The aging franchise is seeing diminishing returns, but remains a fun action staple
The Expendables’ fourth outing once again finds the team of mercenaries again taking on mission against impossible odds, this time taking on the mysterious “Ocelot”, a ghost from Barney’s past, in a race to stop a delivery of WMDs. I’m a fan of the series, though it admittedly peaked with the incredible second film that best delivered on the promise of having all the “old guard” of 80s action stars on board for a glorious jam session. I enjoyed the third film as well, but the series seems to be chasing diminishing returns. Still, even at their worst these are immensely enjoyable movies and one of the best modern action franchises, and putting up big budgets and playing theaters in a genre which has mostly gone to VOD.
Mainstays Barney (Sylvester Stallone), Christmas (Jason Statham), Gunner (Dolph Lundgren), and Toll Road (Randy Couture) make their return, with new cast members Megan Fox, 50 Cent, Andy Garcia, Jacob Scipio, and Levy Tran joining the squad.
If that description feels a little like deja vu, that’s because the third film already tackled the same idea of mixing in a new team of young recruits to complement the old. Bizarrely, none of those new characters that we spent the whole last movie introducing are back for this next round, which feels a little deflating, not to mention narratively odd. What happened to those guys? KIA? Quit? Defected to Barney’s better-paying competitor Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger)? Whatever the reason, the narrative fallout is that the same story framework is playing out again with a new gang of recruits.
Unfortunately the biggest and most palpable loss is that of fan favorite Terry Crews, who left the franchise in protest when producer Avi Lerner asked (threatened) Crews to drop his sexual harassment allegations against Adam Venit, leaving a vile taste in the mouths of many fans – myself included – probably not completely unrelated to this fourth film’s poor box office showing.
Despite the casting losses, there’s also a very exciting addition, that of two Asian martial arts superstars who bring immense hand to hand combat skills (based on muay thai and silat, respectively). Tony Jaa (Ong Bak, The Protector) joins forces with the Expendables as a mysterious ally, and Iko Uwais (The Raid, The Night Comes for Us) exhibits wanton cruelty as the heavy. Both get a chance to show their stuff, which is significant considering this is a franchise that had – and tragically wasted – Jet Li.
There’s some more upfront female representation this round with Megan Fox and Levy Tran joining the squad, but any goodwill this might drum up is dashed almost immediately as Fox’s character Gina (who in addition to being the team’s third-in-command is also Christmas’s girlfriend) is introduced as a psychotic raving bitch. You know, for laughs. Yeesh.
Scott Waugh (Act of Valor, Need for Speed) is in the director’s chair this time around, and I appreciate that he brings his stunt experience and a love for tactile physical action, preferring big stunts – like wild dune buggy chases and a motorcycle battle on a cargo ship – over CGI.
Unfortunately, despite a pretty huge $100M budget that afforded an enormous cargo ship deck set and tons of giant fireball explosions, the movie often looks cheap in appearance, garishly digital and overly vivid. When CG is used (often for incidental effects like background fill, flying sparks, bullet reports, and blood splatter), it looks cartoony, and composited backgrounds sometimes look unusually fake for a movie of this stature. This is a movie that tends to look good in lower light but more stagey and TV-like in daylight and other brightly lit scenes.
At the same time, I want to show a little grace in the current climate: I don’t know the specifics of this movie, but I do know that a lot of current movies were made during or following covid restrictions, and it doesn’t help that big studios like Marvel are sucking up the resources of all the top effects houses.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Stallone, the original orchestrator and handler of the franchise, seems to be taking a back seat. A plot twist puts his Barney out of commission early in the film and promotes Statham to the lead. I can certainly applaud that Sly’s a humble enough guy to essentially hand his starring vehicle over to his pal, but he’s also not credited on the script, and the big takeaway is that it feels like his signature is missing this round.
This review may be coming off as pretty negative, because I acknowledge this is a pretty flawed movie and a low point for the series. But in truth I still really have overall positive feelings about it. There’s some stellar action and some chuckles, and I like that Tony Jaa and Iko Uwais are in a big Hollywood movie that doesn’t waste their talents (“Tell that to Kanjiklub”).
Statham is a consummate action performer and deserving of his success: if there is to be a changing of the guard for this franchise, as this film seems to suggest, then he’s certainly the natural choice to take the lead.
I can totally see this becoming a silly comfort movie for casual watching, but if this series continues I’d like to see it be a little more cohesive and faithful to its original concept of being the best dad-action extravaganza packed with the top stars of the 80s and 90s: Give us the Cynthia Rothrocks, the Sigourney Weavers, the Linda Hamiltons. The entire cast of Predator. The Michaels Dudikoff, Ironside, Wong, and Biehn. Hell, I’d love to see Eddie Murphy suit up. And how has Danny Trejo never been in one of these? I think audiences would be way more invested in these films if they stuck truer to the original template.
I’m reviewing the 4K UHD release, which comes in a combo edition with Blu-ray and a QR-scannable Digital Copy insert. Lionsgate is inconsistent on VOD formats but typically includes both iTunes and Vudu options on their tentpole franchises – not so in this release, which is Vudu-only.
