Palm Springs (2020)

So, look, Palm Springs checks a lot of boxes for me.

Palm Springs could have been half as good and would still have entertained me. Instead, this movie had me cackling and murmuring appreciatively by turns.

It’s a deeply philosophical character study wrapped up in a semi-absurdist grim comedy about life, and what it means to be a part of it. It’s my kind of good movie.

It’s got time loops. It has characters who feel believably human throughout the situations they’re stuck in. It takes the opportunity offered by playing with time loops to delve into what makes those characters tick, what they believe about the world, and how that drives the decisions that they make. There’s some love, there’re plenty of personal realizations and comedic moments, there’s a bit of enlightenment, and there’s a whole lot of dying (with very little gore).

I loved this movie.

That’s because…

First off, I’m a sucker for time travel. I’m even more of a sucker for time loops. I’ll enjoy stories built on either of those things, because they delight me even when other parts of a story aren’t as good.

Another thing I like: I like stories with characters who feel believably human. I like characters who feel internally consistent. I like characters who—even if they disavow this—have personal philosophies and worldviews that I can understand through observing the characters interacting with each other and their world.

Watching believably human characters play off each other and struggle with their beliefs about the world and life, seeing that done well, that’s a treat. It’s even better when I recognize some of the philosophical and spiritual underpinnings of the perspectives in play. 

Now, I don’t want all of my movies to be about people struggling with those perspectives on life. Nor do I want every movie I watch to be about people struggling with their worldviews as they intersect with others’. Someone no doubt argues that every story is that, probably Truby, but that’s missing my point.

Besides which, Palm Springs does all that without making it feel cumbersome. I say that it’s deeply philosophical, but none of that gets in the way of enjoying anything else going on in the movie. It’s the perfect approach to an “all-ages” philosophical text; much like those exemplary Pixar movies designed to entertain children and adults simultaneously, Palm Springs is accessible at any one of a variety of levels.

Though, uh, it’s not exactly a kid’s movie.

Still. If you want to watch Palm Springs as a romance, that’s available. If you want to watch it as an exploration of the Hindu and Buddhist teachings on reincarnation, proper action, suffering, and enlightenment, that’s there too! And if you’re looking for a grim comedy where some hooligans make a bunch of regrettable choices and suffer (somewhat) for them, that’s there in spades.

This movie will inevitably be compared with Groundhog Day, because… time loops. And because they’re so similar. Also, heh, this post is going up on Groundhog Day despite me having watched the movie maybe a month ago.

What I mean is, Groundhog Day is *the* present cultural touchstone for anything like Palm Springs. Hell, Groundhog Day digs through a lot of the same material and wrestles with many of the same philosophical questions. I doubt Palm Springs would exist without Groundhog Day. In a number of ways, Palm Springs feels like a modern update to the older story. 

That modern update makes a huge difference for me. In a good way.

Annnnnnd here we hit the *SPOILERS*.

For all that Groundhog Day and Palm Springs cover similar ground, Groundhog Day is trapped in a romance story’s paradigm. Winning the love (and belief) of someone not stuck in the time loop through engaging in proper moral action—and through showing off whatever skill you’ve developed over your eternity in this time loop—is the path out. That conclusion isn’t stated explicitly, but it’s sure as hell implied by the movie.

It’s a romance story. Love saves the day. Being a more moral human helps, and is important, but love saves the day.

Palm Springs offers that conclusion, and then explicitly rejects it. Right action, doing the right thing, atoning for previous faults or doing good wherever you can… don’t get you out of the loop. Being in love also doesn’t let you escape. Not even reaching peace and acceptance will bring you out.

But… they’re all important.

Escaping the time loop takes significant, hard work. And escaping the loop is important to the film’s plot. But it’s not achieved because “love saves the day,” it’s not “following the romantic plot brings escape from misery.” It’s something orthogonal to any of that.

No, the experience of finding peace, and of (mostly) doing the right thing by others, and of being able to love one another, those are all important for their own reasons. They have their own value. They can make existence better. And, critically for how this film compares to Groundhog Day, they ultimately aren’t the key to escaping the eternal time loop which is such an easy metaphor for existence.

Basically, Groundhog Day is a story about a trapped guy growing enough that he finally gets the girl and thereby finds freedom. Palm Springs is about people reaching enlightenment and finding joy—together, and as individuals.

I love that change. It means that Palm Springs doesn’t fall into the same Hollywood romance-logic trap. So many romance-genre stories build up romantic attachment into an impossible ideal that leaves any human relationship feeling flawed or inevitably doomed by comparison. Palm Springs nimbly vaults across that yawning chasm of bad writing which plagues so many genre stories, and feels more real and more human as a result. Because of that, I can enjoy the romance storyline without wanting to tear my hair out. I love it.

Another thing: Groundhog Day focused solely on one person. No one else was in the loop as well. That meant that there was no way for anyone else’s perspective on the world, on life, to respond to and adapt to any internal shift experienced by Bill Murray’s character. Yes, he could talk to other people, and yes they could share their whole perspective with him, and sure, he could come back and talk to them again another day with a different perspective. But everyone else was stuck in one place and time in their lives.

Palm Springs doesn’t do that. With multiple characters caught in the loop, it gives us a richer connection, more byplay between characters. The other people in the loop can come to their own realizations, they can grow and change and travel their own personal courses. They aren’t static.

That makes a phenomenal difference. What’s more, it means that when we’re given a deeper look at the life of these characters, their jumping off point for each repetition of the day, we can see how they’re trapped in turn by their own circumstances, their own pain. That, in turn, recontextualizes everything that’s come before. Laying bare the private sufferings of the characters, peeling back the layers for the audience throughout the movie, lends nuance. It makes them feel more human, and more comprehensible.

