Extraction (2020), quick thoughts

You ever have the thought, a few scenes into a movie, that you’ve seen the movie before?

I wrestled with that feeling for all of a few minutes. Extraction feels like a reimagining of 2004’s Man on Fire, but with Chris Hemsworth instead of Denzel Washington.

I liked Man on Fire when I watched it over a decade ago. I have no idea how I’d like it now, but I imagine it stands up as a kidnapping-rescue-revenge action flick. Better than Taken, I suspect. Having Denzel Washington as your lead actor helps.

I can’t say that Extraction is going to stand the passage of time as well as Man on Fire, at least not in my head.

I don’t think that’s an indictment of Chris Hemsworth. I just don’t think this movie is as interesting or original as I thought Man on Fire was when I first saw it. For better or worse, my first impression will matter. 

It’s funny, honestly, thinking about it this way. I’m not pretending to offer any kind of objective verdict; I haven’t seen Man on Fire in ages, and I suspect I’d be more critical of it now. I wonder how it would actually match up with Extraction, side by side.

The element I most appreciated from Extraction (hey look it’s *SPOILERS*) was the parallelism between Ovi and Tyler, established most clearly in the last moments of the movie as Ovi rises from the bottom of the pool (paralleling Tyler’s sitting on the bottom of a river at the beginning) and sees what I can only assume is a phantom of Tyler (the blurry camera here only previously used to show memories of the dead). I liked the way in which this passed on Tyler’s mantle of trauma and loss, showing a little more of the impact the entire experience had on Ovi—but I also wished that Saju had been there too. By only showing one figure (who I assume is Tyler based on costume), I felt like it devalued the painful and tense relationship between Ovi and Saju. I can see why they might have chosen not to do that, especially if they wanted to leave some space in the audience’s mind for Tyler to have survived, but I feel pretty confident from the other choices (that blurry camera, Ovi’s time on the bottom of the pool) that Tyler died. Anyway. I’m just being an armchair director (or editor) at this point, so I’ll stop. *END OF SPOILERS*

If you want to watch a violent kidnapping-rescue-revenge action movie, Extraction is fine. It has good moments. It has a bunch of actors I like, most of whom don’t get as much narrative focus or development for their characters as I’d like. I don’t think it opens any fundamentally new narratives… but it certainly makes things go boom and has some impressive camera work alongside really solid combat choreography.

Green Hornet (2011) should have been about Kato and Lenore

I watched this movie totally ready to have fun and enjoy it.

I grew up with a collection of comics from my older sibs, just another of the many good things about being at least a decade younger than them. Those comics were part of what convinced me to read. Among that collection were a few Green Hornet comics, and I loved them. The comic collection wasn’t especially organized, and little-me hunted through them repeatedly for more Green Hornet, overjoyed every time I found another. I don’t have strong memories of what those Green Hornet comics were about, but the imagery—and my enthusiasm—stuck with me.

I was excited every time I heard of, or thought about, 2011’s Green Hornet movie. That excitement changed, waned as years went by without me watching it or hearing anything about it, but some of it remained.

My excitement for this movie didn’t last through the movie’s middle.

Honestly, I almost paused it and stopped watching. The only reason I didn’t was because I am some mixture of stubborn and slow; I took too long to decide whether I’d ditch the movie, and I wanted to see whether it would save itself. As you might have guessed by now, it didn’t really manage the trick.

That’s a damn shame, because with the cast this movie had it could have been truly awesome. It wasn’t. Not even having Cameron Diaz, Edward James Olmos, Christoph Waltz, Tom Wilkinson, and David Harbour as support could manage to rescue this.

Honestly, I think it’s because I never came to like Seth Rogen’s Britt Reid (the eponymous Green Hornet), and because I never felt like Jay Chou’s Kato was allowed to be more than a caricature.

Rogen’s Reid starts off with few redeeming qualities beyond the desire (at some deep-seated childhood level) to be a hero and help others. But over the course of the movie, he never really resolves any of the things that I didn’t like about him. A wannabe Don Juan and endless flirt who won’t take no for an answer is a pretty hard sell, especially when there’s basically no heroic transformation. He’s like a worse version of Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man.

All of which means that the person who’s supposedly at the center of the story was consistently infantile and awful, and never discovered his redeeming qualities. I started the movie thinking that I’d be able to enjoy watching him become a better person—he’s an ass at the start—but the few ways in which he changes were insufficient to improve my opinion of him and didn’t feel like they carried the narrative or emotional weight I’d want to see to make him actually sympathetic—he’s still an ass at the end, and not in a “shucks I guess that’s cute” way.