My copy came with a glossy slipcover, with cutaway corners per Lionsgate’s usual packaging norms (rounded on 4K releases, square on Blu-rays).
Special Features and Extras – 4K UHD and Blu-ray
Extras are on both the 4K and Blu-ray discs. This practice is something I always respect about Lionsgate, whereas most other studios relegate them to Blu-ray discs only.
Audio Commentary with Director Scott Waugh
Bigger, Bolder, Badder: The Expendables in Action (16:57) – Several producers, crew, and cast, discuss the developing the film’s action sequences and stunt work, trying to deliver a fresh experience in an established franchise. Special attention is paid to the film’s vehicular action.
More Than an Team: New Blood Meets Old Blood (19:07) – An exploration of the film’s large cast of characters, with emphasis on the newer members.
Theatrical Trailer (1:52) – A fun red band trailer that emphasizes the R rating, coming off of the third film’s unpopular choice to release as PG-13.
The Amazon exclusive edition includes additional extras:
Costuming the Expendables (11:33) – Costume Designer Neal McClean describes his method and choices for gearing up the Expendables, starting from military and tactical styles and incorporating character personalities and styles. Several cast members also join in to briefly discuss their wardrobe.
We Get the Job Done: Breaking Down the Fighting Styles (8:57)
Producer Kevin King Templeton, director Scott Waugh, and cast members describe the film’s many character-based fight styles, and incorporating martial arts.
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Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.
[15th Anniversary 4K UHD Review]
The Twilight Saga is celebrating its 15th anniversary. In celebration, a grandiose boxed set of 4K UHD discs (the sequels are making their debut on the format here) are releasing as a Best Buy exclusive (perhaps one of the last of their kind).
In 2008 I was a 28 year old bachelor who had no reason in the world to be interested in the Twilight books and movies, which were aimed squarely at teen girls. Mind you, I bore them no ill will and always loved a book series that got young people reading. As those 15 years have passed, however, series stars Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson have grown into some of the most revered and wildly accomplished actors of our time. And the swirling rumors of just how gonzo these vampire/werewolf love stories become in the latter entries has intrigued me. The time has come for me, a roundly middle aged husband and father who knows nothing about Twilight, to take a deep dive into this series and recount my adventures to you in written form. I’m going to write about each film as I see it, knowing little about what will happen in each successive installment.
You can read my review of the first film here. I’ll cover all of the sequels below.
There will be full spoilers throughout. Won’t you join me?
The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009)
Am… am I #TeamJacob?
My whole premise here of covering The Twilight Saga 15 years after the fact is that I basically know nothing about Twilight. And that premise is largely true. But I do know that Bella (Kristen Stewart) ends up with Edward in the end, after some tension around Bella having feelings for both Vampire James Dean Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), and Six Pack Werewolf Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner). So it does unfortunately kill some of the tension around all of Bella’s longing when I know who she’ll end up with. And that may very well have been a source for my frustration with New Moon. When you know Bella is going to be with Edward, the melodramatic core of New Moon feels mostly like wheel spinning.
At the beginning of the film Edward does the thing that romantic leads with hidden superpowers tend to do: He breaks up with Bella and immediately disappears forever in order to protect Bella from the evil vampires he has exposed her to now that they’ve become an item. It’s a frustrating mechanic that always seems to happen in romances like this. “I just exposed you to a whole new world full of danger, but guess I need to leave now. Bye.”
Of course, this leaves Bella vulnerable to the “real” vampires that eat people, and they’re eventually going to show up to consume Bella, because Edward is a one hundred year old idiot. Meanwhile, it is also unfortunate that Bella has very little character to speak of beyond who she is in love with. So naturally when she’s trapped in eternal longing for Edward, she runs into the arms of her old childhood friend Jacob for comfort. She even says in the film that she’s quite selfishly using Jacob for emotional support even though she knows Jacob loves her. It’s rough, and I have to say that Jacob seems to treat Bella wildly better than Edward does, and just seems like a generally more amiable and talented guy. I’m not 100% sure why, when Jacob inevitably becomes a werewolf and has to hold back this, the most obvious secret in cinema history, from Bella, he has to go shirtless at all times. Lautner looks incredible and even Bella jokes about his muscle-bound glow up from the first film to the second. But what about Jacob’s Werewolfdom requires the abs exposure? I’m unclear, though not complaining.
New Moon does begin to broaden the worldbuilding of the story significantly in its final act, introducing actual on screen wolves, bringing dimension to the vampire vs werewolf rivalry, and even traveling to Italy to meet the Volturi, Twilight’s version of the Jedi Council with ancient aristocratic vampires wearing velvet and bossing people around. Apparently they’re about the only thing in the world that can kill a vampire, and Edward is seeking them out because New Moon is a love letter to Romeo & Juliet and young, stupid people (who, again, are actually 100 years old) who will voluntarily decide to leave their partners to “protect them” and then seek to end their lives because they can’t conceive of living in a world without their 18 year old love interest. There’s some intriguing set up here that leaves me excited for the rest of the Saga, even if New Moon felt like the spinningest of wheels.
