‘The Rhythm Section’ Abandons All Clarity in the Name of Single-Minded Revenge

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CREDIT: Paramount Pictures

Starring: Blake Lively, Jude Law, Sterling K. Brown, Raza Jaffrey, Max Casella

Director: Reed Morano

Running Time: 109 Minutes

Rating: R for Guns Mainly, Plus a Few Needles, and By-the-Book Sex Appeal

Release Date: January 31, 2020

In The Rhythm Section, Blake Lively goes by the name Stephanie Patrick, but while she is on her revenge mission, she assumes the identity of a woman named Petra, an assassin who recently disappeared and presumably died. Also, heading back to early in the film, she’s making ends meet as a prostitute who goes by whatever name her clients want her to have. That lack of identity is telling. We know what motivates her (avenging the death of her family in a plane crash), but we never really learn who she is on a more fundamental level. That elemental minimalism can work in an action flick, but I get the sense that The Rhythm Section wants us to understand the context surrounding Stephanie’s mission, but explanation thereof never fully arrives.

That identity crisis extends into just about every facet. For example, the title is a supremely non-obvious one for a movie that doesn’t have anything to do with music. Its meaning is provided when an even bigger question mark of a person, as played by Jude Law, tells Stephanie in the course of training her to become a killer that she must keep her internal rhythm section steady. Her heart is the drums, and her breathing is the bass. This fairly fascinating idea is never referenced again at any other point. I suppose that Stephanie certainly breathes hard and her heart pounds when she gets into some deadly situations, but that is not emphasized in a way that it is calling out to be.

So much of The Rhythm Section is an enigma. Stephanie looks like a pretty well-off young adult before her family dies, so why she must turn to prostitution is anyone’s guess. (Maybe, maybe, it’s her path into the underworld of assassin-ry.) And her entire physicality is plainly bizarre. During the main training montage, she seems completely incapable of running like a normal human being, with her arms flailing and torso bent at a nearly ninety degree angle. It’s certainly a bold acting choice on Lively’s part. Maybe it’s a physical manifestation of the agony of trauma. Anyway, this all leads into a cat-and-mouse game between Lively and Sterling K. Brown, which should be dynamite, but it’s built upon the barest bones of a structure.

The Rhythm Section is Recommended If You Like: Vaguely high-profile cinematic oddities

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Reluctant Kills

Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 1/10/20

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CREDIT: Netflix

Every week, I list all the upcoming (or recently released) movies, TV shows, albums, podcasts, etc. that I believe are worth checking out.

TV
Medical Police Season 1 (January 10 on Netflix) – From the team behind Childrens Hospital!
-25th Annual Critics Choice Awards (January 12 on The CW)
The New Pope Series Premiere (January 13 on HBO) – John Malkovich joins Jude Law in this sequel to The Young Pope.
grown-ish Season 3 Premiere (January 16 on Freeform)

Music
-Selena Gomez, Rare

Movie Review: ‘Captain Marvel’ is a Blast of Low-Key Wonder

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CREDIT: Marvel Studios

Starring: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, Annette Bening, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Clark Gregg

Directors: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

Running Time: 124 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence That Tends to Cause Nosebleeds

Release Date: March 8, 2019

It’s been a while since I have felt consistently sustained excitement for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m a fan of superheroes, and Marvel in particular, but I’m a bigger film buff, and I often find myself in a weird liminal space where I want to have more unbridled emotions for these movies, but it is hard to feel that way about a series sticking to a formula that is so much about ticking off obligatory long-term checkpoints. Captain Marvel does not burst free of that formula, but it has enough of its own magic to make it the first MCU movie in quite some time in which I left the theater wanting to re-watch it. It could have just been the way it happened to hit me on one particular day, but I think it has also something to do with its vibe of ignoring all the noise and getting on with it mission.