I think the joke here is supposed to be that Kato is the real hero. And I get that. It’s obviously true. But while the movie winks and nods at this, it never *does* much of anything with it. Worse, the time and space given to Jay Chou’s Kato, the narrative room for him to be more than a quirky cardboard cutout, is insufficient. The few times that we can see deeper into Kato’s life, or his experiences, he’s cut whole cloth from the background of a perfect Golden Age comic book hero: orphaned, grew up fending for himself, autodidact and genius polymath. But he’s so perfectly stuck in Green Hornet’s shadow that not even a movie that’s hinting at and pointing at these things is willing to give him room to grow. It’s painful, really. And it makes me wonder just how bad the comics I read and loved as a kid were.

Honestly, Cameron Diaz’s Lenore Case isn’t in a much better situation. Never mind the fact that she winds up as the brains of the Green Hornet (thank goodness, because Britt Reid seems to have none); she’s forced to constantly fend off or suffer under Britt’s harassment without him suffering any repercussion. Which, like, okay—sure maybe this movie is doing realism now, but DAMN, if I’m going to watch something that is already divorced from reality does it have to keep that?

Which brings me to the writing and directing credits for the movie. Michel Gondry directed (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep, Be Kind Rewind), and Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have writing credits. Movies aren’t made by only three people, so presumably there were other folks involved. Maybe studio execs had a hand in it. I don’t honestly care. They made a very run-of-the-mill movie that doesn’t stand up well to the passage of time.

Someone decided that this was what they were going to ship. I honestly feel kind of sorry for them. Looking at this movie in the context of 2011 films, I guess I can understand why they might think it was fine… but it wasn’t anything more than that. And while my childhood love of Green Hornet is still somewhere inside me, it’s not thanks to this movie.

Watch it for dumb shit, I guess, maybe while in an altered state. Maybe Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg thought they were making another Superbad / Pineapple Express? I don’t know. All I know is that that isn’t what I wanted from a Green Hornet movie. I can’t really recommend this movie. Just watch The Old Guard again instead.

The Old Guard, quick thoughts

I love The Old Guard because it upends so many of the constraints of its genre, even as it faithfully delivers exactly what the genre demands. The Old Guard is a modern action adventure story with fantastical elements. In movies (and other media) “action adventure with fantastical elements” usually means straight white male protagonists and lots of male gaze… and that’s thrown out the window here.

There’s no doubt that is partially due to the influence of the comic’s writer (Greg Rucka, who also wrote the screenplay)—but I want to draw attention to director Gina Prince-Bythewood. The movie was a hell of a lot of fun, and I quite honestly appreciate the eye, the connections, and the humanizing focus she brings. It didn’t matter that the movie’s plot was straightforward enough for my partner and I to call the twists in the first fifteen minutes, because the movie was a delight.

This will be a strange comparison, but… I watched The Old Guard the same day that I saw Beautiful Boy (a serious drama about mental illness, drug abuse, addiction). They’re so wildly different that I doubt anyone would put them together unless forced to by the fact of their shared medium. I didn’t know how Beautiful Boy would end, it left tears in my eyes and wound my chest up tight, and while I appreciate it I absolutely don’t want to watch it again right now. The Old Guard is the opposite. I felt freer, lighter, and unlike other stories in its genre I never felt like the film was a guilty pleasure.

Look, there were multiple points where my partner and I paused, rewound, and giggled in delight as we rewatched a scene from The Old Guard. Having already seen some of the movie repeatedly, I would happily watch the whole thing again. Why? It’s so DAMN refreshing for both leads of an action adventure to be women, one of whom is black. Even better (thank you Gina Prince-Bythewood) those leads both feel like they’re played and filmed as human beings rather than eye-candy. The delicious garnish? The side-character scene stealing lovers are an adorable gay couple who’ve been together for a millennium.

This might not be your kind of movie. That’s fine. All I have to say is: it’s delightful and I absolutely recommend it to anyone who enjoys action adventure but can’t stomach how those stories are usually written.

Overlord

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Overlord is a pulpy, terrifying thrill ride of a B-movie. It feels like an over-the-top World War 2 Delta Green scenario, and an homage to a genre I learned to love through John Carpenter’s films. Having read more about the movie, and learned more about the practical effects used, I’m even more impressed.

As a B-movie it’s quite good, though it rang a bit hollow for me. I think there might have been a little more to the character development arc for Jovan Adepo’s Boyce that didn’t survive to the theatrical cut I saw, and I would have loved to see that. But it’s probably okay: high tension Nazi-killing historical science fiction B-movies aren’t best known for their character development.

I initially wasn’t sure whether to feel happy or miffed about the movie’s portrayal of the 101st Airborne as an integrated force when it was not. Here’s Wikipedia’s article on racial segregation in the US armed forces.

The happy side has won. It’s very easy to explain.

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Coco

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Feast your eyes.

I’m going to keep this incredibly short, and will avoid spoilers to the best of my ability.