Another couple of important elements crop up here that I’ll discuss briefly. We further unpack some other super power types of dynamics that are becoming notable. Edward has a unique ability to essentially read minds. Part of his attraction to Bella is that he cannot read hers. We come to find that while Bella still has virtually no personality, she does have an “anti-power” in that Vampires can’t seem to use their unique powers on Bella. I’m sure this will become more important. Somewhat hilariously, Edward’s sister Alice (Ashley Greene) has seemingly become Bella’s best friend in this installment with little to no build up. When Edward disappears a framing device begins where Bella is writing endless letters to Alice. Over and over throughout New Moon Kristen Stewart is narrating these letters. “Dear Alice…”. I had to stop the movie to look up who Alice even was because it’s so poorly established that they’re so close. Also, Alice can kind of see the future and her twitchy and conditional visions are what precipitate this convoluted Romeo & Juliet homage where Edward somehow believes Bella is dead because of a misread vision that Alice had. It’s not executed well in the film really at all, and I’m struggling to buy Alice and Bella’s relationship.
It also must be noted that Bella is now obsessing over becoming a vampire and nightmarishly focused on getting older and not being permanently young like Edward is. This further delves into the purity culture roots of the saga and the pressures that young women face to be beautiful forever, but it reads pretty creepy here. Bella wants to be turned, but Jacob doesn’t want to curse or condemn Bella. They finally decide she can be turned after they get married. It very much feels like purity pledge negotiations and teenagers navigating “how far is too far”.
While I like New Moon significantly less than I liked Twilight, the visual effects and overall visual style of New Moon is a dramatic improvement. Even a decade and a half later, the werewolves look pretty damn cool and are effectively rendered in CGI. Also, when vampires do cool vampire shit here, it does not look like ass… which it very much did in the first film. Vampires doing super speed or even getting into fisticuffs looks dynamic. Director Chris Weitz had just come off of making The Golden Compass, so perhaps he had visual effects knowledge enough to steer this entry in the right direction.
Edward’s absolute idiocy and 100-year-old childishness in New Moon frustrated me more than I could have possibly imagined it would. On the one hand this could be bad writing, but on the other hand… at least it got a reaction out of me? Maybe lots of people ended up #TeamJacob after New Moon because of how absolutely inane Edward’s behavior and choices are here?
The only way to find out is to keep going.
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010)
While the cast has largely remained the same (though there’s a villain recasting here in Eclipse that brings Bryce Dallas Howard into the fold) and writer Melissa Rosenberg adapted Stephanie Meyer’s novels all the way through the entire film series, the directors have switched up in each installment so far, and Eclipse brings horror director David Slade into the mix. This is interesting because, for a series about vampires and werewolves, there’s been virtually zero horror elements to The Twilight Saga until this installment.
Slade seems to have been brought in to bring some of his 30 Days Of Night sensibilities into this wildly more violent entry in the series, featuring lots of vampires hunting and eating actual people, and full on war breaking out between a pack of villainous and bloodthirsty “newborns” who’re trying to eat Bella and the Cullens and Blacks who are temporarily aligned to… save Bella because that’s all that matters in these stories?
Honestly, it’s wild. If this were The Lord Of The Rings, Bella would be the One Ring. She’s just this high school girl who is wholly unremarkable, but around whom this entire fantasy world is constructed. I think this makes for juvenile storytelling, but it also accounts for why these were so wildly successful. Teens struggle with feeling like they’re on a stage for all the world to see; that they’re the main character in life. And here’s this entire epic series tapping into ancient myths and legends and featuring ancient traditions and cultures… all of which hangs on this 18 year old who is graduating college. Every single decision Bella makes or opinion she expresses has every other character wrapt in attention. All plot motivation is about protecting Bella, sacrificing for Bella, fighting a war and setting aside ancient grudges… for Bella.
I realize that thus far I’ve barely mentioned any of the villains or antagonists in my coverage of the previous films and that’s largely because of how uninteresting they are. Real vampires who eat real people show up and try to ruin the Cullen family’s weird vibe of having a human friend and ultimately a hunter/tracker vampire gets killed by the Cullens. His girlfriend, vampiress Victoria (Howard) now wants revenge, and she’s willing to “turn” a small army of “newborns” to hunt and kill Bella. This horror component is actually kind of cool as this series was wildly in need of a big brawl after 2 straight films of pining.
I like Eclipse a fair bit more than New Moon because the Edward vs. Jacob rivalry gets a lot more juicy when they’re both present and alpha-flexing and peeing on each others’ territories. I shit you not: At one point Bella is freezing her ass off in a tent at the top of the mountains serving as bait to draw this army of bloodthirsty newborns to her. And because Edward can’t warm her up (he’s a Cold One), good old Six-Pack Jacob needs to come in and warm her up because he’s “hotter than” Edward. So you’ve got this insane confrontation, in a little tent, between our rival suitors for Bella in which these guys are trading barbs and even bonding a little bit over their endless crushing on Bella and her neverending propensity to need to be protected.
By Eclipse, Bella and Edward are constantly talking about how Bella wants to be turned and how Jacob wants to marry her, and Meyer’s purity culture vibe gets dialed up to eleven as Bella and Edward end up with a night alone together (after her hilarious Dad Charlie has attempted to have “the talk” with Bella and she blurts out that she’s a virgin still) and Edward breaks out the Old Man Steve Rogers vibes and tells Bella all about how he intends to court her and preserve her purity for their marriage. He’s still also worried that if he tries to get down, he might end up eating her.