It also makes their growth, their changes, and the ways they play off each other so much richer. Those slow revelations feed neatly into how the characters’ perspectives bounce off each other over and over, changing a bit every time. It’s a well-established screenwriting technique—Truby loves it, see The Anatomy of Story—but this might be the clearest depiction of it that I’ve seen yet. It’s part of what had me muttering appreciatively, or just saying “wow,” throughout the film.

*END SPOILERS*

So.

Yes, I think you should watch it. I’m sure there are people who will see this movie and feel nothing, or be frustrated by things that I didn’t notice. Maybe if I watched it again I’d have a more critical perspective. But if you, like me, enjoy time loops and good human characters and dark comedy and a bit of romance and some philosophy… watch it.

Palm Springs is my kind of good movie.

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Hoping for more Thufir Hawat

This is about Dune. It has some spoilers.

I saw news about filming for Dune: Part Two, and got excited again. I’ll try to explain a little bit of why.

First off, a warning for the unfamiliar. The book Dune has… problems. Plenty of them. It has uncomfortable themes of colonialism and orientalism baked into the original text, and those are still present in most interpretations of its story. It has white savior tropes. It has the gender norms and judgments of a White American man from the 1950s and 60s, complete with a fixation on effeminacy that would fit right in with creepy racist 1800s anthropology. Heck, Dune so exemplifies the troublesome and implicitly misogynistic “hard times make hard men” mythos that Bret Devereaux named his dissection of that mythos “the Fremen Mirage” when writing about it at ACOUP.

But in all that mess there are beautiful, very human stories–and I’d absolutely recommend watching Dune: Part One (preferably on a large screen with a very good sound system). One of those stories, one I’m desperately hoping to see finished on the screen in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two, is the tragedy of Thufir Hawat. It’s a sad story of personal loyalty, betrayal and manipulation, and love, and it carries with it all the weight of classical dramatic feudal intrigue.

See, while Dune came out in the era of classic hard science fiction, and certainly takes place in a setting with interstellar travel and many other things we associate with hard sci fi, it’s focused on society and people rather than technology. It is feudal intrigue and political maneuvering in space, an extremely human-focused story exploring the impacts of a technologically constrained setting built from a wide variety of different inspirations. In many ways this is socially and personally focused “soft” sci fi, much as Ursula Le Guin’s work was (maybe the only time I’ll say Dune is like Le Guin’s work). 

Perhaps that personal focus is why Thufir Hawat’s story would fit as neatly in a Shakespearean tragedy as it would in any novel of spaceships and distant worlds.

I love Thufir Hawat in the 2021 version of Dune. Stephen McKinley Henderson does a phenomenal job. It’s Henderson’s performance which anchors my love for Hawat, and which leaves me hoping to see the rest of the mentat’s tragedy. I don’t recall having such deep and abiding affection for the character when I read the book (decades ago) or saw the David Lynch version of the movie (also long ago). Perhaps I would feel that connection if I reread the book today, but I wager my fondness would also be a reflection of how I feel for Henderson’s portrayal.

The relationship between Thufir Hawat and Paul Atreides is close. It’s avuncular. This rings true for basically all the Atreides retainers, even Dr. Wellington Yueh in his moment of betrayal, but you can see Hawat’s love for Paul—and his scathing self-judgment—in his immediate and anguished reaction to the assassination attempt against Paul. That continues through the rest of his time on screen, especially when we see his stone-faced, pained stiffness as people commend Paul for outsmarting the hunter-killer.

In fact, 2021’s Dune does a spectacular job of showing us the constellation of House Atreides’ retainers. Villeneuve put so much work into showing us the Atreides as a tight-knit family, as Paul’s family. And the actors played that family to the hilt. It was beautiful. The twisting of their emotional ties as they are caught up in the complex machinations intended to destroy them, the way Paul and each other family member reacts as they see their loved ones shorn away by treachery… it makes the fall of House Atreides all the more tragic.

No doubt that poignant tragedy is why I’m so caught up in the drama of the fall of House Atreides. And why I’m so looking forward to seeing Henderson return as Hawat in Dune: Part Two

I know what the book has in store. Thufir Hawat rises to prominence within House Harkonnen, replacing the Mentat Piter De Vries (poisoned following the Harkonnen attack on Arrakis). In his new position as Mentat for the Harkonnen, Hawat does his best to keep himself alive while setting the Harkonnen against themselves (moreso than they already were). When he finally learns the truth, that Paul survived, he kills himself rather than follow Baron Harkonnen’s orders to kill Paul.

It’s Shakespearean.

Denis Villeneuve has been remarkably faithful to the book thus far. And so I’m extremely excited to see Stephen McKinley Henderson bring all his remarkable talent to the sad path that awaits Thufir Hawat. Thufir Hawat is an excellent tragic hero, and I trust Henderson to once again remind me why I love a good tragedy.

I just hope that the full arc of Hawat’s story makes the cinematic cut.

This is me, sitting with fingers crossed, waiting for Dune: Part Two.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)

I’m glad I finally watched Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

I’d read some critics saying that this movie lumbered under the weight of its exposition. I’d heard from fan-friends that they really liked it. I can see the critics’ critique, but I’m pretty firmly in the second camp.

First off, the exposition involved did not surprise me. Marvel has a lot of work to do with introducing its multiverse stories, and MoMadness was their opening cinematic entry for that.

See, Marvel is clearly planning more multiversal cinematic adventures. They’ve been tying multiverse elements into many of their stories lately, leaning into the weirdness even as they use the multiverse to pull together the most poignant story threads they can get their hands on. They’re probably going to slip up and fall on their face at some point—they can’t all be winners—but so far they’ve done pretty well.

