, whose performance sets the tone for the state of modern Russian spycraft. She is the headmistress of the Sparrow School, and she insists that you call her “Matron.” We have seen this sort of officious, beat-you-down-and-re-mold-you character in plenty of other iterations, but Rampling brings a level of camp and matter-of-factness hitherto unseen. Not only, in her parlance, is every person “a puzzle of need,” but also so many people today are “drunk on shopping and social media,” which would normally sound irritatingly reductive but comes off as venomously delicious when she says it.

Red Sparrow’s most lasting impact is derived less from espionage and more from its examination of human behavior and interpersonal power dynamics. There are several scenes featuring graphic torture and nudity (including rape and attempted rape), and they do not come off as simply exploitative, because they are there to elucidate the effects they have on individuals. It is heavily implied that Sparrows are really groomed from birth to give themselves over entirely to the government. They are indoctrinated that their bodies are not their own, that they must give themselves up to give their marks exactly what they want in service of a greater power. Dominika, while in many ways an ideal recruit, never fully gives in. She decides that she is willing to make her body available, but she maintains a level of resistance. When naked, she asserts her power, which is resonant in the Me Too era (and eternally so) and metatextually, it works as a statement from Lawrence, herself a victim of a nude photo hack, that she will work this intimately only on her own terms. Thanks to her steely performance, Red Sparrow works as a defense of the dignity of every individual human being.

Red Sparrow is Recommended If You Like: The Americans, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Oppressed women taking control, Oppressed citizens taking control, Frightening headmistresses, Torture scenes with a purpose

Grade: 3 out of 5 Floppy Disks

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Justice League’ is Okay, I Guess

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CREDIT: Warner Bros.

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Ciarán Hinds, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, J.K. Simmons, Connie Nielsen

Director: Zack Snyder

Running Time: 120 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Localized Explosions, Heat Vision Mishaps, and Grotesque Insectoids

Release Date: November 17, 2017

Would you rather have a true auteurist vision that is decidedly ugly and off-putting, or a plainly adequate film with little distinct personality? If you want something to endlessly discuss and theorize about, go with the former. But if you want something to actually watch, go with the latter.

Justice League is perhaps the least Zack Snyder-y film of Zack Snyder’s career. Absent completely is the washed-out color palette. Fabian Wagner’s cinematography is mostly workmanlike, but he does what he can in a limited sandbox, and the result is actually pleasant to look at. Colors are not only present, they’re vibrant! There is an early scene of Bruce Wayne and Diana Prince walking along some lush greenery, and it makes me wish the whole film had just been Justice League Hanging Out in the Park. The action might still fit within Snyder’s kinetic pinball wheelhouse, but it is not as garishly stylized as usual. And because this is a post-Wonder Woman world, the hard-to-be-a-god, brooding cynicism has given way to genuine hopefulness. Really, the only Snyder signature that unequivocally remains is the best one, i.e., the rediscovered rock song scoring the opening credits (this time, it’s Norwegian singer Sigrid’s take on Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”).

The main duty of Justice League is finding a way forward after the colossal slog that was Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice by way assembling its titular superteam and resurrecting its most iconic member. The returning headliners, namely Affleck’s Batman and Gadot’s Wonder Woman, unquestionably know how to handle this heft. Ezra Miller’s Flash and Jason Momoa’s Aquaman convey their characters economically enough. Ray Fisher could use some more prime time as Cyborg, but it’s an okay start. Overall, it’s refreshing that everyone is eager to team up because they simply recognize how much the entire world is at stake. Isn’t that how superheroes were always meant to be?

As for Superman’s rise from the grave, it isn’t surprising, nor is it meant to be. The (theoretical) fun of it is seeing how it plays out. And on that point, it is fairly entertaining. When Supes comes to, his mind is a bit scrambled, causing him to indiscriminately attack whomever is in the path of his heat vision. Henry Cavill plays it like his body vomiting up the last remnants of Snyder’s inexplicably distasteful take on the Man of Steel. This concession to a lighter version is in fact indicative of the whole Justice League ethos. Finally, the DC Extended Universe is allowed to crack jokes! And I’m not talking glib, Marvel-style one-liners, but actual character moments, like malapropisms and other exposures of vulnerability. Ma Kent (Diane Lane), for one, informs Lois Lane (Amy Adams) that Clark said Lois was “the thirstiest young woman he ever met” (she means hungriest). It’s okay to laugh!

As for the actual story engine, the DCEU is still testing our patience. If this were a pilot episode of a Justice League TV show, it would be fine enough. A little long, but a decent setup. And if you’re in the business of silver linings, that is the best takeaway to come away with here. Future sequels are inevitable, and I can see a roadmap where they might actually be good. The best villains are being saved for later, but this time around the big bad is incredibly perfunctory. Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds under a lot of CG) is some sort of gargoyle whose motivation does not go anywhere beyond “try to take over the world.” His army of insect-men is just a nuisance in every capacity. It’s fair to save the best for later, but it helps to actually get to the best at some point.

Justice League is Recommended If You Like: Incremental Improvement

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Doomsday Clocks