A friend mentioned a theory that perhaps when Edward was turned, his brain capacity kind of froze as that of a 17 year old’s. I like this theory because it explains why Edward’s janky and patriarchal-feeling chivalry remains possible even though this brother should have a century’s worth of wisdom stored up in him. Edward is constantly lying to Bella and manipulating things in order to
groomprotect her and it’s kind of creepy, not to mention that he never sleeps so he just… sits there and watches Bella sleep all the time? Look, what I’m trying to say is that I’m still finding myself pretty firmly #TeamJacob, even though I know that’s not going anywhere.
We close with a whole-ass war having been fought over Bella just because a bad vampire wanted revenge on her. Jacob barely survives after suffering some grueling injuries and Edward and Bella kind of just leave Jacob’s injured ass and go ahead and get officially engaged at the close. I’m excited to hear the pitter patter of little vampire feet in these final films. (Yeah, I know there’s some kind of creepy vampire baby subplot because of all the internet memes about the weird looking baby). Maybe these final chapters will draw out some personality traits and dimensionality amongst our leads? A man can dream.
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 1 (2011)
What. The. Actual. Fuck.
I knew this series went buck wild, but this is some unhinged shit going on here. To quote world renowned detective Benoit Blanc “It makes no damn sense… compels me though”.
First off, kids: Don’t get married when you’re 18. And if you’re GOING to get married at 18, maybe don’t marry a vampire who’s going to hilariously ravage you on your wedding night to the point of the wedding bed becoming a shattered husk. THEN maybe don’t get vampire-pregnant with a baby that’s almost certainly going to murder you from the inside out. Just some life tips from Ole Uncle Ed, kay?
Breaking Dawn Part 1 wastes no time getting Bella and Edward hitched. It’s a largely sweet wedding sequence if you just ignore that Bella graduated from high school like last weekend. And if you ignore the fake-me-out nightmare Bella has about their wedding where the posh and evil Volturi crash and preside over a bloody affair. The Volturi only show up in this dream sequence so I HAVE to imagine they’ll actually play into the final chapter more, right?!
Then there’s the honeymoon. I’m telling you, this sequence is hysterical. It’s the most chaste and prudish wedding night sex montage of all time yet simultaneously leaves the bedroom in shambles. Bella’s a changed woman thanks to being deflowered, and both Edward and Bella make sure to awkwardly verbalize how this was the best night of their lives. But because Edward is like a walking talking chastity belt he won’t have sex with Bella anymore because he bruised her. Which she’s clearly stoked about.
But all that takes a back seat when Bella quickly and somewhat miraculously becomes vampire-pregnant. Breaking Dawn Part 1 kind of dragged until it got here. Then it is like “you wanna get nuts? Come on, let’s get nuts”! Rushing home to their vampire doctor clan leader, Bella is quickly withering away, but is determined to keep the baby. The Twilight Saga feels real purity culture adjacent and kind of pro-lifey for a series about monsters and star-crossed lovers. I also must say that the best visual effects in this entire series are the “withering away” effects they utilize for the pregnant and slowly-being-internally-eaten Bella. Kristen Stewart looks HUGELY unwell and it’s wholly convincing. The best “already bitten but not yet a zombie” makeup or visual effects in any other movie don’t hold a candle to how jacked Bella looks here.
For some reason all the werewolves REALLY need to kill this abomination baby and it threatens some character development for Jacob, who may actually rise up and rebel against his alpha in a shocking and rare plot development in this series that is only somewhat Bella adjacent. Eventually there’s this bizarre coalition of Jacob and a few of his pack that have peeled off with him holed up in Vampire Mansion along with the Cullens in order to keep the wolves from murdering Bella and her baby (which… again… is happening because… the baby is some kind of ancient treaty violation? Or because it’ll need to eat people in order to grow? Or something?).
I simply wasn’t prepared for where things were going to go with Jacob’s character arc. Like… the story seems to be FIRMLY sticking with this guy whom Bella has clearly rejected and who feels increasingly pathetic in his “protection” of Bella. But, friends, let’s talk about “imprinting”. All throughout these movies Jacob keeps telling Bella about how wolves imprint on one another and it’s like this supernatural “love at first sight” kind of biological experience. I assumed all along that Jacob was implying that he HAD imprinted on Bella, which is why he’s constantly a whiny child about how much he loves Bella and how she needs to choose him, etc. Nope. Couldn’t have been more wrong.
When Bella gives birth to this child, it essentially kills her. The vampire doctors had been planning a whole thing to transition her and save her life at the end of her pregnancy, so Edward is, like, shoving a syringe full of his “venom” directly into her heart Pulp Fiction style at one point and then he’s just biting her all over her body in a sequence that’s kind of more kinky than anything else in this entire sex-obsessed tale? But it doesn’t appear to work so now there’s a dead Bella and a vampire baby that everyone hates but will also sacrifice their life for?