The plot is a little too complicated to easily synopsize, which Disney and Marvel are surely happy about, as they do not want us spoiling any of their MCU flicks, particularly this one, as it is uniquely dependent on backstory reveals and memory retrieval. Suffice it to say then that Vers (Brie Larson) is an intergalactic warrior fighting for the race known as the Kree, but she is also plagued by visions of a past life as U.S. Air Force fighter pilot Carol Danvers. The Kree are stuck in a long-term struggle against the shapeshifting Skrulls, which leads Vers to Earth in 1995 in a race for a powerful energy source. This is a typical McGuffin-focused Marvel film, but this particular McGuffin is unusually resonant, touching on themes of refugees and the perils of deep psychological deception.

Captain Marvel is also your standard MCU movie insofar as it builds to a climax with an unengaging, undistinguished action set piece. But luckily, that is not the main attraction. Vers teams up with a pre-eye patch Nick Fury, resulting in a buddy flick that serves as Samuel L. Jackson’s biggest showcase thus far in this franchise. His and Larson’s dynamic is one of instant respect that still leaves plenty of room for clowning around as they save the universe. That feeling is matched by a strong sense overall of the film being aesthetically tuned in. I cannot think of any other superhero movie that features a steady stream of crickets chirping amidst characters talking outside.

Captain Marvel is not massively revolutionary. While it may be the first MCU movie fronted by a female hero, it is not about femininity the way that Black Panther is about blackness. But while it does not respond hard to the big questions, it gets so many of the little things right.

Captain Marvel is Recommended If You Like: Top Gun, Nineties Rock, Friendly and Intelligent Aliens Who Speak English or At Least Have Universal Translators

Grade: 4 out of 5 Supreme Intelligences

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Vox Lux’ is a Traumatic and Entrancing Journey Through Pop Music Stardom

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CREDIT: NEON

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

Starring: Natalie Portman, Raffey Cassidy, Jude Law, Stacy Martin, Jennifer Ehle, Willem Dafoe

Director: Brady Corbet

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: R for School Shooting Violence, Drug Use, and Staten Island Accented-Profanity

Release Date: December 7, 2018 (Limited)

There is a scene about midway through Vox Lux in which pop star Celeste Montgomery (Natalie Portman) is at a diner with her daughter Albertine (Raffey Cassidy, who also plays the teenage Celeste), expounding about how the press is always hounding her, and it turns into this incomprehensible rant about the misbegotten state of the world. She sounds like someone who watched Fight Club too many times as a teenager, specifically the scene in which Tyler Durden espouses his whole philosophy. But the causes of Celeste’s unique psychology can actually be traced to much more intense external forces. The armchair nihilist philosophizing is just gravy.

The adult Celeste is the product of two adolescent experiences that no teenager is naturally wired to perfectly handle. Both of these types of experiences on their own can, and have, resulted in long-term negative effects for many people. But together they produce … well, they produce Vox Lux. Celeste’s journey begins by surviving a shooting at her middle school, which is obviously traumatic enough to produce scars that last a lifetime. During her recovery, she writes a song to create some love out of the violence, and it ends up becoming a huge hit and leads into a full-on pop music career. But teenage stardom is not ideal for most people, and Celeste does not buck that trend. Fast-forward to the present day, in which at 31 years old she is emotionally still a child.

The culmination of Celeste’s story is hardly surprising, but director Brady Corbet makes it entrancing even at its most disturbing. This is a truly singular whirlwind of a person, and even knowing how messed up her personal life is, we can see how she remains compelling through and through to the public at large. The final 15 minutes or so take place at her new tour’s kickoff performance at her hometown of Staten Island. Considering the series of crises on the way to getting her to the stage in one piece, I thought that this moment was going to end with her collapsing or otherwise failing to finish the show. But instead, she is a wonder to behold, as bedazzling as any modern pop star at the top of her game. This triumph is even more stunning considering the struggle leading up to it. Celeste becomes more admirable while simultaneously remaining as much of a cautionary tale as ever. She remains a symbol by holding up the weight of circumstances that are so much heavier than any one person could possibly bear.

Vox Lux is Recommended If You Like: The Spectacle of Pop Music, Black Swan, Staten Island accents, Actors playing the same characters 20 years apart

Grade: 4 out of 5 Losses of Innocence

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald’ Knows What It Wants to Say, But It’s Still a Messy Slog

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CREDIT: Warner Bros.

