Categories
Action Adventure Superheroes

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)
Director: Patty Jenkins
Writers: Patty Jenkins, Geoff Johns, Dave Callaham
Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig
Genre: Action, Adventure
Country: United States

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Walking out after 2017’s Wonder Woman, I thought about how they (“they” being whichever filmmakers) would top that movie – where they would go from here. A tall order, coming off one of the best comic book movies of the 2010s, a movie that enveloped itself within the mythos of superheroes and the idea of human gods among everybody else, and also one that clearly relished being the first de-facto Wonder Woman movie, treating the character with all the stateliness and iconography such an honour entails. Wonder Woman 1984’s decided to go from Wonder Woman by well and truly going from it. As in distancing itself from it – as in being a very different movie altogether. A choice, for better and worse.

Returning director Patty Jenkins and team are not subtle about this pivot, to be fair. Hans Zimmer’s brassy, “gee-whiz” score should immediately tell you this won’t be encroaching upon such escapades as Wonder Woman’s WWI trench warfare, and cinematographer Matthew Jensen reaches for every colour that can feasibly be reached – starkly different from the dour greys and blues permeating the 2017 film. It’s the bright pop song to Wonder Woman’s stirring ballad, and your feelings about that ought to indicate how much your mileage will vary.

As for the particulars, Diana “Wonder Woman” Prince (Gal Gadot) lives her life as an anthropologist at the Smithsonian, “secretly” fighting crime as her obvious alter ego. I say “secretly” but that’s just a formality – WW84 gives no shits about secret identities or anything like that. Just as well, given one scene where Wonder Woman returns to her apartment from a mall fight via confidently strutting across her terrace in costume, my favourite part of the movie. Diana meets cripplingly awkward gemologist Barbara (Kristen Wiig) and they discover a supposed wishing stone in the museum’s collection, a stone of great interest to scuzzy businessman Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal). Diana uses the wishing stone to resurrect old love Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) – more on this later – and Barbara wishes that she possessed Diana’s strength and beauty. If Barbara had been on Diana’s neighbouring terrace at the right time she would’ve witnessed what that strength means, but I digress. Max Lord, in a move I enjoy, wishes to possess the stone’s power. Bad things ensue. To defeat Max is to negate wishes, and both Diana and Barbara, who are enjoying love and increasing power, respectively, struggle to part with their wishes. That’s the meat of it, really.

The story’s neither deep nor very insightful, but Jenkins and co-writers Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham (all of whom did not participate in writing the 2017 film, and the absence of writer Allan Heinberg shows) try to weave a general point of “truth is good” and that one’s wishes probably shouldn’t take precedence over reality, and it’s… fine. This isn’t a movie where you’re meant to dwell on threads. In fact, it’s best if you don’t, as WW84 falls apart surprisingly quickly if you start thinking about what’s happening. Prime example – Steve Trevor’s resurrected by possessing a random guy (Kristoffer Polaha, credited as “Handsome Man”), who Diana promptly sleeps with and takes on dangerous adventures, paying no mind to the fact some guy’s life has been effectively roofied for however long Steve can commandeer his body. Well okay, you might think, trying to rationalize that you’re witnessing, that’s just the nature of WW84‘s wishing stone. But then others make various wishes, like the U.S. president wishing for more nuclear missiles, and most spawn out of nothing. WW84 would rather you not marinate on such things, but it’s kind of difficult when the movie basically ends with Diana eye-fucking Handsome Man after Steve’s gone. Anyway.

The third act tries very hard to ratchet the stakes up to Society level, but the rest of WW84‘s more content to keep the story contained to Diana, Barbara, Max, and their own strife and desires. Almost refreshingly, honestly. Where the 2017 movie amounted to Wonder Woman versus the God of War and the German army, WW84 amounts to Wonder Woman versus an 80s capitalist parody and Kristen Wiig as an eventual CGI cat. The movie embraces comic book absurdities like Wonder Woman’s invisible jet and using her lasso on lightning bolts to maneuver the skies, all of which would feel severely out of place in Wonder Woman ’17. There’s a scene where Wonder Woman learns how to fly (just ignore that she never uses this ability in this movie’s technical sequels, Batman v Superman and Justice League), shot like a scene from the 70s Wonder Woman show – bloom cranked up to hell and quite lovely. It’s an easy-going movie, more content to hang out with its characters than throw them into action setpieces, not something you typically get out of a $200 million blockbuster. The action we do get rivets reasonably well, even if none of it’s that memorable and relies too much on slow-mo that gives nothing and takes much in return. The Wonder Woman vs. Cheetah fight’s the worst of the handful, too brief to be meaningful and also the murkiest setpiece (likely to obscure Cheetah’s CGI, which I think is about as good as it could be despite the flak it’s getting – not a ringing endorsement by any means, as mounting evidence suggests CGI human-cats are a terrible idea, but that’s where we’re at).

Max and Barbara make fine villains, though neither are really “evil” per se, more so misguided souls who make some especially shitty decisions. Pascal plays into the campy businessman archetype extremely well, feeding Max necessary flamboyance and presence. I went into this wanting Kristen Wiig being Kristen Wiig as an eventual CGI cat and that’s exactly what we get – she chews stupid lines such as “I want to be an apex predator” like somebody quite aware of how stupid those lines are.

Gadot and Pine are more interesting to unpack, mainly in that the excellent chemistry they had in Wonder Woman ’17 has dropped off the planet. They play swapped roles here – Steve as the naive person in a new world, Diana as the guide – and since Steve’s not our protagonist and this doesn’t encompass any character development for Diana at all (aside from an apparently warped sense of morality since, again, she’s with a random guy), it’s just fluff. Gadot, per usual, does a swell job striking poses and modeling costume designer Lindy Hemming’s work (there’s a flowy white dress that – if I may have a gay moment – is divine and gave me great satisfaction), though I guess this comes at the expense of acting on every other level as Gadot looks bored much of the time and speaks accordingly, including a line reading during the movie’s centerpiece desert action scene that’s hilariously Tommy Wiseau levels of bad. Pine’s more enthusiastic, thankfully, even if that doesn’t fix the problem that these two characters are padding familiar territory but with less charm and less purpose.

The movie’s insane 152 minute runtime doesn’t help anything. WW84‘s story is perfectly sufficient for 100 minutes or so and only 100 minutes or so – the movie’s a lark, there’s simply not enough happening to warrant going any further. There’s an opening scene in Diana’s homeland Themyscira, where a child Diana (Lilly Aspell) competes in an Olympic-esque competition, and it’s just way too goddamn long. It couldn’t even convince Connie Nielsen (playing Queen Hippolyta) and Robin Wright (playing Antiope, struggling very much to nail down an acceptable accent after all these years) to give a shit, as they flatly deliver platitudes about the virtues of truth. I’m fairly certain that the 2017 movie established Diana didn’t begin training until she was a teenager, so this sequence is both long and at odds with its own franchise. The 80s setting serves as set dressing: a shot of an arcade here, a shot of a perm there, but it’s largely arbitrary, seemingly existing to justify the film’s campier vibes and give Steve something to act dazzled by (I’m sorry to those who saw the title Wonder Woman 1984, drew obvious parallels to it and a select novel, only to see that this is not about Wonder Woman facing off against an authoritarian surveillance state. That would be an exciting movie, though).

