Welcome back! Four movies for you this time around and I think in at least three of them someone gets kicked in the head!
Wonder Woman (2017)
Goddamn, finally finally, Wonder Woman gets a movie. I didn’t really think that this movie was anything special, to be honest, but at least she finally got one. It’s a step in the right direction, that direction being inclusivity in front of and behind the camera that will hopefully encourage more diversity in approaches to superhero stories, which will hopefully lead to something new in this godforsaken genre that we seem to be stuck with forever. The glut of superhero movies feels like a monkey’s paw wish sometimes, but on the other hand we just got Black Panther (2018) last week, so maybe we’ve upgraded to getting a sip of ice water in hell.
I don’t know, I just felt this movie didn’t really have the guts to do what it really needed to do. Diana being the god-killer herself was obvious from the moment they mention a god-killer being hidden on Themyscira, and it really felt like Ares wasn’t supposed to exist in the first place. Diana’s hunt for Ares is treated as increasingly quixotic, and I think it would have been a really interesting development that it seemed like they were preparing us for, the idea that Ares isn’t pulling the strings and that humans are responsible for all this hate and destruction themselves. But then Ares shows up to reveal that… he hasn’t been actually pulling the strings and that humans are responsible for all this hate and destruction themselves? Why even have Ares in here if you’re going for the same lesson here that humans have the capacity for good and evil? Actually, hold on, I know why, it’s because you need to give Wonder Woman something to hit for the last half hour of the movie since an internal debate about whether or not to believe the worst of humanity doesn’t really lend itself to a superhero action movie. I guess it makes sense to externalize this inner conflict in the form of a fist fight on a tarmac as that’s just how superhero movies work, but it’s such an annoying convention of the genre.
It’s not all bad though, there are a few bright spots in these performances. Gal Gadot locks down that vibe of idealistic and self righteous kid on a study abroad trip (also her facial expressions that she does when she’s reacting to anything or trying to look like she’s listening are insane, it feels like she’s mirroring the expressions of some stage mom off camera who’s coaching her through human reactions, it’s not naturalistic, is what I’m getting at), and Chris Pine does a very believable job of acting like an exasperated man trying to explain very basic things to a homeschooled kid.
Batman Returns (1992)
This is one of the most openly weird and sexual Batman movies out there, and it makes me a little disappointed that Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies are so sexless. Those Nolan Batman movies are fine, but do you think Warner Bros./DC will ever let a Batman movie be like these Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher movies visually or spiritually ever again? Please, let’s acknowledge Batman as a sexual being. Let Batman fuck for once. I think that legit the best part of this movie is the little rom-com happening between Bruce and Selena in the middle of all the wild psychosexual superhero drama playing out. The part where they figure out each other’s alternate lives in the middle of a Christmas ballroom dance because they repeat each other’s earlier, in-costume lines about eating mistletoe and deadly kisses is so good!
Everyone is outstanding in this movie but I was particularly hung up on how entertaining Michelle Pfeiffer is in this one. First off that that’s the best the costumers could do to make her look frumpy is pretty funny. There’s just like zero hiding the fact the Michelle Pfeiffer is a hot person. The costumers and stylists did their best and it’s just impossible. I really latched on to her pre-Catwoman scenes where she’s working so hard in the big city and all she gets for it is getting shit on via voicemail by her mom, a cancelled date, and getting held hostage in a crime spree. The best moment in these scenes is when she tases an unconscious henchman and you feel her sense of excitement about having the ability to hurt someone. As far as any of these Batman movies go, that’s the closest thing I think we get to #relatable content.
CORRECTION: I forgot that Nolan did let Batman fuck, but I think my point still stands.
This is an Indonesian movie featuring Iko Uwais as an amnesiac on the trail of the gang of criminals who left him for dead. Maybe it’s unfair to compare everything that Iko stars in to The Raid: Redemption (2011), but it’s tough not to in my mind as the The Raid: Redemption really set the bar for me in a lot of ways with this newer wave of martial arts action movies. It falls short of The Raid Redemption for me, but I think they’ve got a structural similarity that I like, and Headshot does its best to build on that structure.
Part of what I like about the structure of Headshot and The Raid Redemption (as well as a lot of other martial arts movies) is the simplicity. You have the main guy Ishmael (played by Iko) and you have the main bad guy and all the other goons that Iko has to fight through to get to the main bad guy. Each subsequent fight increases in difficulty and brutality until Iko gets to the last fight with the main bad guy, who is the most difficult to fight. Headshot gives it a little twist in that the guys that Iko has to fight all used to be his comrades in a violent child soldiers outfit that he slowly uncovers as his memory returns. This little tweak to the basic structure allows the movie to first and foremost showcase the fights, but it also allows it to steadily explore the connections between characters. It’s these connections that give us a reason for all the violence. Not like you need a whole lot of reasoning for the violence in a martial arts movie, but the fact that that reasoning is there gives it a more emotional impact, while still allowing it to be a pretty lean movie.