I have now seen this movie twice. I will probably see it again while it is still in theaters. I cannot say well enough how much this movie has affected me. I have regularly teared up while simply thinking about it. After seeing it the second time, I now find it hard to hum the central song because I start to cry. It’s really exceptionally good.

Coco is set in Mexico and the Land of the Dead over the course of Día de los Muertos. It is about a young boy named Miguel, and his relationships with his family and with his dreams. It deals with family, memory, legacy, and death—and the joys and costs of following your dreams. It is also about controlling the lives of others.

I loved damn near every minute of it. And I spent roughly the last third of the movie crying, thinking I was done crying, and then crying some more. Also laughing.

The themes of death, remembrance, legacy, and memory all resonated strongly with me. This may be because most members of my family in my grandparents’ generation are dead, and I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking of and mourning them. It didn’t hurt that the rest of the movie all sat well too.

If you’re worried about representation and appropriation, I’d like to note that Latinx critics have been relentlessly positive (*SOME SPOILERS IN THAT LINK*) about the film, and that the vast majority of the cast is Latinx (along with significant members of the writing, directing, and design staff). Honestly, it looks like Pixar has succeeded fabulously with this one. I don’t think I can recommend watching it strongly enough.

I have difficulty fathoming why Disney chose to package this film with a 25 minute Frozen short immediately preceding it, which cannot help but suffer by comparison, but I assure you that the short is worth sitting through for the sake of seeing Coco.

In Transit

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This is a documentary by Albert Maysles (and others), covering people traveling on the Amtrak train Empire Builder (which travels from Chicago to Seattle or Portland, OR). It’s really good. Like, emotionally stirring, inspiring-as-a-piece-of-art-and-otherwise good.

Some of my appreciation for it comes from being a writer and knowing the struggle to create believably human people in media with limited resources. In Transit feels like an effortless skim across the surface of many people’s lives, but each one feels real, deep, often emotionally compelling, and always very human. Which in turn means that the editing was spectacular, because they turned disparate piecemeal vignettes into something that feels whole, and they did such a good job that it feels *natural.*

It’s a textbook example of character construction done right. But the team that made this did so many other story construction things right too, and the emotional impact was incredible and… In Transit is overwhelming, but in a good way.

When I say that the film is overwhelming, I mean that there are so many brief moments of intensely believable humanity that feel honest and wonderful and often bittersweet… so many of these moments that it’s difficult to know what to think as you leave the theater. I felt almost stunned as I walked home, and I still feel awe when I think about the movie.

In the skillful ways in which it reveals humanity with such economy of time and focus, In Transit feels like what a storyteller ought to aspire to. I would strongly recommend watching it, especially if you are in the practice of creating characters that you want to feel like real people.

If you are not in the practice of creating characters, I would strongly recommend that you watch it anyway. This movie is marvelous and moving in many unexpected ways.

The film’s site can be found here: http://www.intransitfilm.com/.

Sadly, it seems that Albert Maysles died before this was released. More details on that (and the uncertain future of the film due to rights disputes) here.

Atomic Blonde

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Convoluted, paranoia-inspiring, and extremely violent, Atomic Blonde feels like what a Bond film would be if the brutality of 2006’s Casino Royale met the conflicted and complicated world of *actual* spy fiction.

Actually, that’s a better description of the movie than I’d thought it would be. Atomic Blonde is full of gorgeously choreographed and grimly performed fight scenes (as one might expect from David Leitch, director of John Wick), and it is definitely not a film intended for a passive or unthinking audience. The underlying story is twisty, and nearly every person’s loyalty is deeply questionable, enough so that I spent a good portion of the movie not sure who was on which side; perfect, really, for this sort of spy movie. Not so good if you’re watching this thinking that you’ll have a neatly packaged Bond-esque film, but quite possibly more fun because of that.

I kind of wish that there’d been a little more in the way of clues for me to catch throughout the movie, or that I’d put together the ones that were there faster. If I had, I wouldn’t have been quite as confused in the end. But when I reflect on it, everything holds together, and I only have a deeper appreciation for what’s there.

I won’t give you any spoilers (apart from saying that if you can’t handle visceral uncomfortable violence, you probably shouldn’t watch this movie), but I will say that I rather liked Atomic Blonde. It wasn’t exactly what I’d expected, and I’m glad that it wasn’t. While I’d happily watch Charlize Theron play Bond in some sly, neatly packaged, thoroughly sanitized version of what current American moviegoers have come to think of as “a spy-action movie,” the gnawing distrust and complicated loyalties of Atomic Blonde deliver an excellent spy movie experience, and a better one than I’d thought I’d find.

Your Friendly Neighborhood Spiderman

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This movie manages to embody the tone of the central character, AND make me believe that the central character really is the Spiderman that I know and love. It’s not grim-dark, or silly (well, I mean, it *is* silly but it’s *Spiderman* silly). I really enjoyed it, and would happily watch it again. And while nothing is perfect, I felt like this movie did a wonderful job of portraying a Spiderman with hope and integrity, and without the angst that seems like such a big component of so many other Marvel movies.