It really comes down to Wonder Woman 1984 lacking the good sense to trim fat and tighten its relatively basic story and themes – it’s something much more suited for a sleek adventure than slogging for 2.5 hours, akin to DC’s fellow bubblegum-essence superhero movie, Shazam!. 2018’s Aquaman -operating within a similar mode of “let’s embrace all the delightful superhero bullshit in comics” – ran 143 minutes, but that movie knew to just relentlessly plow your brain with delightful superhero bullshit and you know what? That’s the way to do it. I buy into DC’s swerve from grim, philosophical fare (though I didn’t hate that) to more Silver Age, inherently ridiculous adventures, so that’s something at least and, in fairness, WW84 doesn’t veer from the new status quo. I was left feeling entertained despite all the obvious trappings, and I’m interested in the inevitable Wonder Woman 3 (mainly because it seems to promise that we’re finally moving on from Diana’s dependence on Steve). But after witnessing the power and grace Jenkins, her team, and Gadot crafted with the character in Wonder Woman ’17, it’s disappointing watching WW84 fail to match any of it, even if that isn’t its gambit anyway.

Categories
Comedies Dramas

On the Rocks (2020)

On the Rocks (2020)
Director: Sofia Coppola
Writers: Sofia Coppola
Cast: Bill Murray, Rashida Jones, Marlon Wayans
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Country: United States

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Before starting, one thing: On the Rocks is quite competent. Please note this, tuck it away in the back of your brain, because On the Rocks is also another thing: it’s quite boring.

Following the story of a young New York couple, Laura (Rashida Jones) becomes increasingly suspicious that her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) is sleeping around. Not impressed, Laura is unwittingly dragged into a spy operation of sorts by her father Felix (Bill Murray), who tries to prove Dean is, in fact, sleeping around.

Off the bat, it’s one of the more visually striking dramedies of late – softly lit, peaceful yet slightly uncomfortable darks. It’s really natural, but God help you if you try watching in broad daylight. The first five minutes are stately, honing us in on these people’s lives, focusing less on words and more on visuals, letting expressions and body language convey a marriage beginning to crack, and it just feels correct. There are a few of these moments, usually playing with the quiet anxieties of uncertainty in various respects, whether it be marriage or purpose or fulfillment, and in those moments On the Rocks is effective.

To boot, each of the main three actors – Jones, Murray, and Wayans – are game, each successful with the varying degrees of quality their characters are blessed with. Murray can’t really bomb this type of “charismatic oof” role. Wayans doesn’t have much to do, or much of a personality, though he makes a decent enough effort when his infrequent moments turn the corner (he plays the “I’m always working but love my family” type, which, to be fair, is limited at baseline). Jones is the crux of the movie and she shines brightly, bringing great deals of internal strife that define and humanize Laura.

It’s mildly annoying, then, that On the Rocks relegates Jones to the type of protagonist subject to exposition dumps early in, killing the natural momentum those first five minutes gave. I understand that it’s easy to get baggage out in the open early, but at the very least one can characterize Laura better than, “I’m a writer, should’ve never sold a book, now I have problems,” and On the Rocks loves to use Laura’s ability to write as an easy barometer for her mental well-being, despite us having no idea what she writes or what really drives her, as apparently that falls outside the scope of this film. It makes for less-than-riveting characters, with Murray’s Felix being the only one coming to grips with any personal demons, and even then it’s almost cursory. The last half-hour nicely picks up pace, finally bringing the Drama™, but hits a narrative wall once (spoilers) things wrap up between Laura and Dean in a pretty little bow and that’s that. The resolution between Laura and Felix is surprisingly more complex, suggesting that you can love and keep questionable people in your life without necessarily absolving them of the things they’ve done – probably the most insightful thing throughout a film that doesn’t have much to say.

It all falls a little flat compared to the zest of Coppola’s prior work, like Emma Watson’s iconic “I wanna rob” from The Bling Ring. To be clear, though, On the Rocks isn’t bad. It’s light and airy enough to be innocent viewing, but a consequence of that is a distinct lack of fervor, flair, or anything particularly memorable, which is disappointing when you have a hotpot of talent who can obviously do much more.

Categories
Action Adventure Remakes

Mulan (2020)

Mulan (2020)
Director: Niki Caro
Writers: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek, Elizabeth Martin
Cast: Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Li Gong
Genre: Action, Drama
Country: United States

Rating: 2 out of 5.

If there’s any silver lining to Mulan – and there are not many – it’s the decency to experiment with the source material, 1998’s animated Mulan (better in almost every conceivable metric, unsurprisingly). This experimentation ends up flat and arbitrary, but at least it does something, even if that something isn’t good. But when we’re this deep in the throes of Disney’s live-action remake cycle, at this point a rather striking display of extracting every ounce of charm for cash, almost elegantly so in its factory-esque efficiency, we take what we can get.

Because let’s not kid ourselves, friends: 2020’s Mulan is not great. Dare I say, it’s bad. Fine on a technical level, sure, but remarkably inept on an emotional and soulful level, taking the power of the “Ballad of Mulan” legend – a simple story that lends itself easily to resonance – and addressing it with all the grace filmmakers absolutely rushing through said story can bring.

Which is a funny thing, given 1998’s Mulan pretty definitively laid the blueprint for soul here (within the Disney paradigm, anyway). Yet, Mulan is interested in eschewing the lightheartedness of yore in favour of something a little more serious, and you see attempts of this everywhere: aside from choice sequences, the film’s palette is bleak, relying on neutral colours and grey hues; sprinkles of light comedy are few and far between; the creature sidekicks are gone, save for a gaudy phoenix representation of Mushu (once portrayed by Eddie Murphy, now infrequent window dressing); and everything, generally, feels dourer. So imagine the dissonance when Mulan hurls these efforts out the door by making Mulan (Yifei Liu) herself a fucking superhero. The first time we see her, as a child (portrayed by Crystal Rao), she’s parkouring down rooftops and as an adult she’s doing all sorts of gymnastics, mincing through enemy armies with complete ease.

Shifting Mulan into a Mary Sue role does zero good, robbing her of any meaningful progression or character. Where Mulan ’98 is a good fighter, this isn’t innate, and her success stems from perseverance. Mulan ’20, uh, does not share this. Where Mulan ’98 learns lessons about fighting for and staying true to what you believe is right, Mulan ’20 doesn’t learn any lessons at all: her shame about avoiding “truth” is entirely predicated on lying about being a male soldier, which fundamentally misunderstands the internal conflict Mulan ’98 perfected. A lot of the dull characterization can also be attributed to Liu’s terrible performance, poker-facing the entire movie and regurgitating lines about loyalty, family, etc. with a stunning lack of emotion (personal favourite moment: Mulan trying to motivate her colleagues before heading into a grisly battle, which Liu starts by flatly stating “listen to me”). You could argue this is due to a language barrier, and that’s reasonable on paper, but she’s won the Chinese Razzie Award equivalent in 2012, 2013, and 2016, so you do the math.

