Bohemian Rhapsody: Rose Colored Glasses

Back when the Freddie Mercury biopic was originally being planned and Sasha Baron Cohen was cast I was thrilled at the possibilities, not only to get a better look at the rise and fall of one of rock’s most charismatic and gifted performers but to see Cohen in full on dramatic mode, to see him disappear into a role that he seemed destined for, and more likely than not make a run at a golden statue. However, creative differences surfaced between Cohen, who wanted to tell a gritty, realistic story about the troubled, quixotic lead singer, and the surviving band members of Queen, who wanted a safer, more family friendly depiction of the band’s journey to success. The result is exactly what I was afraid it would be. The trouble with removing the warts and scars and bruises from a biographical film is that what you end up with is just a story about how cool everybody was, and that absence of fidelity to real life is where Bohemian Rhapsody falls short, again and again.

On the one hand it’s nice to see a movie about a band that gives a fair shake to the entire group, akin to Almost Famous, that shows some of the complicated dynamics of four grown adults making music songs for a living. But this film, with creative input and consultation from guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor, is conspicuously unbalanced in favor of the rest of the band who frequently appear as only reasonable, patient, and talented throughout. Granted, Mercury’s excessive lifestyle and personality contributed to the drama and publicity the band received, but to pretend that the other members of the band brought none of their own shit to the table is simply disingenuous. If you’re going to suggest a film that represents the whole band with equal consideration but depict only the late singers demons with any substance, you’ve lost all artistic integrity right out of the gate. What remains is a story where May and Taylor appear to be the only adults in the room that Mercury can never tell his side of.

All that aside, Rami Malek is spectacular. Without his… I don’t even know what word to land on to describe his performance, I suppose it’s an energy, a focus, a positively magnetic screen presence Bohemian Rhapsody not only doesn’t get off the ground, it turns into a charming Movie Of The Week. No one else really brings as much veracity to the film, with the possible exception of Alan Leech, but to be fair no one else is asked to carry much water. So the gamble from a script perspective to rely entirely on Malek to elevate a film that is replete with formula and cliche largely pays off,particularly in the final twenty minutes or so, which is also what the movie is clearly banking on.

Speaking of the script, ugh. Anthony McCarten is responsible for both The Theory of Everything and Darkest Hour, both of which received critical acclaim, however far more than I feel is deserved, particularly for the former. Rhapsody has the same issue as the Stephen Hawking biopic in that McCarten fails to show the progress from failure to success at each step of his subjects journey, instead he skips right to how great they are at everything, which is a little like reading a Wikipedia bio but skipping to the last sentence of each paragraph instead of reading the whole thing through. So instead of showing how Mercury learned to sing and play piano and how he may have converted that into his own musical style, he just knows the band’s music and sings like an angel on his first try. Instead of showing him developing his stage persona, he just goes into a store, buys women’s clothing, and immediately wins over the audience. Skip to a year later. This is not only lazy storytelling, it cheapens the whole experience by not showing how hard earned the success depicted really was.

Ultimately, Bohemian Rhapsody is not without quality, and is by all means worth the price of admission. It is also, however, safe and inoffensive on the whole, handling one of the most important and dramatic aspects of Freddie Mercury’s life, his sexuality, with kid gloves, never really exploring either the stigma of homosexuality in that era or the horror of the AIDS epidemic which the film only casually references without an attempt to put a human face on it. That was an attempt to say something positive that was mostly derailed by my previously stated desire for a true, honest biography about a fascinating human being who lived in a bizarre, frightening time, someone who was simultaneously reviled and revered within his own lifetime and was so clearly doing so brilliantly what he was put on this planet to do. Instead we have Bohemian Rhapsody, which feels more like a pretty good cover band; fun, evocative, maybe full of good intentions but not what Freddie Mercury was: the real thing.