Jacob literally wants to kill this baby and enters the house to full on murder it after having fought off all the wolves and maybe becoming a wolf king? This grown wolf man walks into the room, locks eyes with this child, and IMPRINTS ON A BABY! Through montage and sweeping music, we watch as Stephanie Meyer and Melissa Rosenberg show us why they’ve kept Jacob around in this narrative, and it’s frankly one of the most jaw dropping plot twists I’ve ever experienced in my life. What are we doing, folks? What are we doing? I don’t know, but I am PRIMED for this final chapter. I’ve been assured it is even MORE off the chain than this story, but in my wildest dreams up high I can’t even conceive of what is in store for me.
In a final (and great) shot, the camera hovers over Bella’s EXTREMELY dead (and convincing) body, zooming ever closer in until her undead amber eyes open up to reveal the newly reborn vampire queen. Yaaaaas.
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 2 (2012)
We’ve come to the end of the road. But:
Darling, don’t be afraid, I have loved you for a thousand years
I’ll love you for a thousand more
Friends, if you’ve read this far with me, I offer you my gratitude. I’d also like to ask: Doesn’t it feel like we’ve gotten SO far away from public high school in Forks, Washington? So very far away. Indeed, Breaking Dawn Part 2 is a full on super hero / comic book splash page that has evolved out of a supernatural teen romance story. And honestly, it’s not half bad at being a superhero story.
To be clear, the visual effects of Breaking Dawn Part 2 take a catastrophic nosedive and are notably awful throughout the film. From half vampire baby Renesmee’s entire look on screen across her many stages of development (none convincing) to the big werewolf/vampire mega battles, it seems like either a time crunch or a budget crunch rendered this ambitious finale hamstrung, visually.
But, oh… what a wild tale.
Within mere moments of the start time of this final film (rightly and justifiably broken into two parts here, which is so often a mistake in other franchises) Jacob has already let Bella know that he’s… uh… uncontrollably imprinted and in love with her infant daughter. She rightfully throws his ass out of the house and screams something about how he’s already nicknamed her Nessie, after the Loch Ness Monster, before she’s even held her own daughter. I was rolling. Stephanie Meyer and Melissa Rosenberg, you’re wrong for that.
We do get a prolonged vampire sex sequence that feels like the ultimate consummation of the purity culture through line of this saga. Finally Edward and Bella are both undead immortals who can get. it. on. with little to no risk of death or damnation. Bella asks how they’re ever going to stop fucking now, because the vampire sex is that good. Edward indicates they’ll be rather continuously fucking for at least a decade or so, but don’t worry, Meyer’s story is too packed to the gills with plot twisting shenanigans for any further fooling around.
The main narrative thrust of this final chapter does indeed have to do with the evil overlords the Volturi and their rules for vampiredom. A relative of the Cullens reports the existence of Renesmee to the Volturi and there’s some pretty cool lore about how vampire children aren’t allowed because their mental acuity freezes at their young age so when they have temper tantrums they kill entire villages. Rad. But Renesmee isn’t a vampire; she’s got a heartbeat and blood pumping through her veins. So the Cullens go global to gather a great cloud of witnesses in order to attest to Renesmee’s vitality, while the Volturi gather an army to do what they’ve always done: wipe out troublesome vampire clans and maintain power and control.
Breaking Dawn Part 2 blows up the scope of the vampire world significantly, bringing in late-entry characters played by such notable actors as Lee Pace and Rami Malek as vampires recruited to the Cullen’s side of this battle. There’s even a sick scene with The Wire and Jack Ryan’s Wendall Pierce as some kind of broker who helps vampires out of sticky legal challenges? It’s this massive world building all the way at the end of the tale that kept reminding me we were sitting in a high school classroom with these characters like a year ago. My neck and my back hurt from all this narrative whiplash.
Everything builds to a massive battle in a snowy field that, while not visually excellent, or even well choreographed in any way, still managed to have my jaw on the floor. How is this film rated PG-13 when at least a dozen vampire decapitations happen in this climax? The climax has remarkable comic book logic setting up all kinds of little petty rivalries and slights between different clans of vampires and satisfying age old rivalry after rivalry ends in someone getting a head ripped off and a body burned (the only true way to kill a vampire). It’s a big old chess game of different vampires using their different powers. The Volturi have the scenery chewing Michael Sheen as Aro (a pretty almighty vampire and head of the Volturi), as well as Dakota Fanning’s Jane, who can just inflict horrible pain using her mind. Importantly we’ve also got Bella working her new powers of projecting her “shield” to others, and of course Alice plays a key role as the vampire who can sort of see the future.
It is Alice who provides the final, absolutely INSANE, wild swing in this saga. We watch a massive, comic book battle play out on screen with many of our Cullen clan and Black pack falling in battle, lost forever. We see the Volturi defeated before our eyes and Jacob and Renesmee hauling off to live a life of safety forever disconnected from their families. We see it all… and then it turns out Alice was just showing Aro what the future held if he didn’t back down from the battle. I didn’t see this coming for even one second, so I’m not even mad about it. This gives the movie an epic, if tragic, final battle that it can then renege in order to provide a happily ever after moment for just about every major character. We know it’s happily ever after for everyone, including a grown Renesmee and Jacob, because we see a final future projection of Alice’s. In the end, Edward and Bella’s love creates unity among the vampires and werewolves and staves off the evil overlords of the vampire world as well. Truly it was all always about Bella being the center of the universe and her love being the most important thing that has ever happened.