The majority of Mulan‘s supporting characters are so non-specific that it doesn’t bother giving them much time of day (the musical numbers are sorely missed, particularly their ability to quickly and nicely establish characters) – except for Xianniang (Li Gong), a bird witch who really adds nothing in the end. Mulan sets up Xianniang as a foil to Mulan, presenting a scenario of two powerful women putting their lives on the line for people who will never accept them (in Mulan’s case, the “good” army, and in Xianniang’s case, the “bad” army) – the “good” army threatens to execute Mulan upon discovering she’s female and yet she stays with them (plus they accept her literally two scenes later), whereas Xianniang betrays her army, clashing with the movie’s endless mantra of loyalty, and we’re just like “oh… okay.” Xianniang’s story never connects with the broader themes the movie aims for (you could cut her out of the movie and nothing would change), meaning we’re left with a needless character who takes screentime away from those who desperately need it, like Mulan’s various army colleagues and awkward kind-of-but-not love interest Honghui (Yoson An). And Xianniang’s the most prominent supporting role, so it’s needless to point out the character situation in Mulan is dire, to say nothing of Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee), the film’s villain, who just flashes crazy eyes and dumps exposition.

The bare minimum Mulan could achieve was looking nice, and thankfully it does accomplish this (with caveats). Mandy Walker’s cinematography does an excellent job with the occasional bursts of colour on offer, with her best work in the opening scenes, which look warm and very inviting, as well as the fireworks scene towards the end, which is just lovely spectacle. The rest of the movie is surprisingly grey, as mentioned before, and I get they were going for the juxtaposition of the Imperial Army’s red costuming against the grey of bleak war, but those reds don’t pop as much as they could and those greys command the palette. And the movie’s kind of a slog as is, so being a slog and depressing isn’t a compelling combo. On the costuming, a lot of it is merely okay, some of it is strangely bad, like an early scene with Mulan riding a horse and it looks like she’s wearing an artisanal autumn coat from Etsy. Grant Major’s outstanding production design picks up much slack (especially the circular living hamlet Mulan and her family reside within, it’s so good) and none of these sets look artificial, instead taking on liveliness of their own.

None of this is helped by David Coulson’s pretty awful editing. We’re frequently yanked from one scene to another with little regard to rhythm, posing two net effects: a) scenes aren’t allowed to breathe since the movie’s so eager to plow through to the next, stripping them of any emotional resonance; b) the action scenes are not fun and we’re often lost in time and space. Though, to be fair, these action scenes aren’t great to begin with, as Mulan is eager to take a pastiche of Asian action movie tropes (think kung fu movies with a touch of Bollywood) and… that’s it. There’s no real grace to the choreography, almost as if the movie is content to be like, “Hey, we did this thing. We didn’t do it very well, but we did the thing, so that’s cool on its own! Right? Hello?” It speaks to Mulan‘s tendency to want different things – a stirring story about a daughter honouring her family, a fun stylized action-adventure, an update that celebrates Mulan ’98 and the original fable – and its inability to put in the effort to actually achieve any of these things.

It’s worse off given the movie wants to take after the Ballad of Mulan more so than Mulan ’98, but it clearly derives its power from Mulan ’98 – hitting more or less the exact same plot beats, relying on the viewer’s nostalgia and knowledge of the animated Mulan to inform certain scenes because this one sure as hell isn’t interested in doing it, like Mulan taking her father’s sword, which in Mulan ’98 is pensive and empowering, but here she just takes the sword and that’s that (if I were playing stupid and wasn’t familiar with Mulan ’98, I would struggle to figure out what really drives Mulan here). And when you have to rely on another movie to provide your movie’s soul, your movie has no good reason to exist. Add in the deeply unfortunate associations with Xinjiang – including a shoutout to the government bodies responsible for the internment of millions of Uyghur Muslims in concentration camps – and overall there’s precious little to redeem Mulan, and even fewer reasons to recommend it.

Categories
Horror Summer of Horror

The Neon Demon (2016)

The Neon Demon (2016)
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writers: Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws, Polly Stenham
Cast: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone
Genre: Horror, Thriller
Country: Denmark, France, United States

Rating: 4 out of 5.

It’s difficult to label The Neon Demon as any one thing – horror, thriller, what have you. If you really wanted to, you could label it a “psychological thriller” – that’s probably the most fitting – but the film doesn’t operate within genre constraints, at least not initially. Really, The Neon Demon comes off more as a project, an audio-visual experience with the trappings of storytelling serving little purpose other than to guide it accordingly. Which is all to say that if one is familiar with the works of Nicolas Winding Refn, The Neon Demon fits comfortably within that schema.

The Neon Demon owes much of its being to the works of Dario Argento – Suspiria, specifically (the influence is everywhere and immediate) – and is the best recent example of “not style over substance, but style as substance,” normally a coda used as an easy excuse to compensate for arduously thin story, but very few films wholly own that statement and nurture it like The Neon Demon. And to really get where the film’s coming from, you have to shed the idea that it’s a story about people. The Neon Demon is a story about things – it’s about Los Angeles, it’s about a sexually pervasive industry filled with beguiling and strange people absorbed in selfish realities, and it’s about a culture that places beauty above all else and consumes the young in the process.

We follow Jesse (Elle Fanning), a young woman who recently arrived to L.A., looking to model with no discernible talent other than “being pretty.” She meets Ruby (Jena Malone), a friendly makeup artist who takes it upon herself to watch over Jesse in a way, introducing her to model industry friends Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee). Jesse’s very obviously the odd one out, behaviourally, but she quickly ascends the modelling ladder (not in a Star is Born-esque macro way), with everybody noting an undeniable magnetism about her, a perfection to her looks. Gigi and Sarah become increasingly scornful with Jesse, since her exquisite natural looks are affording her great opportunities despite their efforts to manufacture themselves for the same ones. Jesse’s very much the “it” girl, initially quietly so, but turmoil ratchets up along with her eventual narcissism.

Mostly everyone in The Neon Demon is creepy and/or off-kilter, aside from Jesse – this is partly due to the extremely deliberate, sparse dialogue (there are barely any monologues, with conversations mainly composed of quick back-and-forths), and to the pointed gazes towards Jesse, each harbouring clear intent of some kind, but probably not benevolent intent. This intensity can be brushed off as, you know, par for the industry course, but everything gets triply creepy when we find out Jesse is only 16 years old (and is told to pretend to be 19, as 18 is too “on the nose”), and it’s impossible to think of everybody’s intentions as anything more than uncomfortable.