Spider-Man: No Way Home worked magnificently on this front. It also featured Dr. Strange, and multiverse shenanigans, but my guess is that Marvel wanted another movie that more fully focused on the multiverse… and which was completely within their owned IP, instead of being in awkward joint custody with Sony. Aside from all that, I think MoMadness is establishing building blocks for the next set of Big Threats and Consequences for the current MCU arc (while No Way Home was more focused on Spider-Man). After Angry Purple Man 1 & 2 and Thanos’ threats to “all life,” Marvel’s writers are probably trying to up the ante for their next big showdown and multiverse threats to existence as we know it are a solid escalation. Threatening existence itself is also a little bit like jumping the shark, but that’s comics baby.

Now, if you didn’t watch the Loki TV series, or weren’t already familiar with a multiverse as a concept, or didn’t know Marvel’s extensive history of playing with multiverse storylines in their comics, I can see how this movie might feel a little off the wall or rushed in its exposition. But as someone who was familiar with all of those things, I had an excellent time. I actually liked the way they leapt from one thing to the next without spending a whole lot of time building up the how and the why. Among other things, it kept the movie moving (heh) and let Sam Raimi shine with the horror elements he knows so well.

I also see Marvel’s embrace of the multiverse as a way for Marvel to play around with extremely weird or unanticipated story and character ideas. When you have infinite parallel-ish existences, you can wring each one for all the emotional content it’s worth, and then only keep the ones that you like most. If a character dies in one storyline, that’s no reason they can’t some back (with some slightly different emotional baggage) in another storyline. Writers can borrow them from another dimension for an afternoon, after all. This way, one character’s experience of their single life can be grown in new directions (giving the audience context for the character’s emotional world) and then rewritten without necessarily discarding all the emotional development.

This, of course, is going to open Marvel up to screwing the pooch even more thoroughly in their next big ensemble movies. I wasn’t a big fan of Angry Purple Man 1 or 2. Much of my distaste for those movies—even when I loved elements of them—came from the way in which they didn’t give time for (or maintain continuity with) the characters’ emotional development in their preceding individual movies. Juggling so many different storylines across multiple universes is only going to make that more difficult.

On the topic of character development though…

I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry about this movie’s choices. Both, maybe? I like what it does for Dr. Strange. Plus, I really like Wanda Maximoff’s journey—and have reservations about it at the same time. Dr. Strange first, because his experience is simpler.

A little context: in many ways, watching Dr. Strange die repeatedly at the end of his first movie was so fun for me because he’s such a prick. And seeing him gradually become less of a prick over the course of that movie feels good. In that moment near the end, as he’s dying repeatedly, no one else can see his sacrifice. No one else sees him suffering through an eternity of painful deaths in order to negotiate with an impossible force. He’s given a chance to grow as a person even as he pulls a really neat (and frankly torturous) trick in order to save the world.

So for me, Dr. Strange movies have this double appeal: I can see an asshole get what’s coming to him, and I can see that same asshat become a (marginally) better person while growing into his role as a hero. What’s not to love?

MoMadness continues that tradition. Dr. Strange learns from his own (and his other selves’) mistakes. This is one of those places where the multiverse concept really shines: it’s possible for someone to recognize things in themselves that they weren’t ready to see, as they are confronted by their other selves. Dr. Strange may be full of himself and a control freak, but he’s not an idiot. Seeing him come to care for others and be there for them (instead of being there for them for himself, because it gives him a chance to play the savior and build a heroic image of himself) is really sweet. I might actually want to watch this movie again just to appreciate the ways in which it delivers on that personal growth.

Sadly, all that growth also makes me dread what may come in the next big cinematic combo event. If it’s anything like the last one, the individual characters will probably be shortchanged and their growth over the previous films won’t make it fully formed into the movie. Or maybe Marvel will surprise me, but I won’t hold my breath.

All of which brings me to Wanda Maximoff / Scarlet Witch.

Her personal arc is awesome, honestly. It retraces some of her development in WandaVision, which is unfortunate but understandable given that the movie doesn’t assume viewers are current with the TV shows. Despite that, I love how the multiverse works in such similar ways for both Wanda and Strange here. Each has a chance to confront the lives and choices of their other selves—and to be confronted by those things in turn, peeling back the lies and illusions they hold dear.

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, but to get into the weeds I’ll have to share some *SPOILERS* about Scarlet Witch.

I’m not happy about Scarlet Witch (apparently) killing herself. After how Marvel killed off Black Widow, and the very real problem with the poverty of representation in these stories (see also my review of Soul), having Scarlet Witch kill herself too leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It’s a bad look, Marvel.

On the other hand, this time it made sense. Wanda Maximoff was a tortured soul by the end of WandaVision (much as she was at the start of it). This movie established firmly that she was still in a very bad place, and was busy digging deeper into a magic book that the movie explicitly established as being extremely bad news. But where Black Widow died in a way that felt cheap and senseless (and was arguably fridging), this movie gave Scarlet Witch a chance to have a rich (and painful) emotional arc that ended in death.

She pursues her obsession beyond the ends of the Earth, and is ultimately confronted (while reaching closure with herself and with her family in a way that felt brilliant) by the consequences of her choices up to that point. That drive, that confrontation, and that closure were all good. Those scenes with herself and her boys were heart-wrenching. Given all the choices she’d made leading up to those moments, and the way she’d lied to herself while also digging deep into the evil evil magic book of evil, her choosing to kill herself and destroy the physical manifestation of those dangerous spells actually feels meaningful.

It doesn’t resolve the issue of those spells (presumably) existing in other universes in similar locales, but it makes narrative sense. And it doesn’t feel like the writers just offed a female character to give a male one some new emotional trauma. But while this was definitely a better course than Marvel took with Black Widow—I didn’t feel like Wanda was being shortchanged here.—that doesn’t make me excited about the Scarlet Witch dying.

Having said that, I doubt it’ll stick. Given the increasing importance of multiverse-shenanigans, I suspect Wanda will return to a future storyline as a multiverse-self. Alternate-Wanda presumably won’t stick around, but her character won’t simply be gone.