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Westworld, Season 2: My First Thought, He Lied In Every Word

There’s a reason films like Fight Club and The Usual Suspects don’t have sequels or that the second season of a show like Mr. Robot never quite recreated the verve or energy of the first: once a show plays that one card, the Unreliable Narrator, it no longer holds a viewer’s attention in quite the same way. It’s a classic fool me once, shame on you, fool me…. you can’t get fooled again, is what I’m saying. Such is the problem with season two of Westworld, a show that I adored enough to renew my HBO Now subscription for but barely made it through to the end. This problem was apparent even in the first season but because of it’s perfectly constructed denouement it was easy enough to forgive. While that season was confusing, it had an endgame in mind and Dolores was the linchpin of the whole thing (even if the whole “Wyatt” misdirection felt a little bit forced and unnecessary). This year, however, any good will that may have been generated is spent. To wit, it’s difficult to get invested in a show that may be openly and consistently lying to your face in every scene. No dark corner or dramatic twist has any suspense or gravity to it when any turn might easily, and sometimes within minutes, be completely undone.

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This is not to suggest that there is any decline in quality in Westworld, if anything it’s even more challenging, even more bold, and jaw-droppingly beautiful, and these are all good things. It’s a once-in-a-generation kind of show that is this willing to hold their audience to a high standard, to expect them to keep up with multiple overlapping timelines, philosophical musings on the nature of reality, the concept of identity and self, determinism versus free will, it’s all a lot to get through on a Sunday evening, while preparing for the work week and I admire Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan for what they have created. But much like the Hosts that have gone rampaging through the park to exact their revenge, their creation has may have escaped them in this new season. Complexity is good but complexity without depth (i.e. real stakes, where characters die and actually stay dead) fails to be what television sets out to be in the first place: entertaining.

In the first season Dolores was experiencing events as they occurred to her over the course of thirty odd years all at the same time, so the past and the future, to her, overlapped and as the viewer we experienced this confusion and eventual comprehension alongside the character and it was a thrilling, compelling experience, unlike anything else on television. But this year, with Dolores now firmly in Kill-Bot mode, Bernard is at the center of our time jumping narrative and we follow his experience in the park in two different time-frames and while at first this is kind of neat it shortly becomes just confusing and, even worse, entirely unnecessary to the narrative. And this is where that lack of trust in the narration kicks in. Without trust, there is no investment, and without an investment, as the viewer, I found my attention drifting about 80 percent of the time.

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To be clear, again, this is in no way bad television and the twists and turns definitely kept people tuned in every week for good reason but if I can, again, fault the season and probably HBO in general, because this is something they do that has rapidly become a trope, and that’s back-load the season to such a degree that it’s no longer a necessity to follow a show week to week. There is so much in the finale “Passenger” to unpack that even the online discussions on places like A.V. Club or Screenrant become so impenetrable that I have yet to finish a single one on just that episode. There’s no conceivable reason why any of the four or five revelations that occur in the finale could not have been metered out through the rest of the episodes and there needn’t be this orgiastic riot of action and violence and M. Night moments shunted into the final 90 minutes of a 12 hour film. Except, perhaps, to create a groundswell in it’s audience, to get everybody talking about what’s going to happen next, which is most likely the motivation and reason behind Bernard’s disjointed narrative. HBO has gotten very good at making must-watch, event television, even if it comes at the expense of logical plot development and resolution.

So 80 percent of this season I was partially checked out, despite my best efforts but I use that specific number for a reason. Of the ten episodes this season, two of them, and really only the two, were absolutely riveting, brilliant television that demonstrates the power of this fully armed and operational battle-station. “The Riddle of the Sphinx” could live in the same world and exist alongside the best episodes of Black Mirror, it’s a fantastic blend of science fiction and horror that finally reveals the darker possibilities that the park represents while also letting one of my all-time favorite character actors, Peter Mullen, completely off the chain.

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The other episode, and potentially the best episode of the entire series at this point, is “Kiksuya” which centers on what has been up until this point barely a tertiary character and shows in 59 minutes of television how much raw potential and talent Westworld, as a subject and a Universe, has to offer. How they created, to me, one of the most compelling story arcs thus far in such a short amount of time, to the point that I was openly weeping all over my dog’s head by episode’s end, I’ll never know, but it reminded me how much this world has to offer and how good it can be when the narrative isn’t trying so hard to impress.