As I’ve noted, The Twilight Saga was never made for me or anyone like me, and that is totally great. I’m so glad there are geek properties out there that exist for all different kinds of demographics. But while I was never the intended audience for Stephanie Meyers’ tale, it’s been an absolute cinematic joy to observe this cultural phenomenon 15 years after the fact and just let this whole deal wash over me. I don’t think it is objectively good storytelling, or profoundly reveals anything about our humanity or our sexuality. But it is a global phenomenon that will absolutely live forever in pop culture, so it’s very worthy of comment and consideration. It struck a deep cord with teens and young women in its time and tapped into a romantic yearning and nerdy love for monsters that lots of people resonate with. I think Bella Swan is ultimately a bland character and the handling of her teen/forever loves is pedestrian at best. But the saga swings for the fences with its insane narrative twists and turns and succeeds as a jaw-dropper par excellence in the way that pulp paperbacks often do. I have no idea if I’ll ever revisit The Twilight Saga, but I’ll never regret the journey it took me on.
And I’m Out.
The Twilight Saga 15th Anniversary Steelbook Best Buy Exclusive releases 11/14/23 at Best Buy
Trolls Band Together, the third film in the Trolls series (not counting various shorts and specials) returns us to the world of Trolls. Not big ugly trolls of folklore (that description actually more befits their pals, another race known as the “Bergens”), but cutesy, colorful, Trolls who love to sing and dance, based on the classic toy line. Yeah, they’re basically Smurfs with big hair.
Once again returning protagonists Poppy and Branch (Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake) are back, this time for what amounts to a “getting the band back together” road movie.
Branch wistfully remembers a shrouded past that he doesn’t like to talk about, remembering this brothers, who were incidentally also a boy band known as BroZone. The band broke up when he was still a child, and in the years since he never saw his brothers again. But that changes when one of them suddenly shows up with terrible news: their brother Floyd has been kidnapped and is being held captive by a brother-sister pop duo, Velvet and Veneer, who are physically leeching his powers to achieve stardom, a process that is also slowly killing him, and it’ll take all of the brothers working together to save him. And thus Branch and Poppy, along with their pal Tiny Diamond, set off on their newest adventure.
While Branch is reconnecting with his long-lost brothers, there’s also an unexpected surprise for Poppy: She, too, has a long-lost sibling. Objectively it’s a little absurd (suddenly, siblings!) but for kids’ fare, it’s fair game as a plot, and an exploration of what it means to be family.
There’s definitely a big “boy band” component to this story, so your mileage may vary wildly based on how much you love or hate them. I can appreciate that the humor’s handled in a way that’s self-aware and self-deprecating. For example, when a list of several of BroZone’s song titles is rattled off; all of them are repetitive variations of the same formulaic phrase.
So just to lay this out clearly: I am not a fan of these Trolls movies. At all. Which I suppose begs the question, why would I want to watch and review the newest one?
The answer is simple enough: my daughter likes these movies and if you’re reading this, maybe you have kids who like them too. And on that grading scale, Trolls Band Together works. It’s frequently funny, occasionally clever, and family appropriate (unlike, say, the Trolls Holiday Special where one of the trolls flashes his dick – no, seriously). The “road movie” angle is actually a huge blessing: the Trolls’ village is populated by a ton of gratingly annoying supporting characters who thankfully get to sit this one out for the most part, sidelined here in favor of several new faces.
The film does stand out in one particular way that I want to give it credit for. It’s not as pronounced as Puss in Boots: The Last Wish or the Spider-Verse movies, but the film does make some some cool animation choices that take it up a notch. The gang drives a bus of sorts (like many of the apparatuses of this world it’s a weird living creature), which features a fast travel mode. When the nitro is activated, things kick into a trippy, Yellow Submarine-esque hand-drawn animation. It’s visually wild and a fun addition.
The other animation aspect I really dug is the world of “Mount Rageous”, the home of antagonists Velvet and Veneer. The “Rageons” who populate this world are reminiscent of vintage 1930s spaghetti-limbed cartoons, but rendered in modern fashion. I love these character designs, and that’s something I would never have expected to say about a Trolls movie.
Its premise is thin, but the Trolls’ third outing is probably the best, thanks to its animation concepts and a family-oriented story that emphasizes forgiveness and love.
– A/V Out
Thanksgiving is the most entertaining film Eli Roth has made since his debut Cabin Fever. What that’s worth depends on your taste for juvenile humor and gleefully splatterrific violence. It goes without saying that your mileage will vary. I ran out of mileage for Roth’s frat boy antics around Hostel Part ll. Either I haven’t matured as much as I thought I had, or I watched Thanksgiving at the right time, because I found it to be pretty amusing.
Following in the footsteps of Hobo With a Shotgun and Machete, Thanksgiving is the third feature born from a fake trailer made for Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse. In expanding the trailer to feature length, Roth and credited writer Jeff Rendell drop the pastiche 80’s aesthetics in favor of a sleek modern slasher. It’s a change that probably needed to happen, but it feels like it saps some of the personality of the trailer.