*END SPOILERS*

Okay.

There’s even more I want to talk about.

I’d love to dig into the ways in which MoMadness functions as a horror movie, but at this point it’ll have to be short. You can easily see the ways Sam Raimi digs into his long experience with making horror movies: the movements of pursuers, the deaths, the moments of disquieting revelation, the occasional weird and awful and maybe a little funny gore and body horror. It’s all present.

We’re even treated to Bruce Campbell! His cameo (and his after-credit scene) are delightful, and offer a nod to Raimi’s Evil Dead series that presages some of the horror elements still to come. It’s a good little bit of bonus fun.

But in conclusion, yes, I liked the movie. It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but it was good. I hope you can enjoy it too.

The Lost City (2022)

While I was traveling recently, I saw a number of airplane movies. Some of them were spectacular, some were crap. At least one was stuck in the middle: The Lost City with Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum.

It’s been a while since I watched movies on an airplane; it’s been a while since I flew, period. There’s always something a little weird about airplane movies… I think I’m more inclined to like them, if only because they offer a welcome distraction from hours of monotony. My “was it fun” bar is lower.

The Lost City would have passed that bar even without being stuck on an airplane. The movie was good fun. It was absurd in a number of very appealing ways, and played with audience assumptions deftly. I would be willing to call the movie an excellent (if predictable) comedy adventure with a dash of romance, except…

Alright, look, I normally give *SPOILER* warnings, and I don’t know how to talk through this without mentioning specifics. You’ve been warned.

The movie does almost nothing to engage the problematic side of its adventure-archaeology plot. They mention it, and then… basically nothing. Yes, the villain Abigail Fairfax (thank you for chewing the scenery, Daniel Radcliffe) is obviously portrayed as Doing A Bad. Yes, the genre calls for some adventure-archaeology, and yes this movie portrays “let’s steal these ancient artifacts” less positively than, say, Indiana Jones. But given how neatly the writers played with our expectations in the other plot (the adventure of our romance author and her books’ cover model), I wish they’d done more here too.

I’ll come back to that.

I can understand why the movie focuses on the duo played by Sandra Bullock (romance author Loretta Sage) and Channing Tatum (cover model Alan NoLastName)—they’re great! The ways in which their characters comedically subvert their tropes are pure gold. I wish more movies did what The Lost City does here.

The opening of this movie had my complete buy-in. I’d hold it up as a brilliant example of good character establishment, with just enough interplay to set up the forthcoming character trope inversions and the (eventual) odd-couple romance plot. The movie’s jokes about publishing, authors, models, and our assumptions about all those things, all landed for me. It’s good stuff!

This is the part of the movie that I thought was especially excellent.

Then we get Daniel Radcliffe’s obsessed villain, and the excellence continues. There’s a scene with cheese and an airplane that… look, it was kind of dumb, but it had me cackling quietly in my seat. The whole opening of the movie is like that. The magic continues with the introduction of yet another star actor, and we’re given a treat while Tatum’s Alan plays off of this magnificent foil.

And it’s right around here where the movie sets up something that they then fail to explore well. We’re introduced to a local, Rafi played by Héctor Aníbal, who works for the villain despite disagreeing with him because there’s no other well-paid work. In a set of throwaway lines that the whole rest of this excellent opening act led me to believe would see plenty of future pay-out, our villain reveals his villainous plans; he’s bought one whole side of an island, full of ancient ruins, and is paying locals to dig up their history so that he can soothe his tender ego with some artifact-granted self-aggrandizement. He admits the locals don’t like it (so far so good, that’s more than most other archaeology-adventures do), and even says that Rafi has particularly mixed feelings about it.

The movie has gotten my hopes up at this point. With all the other set-up and payout that’s been going on, that casual aside is worth every second it takes. It tells me exactly what’s coming, and I’m excited for it.

I want to see Rafi have a character arc. I know he’s not a main character, but I want him to at least have a couple lines. And I want to get enough time with him to see how and when he turns against Fairfax. I want his dramatic shift to feel important.

It gets short-changed. We see a fragment of what I’d hoped for.

Mostly, the movie doesn’t pay attention to Rafi’s dramatic shift—despite the fact that it is central to the heroes’ survival. Those throwaway lines were there for a reason, they set up the eventual twist in exactly the way I’d expected. But Rafi’s emotional journey is given almost no play at all.

And when you take a step back, you can see similarly short shrift given to all the other POC characters. Now, I acknowledge that all the other POC characters are also side characters, and they’re given roughly as much narrative attention as any other side character. Maybe even more attention, because the side characters are mostly people of color.

The problem is, this doesn’t really solve the issue at hand. It just draws attention to the fact that all the people who have narrative focus are white despite the movie predominantly being set in a very non-white place.

They almost made a spectacular movie. As it was the performances were delightful, and a lot of the writing was excellent, and somewhere along the way someone dropped the ball and the movie just came out fun but with thorny snags. And it is fun. I had fun the whole way through, even when I was disappointed.

But my disappointment was even sharper because it was so clear that—at some point along the way—someone knew they could do more. And then they didn’t. They wrote Rafi’s character knowing he’d play a vital role at the end, and they laid the foundation for his emotional journey to be satisfying, and then they never followed through. Maybe it was lost in the edit, maybe it didn’t work during shooting, I have no idea. I just know that it should have been there and then wasn’t.

And that void doesn’t just leave the movie without a deeper emotional arc for a POC character, it also makes Fairfax’s villainy flatter. Rafi’s moral objections to the heedless extraction of his people’s history serves as a foil to Fairfax’s rabid egotism. By stripping out the development of those objections, and Rafi’s role as a reluctant-lieutenant-turned-eventual-resister, we lose the nuance and depth of Fairfax’s desperate and callous selfishness.