Final thoughts on this season. Fundamentally, it became difficult to know who we were supposed to be rooting for as an audience. Maybe that was an intentional effort by the showrunners and while moral ambiguity can be an interesting subject to explore, there still needs to be a clear protagonist. Dolores, while bad-ass as all get out, kind of lost me with the torture and murder of the park guests. Sure, some of them may have been monsters like the Man in Black, but… all of them? Probably not. And Maeve is easy to root for but at a certain point she sort of became Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation where, for every obstacle, she just so happens to develop a new skill, kind of like a Deus ex Machina. No irony intended there. And Bernard. If I were to create a Westworld drinking game where I had to drink every time he made a confused face I would be throwing up on my dog by the time the credits rolled on the first episode.

So somehow, the finale “Passenger” felt a lot like the ending of a Christopher Nolan film, with it’s voice-over and montage of images and music and inferred futures for the surviving characters and despite all my complaints it was successful in achieving what it set out to do. However, it also felt like a series finale, as opposed to a season ending. Where last year I was on the edge of my seat, hungry and curious for more, I don’t know what to expect in a third season. I don’t know what I want from a third. Except obviously more Akecheta.

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Solo: I Have An Adequate Feeling About This

Does the Star Wars Universe have some rule against things being aerodynamic or obeying the laws of Newtonian physics? I’m not complaining per se but it begs the question, what exactly does Lucas Ltd. and their art designers have against symmetry. This ungainliness also happens to apply to Solo: A Star Wars Story throughout that, while visually arresting and entertaining, doesn’t quite know what tone it’s trying to strike. It’s persistently self aware to its own detriment falling closer on the side of the cacophonous fan service that is The Force Awakens than the darker, bolder Last Jedi, to whatever effect that might have on the particular viewer. To put a finer point on it, if you preferred the former you’ll have a fine time with Solo but if the latter is more your cup of tea, you may find the attempts at depth or a darker tone to be superficial and without fidelity.

The only real description of Alden Ehrenreich and his portrayal of a young Han Solo is that he’s perfectly acceptable. No more, no less. I actually somewhat respect his choice to make no attempt at impersonation, outside of a few gestures or mannerisms, it avoids the danger of becoming parody. So in this I have no complaints but in reality it’s the big guns like Woody Harrelson and Paul Bettany that elevate the whole experience. And Emilia Clarke finally gets a real role with some substance outside of the Game of Thrones Universe, she’s a real joy to watch in a film that occasionally tries to be darker and drearier than it ought to. And as expected, Donald Glover delivers but I object to calls for a Lando spin-off movie. That character works precisely because of how little we know about him, it’s the mystery that makes him so charming and appealing and having already insisted on pulling back the veil on Han, I hope desperately that they leave just one stone unturned.

As for the story itself, well. It’s lazy screenwriting to just assume the audience is going to care for its protagonist without giving a reason. Out of context Han is introduced as a generic guy with pluck and a pretty girlfriend but in an entire 145 minute film there’s little to no explanation of who he is. Or why. Did he lose his parents to gangsters? Did his parents let him down or inspire him? Was he bullied as a child? No clue, which is a pretty big misstep in a film that’s billed as an origin story. Further than that Solo suffers from the same problem that admittedly Last Jedi had in that the film climaxes too many times. The third act is lousy with action beats and twists and betrayals with a clear attempt to set the stage for a sequel which unfortunately leaves this whole thing feeling both overly long and incomplete. Not to mention the biggest what-the-fuck cameo moment that is so random and unnecessary I’m starting to think that a real contempt for the audience might be starting to show.

That might sound like nerd-rage rearing it’s ugly, neck-bearded head but for the record I am not a die hard Star Wars fan by any stretch. I have great affection for the series and wore out several VHS copies of the original trilogy as a kid but it’s never been my jam, not really. I’ve never owned a t-shirt or anything, is what I’m saying. But that cameo I’m referring to, well, frankly, it makes no fucking sense and required a few minutes of quiet reflection to confirm that I hadn’t, in fact, lost it. I’ll let others debate the finer points, I just felt that without further details there was an insistence from the higher ups to create some kind of “wow” moment, you know, for the kids to talk about but instead they landed more of a “….wait, what?”