The movie opens with an anxiety-inducing riot at a Black Friday sale that leaves multiple people dead. A year later a Pilgrim-attired killer stalks survivors of the riot and picks them off. Those survivors include Bobby (Jalen Thomas Brooks), Gabby (Addison Rae), Ryan (Milo Manheim), Scuba (Gabriel Davenport), and Jessica (Nell Verlaine), the daughter of the owner of the store where the riot takes place. Patrick Dempsey is the local Sheriff tasked with stopping Carver before he makes a full meal of the town’s inhabitants.
The setup is about as simplistic as possible, sturdy enough to set the plot in motion, but flimsy enough to make it clear the plot isn’t the main course. The whodunit aspect of the story is arguably the least interesting, and the big reveal is a bit too obvious. It feels perfunctory. The real engine of the film is the dispatching of the victims. As the 2007 trailer promised, “white meat, dark meat, all will be carved.” That’s the ethos that fuels the film’s best moments. Roth channels a Looney Toons ethos, with kills landing with cartoonish delight.
Thanksgiving is a fascinating little time capsule. It channels the raucous energy that once upon a time marked Roth as one of horror’s Next Big Things. At the same time it’s easy to see where the edge to Roth’s humor has been sanded down over time. His earlier films relished chances to insult and offend. There’s a racially charged joke in Cabin Fever so brazen in its tastelessness that it leaves you gobsmacked. Thanksgiving is relatively tame in comparison, with the most memorable jokes being visual gags. There’s a 50%-off joke that still has me laughing the morning after seeing the film. Perhaps the clearest sign in the shift of Roth’s sensibilities lies in the comparison of Thanksgiving to the trailer that spawned it. Roth recreates nearly all of the big moments from the trailer and tones down the more puerile parts. Not necessarily a bad or good choice, it’s just something that’s noticeable. After a fall of underwhelming theatrical horror releases, Thanksgiving lands like a plate of apple pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
At present, the world can be easily divided into four distinct camps: Those who know and appreciate Eli Roth (Knock Knock, Hostel I and II, Cabin Fever); those who know and simply don’t appreciate Eli Roth or anything in his filmography; those who’ve never heard of Eli Roth but might be moved to catch his latest directing gig on a big-, medium-, or small-sized screen (depending on interest, budget, or availability); and those who’ve never heard of Eli Roth and simply can’t be bothered one way or another.
Assuming you’re either camp one (1) or camp three (3), then Roth’s sixteen-years-in-the-making slasher, Thanksgiving, a long-promised, semi-anticipated expansion of the faux trailer Roth directed in 2007 for Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s double-feature, Grindhouse, just might be the anti-holiday treat you’ll need to get you and other like-minded moviegoers through the last two weeks of November. Then again, a great deal depends on (a) your love of the slasher sub-genre and its tried-and-true tropes and (b) your stomach’s tolerance for literally gut-churning practical effects as the masked slasher slices and dices his way through a small Massachusetts community.
Setting those questions aside temporarily, Thanksgiving opens somewhere around the present (i.e., last year or the year before) as Thomas Wright (Rick Hoffman), the greedy, atavistic owner of a Walmart-inspired chain, Right Mart, decides to keep his flagship store (and others too, presumably) for Black Friday sales. With a roaring, rapacious crowd, turned by capitalistic excess into unthinking, zombified shoppers and only two security guards on hand, it’s only a matter of time before the police barriers fall and an uncontrollable stampede breaks doors and bodies in equal measures.
Fast forward twelve months to the next Thanksgiving and everyone involved has moved on, leaving memories and traumas behind to once again celebrate overstuffing themselves with too much food after exchanging thanks, then starting the Black Friday cycle of heedless consumerism all over again. There’s one exception, of course: The masked killer, dressed all in black, wearing a gurning, off-the-shelf John Carver mask and a Pilgrim’s hat. He’s also fond of carrying around a sharply honed ax and a grudge against those directly and indirectly involved in the previous year’s fatalities.
It’s an old-school, giallo-influenced mystery, though Roth and his writer, Jeff Rendell, put only the barest effort into the “who” or even the “why” behind the masked killer. It’s enough that he (or she) has a grudge and with Thanksgiving fast approaching, he’s checking his list and slashing with extreme prejudice. Everyone from an obnoxious waitress to a cowardly security guard shows up on the killer’s hack-and-slash list, but he saves the worst for last, the teens who, through the usual mix of narcissism, self-entitlement, and self-indulgence, inadvertently started the stampede and once it began, did next to nothing to save everyone. At least one teen recorded it all and, of course, posted it to social media.
The cast of characters includes Wright’s daughter, Jessica (Nell Verlaque), and her tight-knit high-school posse, a posse that includes Gabby (Addison Rae), Evan (Tomaso Sanelli), Yulia (Jenna Warren), and Scuba (Gabriel Davenport), Jessica’s current boyfriend, Ryan (Milo Manheim), a drip by any definition, and her ex, Bobby (Jalen Thomas Brooks), a onetime baseball star recovering from a potential career-ending injury, round out the pool of potential victims and/or the slasher hiding in plain sight.
