‘Chaos Walking’ is an Impenetrable But Fascinating Piece of Dystopian Sci-Fi

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Chaos Walking (CREDIT: Lionsgate)

Starring: Tom Holland, Daisy Ridley, Mads Mikkelsen, David Oyelowo, Demián Bichir, Cynthia Erivo, Nick Jonas, Kurt Sutter, Óscar Jaenada

Director: Doug Liman

Running Time: 109 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Wham-Bam Action

Release Date: March 5, 2021

Chaos Walking is one of those movies where I’m not entirely sure what’s going on, but I kind of wish I did know more, because the things that I can make sense out of really do grab my attention. It’s an apt title then. Chaos really is walking everywhere, baby! That’s most obvious in the form of its signature visual motif: a swirl of inner thoughts dancing around people’s heads known as “the Noise.” All the men on this planet are afflicted by this condition, and it’s presented so matter-of-factly and therefore so effectively. I initially found it jarring, almost overwhelming, but within ten minutes it made all the sense in the world. I wish I could say the same thing about the plot, though. It’s driven by some sort of fight to figure out the secrets underpinning society, as is the case with so much dystopian sci-fi. I can tell that Tom Holland is earnest and well-intentioned and that Daisy Ridley is probably the key to everything and that Mads Mikkelsen doesn’t want them to succeed because he’s so grumpy, but beyond that, I feel like I needed to study the novel trilogy the film is based on to really understand the specifics.

If you can’t quite follow a movie’s storyline, you can at least vibe with it a bit if you can get on the wavelength of its action energy and its stylistic approaches. From a production design standpoint, Chaos Walking‘s decor is basically Hunger Games-esque arboreal but without the whiz-bang flamboyance. On a thematic level, it clearly has something to say about religion, though who’s to say what exactly that something is, though it’s at least fun to hear characters shout things like “I am the sinner! Purify my sin!” And on the action front, director Doug Liman is a reliable pro. He can even make you absolutely compelled by a chase scene that’s clearly a ripoff of Return of the Jedi‘s speeder bike sequence. (It even features Star Wars‘ very own Daisy Ridley, to boot!)

In many ways, Chaos Walking struck me as shouty, empty, and stitched-together. But I don’t want to dismiss it entirely, because it also struck me as intriguing, unique, and unburdened by expectations. This is a movie that’s comfortable being its own damn self, almost a little too much so. But that qualification is also why I admire it. At first glance, it looks like a generic slice of dystopian YA, but sticking with it allows it time to reveal that it’s a bit of an odd beast. Chaos is  indeed walking, and it’s reigning supreme, and I can’t argue with that.

Chaos Walking is Recommended If You Like: Lots of trees, Visually loud neuroticism, Differences between boys and girls writ large

Grade: 3 out of 5 Spackle Noises

‘Harriet’ is at Its Best When Emphasizing How Good Harriet Tubman Was at Her Job

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CREDIT: Glen Wilson/Focus Features

Starring: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Janelle Monáe, Jennifer Nettles, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Clarke Peters, Zackary Momoh

Director: Kasi Lemmons

Running Time: 125 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for A Bevy of Insults and a Few Scenes of Brutal Violence

Release Date: November 1, 2019

As I began to watch Harriet Tubman biopic Harriet, the thought “Shouldn’t I be watching this in school?” passed through my mind. That is by no means an insult, but rather, it is an illustration of how my own experience (and the experience of many American schoolchildren) has primed me to feel towards a movie like this one. Tubman is an important figure in American history, so a film about her is a useful tool for history teachers to keep their students’ attention. In that sense, Harriet does not need to be a masterpiece (though bonus points if it is), it just needs to be historically accurate, or at least true to the spirit of its subject. On that count, I recommend Harriet to any teacher whose curriculum covers the era of abolition.

For everyone else who is not watching this movie in a classroom setting, you might still be excited because it has taken more than a hundred years for Tubman’s story to finally get the full-blown feature film treatment (though Ruby Dee and Cicely Tyson played her in earlier TV versions). Although, that excitement might be tempered by the difficulty of having to endure yet another movie viscerally showing the brutal treatment of the enslaved (as well as free black Americans). But I think the best way to appreciate Harriet is as a story of a person who does her job very well, i.e., the sort of character that Tom Hanks often plays. Cynthia Erivo proves that a woman and a person of color is just as capable of this role (not that any proof was necessary, given the historical record).

Tubman escapes to freedom on her own, safely travelling about a hundred miles by foot despite her illiteracy and the relentlessness of her slave master. She then goes on to help secure the freedom of hundreds of more slaves while pretty much matter-of-factly never losing any of her cargo, stunning her fellow conductors on the Underground Railroad with her success rate. But as the steady, burrowingly intense eyes on Erivo’s face tell you, this is just what she does. Slavery had to end at some point, and Harriet Tubman was as up for the job as she needed to be.