So what’s the verdict? Well, I’ll put it this way. I did not pay to see Solo: A Star Wars Story and that’s my favorite part of the whole experience. I’d say it is worth seeing if you’re a completionist and just have to see how Han wins the Millennium Falcon from Lando, in that case go nuts. But I wanted to see Last Jedi again after walking out of the theater. Same with Rogue One, even. I may throw on Solo in the background someday while I’m cooking. If it ever pops up on a streaming service. That I already subscribe to. Maybe.

Avengers: Infinity War- Fear In A Handful Of Dust

No specific spoilers but this is written for folks who have seen this movie. A general spoiler-free review would just consist of “Holy shit, it’s really good.”

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A thought occurred to me while watching some of the Avengers: Infinity War actors on Jimmy Kimmel the other night about the nature of growing up and maturity, and not just with regard to the film. Many, many years ago I used to walk to school every day, about 30 to 40 minutes both ways, and every morning I would listen to 106.7 KROQ’s morning show starring Kevin and Bean. This station has been the birthplace of a lot of talented folks like Adam Carolla and Dr. Drew Pinsky but one of my favorites and an eventual collaborator with the former was Jimmy Kimmel, originally known as just “Jimmy the Sports Guy”. As a kid I didn’t know much about sports and I didn’t really care but he was given about a 60 second spot every other hour and I liked listening to Kimmel, he had a good voice and a sharp wit.

But if you had told me that one day he would go on to be one of the more entertaining and decent late night hosts on a major television network I might have picked up my pace on the way to school out of disbelief and distrust. And yet here we are, and I’m a little proud of how far the guy has come. The same can be said of Marvel, a company that was once a plucky publishing house with a friendly rivalry with DC Comics. I like to think I grew up with them as well, and while DC had had Batman and Superman movies out for years, Marvel wasn’t even on the board until the late 90s. Then X-Men came out and it was pretty good even for how vigorously it seemed to want to distance itself from the source material. And the Sony and Fox purchased properties that followed varied in quality until Marvel finally went all in on Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. and the rest, as they say, is history.

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Ten years later Marvel, now a powerhouse film studio owned by Disney, has produced a bracing, thrilling, charming, breathtaking, complicated-yet-accessible crossover film, the first of its kind in the history of cinema in Avengers: Infinity War and the word that keeps coming to mind is maturity. Despite the obvious financial success of all 18 films in its canon up until this point, Marvel has been edging further away from fun superhero movies and closer and closer to what I’d describe as grown-up features. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is probably the best example of this which, even without the fireworks and effects, is just a damn solid spy drama and character piece. Black Panther is also a step in this direction with its social commentary and conscience on full display. And in Infinity War, with the superb work of the Russo brothers, Marvel has produced probably the least kid-friendly superhero movie of all time, besides maybe Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. I don’t say that to suggest children couldn’t enjoy IW, not by any stretch, in fact its a lot more fun than I was anticipating and I laughed out loud several times. However, there’s a darkness to this film, as fantastical and otherworldly as it is. I’d argue that it’s not, in fact, really about the Avengers as much as it is Thanos’ film from start to finish.

With that maturity comes one of the most shocking and heartbreaking finales of any tentpole franchise film ever, darker than The Empire Strikes Back, darker than the death of Mufasa in The Lion King, darker than that other Vin Diesel vehicle, The Iron Giant. I obviously don’t want to go into detail because with the forthcoming sequel/continuation due out a year from now, there is little doubt the story will find a way to undo the extensive damage that Thanos has wrought, rather I’d like to marinate in the feelings and sensations that followed the conclusion of Infinity War. By now, as an audience, we are all well trained by Marvel to sit patiently through the credits for whatever morsel or tease of information Kevin Fiege and company see fit to brush off the table, but this time was different. This time I sat in relative silence along with the rest of the theater trying to process the deep sense of loss and impermanence, the feeling of tragedy without succor. And in retrospect, from the first trailer, they told us it was coming all along, “I know what it’s like to lose. To feel so desperately that you’re right, yet to fail all the same. Dread it. Run from it. Destiny still arrives.” 