Now. Does an adventure movie need to have all that emotional depth?

Well, no. It doesn’t need that. This is a functional adventure movie as-is.

But it clearly has the bones of all that additional emotional depth. And it could have had a significant chunk of all that with probably only four more minutes of run-time. That would take the movie from 1h 52m to 1h 56m, and honestly that doesn’t seem like an issue to me.

Heck, those four minutes probably would have made this one of the first archaeology-adventures to give more than lip-service to the problematic history of archaeology, too. It already looked like they were trying to do that in places, via implication. They just didn’t land the whole message in the final cut. Another missed opportunity.

So.

It’s a fun movie. I’d even say that parts of it are excellent. I just wish they’d carried it a little further, because I think it was almost a spectacular movie instead of a pretty good one that sometimes left a bad taste in my mouth.

Dune (2021)

Dune (2021) reminded me why I like seeing movies in theaters. It was CINEMA, in an incredibly all-caps fashion. It was larger than life: it pulled me out of my socially distanced seat, even made me forget that I was wearing a mask, and caught me up in its vastness.

There are certainly movies that benefit from being seen on the big screen, movies that benefit from having a good sound system. So many MCU blockbusters fit that description. I’m sure I’ve said that of other movies here before.

But it’s rare that I watch a movie that feels designed for that largeness every step of the way. It’s rare to watch something that so welcomes dwarfing its human actors against massive backdrops, that feels ready to swallow up everyone on screen at once. It’s even more rare for these movies to go beyond dazzling spectacle, and to evoke awe.

I really liked watching Dune. I LOVED it.

I’m not yet talking about the story, or the characters, or any of that (though I do have thoughts there). I’m not covering the soundtrack at all, which deserves its own essay. Nor am I talking yet about how Dune is problematic, and one of my problematic faves. I’m just talking about the experience of watching Dune on a big screen, with a proper 7.1 sound system that I could feel in my chest. And part of that, part of the magnificence of the movie and how it drew me in, comes down to a set of decisions they made that (I think) were brilliant.

First of all the camera work, and especially the groundedness of the camera, keeps the viewer in the scene. The camera never moves in ways that feel unreal, even when its location is obviously impossible: the vacuum of space is graced with a slow pan, while an ornithopter in flight is followed either from the ground, or with what feels like remarkably steady helicopter work. Like David Lynch’s 1984 Dune, scale and distance and perspective still play a crucial role as we see just how small the characters are in their setting—a visual cue that parallels the ways in which so many people in this movie, full of hopes and dreams, are rendered insignificant and cast aside.

This movie’s visuals say, loud and clear, that the world is bigger than any human. It’s bigger, and it doesn’t care. Arrakis doesn’t care about you. The Padishah Emperor doesn’t care about you… and if he does, he may simply wish you dead or broken. The story is Shakespearean, as Stephen McKinley Henderson (Thufir Hawat in Dune 2021) points out. I agree, though perhaps a little differently: it’s a vast tragedy, with many people who die on the sidelines without ever achieving what they’d wished. Few people are as large as they might think themselves, few as important. The movie’s visual language hammers this home.

But the visuals also feel incredibly real. That feels unusual for a big genre movie with showy fantastical elements. So often, those big “wow” moments are both impressive and just slightly off. Dune manages to convey a sense of reality and presence that I can only compare to seeing the original Jurassic Park in theaters. As I discovered when I dug deeper, this is because the Dune production team (like the JP team) paid attention to minute detail, working extremely hard to make every little bit fit together—and work together—into a greater whole. It paid off.

For one, Dune paid incredible attention to lighting color and quality. They developed a new background screen which the production team called a “sand screen,” replacing the common blue and green ones. A warm brown, the sand screen better matched the lighting-color of their set locations, and allowed reflected background lighting to paint the proper colors on the actors’ faces, thereby enhancing the visual immersion (at the cost of slightly harder work for the CG artists). This meant that even when working with CG’d-in sets, the actors were still lit more like they were shooting on location.

Speaking of shooting on location: Dune captured their outdoor shots with real sunlight, even when working in front of screens. And when they had explosions in dark scenes, they filmed in darkness and cued pre-positioned lights to illuminate the actors’ faces in time with the explosions. What’s more, they used literal tons of real sand in many of their blowing-sand shots (material that gave their CG artists something to work with while touching up the scenes) and took footage of helicopters blowing up desert dust clouds for additional reference.

Heck, they also weren’t afraid to let those dust clouds obscure their (beautiful, intricate) prop and set designs. There were shots where I could barely make out the vast scenery, only see hints of it by well chosen lighting and inference. The production team understood the value of not showing everything, of letting the viewers fill the gaps. And while they may have covered up some of the gorgeous art they’d created for the film, the effect was magnificently immersive. Watching a lone figure buffeted by wind and rain below the landing lights of an otherwise pitch black ship, or seeing Harkonnen combat vehicles hidden by billowing sand and lit only by the flares of their own missiles, I felt more pulled into the scene. And the movie pulled my focus to the elements it really wanted to show, rather than overwhelming me with too much detail.

They did an excellent job.

Okay, now for some of the other stuff.

First, if you’ve read the book you’ll know what’s happening. If you haven’t, I can’t help you. It’s been so long since I read the book, this story has wormed its way through my brain. I doubt I can judge whether it does a good enough job of including an uninformed audience.

That immediately opens many cans of worms. Dune, the novel, was published in 1965. That age, and the divergence in social assumptions that go with it, is palpable when you think about the book. And despite the little ways they’ve changed things, the movie is pretty faithful to the original text.

But in a lot of ways, the 2021 film does a good job of concealing the cultural temporal disconnect. While it (like the source material) is painted up like science fiction, the movie’s genre feels far more like grim feudal intrigue fantasy, in space. That gives it some cultural leeway I think it might otherwise lack. Like an interstellar Game of Thrones, with some technology that reads like magic (or an excuse to follow Frank Herbert’s personal Rule of Cool), it’s clear that this world has some different cultural conventions than our own. And, of course, we return to it being a Shakespearean story—murderous feudal politicking in space.