The Neon Demon is kind (and clever) enough to withhold its shocks and violence until the last half, which departs heavily from the first. The first half is totally intoxicating, a slow-moving haze about Jesse finding her way to a modicum of success, with its allure predicated entirely on the stunning cinematography by Natasha Braier, who along with Refn flits between striking scenes of brilliant, vibrant colour to dreamier scenes, with characters lit softly, usually amid a gorgeous purple hue. There’s much to admire about these images, and the composition – with characters often centred in the frame – forces your eye to explore and it’s just a joy to view. The excellent score from regular Refn collaborator Cliff Martinez, mixing Vangelis’ thumping electronic soundscapes and Giorgio Moroder’s disco flair, marinates the background, accentuating the dreaminess of the visuals. It’s also sweetly melancholic, managing to add a layer of innocence to Jesse and her journey (credit also goes to Fanning, who owns the character and legitimizes her extremely well) while deepening her character where the screenplay doesn’t. That’s not a critique – it’s exactly what The Neon Demon sets out to do, I think, using filmmaking to carve emotion. It’s a film where experiences are louder than words and expressions, and sure, that might feel a little empty, but this is about a teenage girl navigating a morally bankrupt industry and various people who want to suck the life out of her, so it’s only apropos that we feel empty.

The transition to the second half is slightly abrupt, but has a clear dividing line in Jesse’s runway show, which we see in a hypnotically lovely mix between her runway walk and her internal feelings. Jesse falls in love with herself, and the film shifts along with her newfound narcissism. It’s a distinct shift in every way – the music becomes more grumbling and dissonant, the beautiful hues vanish in favour of natural light, the compositions are more claustrophobic. The people become less like people, going from someone to something, embracing archetypes and shedding personalities. It’s also far more dangerous. Where The Neon Demon reveled in being mildly creepy without being too explicit before, it’s very unshackled here and wastes little time doing it. Jesse ditches her friend and kind-of boyfriend Dean (Karl Glusman) with a sudden lack of empathy, abandoning her one genuine semblance of a support system (even though the guy is looking to shag a teenager, so we’re not overly pressed). Her landlord, Hank (Keanu Reeves, in probably the least “nice guy” role Keanu Reeves has ever done and he’s terrific), goes from being licentious to completely disturbing. Then you have Ruby, Gigi, and Sarah, whose unsettling intent unravels in full. This all happens very quickly, but that’s the point – like Jesse, we’re allured to the beauty and the dream of what could be, only for things to go to total shit once we’re cinched and unprepared. Refn manages to keep pushing the film to new extremes, forcing you from one strong reaction to the next. Say what you want about The Neon Demon, but my god it’s not safe – nothing is sacred here, not even the beauty most of its characters covet so fondly. And then when you think everything ought to end, it still goes, culminating in unabashed freakishness, spewing gore amidst some of the glossiest lighting and framing the film gives. In the actual end, we’re left feeling numb, angry, confused, all without respite.

It’s not satisfying, admittedly, and it’s not exactly an enjoyable experience. Refn mentioned he wanted to make a film about beauty without critique or attack, and I think that’s a stretch (one of the earliest lines in the film, “Are you food, or are you sex?” is as clear a statement as any, not an overt critique towards the culture of beauty but a decidedly pointed observation regardless), though The Neon Demon is really a film that says as much or as little as you allow it to. It’s a wash as a story in the traditional sense and its characters are more things than people, but that’s its game – it’s not about people, it’s about how people become things to achieve self-obsessed ideals, losing their humanity in the effort to become perfect humans. The Neon Demon isn’t pleasant, but it’s brazen, and is so assured in its ability to affect you through sensory experience that I can’t help but be very impressed at the grotesque pageant on offer.

Categories
Action Adventure Superheroes

The Old Guard (2020)

The Old Guard (2020)
Director: Gina Prince-Blythewood
Writer: Greg Rucka
Cast: Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts
Genre: Action, Adventure
Country: United States

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Immortal humans have been a tried and true narrative device for centuries, dating as far back as the Wandering Jew in the 1200s. It has given us many icons, using immortality to tell a story of extraordinary beings and their equally remarkable lives, often highlighting fundamental truths about humanity and the values of life and death. When The Old Guard‘s very beginning gives away the immortality hook that’s “revealed” ten minutes later anyway, in one of the shittiest recent forms of in media res, it was evident that it would not join any notable echelons, nor would it be a very good movie on its own.

The Old Guard follows a group of immortal mercenaries, led by Andromache (Charlize Theron), colloquially known as “Andy”, as they traverse around and try to do good in the world. When they’re discovered by CIA agent James Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), pharmaceutical tycoon Steven Merrick (Harry Melling) tries to get a hold of them to determine the cause of their immortality and commercialize it. But also the group senses a new immortal – Nile (KiKi Layne), a U.S. marine in Afghanistan – and they take her under their wing, despite her resistance.

Alright, so we have a I-see-the-beats-from-miles-away story, but that’s not super important, right? The Old Guard‘s all about the cool immortals, after all. Too bad the characters are all dead flat for the first hour, with Charlize Theron doing a shockingly bad job at playing the “I’m tired and grumpy and wear sunglasses and call people ‘kid’ because I have BACKSTORY that I’m not going to tell you right away because I’m TIRED and GRUMPY of everyone’s shit” character, emoting in such a non-subtle manner that I’m not sure if she’s actively bored or just angry with the role (I later found out she produced the movie, so make of that what you will). Andy and her main sidekick, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), drink a bit, but it doesn’t affect them, as this is a movie that believes arbitrary actions equal personalities and signify deeper inner lives. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is immediately awful, borderline video-gamey (I heard variations of “go get some rest” around three times in 20-some minutes) and giving us nothing to sink into.

This bleeds into the overarching issue that The Old Guard believes immortality is a story unto itself, and that the concept is more interesting than it is, even though this is far from a mysterious take on it. It’s like if we got a Star Wars movie purely about the workings of the Force – nobody would care about such a thing, it’s not very intriguing, but that’s because Star Wars can, and does, use the Force as a platform to tell richer stories. The Old Guard doesn’t take advantage of this principle, being more content to focus just on immortality and the predictable long-term inner turmoil it causes. Then it has the audacity to give us the Evil Big Pharma Villain storyline – and the villain is fucking terrible, an irritating non-character running through the most basic motions – and the Hesitant Rookie storyline and call it a day.

Insult to injury, the ending clearly sets up a sequel with the one plot thread that would’ve been great here, focusing on Andy’s ancient sidekick Quynh (Van Veronica Ngo), who was sentenced to an eternity underwater in an iron maiden, recurrently resuscitating and drowning for centuries. It’s a nightmare and the flashback sequence is easily the most affecting scene in The Old Guard, laden with terror from both Ngo and Theron. The flashback sequences, no matter how fleeting, bring great life to the movie, transporting us to times and places more vibrant and inherently exciting than the comparatively sterile modern settings we’re taken to otherwise. And we are taken to many places in The Old Guard, but they all feel like window dressing – big panning shots to give you a sense of scale for the movie, a sense of adventure, but the lack of emotion and purpose (it takes forever to realize that the only conflict happening here is Evil Big Pharma) makes it incredibly difficult to get enthralled by any of it.