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So where do we go from here? Where can Marvel go from here? Ant-Man and The Wasp is due out this summer and although that looks like a charming diversion I feel like we’ve just stood out in the pouring rain at some misty station, watching the love of our life get on a train to some new life without us, like a scene out of a Miyazaki film and now we’re expected to just move on and take a Tinder date to Applebee’s. Don’t get me wrong, I adore Paul Rudd and he might be the only face from that universe that I could handle right now, but I’m just not sure my heart is ready to love again. In case anyone missed it, the logo at the end of the post-credits scene has foreshadowed the arrival of Captain Marvel to the MCU, the long overdue female superhero pic. My expectations are low, for some reason, even though Marvel has continuously found a way to exceed them. I mean, how did they make Guardians of the Galaxy work? How was Ant-Man in any way a good idea? And how did they land Avengers: Infinity War so perfectly, so fantastically, so thrillingly that they’ve absolutely broken my heart and all I want is more.

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Ready Player One: Weaponized Nostalgia

I really liked Ready Player One. As far as critical analysis, that’s not exactly the kind of concise deconstruction I go for, but it’s difficult to avoid over-complicating a thing that isn’t very complicated. The fact that I liked it came as a kind of surprise, however. I read the book that it is based on years ago when I received it, rather appropriately and uninvitedly, in a Loot Crate box. And much like Loot Crate, the movie itself is chock full of nostalgic tchotchke; junky toys referencing everything geek culture, from your Star Trek/Wars, Firefly, Batman, Doctor Who, to Power Rangers/Voltron, blah blah, etc., etc., that, when taken individually has little to no value but when lumped together in a big orgiastic cornucopia of nostalgia is actually kind of a blast, somehow, even though in the long run you know you’re just playing with memories of fun. The book itself is absolutely that, an entertaining read that falls apart under scrutiny or disappears between the couch cushions, it’s a bit wish-fulfillment, a lot of idealizing, and more than a little bit derivative but, in it’s unabashed enthusiasm and self-awareness, is successful in being what it sets out to be: fun. The film version, directed by Steven Spielberg with a script from author Ernest Cline and the wretched Zak Penn, amplifies that experience the way Guy Fieri amplifies an appetizer menu in the sense that it’s easy to make fun of the movie equivalent of Trash Can Brisket Nachos but we’re all much better off just going for the ride.

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It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that a film version would be superior to the book, this is largely a visual story and it’s a little bit underwhelming to read about someone playing an 8-bit Atari video game. The representation of the Oasis itself, the virtual online Universe that is the setting for most of the movie, is as visually sumptuous and vivid as one could hope for and so overly saturated with pop culture characters and references that it’s going to keep the Achievement Hunters busy for days, possibly weeks, to track them all down. This is the aspect of the book that I was convinced would overwhelm the basic quest narrative, the need to rely entirely on these references and nostalgia to keep the audience amused, but this is Spielberg, of course. The man is nothing if not good at young adult characters stumbling through an adventure, and it’s the charming cast that persists as the focus. In fact a lot of it, particularly the finale, kept reminding me of The Goonies (directed by Richard Donner, but produced by Spielberg) with its themes of adults trying to steal everything magic and fun from the world and the kids doing their best to stop them.

What was a legitimate surprise is the tightening and pacing of the story itself, with first time scripter in Cline and Zak Penn, whose collaborations with Simon Kinberg succeeded in middling the comic book universe with gems like Elektra, X-Men 3: The Last Stand, and his original script for The Avengers that Joss Whedon promptly chucked out a window. But where his dialogue is usually monosyllabic and overly simplistic, in Ready Player One, it’s perfectly fine and I chuckled more than a few times. The big improvements are in the challenges themselves, the book had a real Slumdog Millionaire feel to it where it just so happens that Wade was an EXPERT at that particularly specific game. This lost some of relatability and sense of suspense but in the movie there is a lot more emphasis on the teamwork aspect of the hunt and what can be called detective work. It doesn’t have mysteries the audience is expected to solve, however it’s solutions are relatively satisfying within the logic of the movie. One sequence in particular, and I don’t say this very often because it’s a dumb, overused cliche, however it does apply, was absolutely jaw-dropping and not because of spectacle or volume or choreography or any of the usual reasons that descriptor is used. It had me floored because of its fidelity, because of an accuracy to a thing that I will not spoil and because it was, as a film lover, the one thing that would have sold me on the Oasis immediately. I want to see it in the real world some day.