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

Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Johnny Depp, Ezra Miller, Zoë Kravitz, Callum Turner, Claudia Kim, Jude Law

Director: David Yates

Running Time: 134 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Fiery and Occasionally Hate-Filled Magic

Release Date: November 16, 2018

Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) is the wizarding world’s worst nightmare, at least for those witches and warlocks who care more about morality than power. His evil is more complicated and confounding than that of Lord Voldemort, as he has a knack for convincing people to act against their best interests. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald knows what devastating points it wants to make with Grindelwald, but they are stuck within a bunch of dithering around. The film climaxes with the dark wizard holding a rally, bringing to mind charismatic politicians who have sowed hatred throughout history. Even though Grindelwald has made it clear that he wants pure-blooded wizards to rule over all magical and non-magical folks, he uses suspect but alluring promises to convince some people who very much do not agree with his agenda to join him. This is irrational, but it’s a type of irrational behavior that has caused real devastation. However, instead of coming of as a frightening warning, these unreasonable decisions all just feel nonsensical.

Take for example Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), who is in love with non-magical Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) but lives in a society in which their marriage would be illegal. There is no way she could reasonably be seduced by Grindelwald, who would not support their union except for how it might offer him a chance for manipulation. There could be a powerfully relevant story about Queenie being swayed to the dark side, but instead her shift is too sudden and too jarring, and thus ineffective. Her subplot is a microcosm of The Crimes of Grindelwald‘s problems.

Elsewhere, there is plenty of other business going on. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is in Paris looking for some sort of MacGuffin or another. Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) is becoming ever more dangerous for whatever reason. There are farcical misunderstandings about who is engaged to whom. Various magical creatures act in ways that are kind of cute and/or frightening, but not particularly memorable. In conclusion, Jude Law is a fine young Dumbledore (and perhaps a fine young everything), and any future Fantastic Beasts installments should not be afraid to use him more often.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is Recommended If You Like: Every nook and cranny of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter but without getting too worked up about the details, The Young Pope

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Salamander Eyes

This Is a Movie Review: Guy Ritchie Adds Some Cockney Flair to Camelot with ‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword’

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This review was originally published on News Cult in May 2017.

Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey, Djimon Hounsou, Aidan Gillen, Erica Bana

Director: Guy Ritchie

Running Time: 126 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Stab Wounds That Seem to Only Happen During Thunderstorms

Release Date: May 12, 2017

The King Arthur legend has been told and re-told countless times over the centuries. On film, it has been fantastical, animated, “realistic,” romantic, and explicit. Could Guy Ritchie, that purveyor of stylish British gangsters, possibly have anything new to add to the mythos? Based on Legend of the Sword, the answer is: apparently there were options that we were never even considering.

The bare bones of the plot of this edition play up the similarities between Arthurian legend and the biblical tale of Moses. Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) places his infant son Arthur in a basket in a river to escape the grasp of his power-mad brother Vortigern (Jude Law), who murders Uther to ascend to the throne. Arthur then grows up in a brothel to become Charlie Hunnam, and he promptly draws the sword Excalibur from the stone. So far, so sticking to the script. The rest of it, however, is Ritchie’s unique vision – surprisingly fascinating, intermittently satisfying.

With phrases like “honey tits” and nicknames like “Kung Fu George,” this is basically the cockney version of Camelot. The archaic aesthetic is not committed to fully, though, but that oddly leads me to somewhat admire Ritchie’s restraint. There is, however, complete commitment to editing the film like a heist caper, rendering the future Knights of the Round Table a sort of Pendragon’s Eleven. The plan to topple Vortigern is not exactly a matter of trickery (at least no more so than any rebellious maneuver is), but I guess you have to get your kicks in somewhere. Legend of the Sword leaves its most lasting stamp in its fetish for oversized, foreboding animals. They are not quite as visionary as the eels in A Cure for Wellness, say, and I have no idea what purpose they serve (beyond the maxim “critters accompany magic”), but I have to give some props to a summer blockbuster with such strange, gooey visuals.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is Recommended If You Like: Slimy, Scaly Creatures

Grade: 2.75 out of 5 Mages