Now, I feel the movie made the right choice by leaning into the fantasy intrigue genre, because I think the book was there all along. For me, the book fits far better into the genre conventions of epic fantasy a la grim feudal political intrigue than the genre conventions of science fiction. (I feel similarly about Star Wars: it’s space fantasy, rather than sci fi). It feels like the movie is being even more faithful to the text than I’d realized was possible.

I don’t think this will save them from all the ways in which Dune is problematic. I think it already hasn’t. This movie is less problematic than its source text, but not without issues of its own.

But it does look like they’ve backed off some of the ways the original text was troublesome, and laid some groundwork (that I don’t recall from the books) that builds context for other ways in which the original story was problematic. I have no idea to what extent that will cushion the blow, though, because… this was just Dune: Part One. Time to wait another two years, probably.

I’ve now written enough without a clear outline that I’m losing track of my thoughts. Suffice to say I think this is an awesome movie, in the archaic and classical “awe-inspiring“ sense of the word. It’s absolutely worth watching if you can see it on a big screen with big sound. If you can’t, and you’re a Dune fan, you should still watch it. If you’re not a Dune fan… yeah, I’d still recommend it, provided you know what you’re getting yourself into (I’m not going to write about that here and now, this is already too long). But do try to find a safe way to see it on something large. And ready yourself for taking in visual and auditory spectacle.

Because wow. This movie is a lot.

The Harder They Fall (2021)

Profoundly Western: part tragedy, part drama, and all about revenge and camaraderie and fighting to make a place in the world.

I can’t write about this movie without writing about Wild Wild West (the 1999 Will Smith film, not the midcentury TV show that gave rise to that movie). I also have to talk about the larger context of Westerns. And I ought to talk about American history post-Civil War, and how that’s been depicted in Hollywood. That deserves a deeper look, but I’ll try to keep it brief: I’m not ready to write an essay right now.

The Harder They Fall fits oddly well with Wild Wild West. This isn’t because they feel the same, though they are both set in the American West. Instead, it’s because of what they both do that few other movies have done.

Both movies break the Hollywood mould. Both do something unusual, especially for movies set (roughly) during Reconstruction; they feature black protagonists whose fundamental struggles are not about slavery.

Most movies set during or around that time prominently feature white protagonists. When there are Confederates, they’re often empathized with. When the protagonists are black, their dramatic struggle nearly always centers around slavery (their own, a loved one’s, etc.). And Westerns, as a subset of those movies, rarely feature people of color as anything other than The Other. ‘Western’ stories are nearly always “of the white people, by the white people, for the white people.” Given the fact that there were so many non-white people present in the land these stories are told about, and during the time when those stories are set, that’s a pretty egregious rewriting of history.

For a long time, Wild Wild West was the only movie I could point to that didn’t do that.

For all of its troublesome pieces (and there are many), Wild Wild West refused to toe that revisionist-history line. The film is set during Reconstruction, and its central protagonist is black and isn’t a slave. In fact, instead of centering his dramatic struggle around escaping enslavement (his own, or someone else’s), his fundamental duty is to hunt down Confederate terrorists still operating in the US post-war (very historical, unlike the giant spider-mecha). Relatedly, and most importantly, the movie never caters to the fantasy of the Lost Cause and the mythology of the Good Confederate that went along with it; unlike so many other movies set in this time period, Wild Wild West never defends the Confederacy or any of the racists who supported it. In fact, the villain is an unrepentant Confederate obsessed with reversing the outcome of the Civil War. There are a few white people on the hero’s side, but they’re in supporting roles and none of them are supposed to be reformed secessionists.

The Harder They Fall is very different. It’s not steampunk alternate history. It’s far less fantastical. It does do some fun things with visual design, sets, and costumes that may not be purely historically accurate, and it anachronistically combines several real historical people in one time, place, and story… but it’s down to earth. But like Wild Wild West, it features a black protagonist whose dramatic struggle doesn’t focus on slavery.

Actually, it goes way further than that. There isn’t a single main white character in the movie (let alone the redeemable Confederate that has long been a staple of Hollywood fare). The entire central cast is made up of people of color, just like the vast majority of the extras. On that front, The Harder They Fall blows Wild Wild West out of the water.

It even hews more closely to the expectations of the genre. Thematically, this story is profoundly Western: part tragedy, part drama, it’s all about revenge and camaraderie and fighting to make a place in the world. Actually, it reminds me a good deal of the Spaghetti Westerns, with its rich visual language and cinematography, with its omnipresent and evocative soundtrack, and with its violence. Honestly, it’s pretty brutal in places… it’s not quite Tarantino-esque, though the movie arguably references Django Unchained early on when someone shoots a white person before they can finish possibly saying the n-word.

So.

I don’t know if I can say just how happy I am to find another movie that does this. We need to end our cultural obsession with protecting the harmful mythology of the Lost Cause, and with casting Confederates as tragic noble knights instead of violently reactionary antidemocratic racists. This movie pushes us in that direction. We need more stories about people who aren’t white, and those stories should make space for them to be something more than slaves. This movie offers exactly that. I enjoy The Harder They Fall all the more for the way in which it gives these characters space to be people. It doesn’t offer a cure for every ailment, just… complicated people with their violent, complicated lives.

If you don’t like Westerns, or can’t handle violence with occasional bits of gruesomeness, I suggest you appreciate this movie from a distance. Otherwise, have at. It’s good.

Huh. I got so wrapped up in talking about bigger, structural things, I forgot to mention that I just like this movie as a movie. The cast is lots of fun, the story delivers what I want, there are twists that I enjoy… it’s a good movie. It’s a good Western. And it’s even better for all the other things I mentioned above.