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Speaking of loving film, I like to read and watch other people’s reviews of things to keep a perspective and while I am guilty of piling onto a thing if it really deserves it, if it really ruins a good concept or idea (I’m looking in your direction, The Cloverfield Paradox), I do not understand the current Comic Book Guy trend of viciously tearing into a movie that happens to only be adequate or mediocre. The whole purpose of cinema is to be entertaining and if it reaches for that and fails, well, that’s alright. There’s probably something positive to be found in there, far too many people get paid to collaborate and make a film for there to be no quality at all in the end product. But if a picture isn’t genre-changing or epochal it’s immediately called a dumpster-fire and dismissed out of hand and I just don’t understand that mentality, as if the privilege of watching a movie is a job some critics don’t want and wouldn’t wish on their worst enemy. Ready Player One has a lot of joy in it, which is special in a movie with this much CGI, and it was written by a guy who has a lot of love for pop culture and directed by the guy who created a big chunk of it. This is a weird, meta-creation, it’s kind of a dream-come-true wish fulfillment story that would be a little corny if it hadn’t actually happened for Ernest Cline. Well, it’s a little corny anyway, but it’s got heart, it looks amazing, and it’s a lot of fun but if it doesn’t do anything for you, that’s okay too, just save your hate for the films that deserve it. Like The Emoji Movie.

The Cloverfield Paradox: More Stupid Than Stupid

On Sunday night Netflix dropped a marketing bombshell that only Netflix, in its manic effort to distinguish itself from a growing tide of available streaming services, is capable of dropping: an immediate release of a third film in the peculiar if mostly entertaining Cloverfield series and the result is, well, it’s a movie, alright. The thing that made this particular franchise fascinating, if extraordinarily unwieldy is its willingness to turn genre expectations on their ear. The original Cloverfield was a giant monster movie from the perspective of the people who normally get stomped on, by way of found footage, 10 Cloverfield Lane, was a doomsday survival horror that is mostly great except for a terrifically tone deaf finale that I almost admire for its absolute insanity but also hate for exactly the same reasons. The Cloverfield Paradox fails to follow suit, however, being a desperate sort of mish-mash of other, better films without distinguishing itself from them in any way, shape, or form. The resulting content, with its interdimensional gobbledygook, hokey dialogue, and what I can only describe as non-science, is somewhere between a decent episode of Fringe and a terrible episode of The X-Files. But in space.

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All of this is, of course, a damn shame for such a robust and talented multi-ethnic cast. Daniel Bruhl is a fine actor who has really yet to step out of the shadow of his role in Inglourious Basterds, David Oyelowo takes a slight if significant step down from playing MLK, portraying the commander of the mission (I think), and hey, look, Zhang Zhiyi hasn’t aged a single damn day since she starred in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon around 18 years ago. Chris O’Dowd shows up to provide some comedic relief being a representative of the scientific community of…. Ireland, which as we all know is right up there alongside the other UN Security Member nations. There is also a Brazilian crew member I do not know who, for every single line of dialogue has at least five instances of quietly staring confusedly at things, much in the same way I stared at my television screen for nigh two hours. But the apparent star of the show is Black Mirror actress and real talent Gugu Mbatha-Raw, playing a conflicted scientist who left behind her SO in order to travel to space to do science. As often as the plot refocuses and re-centers around different dangers and mysteries, it’s her story that the audience keeps coming back to and as hard as she is trying, it’s difficult to relate much to her character. As much fun is I’ll have with the cast as a whole, it really is clear that everyone is pulling has hard as they can to make this a tense, exciting thriller but the problems with The Cloverfield Paradox are two fold: the writing and the directing, as neither seems to understand exactly which direction to be pulling in or, fundamentally, why.