Much of this comes down to the characterization, or lack thereof. Aside from Andy, Nile has great promise during her first scenes, but descends into boilerplate (again, Hesitant Rookie who obviously has a change of heart) and Layne isn’t very convincing. Ejiofor is wasted in a neutered, boring role where he just exists. Schoenaerts humanizes Booker quite well, presenting a man tormented and rash by the loss of uncountable loved ones over the centuries, while Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) are lovers who bonded after being initial enemies in the Crusades. Credit is very due to The Old Guard for giving us a to-the-point, genuinely loving gay couple, summarized extremely well by Joe in a speech about love and its eternal possibilities, easily the best character moment in the film. The Old Guard doesn’t focus so much on these characters, meaning moments like that are few and far between.

Then you have the action, the solace I sought most, and The Old Guard can’t even do that very well. Not only is it sparse, but it’s dry, lacking energy and any sort of momentum to propel the scenes, save for the very final fight. The first fight, taking place in a desert compound, is particularly bad – choppy editing that disorients us in the compound’s space, cuts too quickly between the immortals for us to get a good impression of their capabilities. That problem doesn’t persist much, thankfully, but The Old Guard fails to let us bask in its action, and what’s good – like Andy solo-fighting military personnel by an old house – is over way too soon to have considerable impact. These are quick action sequences, giving us a few flips here, a few blade slices there, yet there’s no real verve to it, and it’s so brisk that there’s nothing to really stare at and admire, which is a shame when we’re blessed with R-rated action like John Wick that treats its fights like bloody little ballets. Hell, The Old Guard severely lags compared to Theron’s own action vehicles, lacking the grit and adrenaline of Mad Max: Fury Road and the intoxicating style of Atomic Blonde. It’s not the editing horror story known as Æon Flux, but your bar should not be “well, at least it wasn’t fucking Æon Flux.”

So where does this leave us? Most of the characters are boring and surprisingly unintelligent despite some having literal centuries-worth of knowledge, the action isn’t exciting, lacking any discernible style or flair (my notes include one shot that pans up at Merrick’s headquarters in the third act, and it’s such a hideous shot on many levels), and the story is as wholly pedestrian as they come. The soundtrack is horrific, plugging in pop music that doesn’t jive at all with action that begs for a hefty operatic score. I realize The Old Guard is based on the comic book of the same name (I’ve never read it, to be fair), but a movie’s shortcomings can’t be absolved by sole virtue of being an adaptation.

All that said, there are good ideas scattered about, often in the form of the immortals’ actions throughout history, and I’d much rather see that movie than one that can’t even do the kindness of being entertaining popcorn fare.

Categories
Horror Science Fiction Summer of Horror

The Invisible Man (2020)

The Invisible Man (2020)
Director: Leigh Whannell
Writer: Leigh Whannell
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Aldis Hodge
Genre: Horror, Science Fiction
Country: United States

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Universal’s been attempting to restart their famous horror icons for a hot minute now, including an embarrassing effort to start a “Dark Universe” that had fancy cast photoshoots and everything, beginning with Tom Cruise’s ill-fated The Mummy. As with many forms of hubris, this did not pan out, and Universal let Blumhouse take a crack at their monsters with The Invisible Man. If their Invisible Man is the standard going forward, I am very much into whatever they have in the pipeline.

The Invisible Man of 2020 is not faithful to the H.G. Wells novel of the same name, nor to the 1933 movie. It takes the bones of the novel and creates something mostly different – what we get is a story of a sociopathic scientist engaging in domestic abuse rather than a crazed scientist terrorizing a town – and it’s effective in its own right, really. The opening alone is one of the most impressive in a while, with Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) quietly plotting to get away from her husband, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), in the middle of the night. There’s sparse music and sparser dialogue, we know nothing about these people, but we immediately clue into what’s happening and it is immediately tense.

The first half, I’d say, of The Invisible Man is masterful in building and sustaining tension, using many things a movie has in its toolbelt to full advantage, from Moss’ extremely expressive face to panning the camera towards negative space, priming us for jolts that usually don’t happen. It toys with expectations, acutely aware that we’re anticipating a man who is probably invisible, gradually showing its hand until dealing it in a most perfect way, kicking the movie from a relative slow-burn (it’s rather small-scale at first, mostly taking place at her friend James’ (Aldis Hodge) house) into a sprint.

That sprint isn’t as delicious as the simmering anxiety in the first half, and it’s tonally jarring at first – shifting from horror to more sci-fi thriller – but it does so in a way that doesn’t feel like a betrayal to the story, even if I’d argue trading its efficiency at horror is a bit of a letdown. But to be fair, I can recognize that there are only so many times you can do the “oOoOo is he there?” setup and throw around Elisabeth Moss before it’s rote. Cecilia is a textbook example of the core screenwriting tenet of taking nice people and doing absolutely horrible things to them, and it’s more impressive that she’s not a paper-thin character in turn. We get a legitimate sense of her aspirations and her past life before becoming entangled with Adrian and his schemes, we know any quirks or outbursts come from a place of deep trauma, so when she fights back it’s very satisfying, letting us overlook a couple actions that feel slightly out of place for her because goddamnit you want her to succeed. And the stakes here are elemental – an unseen evil seeks to ruin everything Cecilia has that can improve her life. By trying to escape that evil, it gets worse. The Invisible Man doesn’t elaborate on that much further, aside from serving as a commentary (albeit a relatively basic one) on abusive relationships and the lasting dysfunction resulting from them, but that’s the smart play as it keeps everything humming along nicely.

And despite being a 2-hour movie, The Invisible Man really does breeze. It knows when not to overstay its welcome, when you’re about to get bored of a sequence (the climactic fight scene is on the bleeding edge of going on for too long before ending at the most ideal time), plus I have to admire a movie that gets to the point without flourish and doesn’t feel like something’s missing. The only exception to that might be the last 10-15 minutes – they’re all over the place and eager to hurry to the end, even though the beats themselves make sense. For a movie that makes quite sure we know Cecilia is hurting and lets us feel the various impacts of that, it’s odd to feel like everything’s on fast-forward in the last moments that ought to be the most meaningful (I’m a fan of those individual moments themselves, however).

That’s not a significant critique when the rest of the movie is so proficient. The Invisible Man is well-versed in the fundamental ingredients that make horror effective and entertaining, and when it unshackles its horror trappings it still manages to be compelling viewing. It’s not big, it’s not aspiring to shift any paradigms, but it’s incredibly confident in the cat-and-mouse story it wants to deliver and just as gripping where it counts.

Categories
Action Horror Summer of Horror

The Hunt (2020)

The Hunt (2020)
Director: Craig Zobel
Writers: Nick Cuse, Damon Lindelof
Cast: Betty Gilpin, Hilary Swank, Ike Barinholtz
Genre: Action, Horror
Country: United States

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

The Hunt wants you to believe it’s a clever movie. It’s not.

That sums it, feel free to exit now.