I’m not saying I don’t love the angst, but there’s something refreshing about seeing Spiderman so relatively free of it. Maybe Peter will grow into it in the future, but that can take its own time.

Also, while I still want to see a Spiderman movie about Miles Morales (which the internets tell me has been teased by an easter egg I missed), I was impressed by the fact that this movie managed to feel inclusive in a way that other Marvel movies have not. Maybe I shouldn’t be that impressed. The other Marvel movies, after all, haven’t exactly been bastions of inclusion. But I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity of the movie’s high schoolers. Honestly, anything else would have been jarring, so it’s good they didn’t screw it up.

LEGO Batman: Yup, Still Good

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I can’t tell you how kids will feel about this movie, though based on what my brother has told me about my nephew I suspect they’d be pretty excited. Personally, I thought it was hilarious. Perhaps more impressive, Lego Batman somehow managed to reprise the meta-level commentary and self-awareness of The LEGO Movie without simply copying the same shtick. This is a Batman movie that makes Batman (and Batman movies) a part of the punchline as well as the setup, and revels in that the entire way through without feeling mean-spirited about it at any point. It helps that they’re using basically the same Batman character from The Lego Movie, appropriately heroic and usually annoying as hell at the same time. It gives him plenty of opportunities for character growth. It’s a good movie.

This movie also does something that I admire in any story that takes place in a series, or as part of an ongoing story-world: I don’t think there’s any need for the viewer to be familiar with the rest of the Batman mythos in order to enjoy this. For one thing, the movie makes most of its other setting references explicit. For another, all of the issues at hand are so well established that there’s no need for outside sources. You might benefit from knowing more about other Batman stories, but they’re not strictly necessary.

And as I implied at the top, this movie is constructed like most good children’s entertainment; the comedy and drama are constructed in variably accessible layers, with some things clearly geared towards the adult audience which will almost certainly be forced to watch the movie over and over again. It’s a good quality to have in a kids’ movie, especially since the people who actually have the money (and perhaps thus the true consumer) are the adults paying for the children’s tickets.

Overall, I don’t think I’d line this up with the best Pixar movies. I think Pixar somehow manages (managed?) to have excellent comedy alongside really good emotional content and drama, and despite feeling *good* in all those categories, this doesn’t match the emotional poignancy of a really outstanding Pixar film. But while it didn’t hit those emotional depths for me, I’d give Lego Batman solid marks. It’s fun, funny, genre savvy, and eminently self-aware. Definitely worth watching.

Go watch I Am Not Your Negro

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The truth is, I will not do a better job telling you about this movie than did A.O. Scott. I strongly recommend watching the movie, and I think that Scott’s review is also worth reading (though considerably less important than the film itself).

But there are elements which I want to share with you, thoughts that I have had in reaction to the movie which seem compelling. Baldwin is astute, observant, painfully accurate in his descriptions, eloquent in his description of the monstrosity involved in thinking that it is acceptable to murder or subjugate another human being and feel good about yourself. And he pulls up an uncanny moment experienced in two very different ways by those who are black and those who are white. He describes the empty sensation of a young black person discovering that the country they call their home and to which they belong has no place for them, and certainly no place amongst its heroes; and calls on white people to recognize that their country, as they have likely experienced it and been told of it, does not exist for blacks. It is, on both sides, a realization that the vision of ‘home’ is a lie. But it is often forced upon non-whites, while whites are permitted to carry on dreaming until some other confrontation occurs.

It’s the kind of thing that makes me struggle with my own desire to write and tell stories.

I feel irresponsible to not take broader action, to not expose these issues. Writing seems inadequate. I admit that these issues in some way inspire me, by encouraging me to tell stories which deal with these realities. But I also fear that any attempt I make may do greater damage than good, or that whatever I do will be insufficient. And I worry that my decision to write fantastical stories, stories about alternate realities which do not immediately impinge upon ours, is in some way unhelpful escapism. Or I consider myself to be a distraction from others whose voices deserve to be heard.

And sometimes I remind myself that not every story can be that particular form of activism. Some stories need to be fun. But I hope that, in some of those things I write which you find fun, I can offer a vision of a world that doesn’t cling to our own world’s prejudices. And when I do draw those elements in, I hope that I can include them in ways which simultaneously allow us to enjoy the story and to see (perhaps for the first time, if I’m so lucky as to have an uninformed reader) the parallels between the problems I include and the world in which we live.

Okay. Enough of me blathering my thoughts. Go watch the damn movie. It’s painful and still remarkably topical, and somehow I found it inspired hope. It’s really good.

p.s. Here’s another good link to someone’s experience of being exposed to James Baldwin’s work.