For a series of films that have done such an exceptional job at being both more than they appear and near perfect examples of the genres that they are parroting, it’s remarkable how far the third in this franchise strays from what the previous two did so well. The game plan seems pretty clear from the outset: take the ensemble cast, grounded physics, and doomsday scenario of a far superior Sunshine and cross it with the atmosphere and paranoia of the original Alien. Add one inexplicably psychotic Russian scientist and then let it all ride. And while it seems hard to go wrong with this strategy it most certainly and plainly does, starting specifically with a random cameo by the fantastic and criminally underrated Donal Logue, who pipes in with a short monologue that is somehow supposed to explain away all the nonsensical plot twists as well as, I don’t know, the cogent, animated, bloodless, body parts that have important plot-advancing knowledge to share. I hope you felt as stupid reading that sentence as I did writing it, such is the cost of experiencing this particular movie. As much as I object to the method, I’ll admit there is some value as a storytelling device in building mystery upon mystery, like Lost or The Leftovers. I consider it a lazy technique but it undeniably adds suspense and intrigue to the world-building in much the same way dipping pizza in ranch adds flavor and deliciousness but they should, ultimately, both come with a healthy amount of shame and dishonor to one’s family name. However,The Cloverfield Paradox literally opens up that Mystery Box with that one speech and treats it like a blank check to advance its narrative, and I use that word very, very, irresponsibly, without really ever explaining why what’s happening is happening.

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You’ll notice I have neither added a spoiler warning nor attempted to couch the plot in any criticisms and there’s a good reason for that: I’m not exactly sure what the movie itself was about. There’s a particle accelerator in space. An energy crisis. And like any good scientists doing science, they really seem to have no idea what the end result of switching that baby on is going to be, which I believe is the secret, hidden fourth step of The Scientific Method, right before ‘cross fingers and hope the thingy doesn’t open an interdimensional rift into Hell‘. In retrospect, I really have to hand it to the Netflix marketing team for knowing exactly how to release this well produced and visually arresting mess of a film during the one period of time that a majority of its American audiences are guaranteed to find its plot contrivances and gaping holes in logic reasonable and somehow entertaining and that is immediately after the Super Bowl when we’re all drunk. It’s experiences like The Cloverfield Paradox, and Bright, and initially, when I finished the atrociously self-indulgent original series The OA, that I realized that Netflix, with their mostly hands-off approach to creators and filmmakers, are pioneering a new era of television where I am actually starting to truly understand the necessity of studio and producer notes. Some of these writers and directors, however talented they might be, really do need to be reigned in at some point, to be told, “HA, that’s great, but, you know, terrible.” The result is essentially those children that go to progressive, non-traditional schools that don’t believe in discipline or grading systems or any structure whatsoever. Sure, little Shiloh might be an exceptional and accomplished painter with a great eye for color but he’s 12 years old and still pulls his pants and underwear all the way down to his ankles to pee. Also, he steals things.

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My final point is that there is a good movie somewhere buried deep, and I mean deep, inside The Cloverfield Paradox and it’s a shame that it will never see the light of day. Is it worth a watch? Sure. Not sober by any means, but sure. It’s my hope that Netflix, with its war-chest still brimming, will keep making bold decisions like this and continue to refine their product to the point where they don’t feel the need to spam us with mediocre content.  Ultimately, I am glad I sat down with it so that I can no longer think about this franchise or its mysteries again. Also if you’re wondering, yes, there is a sort of twist at the end that implies a continuation of the series and while I’ll not spoil that here, I will describe it paraphrasing the words of the always great and inimitable Lewis Black, “It was like going into use the bathroom and when you pressed flush the water just comes shooting out and hits you in the face. And when you turn to leave there’s a sign on the inside of the door that says, ‘Caution: Water Will Shoot Out And Hit You In the Face.'”

 

The Cloverfield Paradox is now available for streaming on Netflix (*donk donk*). 

 

Darkest Hour: Reasoning With A Tiger

If you’re looking for a thrilling character piece on one of the most influential and controversial leaders of the 20th Century portrayed by one of the most gifted and oft overlooked actors of this generation, Darkest Hour is going to do it for you. It’s a pretty by-the-numbers example of Oscar bait but not at all in a bad way, the performances all around are worth the price of admission but if you happen to be, as I am, a kind of WWII enthusiast that absorbs every thing from historical record to anecdotal testimony at every chance this film may leave you, as it did me, with an odd sense of disappointment in its finale. Not that it wasn’t powerful and well earned, but within the context of the rest of history it struck an odd note that wasn’t perhaps off-key as much as…a little bit too Hollywood for how grave the situation would continue to be for years after. But I’ll get into that later, first the good bits.