But really, probably the most frustrating thing about The Hunt is it wanting to eat its B-movie cake and have its message-movie cake too – derailing what really ought to be just a fun bloody rollick. Of course, The Hunt‘s premise feeds directly into the mediocre satire and messaging it delivers, so I guess I’m saying The Hunt is fundamentally flawed.

The Hunt follows a group of Republican folk kidnapped and thrown into a random forest, where they quickly discover they’re being murdered ad nauseam. One of these people, Crystal (Betty Gilpin), manages to survive the initial slaughter and heads to kill the group of liberal elites responsible.

A loaded premise, to be sure – and to be fair, movies better than The Hunt could do a lot more with it. Each character here is more or less a caricature of their political orientation, which makes sense as this is meant to be satirical, but holy fuck these are agonizing. They are very much Baby’s First Political Joke on left- and right-wing people, not so much pointing out how annoying the extremes on either spectrum tend to be than being annoying at how extremely low-brow it is. This has the unfortunate side effect of zapping any ounce of fun straight out of the film when we’re graced with such characters. When you have an SJW stereotype spouting off (and it is THE most basic incarnation you can conjure off the top of your head), bringing up hot-button issues without resolution or insight, it’s like writers Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof are actively trying to yank you from the movie for no satisfying purpose at all, making what’s supposed to be a Battle Royale-type B-movie an occasional chore instead.

Thank god, then, for Gilpin, who’s The Hunt’s secret weapon without even truly appreciating it, I think. Her body language tells Crystal’s story in lieu of a script that offers little, delivering a performance with an assured, slightly eccentric, almost Tarantino-esque vibe, including a “tortoise and hare” monologue that she chews the shit out of. Every scene with Gilpin is eminently watchable and The Hunt would be galling without her energy.

We get a few other familiar faces, like Emma Roberts and Ike Barinholtz, and all of them die very quickly and very brutally. To the extent of The Hunt being a gore movie, it plays that card effectively – you have people getting cut in half, getting their faces blasted off, getting heels stabbed through the eyes. It’s quite disgusting and the effects are excellent. Jane Rizzo’s editing is nicely consistent, keeping us well oriented in space, and the sound design is appropriately loud, with crunches and bangs getting the oomph you’d expect from this type of picture. The primal thrill of these moments tends to be dulled by those rascally caricatures, so they’re never too thrilling or ever very satisfying. Crystal’s fight with Athena (Hilary Swank), the ringleader of these murderous elites (“Athena” is also the goddess of war, in another example of The Hunt’s inertia towards subtlety), is a key exception to all this. It’s an amazing scene, one of the few moments in The Hunt with verve and electric ferocity – easily the best part of the movie, where everything it seems to want to be clicks, even if for a brief moment relative to the 90-minute runtime.

Then you have the twist towards the end, attempting to tie The Hunt’s commentary together, suggesting how extreme partisanship can impact everyday people. It’s a decent enough sentiment, yes, and it’s not wrong, but it’s also something a level-headed person is probably aware of already, so there’s that. Having to gruel through an hour and some of painfully written characters to get to the overall point still means grueling through an hour and some of painfully written characters, plus it’s not like this twist retroactively makes them any better.

So what we’re left with, aside from Gilpin and Swank (who’s very game and unhinged), are the technicalities. The naturalistic lighting from cinematographer Darran Tiernan hits the right amount of dreariness, with the large quantities of blood splatter offering the only true flashes of colour. Director Craig Zobel does a functional job until the final fight scene, which is full of style, and if the rest of the movie matched that scene it would be outstanding all around. That isn’t the case, and instead we’re asked to put up with a script that thinks throwing out rock-stupid obvious stereotypes amounts to cleverness, and that’s a tall order indeed.

Categories
Comedies Dramas

The King of Staten Island (2020)

The King of Staten Island (2020)
Director: Judd Apatow
Writers: Judd Apatow, Pete Davidson, Dave Sirus
Cast: Pete Davidson, Marisa Tomei, Bill Burr
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Country: United States

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Judd Apatow has given us a taste of his dramedy stylings before with 2009’s Funny People, a movie I have not seen in a very long time, but I do remember distinctly that it was a very long movie. His latest, The King of Staten Island, is a technically competent dramedy, embodying the reality of slackers who want to be happy with what they have but are tormented by personal demons in need of exorcising, but do you know what else it is? 40 fucking minutes too long, that’s what.

The King of Staten Island follows Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson), an aspiring tattoo artist who’s also stuck in a rut of smoking weed with his group of friends, stuck in a casual-but-maybe-not relationship with a girl named Kelsey (Bel Powley), and seen as hitting a brick wall by his family, with his sister Claire (Maude Apatow) trying to contain his neuroses and his mom Margie (Marisa Tomei) pretending everything is well and good.

The movie wastes no time establishing Scott is troubled, with the very first scene having him close his eyes while driving and vibing to music, nearly crashing and causing untold damage. Notably, this scene offers the maximal self-destructiveness we ever see in Scott, as Staten Island does not wish to treat the character with the gravitas an opening scene about suicidal ideation might suggest. Staten Island‘s first five minutes are an exposition dump, laying all of Scott’s cards on the table (in a succinct monologue, we learn that Scott is an awkward slacker, has various medicated mental health issues, and is manic and irresponsible) – a perfectly fine gesture if the movie were at all interested in hitting the ground running. Imagine my surprise, then, when I pause and find out 27 minutes have passed and nothing has happened, except for Claire going off to college – which has little emotional sway so it feels like nothing.

Staten Island gets a mild boost when Scott attempts to tattoo a 10-year-old named Harold, and Harold’s father, Roy (Bill Burr), obviously disapproves of this and raises hell, subsequently bonding with Margie. Roy’s a firefighter, much like Scott’s late father, so the thought of his mom shagging another firefighter won’t do. Staten Island is also kind enough to expeditiously show Roy and Margie’s relationship blossoming through a montage, a moment of restraint and respect for narrative tightness in a movie impartial to either (extra frustrating is that it decides to cut down on Burr and Tomei, who have nice chemistry and outperform mostly everyone else, and opts instead to hang out with Scott’s scattershot group of friends who are either deeply unlikable, mean little to the story, or both). Judd Apatow’s filmography has always erred on the longer side, but there’s an aimlessness that’s been rearing its ugly head of late, and in that respect The King of Staten Island is an epitome. There are clusters of scenes that don’t work, ranging from simple disjointed cuts like Roy watching Scott with focused thought in one shot then gleefully blasting him with a fire hose in the next, feeling like a random assortment of scenes from a film set that were stitched together by indulgence than adherence to story, all the way to an oddly dark robbery scene that could’ve been cut without much dissonance.