The best fights for instance are the last two before his fight with the main bad guy. In those last fights Ishmael faces his former best friend Besi and his former girlfriend Rika. Each of the fights is exciting and brutal of course, but what really makes them hit is the conflicting motivations brought out by the fighters’ relationships to each other. Ishmael is a man confronting his violent past with more violence, while Besi and Rika both have to kill someone they loved a second time. Besi and Ishmael shared the same trauma and they were brothers in a way, while Rika and Ishmael were lovers and it’s implied that Rika shot Ishmael in the head at the beginning of the movie as a way to save him from this life that they’d all been forced into. Both offer him mercy before their fights and both accept their deaths at Ishmael’s hands with a sense of respect and gratitude, perhaps because death was the only way out of this kind of life for them in the first place.
***SOME SPOILERS MAY BE IN THIS ONE I TRIED MY BEST TO KEEP IT LIGHT BUT I’M SORRY IF YOU ARE SPOILED***
I admire an adaptation that prioritizes the strength of its medium over faithfulness to the material, and this really worked for me. I’m not one of those people who needs to have the film version be 100% faithful to its source material, but I was a fan of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, so when I’d first heard that they were going to make a movie I definitely wondered about how they’d approach it. I feel like much of what makes those books scary and unsettling is a kind of atmospheric uncanny that works well in literature, but probably won’t play so well on film, if you could even figure out how to make that kind of thing visual in the first place. The answer, of course, was to make a movie that uses the books as a starting point, but that also twists off and becomes its own thing.
But let’s just focus on the movie for now. This isn’t ADAPTATION DIARY 2018, it’s MOVIE DIARY 2018, baby! Annihilation is good. I think that visually it presented a very clearly thought out and captivating environment, one that’s equal parts beautiful and fearsome. I particularly liked the flowers growing in the shapes of people, it reminded me of pictures of the shadows that the A-bomb burned into Hiroshima, a haunting and ominous kind of beauty that ultimately leaves you* (*me) with a sense of detachment. The movie feels like wandering through a Planet Earth-style documentary, where everything is so lush and powerful and big and teeming with life. I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about it this way but nature really is beautiful yet deadly (I came up with that on my own, do you like it? I’ve already licensed it to every shark documentary).
The characters each have their essential roles to the story while also getting to have their own personal moments. I didn’t even really mind the scene where a character explains everyone else’s backstory and motivations because while everyone did have a role to play, it never felt like they were sticking to tired sci-fi/survival fiction archetypes as shorthand for actual character development. (I don’t know, your patience with these things may be different from mine, so maybe start your own movie diary sometime.)
Natalie Portman has to carry the movie, and I think she does a really capable job. She’s particularly great at being guarded and calculating and I think she’s used well in this new wave of somber prestige sci-fi. I guess I like her performances better when we’re meant to sympathize with her but not necessarily meant to like her? Not that she’s unlikable in this movie, but I felt like liking this character was not necessary to her function in the movie. She’s less a hero and more a woman just fighting her way through this unbelievable situation and trying to make sense of both this mysterious environment and her increasingly confusing sense of self.
Perhaps she’s also struggling to define herself independent of her relationships to others, particularly to her husband? We see her attachment in the way she still clings to her relationship long after her husband’s disappearance, maybe even more so after the shame she feels when she has an affair with a colleague during a period of grieving. Then after she makes the discovery that [THIS IS A FOR REAL SPOILER COMING UP] whatever came back was not her husband, she’s literally forced to confront herself and destroy her illusion of self! Everything Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) was saying about our latent tendencies for self-destruction was true! There’s that signature Alex Garland basic bro undergraduate philosophy discussion topic we were waiting for!
*extremely college freshman philosophy paper voice* It’s a pretty interesting idea I think, presenting self destruction as not only self-sabotage or a death wish, but also as the act of wading through the unknown to face yourself and ultimately destroy any notion or preconception of your self in relation to other people in favor of becoming a part of the larger, unknowable world around you. Our usual ideas of self destruction are not necessarily the same thing as the theme of the destruction of the self that pulses through Annihilation. Maybe it’s helpful to recognize destruction of the self more along the lines of enlightenment or the buddhist concept of nirvana? Tessa Thompson’s character Josie arrives to a similar conclusion earlier in the movie when she gives herself over to the refraction powers of Area X and becomes one with the nature in the shimmer. For Josie it’s an active and natural integration of herself with the world, but for Natalie Portman’s Lena, it’s more of a struggle to leave her self behind. She has to burn everything down before she’s able to return to the world as a new person, a person who’s no longer inhibited by an idea of defining the self in terms of its relationship to others.