I was initially very skeptical of the prosthetics that went into turning a narrow jawed, sleek Gary Oldman into the famously jowly, overweight British Bulldog but genuine praise needs to go to both the makeup department and of course to the man himself, who disappears so convincingly into the role you forget who you’re watching on-screen. So effective is his performance that an Academy Award almost seems like an afterthought at this point and if I were any other potential nominee I’d already be looking for my next project. In terms of the history of the events portrayed Darkest Hour is admittedly not my favorite depiction of that timeline, there are two original HBO films The Gathering Storm and Into the Storm that provide a better, almost mini-series like approach to the bigger picture, however this new film is hands down the best character depiction of Churchill that’s been made yet, all credit due to Albert Finney and Brendan Gleeson.

It’s a good biopic that illuminates the character and flaws of a great historical figure but it’s a great one that also manages to provide an arc and in this it’s Churchill’s innate detachment from the common man, his inability to relate to the everyday people exemplified by an early offhand comment, “You know, I’ve never ridden a bus before. Ever.” This is a capable bit of foreshadowing of an idea, one that is firmly rooted in the ideals of the very country that they are trying to defend and antithetical to the coming fascist invasion: the concept that the common people’s voices can and should be heard, that nobility is not a quality exclusive to nobility, and that, frankly, in dire times, we’re all in this together.

Darkest Hour is primarily about the divisions and bureaucracy that continue to take place even as the world is burning down to its foundations. It’s simultaneously depressing and inspiring in the way it portrays not necessarily cowards as much as journeymen in history, men who served a function to other greater figures. Churchill was, by all means and measures and his own estimation, a failure up until his election to Prime Minister in the most troubling time for Western Europe in the last, or really any century. He was also a power alcoholic and an extremely divisive figure, only elected, as the film would portray, as a sandbagging tactic by his own party in an attempt make capitulation a more appealing option in the face of Nazi aggression and in this his foes failed miserably. Because in those trying times, when a demagogue had seized control of a world power, England elected an orator, a man who weaponized words in a way that didn’t inspire fear or resentment or hatred, rather, his words were eloquence. He wrote and spoke in a way that evoked a different feeling in his people, a way separate from the atavistic badgering of a madman stoking the worst instincts of a frustrated people. Instead of appealing to weakness, he suggested courage. He inspired dignity. He expressed hope. In his “Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat” address, he didn’t ask those things of the people, he offered them from himself.

My problem with the finale of Darkest Hour is that it is a triumphant shouting of Churchills famous “We Shall Fight On the Beaches” speech to a newly energized and supportive Parliament. It’s a rabble-rousing, shake-the-rafters moment where the English people decide to reject potential subjugation by the Nazi regime and Gary Oldman’s Winston struts off gallantly, cue the ending cards, roll credits. But. This didn’t sit right for me. It’s possible that my recent rewatch of Chris Nolan’s Dunkirk skewed my opinion but, to me, the elegant, subdued recitation of the same speech by a young soldier fresh from surviving hell on earth was exponentially more affecting in its framing. This speech was not a football coach reinvigorating his team at half time or a dramatic charge into the breech, dear friend. This was about resolve. It was about hold fast. It was about this far, no further. And the celebratory nature of the ending, while cinematically necessary to a casual audience, rings a few too many major chords, incongruous with the long, difficult, uncertain path ahead.

Darkest Hour is a fine film and I’ll admit to splitting some hairs with regard to tone but that issue I have with the ending is a recurring one, a shouting of things as opposed to a delivery and this is fine. We’re talking, again, about an actor who can make an entire scene with one single word (EVERYONE!) so see it for the performance alone but if an HBO GO profile is available, I’d look into those other depictions as well because while Winston Churchill’s leadership and character were polarizing and much debated, he was in nearly every interpretation absolutely as fascinating as advertised.