And this isn’t an aimlessness that’s poetic, or in line with the aimlessness experienced by Scott – who really isn’t that interesting a character (I watched the trailer for Big Time Adolescence, Davidson’s last prominent movie role, and Scott just seems like a slightly more serious version of Davidson’s character in that, even down to the tattooing), outshone by supporting characters like Margie, Roy, Roy’s ex-wife Gina (Pamela Adlon), and especially Kelsey. In fact, I’d argue a recalibration of Staten Island that focuses on Kelsey would do a lot of good, since she’s the only character who actually wants to effect change on Staten Island (the location has next to no influence on Scott and he could’ve been anywhere, so the title isn’t super fitting) and is genuinely endearing. She demonstrates a certain kind of independence as a character versus Scott, who’s really at the mercy of wherever the story needs him, functioning better as a supporting figure than a relatively blank protagonist going through the movie’s motions. Since The King of Staten Island has the momentum of a model train, such a shift might’ve cleared up many ills.

The movie’s occasionally funny, with little moments like a restaurant fight club or Margie’s friend’s hyena laugh (a fleeting 2-second moment, but I love it all the same). It’s never funny, though, and this wouldn’t be a big problem – this is a dramedy after all – but Staten Island isn’t particularly dramatic either, so what gives? Topics like trauma and grief are chewed up with shallow acknowledgement, and when it does hint at things like the social consequences of depression and its role in the vicious circle of declining self-worth, it never goes in. It’s a safe movie about a character in an unsafe headspace, with moments of potential profundity brushed over in favour of contrivances (the catalyst that reunites Scott, Margie, and Roy after their falling out goes for laughs but feels extremely easy), which is annoying when the movie has a more than sufficient runtime to flesh things out.

The last hour largely takes place at the fire station Roy works at, where we spend time with his colleagues – who had previously made the briefest of appearances at a football game and I was surprised the movie rounded back to them like we’re supposed to care. If this were a shorter movie, the gap between appearances wouldn’t be so jarring, but here we are. Scott learns some things about the value of work and that this Roy fellow isn’t so bad, and maybe opening up to people is healthy. This isn’t a neat, satisfying little bow – Claire is the person most concerned for Scott in the beginning, yet she completely vanishes from the movie in the last half after expressing even more concern for Scott after the robbery scene. Hell, Scott’s aspiration for a tattoo restaurant – an idea each character scoffs at, perhaps rightfully so, but at some point anything interesting is welcome – doesn’t make any headway (or his career as a tattoo artist, even though we’re led to believe this is an integral passion).

The question The King of Staten Island poses is whether a slacker bogged by unresolved grief can take meaningful steps forward, and the answer we get is, “well, maybe.” Scott doesn’t feel fundamentally different than when we first meet him, maybe slightly less of a man-child, slightly more aware of responsibility. There’s something to be said for that, but The King of Staten Island doesn’t want to unpack, reprimand, and have actual consequence (those that do occur have painfully obvious resolutions), so making us sit through 136 minutes to say precious little is just rude.

Categories
Documentaries

2040 (2019)

2040 (2019)
Director: Damon Gameau
Writer: Damon Gameau
Cast: Damon Gameau, Eva Lazzaro, Zoë Gameau
Genre: Documentary
Country: Australia

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

In a world where every climate documentary claws to be the next An Inconvenient Truth, 2040 is a refreshing change of pace, albeit one that lacks the urgency and passion of Al Gore presenting perhaps the most important PowerPoint you’ll ever see. Rather than speaking of the ills that will inevitably torment human society, 2040‘s interest is entirely on the solutions that can relieve them. This has, I’d say, two primary consequences: one, it’s a very nice documentary with a lot of love for people and what we can achieve; two, you’ll have made up your mind about the movie prior to watching, and it doesn’t do a whole lot to convince those on the “I disagree” end.

2040 follows Damon Gameau (That Sugar Film) as he travels around the world, exploring a number of solutions to the climate crisis and interviewing the experts involved. Each of these concepts effect change in nearly every facet of human life, and the movie does a fairly good job at explaining why these concepts, such as shared solar-powered microgrids or marine permaculture, are beneficial. Gameau’s daughter, Violet (who’s a toddler here, but the ‘older’ Violet is played by Eva Lazzaro), acts as our eye into the changes these solutions might bring by 2040.

Those “older Violet in 2040” sequences are really lovely, laden with nicely done and plausible effects work, suggesting a cleaner, happier, generally more vibrant future. It’s a large juxtaposition from the doom and gloom this genre specializes in (though such doom and gloom can be understandable) and they’re striking scenes, inspiring not only in how they paint a brighter future, but also in how possible that future is. 2040 doesn’t venture into the realm of outlandish, borderline sci-fi proposals, opting instead for solutions that already exist and are demonstrably effective.

I also have to give a hand to 2040 for not presenting its ideas in a condescending way like it easily could have. Gameau is a game narrator, opting for humour and energy over dour gravitas. While I can’t say he’s particularly insightful on his own, he’s a good figure to navigate and introduce the ideas at play here. It’s an exceptionally friendly film, always happy to see people, pick their brains a bit, and see the hope in any given situation.

The obvious downside, then, is there’s little sense of adversity. 2040 is excited to present these terrific ideas and it wants us to be equally excited, if not more, though it doesn’t really dare examine why we’re not doing these things or what’s holding us back, aside from some cursory slaps on the wrist to your average everyday carbon emitter and to fossil fuel companies for pushing misinformation. It’s mildly unsatisfying to have solutions that have no cons in the film’s eyes and are obviously excellent, yet the discussion as to why they’re not commonplace is more or less shrugged over. I imagine the slim 92-minute runtime plays a heavy hand in that, as you could spend many hours exploring each solution and the road to actively employing them. In that sense, 2040 lends itself far better to a limited TV series at the least, as what we get is quite good, yet there’s no room to truly deep-dive into ideas, or debate the problems they might face and how to address them, or the psychology behind why many people are adverse to these changes.

Despite all that, there’s value to what’s on offer here, a particular beauty to the hope that the best of humanity will prevail and sustain future generations with what we already have. 2040 is designed to start conversations and is an excellent stepping stone for environmentally-minded kids. Still, I’d be remiss to not knock it for avoiding the tough conversations that accompany societal change, especially for an issue as existential as the climate crisis. It’s on the opposite end of the climate documentary spectrum – extremely idealistic versus extremely dour – but in doing so it’s falling into the same trap as those extremely dour pictures by brushing past the other side of the story.

And I get that the movie’s intention isn’t necessarily to have these difficult and touchy conversations, it’s supposed to focus on the upside of things, but if I were a dolt and had no clue about climate change I wouldn’t have a great sense of the issue’s gravity by watching this. 2040 assumes we’re in its corner already, offering good reinforcement for what we already know and feel, but it’s not nearly as good at opening a dialogue with skeptics or those who feel there are insurmountable barriers at play – the end credits mention a movement you can join, an admirable gesture, though it comes out of nowhere. It’s sort of a shame, as these solutions are exciting and practical, but they’re not given the time of day they deserve (you can distill all the information 2040 offers in a quick paragraph), so it’s not an impactful picture as I think it could’ve been.

However, I’d have to be a very cynical prick indeed to not be enamoured by 2040’s vision of the future and the people striving to make it happen. Plus it’s a tall order to expect one documentary to be a panacea. What 2040 lacks in nuance it mostly makes up for with constant hope, and given hope is probably a better arbiter of change than despair, it’s worth listening to what it has to say, and I hope it inspires future climate documentaries that more deftly balance optimism with the realities of the times. For now, we have a fine introduction, and I can’t be mad at that.