Harriet is Recommended If You Like: Glory, Sully, Bridge of Spies

Grade: 3 out of 5 Rescue Missions

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Widows’ is the Best Cinematic Crime Saga in Quite Some Time

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CREDIT: Twentieth Century Fox

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

Starring: Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Liam Neeson, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, Robert Duvall, Lukas Haas, Garret Dillahunt, Molly Kunz, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo

Director: Steve McQueen

Running Time: 129 Minutes

Rating: R for Professional Criminals at Their Scariest

Release Date: November 16, 2018

Sometimes I am at a loss of what to say about a film because of how powerfully it has affected me. Widows is one of those films. Its immediate effect was similar to that of The Dark Knight, in which I sat stunned, not quite sure what had happened, but certain that I had seen something special. Steve McQueen’s massively sprawling saga about Chicago crime and politics is populated by a ridiculously sterling cast, with at least ten, or maybe fifteen, of them receiving the gift of really juicy material to bite into.

Chief among them, in all fairness, are the titular widows, who are left to clean up the very expensive mess left behind by their recently deceased criminal husbands. Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) are forced to form an uneasy alliance or run the risk of the rest of their livelihoods dissolving away. While each actress is compelling, their characters are not necessarily likable. Do they bear some guilt for benefitting from their husbands’ activity despite not knowing what they were tup to? On the other hand, they are in many ways trapped in a situation with no good options for escape. Their predicament demonstrates the limits of feminism and standing up for a yourself in a world ruled by violence.

Thus far in this review, I have barely touched upon even 10% of this film. It runs just a little over two hours, but it is so stuffed with goodness that I am amazed it is under three hours, yet it is simultaneously so sleek that it feels like it is running for just an hour and a half. There are about six (maybe more) stories running alongside each other and somehow they run seamlessly together. There’s Bryan Tyree Henry as a crime boss trying to break good by running for alderman in a gentrifying neighborhood and Daniel Kaluuya as his brother and terrifying enforcer. His opponent is Colin Farrell, who is struggling with maximal agita as he finds his place as a successor in a long line of Chicago politicians. And we cannot forget Cynthia Erivo as a babysitter/beautician/hustler who also plays a big part in all this. Plus there is plenty more to know about the shadowy machinations of ringleader Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson), Veronica’s husband. And how is there also room for Matt Walsh to show up for one key scene?! McQueen is dynamite with his clear, effective craftsmanship. If you see Widows, you will likely understand everything that happens plot-wise, and you might also just feel compelled to take part in the exhaustive analysis of every frame that is sure to follow in the years to come.

Widows is Recommended If You Like: Heat, The Town, The Dark Knight, “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” by Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Aldermen

 

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ Fits As Many Crazy Characters And Genre Twists as Possible Into a Quirky Hotel

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CREDIT: Kimberley French/Twentieth Century Fox

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

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Chris Hemsworth, Nick Offerman

Director: Drew Goddard

Running Time: 140 Minutes

Rating: R for The Violence of Lawmen, Career Criminals, and Desperate People

Release Date: October 12, 2018

Drew Goddard has a thing for surveillance. His directorial debut, The Cabin in the Woods, was all about the pleasure and ritual of watching young people being ripped apart by monsters. That thematic concern was to be expected with Cabin, which deconstructed in one fell swoop all of horror cinema, a genre that more than any other grapples with voyeurism at its core. Bad Times at the El Royale, Goddard’s second film, is by contrast about a group of various strangers converging at one central location. This setup does not by definition invoke surveillance, but it is just as concerned about the watchers and the watched as Cabin is. Thus a series of question is raised: is Goddard watching all of us? Is he sounding the alarm about the nefarious forces that are watching us? Or does he take that nefariousness as a given, and is he then using cinema to process it?

The action becomes quickly pear-shaped at the titular hotel, which straddles the state line between California and Nevada, with their differing liquor and tax laws separated by the two halves of the establishment. It’s a novel premise that keeps you on your toes and alert for other oddities. The El Royale might be off the beaten path and have fallen on hard times, but it seems to serve as a beacon to folks with similarly dual natures. All who are getting ready to spend the night there – a vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), a priest (Jeff Bridges), a soul singer (Cynthia Erivo), a rude, mostly silent young woman (Dakota Johnson), and even the concierge (Lewis Pullman) – are much more than they initially appear to be. That is hardly surprising, given how over-the-top or opaque they are when we first meet them. Bad Times does not reinvent the wheel, but it never lets its hands off it.

That maximal level of control is essential to what Goddard is pulling off. Once again, he is in deconstructionist mode. This time he is taking on the subgenre of post-Tarantino, nonlinear crime flicks. Obviously this is much more specific than what Cabin was targeting, but there are still plenty of threads to pull at, and Goddard pulls at all of him. (In a way, this is not so much a deconstruction of Tarantino’s imitators as much as it is a reconstructed better version.) He sets out to examine how each character could have possibly gotten to this point, diving into as much backstory as possible. That formula makes for A WHOLE LOT of movie. What could have been an hour-and-a-half shootout is instead a nearly two-and-a-half-hour dissertation. It is worth consuming it all, but prepared to be exhausted immediately afterwards and to continue to digest it for days, or even weeks, later.

Bad Times at the El Royale is Recommended If You Like: The Hateful Eight, Agatha Christie Mysteries, The Cabin in the Woods, Classic Rock and R&B

Grade: 4 out of 5 Room Keys