Kate (2021)

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is cast as Keanu Reeves in Kate, a movie with fewer characters than John Wick (both in the title and in the story).

I couldn’t resist that sassy intro, but I fear it does the movie injustice. I enjoyed Kate quite a bit.

It’s not quite as incredible as the John Wick movies have been, whether in choreography, cinematography, or world building (John Wick’s world building is literally incredible—I struggle to believe it even as I enjoy it). But unlike the Wick movies this one actually wraps up its story. What’s more, Kate has interesting interpersonal, emotional drama that exists as more than the excuse for new on-screen violence.

Both of those go beyond anything I expect from John Wick movies.

A little context before I go further. I’m fond of action movies, and have a deep appreciation for stunt work, choreography, and cinematography (especially around fight scenes). I’m fully aware that many action movies are poorly written. I cringe at their clunky exposition, their trite plots, their wooden acting. But I appreciate them.

I also very strongly believe that we should celebrate “perfectly fine” movies more than we do, and recognize when movies are “perfectly fine” overall but have some stand out features. There’s space for movies to exist between being magnificent and being garbage.

Back to Kate: Mary Elizabeth Winstead is great as the lead. She takes a cliche and acts the hell out of it, feeling emotionally honest the whole way through. I was surprised to find myself tearing up. Perhaps she caught me off guard.

She also sells the action, passing a crucial test for this genre. And Kate does a respectable job of following some of John Wick’s lead, with solid (and gruesome) choreography and filming. This despite the fact that Kate does not, and I think cannot, do exactly what the John Wick movies do; Kate doesn’t have action sequence shots as long as John Wick’s, nor does Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s action look quite as completely convincing as Keanu Reeves’.

Quick aside: why do I say cannot? Well… Mary Elizabeth Winstead has done some action previously, but she doesn’t have the same background as Keanu Reeves (who has been doing martial arts regularly since the 90s). Furthermore, from what I could find she was cast in April, started filming in September, and finished in November, all of the same year—and lost her preferred stunt double to an injury at the beginning of shooting. I’d be shocked if anyone in that time frame, even with previous stunt training, could have built up the same obsessively in-depth repertoire that Keanu Reeves has developed over his career and honed for the Wick movies. The fact that she and her doubles sell the action, make it feel convincing, make it feel like it belongs in the same space as the John Wick movies, is good enough for me.

And yet.

The few reviews I’ve seen involved critics complaining that the plot is trite and the film is too much like other femme assassin movies. They sometimes acknowledge that Mary Elizabeth Winstead has done a good job, but don’t admit that the genre they’re panning (for being too same-y or overplayed, no less) makes up a tiny slice of action movies overall… nor that the movie is absolutely better than many comparable action films with male leads.

It’s a double standard, or it’s lazy. Or both.

Kate isn’t perfect. It isn’t the best of its genre (I’d probably still give that to Atomic Blonde). But it’s better than several other femme assassin movies I’ve seen, and a damn sight better than plenty of action movies with male leads. If you like action movies, and appreciate some of the aesthetics and attention to high-quality stage violence highlighted by the John Wick movies, you’ll probably enjoy Kate.

One last thing though: I have no idea how well Kate deals with Japanese culture. It isn’t blatantly awful to my woefully uninformed eye, but I’m not the expert here.

Okay, that’s it. Kate was engaging. I liked it. I recommend it. Don’t expect perfection, just go ahead and enjoy it for what it is: a perfectly good action movie with a solid performance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead. I’d absolutely watch more action movies with her as a lead. I look forward to seeing what she does next.

Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)

Raya and the Last Dragon is not a subtle movie. It hammers you with its themes from the very beginning, tying setting and conflict and nearly everything else into a robust and relentless thematic journey from initial action through to climax and conclusion.

And I really liked it.

Because while Raya’s thematic beats thump home like clockwork, it’s also heart-warming, dramatic, gorgeous, and engaging.

This movie did not surprise me. While it has nice little flourishes that feel right, it did not wow me with big twists or unexpected reveals. Nor did it leave me guessing about its message. But it did have me crying by the end. This story got me in my narrative soft spots even though I could see the setup coming from its first twenty minutes.

In many ways, Raya is an excellent introductory movie: it both teaches how to incorporate a central theme when making films, and offers a very clear example for audiences still learning to identify themes in movies.

A few quick highlights without spoiling anything: the fight choreography and performance is excellent (partially covered on this episode of Corridor Crew), as is the art and character design and the differentiation for the five different regions of the movie’s world. But the best part, from a narrative perspective, is that the movie feels true to its characters. The speaking characters may not be the deepest and most nuanced, but they feel relatable and human instead of paper thin. And I never really feel like they’re being made to carry an idiot ball; they aren’t roped in as plot tools without deeper consideration given to being honest to the character as we know them.

I like the voice acting and animation too! I’m not wishing for a sequel (the movie does a good job of delivering a conclusion, and doesn’t need more as far as I’m concerned), but I would happily watch and listen to these people (Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Tae Kim, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang, and Sandra Oh) doing more work together… especially if the next movie they do is anywhere near as pretty as this one. Oh and points to Alan Tudyk for once again being a charming animal voice actor in a predominantly non-white movie, I continue to appreciate the role reversal.

So yes, I do recommend this movie. I liked it. It might not get you in the emotions the way it got me—I’m sure that experience will vary—but it’s good.

Update: Oh, and, because this video is accurate and made me snort, here’s the link to the Honest Trailer for Raya. Watch it if you don’t mind being spoiled (or if you’ve already seen Raya and want a laugh).

Space Sweepers (2021)

I couldn’t help but think of Cowboy Bebop. I’ll mention Planetes too, but I still haven’t seen it so I’m only making a topical connection.