Categories
Dark Comedies Period Pieces TV

The Great (2020)

The Great (2020)
Creator: Tony McNamara
Cast: Elle Fanning, Nicholas Hoult, Phoebe Fox
Country: United States

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Historical biopics are fickle creatures, balancing (or hopefully anyway) authenticity with actual entertainment value. Usually they’re ardently manufactured for maximum award efficiency; ergo, they focus on the former. And what makes The Great absolutely lovely is that it hones almost exclusively on the latter, selectively picking bits of history for the sake of its own satire. Some things are true, some things are kind of true, some things are entirely wrong. In each case, these things are essential for the story The Great wishes to tell, which isn’t exactly the story of Catherine the Great, but more so a story about idealism in the face of absolute power that uses her rise as a framework.

All of this is to be expected from Tony McNamara, who wrote 2018’s The Favourite, a wild picture that you either really adore or really don’t. If you’ve seen The Favourite, your temperature on that should correspond remarkably well to yours on The Great, though I’d argue that The Great has a key advantage over The Favourite: whereas that picture was forced to condense its story into a relentlessly mad 2-hour ball, The Great is a 10-episode miniseries, immediately giving it breathing room to marinate on its twists and turns (of which there are many). But the rhythm and essence between the two productions remain largely similar.

Taking place in the 18th century, Catherine (Elle Fanning), a Prussian royal, absconds to Russia to marry Emperor Peter III (Nicholas Hoult). Catherine is an enlightened woman, wishing to spread the evolving liberal ideologies in Europe, particularly France, to Russia. Peter is a reckless idiot with disdain for everything that doesn’t have to do with his creature comforts – vodka, hunting, eating out women, you get the idea. An obvious schism develops, until Catherine’s servant Marial (Phoebe Fox), a former Lady of the court, eggs Catherine on to begin a coup and take power. Over the series, we watch Catherine navigate the Court, the uniquely Russian politics within, and her own existential struggles as she tries to expand her influence and make said coup a reality.

That’s a hugely brisk summary, but the stakes and conflicts are easy to spot, and all are deceptively simple. Most characters in The Great lead well-established lives, many sharing dynamics we become privy to when Catherine’s rising presence threatens to disrupt them. A show that revolves solely around Catherine would be a bit of a chore, however, and The Great is aware of this, with each character having their own conflicts and desires independent of Catherine’s, like Grigor (Gwilym Lee) becoming increasingly tired of Peter fucking his wife Georgina (Charity Wakefield). Most, if not all, are tied to a bubbling sense of dissatisfaction with the state of Russian rule, which indirectly benefits Catherine in the end. Elegance itself.

The writing is the show’s strongest card and the dialogue especially is a triumph, managing to weave modern vernacular into the aristocratic idiosyncrasies of the time, which is quite a difficult feat to pull off well, more so to pull off as well as The Great does it. The show’s towing a fine line between “enough ‘fucks’ to be funny” and “too many ‘fucks’ to be believable,” but it updates the linguistic stylings of the 18th century into something much more palatable for contemporary comedy, rarely crossing that line. And the show’s very much a comedy, hilarious albeit extremely dark at moments (I’m trying to skirt spoilers, but the show does not hold back and is really an experience unto itself), and while the performances imbue a lot of life into the humour, the writing is so assured and proficient that you’d have to be trying real hard to botch it.

Fanning and Hoult are particular standouts, with their banter consistently placing as the funniest moments in the series – their emotionally winding relationship is an excellent juxtaposition to the chemistry between them – and both embody their characters with delightful confidence. Fanning does a terrific job of going from an Amelia Bedelia who wants to spread liberalism in a decidedly non-liberal state to a woman who spreads her beliefs with conviction and a stronger internal locus of control, realizing that idealism might not be the practical or necessary solution, depending on the circumstance. There’s still a distinct humanity to Catherine and you love to root for her – the show gets you anxious as to whether she’ll succeed, even though you know she obviously will because it’s not that detached from history, but it’s impressive nonetheless.

Hoult plays a figure unlike the real Peter III, who was Prussian, completely hated Russia, had no desire to have sex with Catherine and was generally a frail idiot (though this Peter does have a propensity to tire of ruling and is pretty dumb, he’s more entitled than frail and frequently exercises strength plus blind confidence to get what he wants, and he also has a lot of sex with Catherine). Still, he’s compellingly good in the role, making the constant five variations of jokes he’s given funny each time. There’s a humanity to Peter as well, but it’s diluted by his lack of emotional intelligence to embrace it and overshadowed by his desire to be loved, even though for all intents and purposes he’s an extraordinarily shitty leader. And while the Peter in The Great isn’t true to life, it’s a necessary decision to present a foil to Catherine in a way that’s narratively and comedically satisfying.

The various other characters that litter Peter’s court are colourful in their own ways, and there isn’t a single questionable performance. It’s easy to like pretty well every one of them, even those who take a while to grow on you – some take a couple episodes, some take a couple biting quips. Many are immediately outstanding, like the very off-kilter Aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow), my personal favourite, and the calculating Archbishop (Adam Godley), referred to as “Archie” by the court (one of many examples of The Great‘s irreverence towards religion and… everything, really). Orlov (Sacha Dhawan), the meek scholar of the court and one of Catherine’s main allies, is arguably the weakest of the bunch and least interesting, but that’s no fault of Dhawan’s and it’s the character’s lot in the story’s life. Though to be fair, The Great‘s story feels propelled by the characters themselves rather than forced plotlines. Each action is organic, stemming from the person’s desires and feelings, and there’s nary a moment where you can feel the writer in the background. It makes the emotional moments feel genuine and even wrenching, the comedy more soulful. The Great is not a fan of convenience and doesn’t care to humour expectations, making for truly engaging viewing.

The Great is also quite nice to look at, vibrant where appropriate and making exquisite use of yellow and green, dull and foreboding where necessary (like the muted palette as Catherine and Elizabeth visit a battlefield, giving the soldiers colourful macarons from an equally colourful box, contrasting the cushiness of the court against the torment of war). The first episode, directed by Matt Shakman (a Fargo and Game of Thrones alum), offers striking, stately compositions, but those are unfortunately lost over time, maybe due to Shakman not helming any other episodes. The show excels in most technical aspects, though the editing is a bit jarring at times – there are a number of awkward, soap opera-esque scene transitions, and it can unnecessarily disrupt the flow of an episode.

But really, the characters are the hook of the show. One episode about a smallpox outbreak doesn’t do a whole lot to advance the narrative, really only reinforcing what we already know (Peter is an asshole, Catherine wants to help, Marial’s life sucks), but spending an hour with these people is such a joy that these qualms are trivial. They make The Great live up to its name, above and beyond the satire, the lovely costuming, the production values. I’m not sure if we’re getting a continuation, but I would be very thrilled to jump back into this bizarre little world, so here’s hoping.