See, Space Sweepers shares so many aesthetic and tonal qualities with anime that I would be remiss not to point it out immediately. If you already know you don’t enjoy less-rigorous, more-adventurous space thrillers with lots of crunchy techno-bits slathered on for that sweet flavor, but without the density of “totally realistic” sci-fi… this probably isn’t the movie for you.

If, on the other hand, you want a dramatic space thriller with some cyberpunkish themes and just enough emotional moments to make me sniffle, check out this movie.

Why? Because even with my few quibbles, Space Sweepers is still a touching story about grief, struggling to make ends meet, and the humanity of those society has cast aside. It’s flashy, it’s fun, and despite the rough bits it has heart.

Oh, and *damn* do I enjoy the cast and the polyglot melange of this space future. The faces on-screen are incredibly diverse, and absolutely helped sell me on this movie’s setting. Sure, all the main characters are South Korean, and the big antagonist is played by Richard Armitage, but whoever was in charge of casting actually paid attention when they were asked to get a *broad* range of different people.

Having said that, I do have to add one of those quibbles I’d mentioned: this movie’s acting quality and character development are unevenly distributed. I feel like that goes hand in hand with the anime themes I mentioned above, but it’s more noticeable when watching real live humans.

The core crew feel solid to me, and I don’t feel like the script screws them over. Bits of character background and motivation seep out throughout the movie, and I *like* that. We’re not immediately clobbered with each character’s backstory. I already mentioned Cowboy Bebop, but this is yet another place where I see a connection.

Unfortunately, the villain is a tad bit cardboard. I know that Richard Armitage can do better, so I can only assume that either there was more material which never made it to the film’s theatrical edit, or the script never allowed for the character to really shine. Similarly, the whole movie is peppered with some oddly stiff moments where bit-characters talk (mostly in the background) and simply feel… contrived. Like, it made sense for someone to say a thing, so the script included it, but the delivery didn’t quite land for me.

It wasn’t a big enough issue to pull me out of the movie, or even make me dislike it.

My other quibble: there are a few plot twists that feel contrived at best. They didn’t break the movie for me, but the logical holes were… pretty big. Big enough that I simply had to embrace them as part of the story and move on—which was more difficult for me than overcoming my quibbles with the acting. I think what gave me the most trouble wasn’t the deus ex machina, but the fact that the film could have covered it (or at least justified it better) with a few small changes earlier on. It felt like an unforced error.

Of course, knowing the little I do about movie production, I realize that I may be wildly off the mark. Who knows how many variations the script went through, how many of those last scenes were cobbled together from different shoots, or how much of their budget they’d run through by the time anyone saw the same plot holes I see? It’s not like making movies is simple or easy.

Anyway. I liked this movie. If you know you like its genres, I think you’ll like it too.

The Vast of Night

The Vast of Night had been on my to-watch list since it came out last year. I finally watched it Monday, early in the morning after my body decided three and a half hours of sleep was all I would get.

This movie was damn good.

These sorts of stories—stories with the feelings evoked by The Vast of Night—are usually pegged as horror movies. But most horror movies fail to deliver them well. Those movies are too caught up in the scare, in the burst of adrenaline and the heart-pumping thrill of being prey. Not so with The Vast of Night.

It is, at its heart, a mystery.

It’s about two young people, people who yearn for some way out of their small New Mexico town, discovering something odd and trying to chase down the truth behind it before it disappears. And it feels more like the slower paced, unsettling investigations sometimes found in The Twilight Zone or The X-Files than like any other horror movie I’ve seen in ages. I mean, damn, the movie even opens with an implied framing narrative as an episode of something like The Twilight Zone, right down to the Rod Serling-esque intro voiceover.

It’s been ages since I’ve been this captivated by watching people sit and talk to each other about things that aren’t happening on screen.

You may think that’s a joke, but seriously, I both loved it and didn’t understand it. Reflecting on the movie immediately after watching it, I couldn’t figure it out why I found that so rewarding. And yet, I did. Heck, there’s even the incredibly bold choice to simply hold on a black screen for a while, while we listen to someone speak, and it’s GOOD.

As you might expect from all that, this movie is low key. It’s grounded, both metaphorically and literally. The camera work very intentionally stays at or below shoulder height the vast majority of the time, leaving us just as stuck in this town as the main characters. There’s even a long low shot (that baffled me until I dug up more about it) which does an incredible job of tying the whole space of the town together.

There’s only one scene I can think of that really pulls out the stops and delivers the scares you might have expected from a movie listed as a sci-fi mystery thriller, and even then it’s incredibly subdued by thriller movie standards.

Instead, the movie hones its craft on a low-effects presentation that focuses more on the uncanny, the strange, and the wondrous, and it does this well. Extremely well.

A few other good notes that I must mention…

The sound design and music are great. I recommend watching the movie with a good sound system, or good set of headphones if you’re watching it alone. It’s worth it just to be sure you get all the details of everyone’s lines, all the richness of their voices.

And the consistent technical skill of the actors interacting with their props! That was really good. I don’t know if you feel the same way, but there’s something special for me about seeing characters on screen interacting with complicated machines in a way that brings both the machine and the character to life. That’s most true when the interactions are physical, and requires them to be internally consistent; that combination gives the character a feeling of expertise, and tells me more about them as a person. Part of what I appreciate about that internal consistency is that I know it’s not easy to create on set: you rarely get any of the feedback from a prop that you’d get from the actual device, so the appearance of fluid ease and competence (and the internal consistency of use that lets you learn how the machine works as they go) means that the actor put a lot of time into either learning the actual use of the machine or developing a legible acting language of use.

I could keep nerding about how much I like that for ages, but I’ll just say that it’s present in this movie and did a lot for my feeling of immersion and belief in the characters.

So. If you like investigative mysteries and the uncanny or strange, indulge yourself with The Vast of Night.