Typical for the slasher sub-genre, local law enforcement’s onscreen presence, this time led by an ineffectual, if well-meaning, sheriff, Newlon (Patrick Dempsey), rarely does anything to help, always arriving too late to save the killer’s latest victim(s). The police’s uselessness usually isn’t perceived as some kind of real-world moral or political judgment, but it’s hard not to come to that conclusion, especially as the dwindling survivor pool realizes the killer can strike at any time and they need to take their safety and security into their own hands.
By the time Thanksgiving gets to its climactic showdown between the killer and the final survivor(s), Roth and his team of practical effects magicians have delivered a handful of memorable kills. They’re as gnarly, grisly, and grisly as expected for a contemporary slasher, though Roth’s decision to go as extreme as an R-rating gives audiences equipped with cast-iron stomachs the chance to laugh and gasp rather than recoil in terror or disgust. It’s a lesson Roth’s fellow Grindhouse filmmaker, Edgar Wright, has long understood (the more extreme the violence, the more absurd and thus, the more likely to accept as unreal/fantastical).
The cast of relatively unknown twenty-somethings mostly make for credible, serviceable, not particularly sympathetic teens. That, of course, makes their individual exits or potential exits from Thanksgiving before the end credits roll, if not entirely deserved (i.e., the punishment fitting the “crime”), then at least plausible in the grand scheme of slasher film conventions. No one really stands out positively or negatively, but at least that means a bad performance here or there doesn’t undercut the audience’s overall enjoyment of what, by default, qualifies as Roth’s best film in years, possibly even his entire career as a filmmaker.
Thanksgiving opens theatrically on Friday, November 17th.
The Archivist #144: A Warner Archive Double-Header with ANGELS IN THE OUTFIELD (1951) and DEATH ON THE DIAMOND (1934)
Baseball season may be over with a historic World Series in the record books (a first-time win for the Texas Rangers, making them no longer the oldest American professional sports team without a championship, since their founding in 1961). But if you’re not quite ready to say goodbye to watching America’s pastime just yet, we’ve got a couple of recommendations for classic baseball-themed movies – both older than the Rangers – from the archives at Warner and MGM!
Today’s matchup: it’s the Pittsburgh Pirates and the St. Louis Cardinals in a double-header that covers the bases from charming family comedy to obscure murder mystery oddity.
Angels in the Outfield (1951)
The Pittsburgh Pirates are in a rut, and it doesn’t help that their abusive manager Guffy McGovern (Paul Douglas) berates and lashes out at everyone from his players to the umpires, and even the media. Guffy’s quick to lay out anyone who crosses him, with his words or with his fists.
The film keeps things G-rated, cleverly and rather humorously masking Guffy’s profanity-laden screaming rants as a wall of garbled incoherence that’s the aural equivalent of grawlix.
Guffy’s rage-fueled antics aren’t just detrimental to his team’s performance, but to his entire organization, capturing the attention of journalist Jennifer Paige (Janet Leigh), who makes no secret of being deeply unimpressed by his boorish behavior.
In a divine twist of fate, Guffy’s fortunes change one night when, while walking through the outfield alone, a heavenly voice speaks out to him with a proposition, explaining that someone out there has been petitioning on his behalf. Therefore if he can clean up his act, a heavenly team of angels (made up of former ball-players in life) will provide divine assistance to the flailing Pirates.
Guffy agrees to the angel’s terms, and begins making an earnest effort to temper his rage. When an orphan girl, Bridget (Donna Corcoran), sees the angels on the field, invisible to everyone else, she becomes Guffy’s advisor, and an unlikely friendship develops between the cranky manager, the precocious orphan, and the reproachful lady reporter who observes the change. After a life of loneliness and selfishness, Guffy opens up to the joy of loving other people.
The film came out just a few years after Miracle on 34th Street, and has a similar third act possibly inspired by that film: Guffy’s sanity is called into question and he faces an inquisition (essentially a trial) with the league. The trial’s arguments become a question of whether angels exist. This is raised as a point of gauging Guffy’s mental fitness, which seems intellectually dishonest and beside the point (many people believe in the existence of angels and other supernatural beings without impacting their ability to work). A better question would be whether heavenly assistance, if it exists, qualifies as cheating!
One minor observation I have is that Guffy looks and seems notably older than Jennifer, detracting a bit from their onscreen romance because his natural demeanor and position of authority make him come off as more fatherly than a romantic interest. In real life, the actors are indeed 20 years apart; when the film was made, Douglas was in his 40s and Leigh in her 20s. Not that there’s any problem with consenting adults having an age gap in a relationship, just pointing out that it’s a noticeable difference. Of course lots of other classic films like Charade and Sabrina have similarly pronounced age differences, though in these films it seems to be part of the plot, or at least acknowledged.
Angels in the Outfield was remade by Disney in 1994 as an effects-filled spectacle which is also quite charming (and which fittingly changed the team to the California – now Anaheim – Angels), but I really love the original as an enchantingly endearing and lovely film. On rewatching it, I found I loved it even more than the first time. The film also notably has some impressive cameos. These three legends – Joe Dimaggio, Ty Cobb, and Bing Crosby – still resonate today.
Death on the Diamond (1934)
With their team’s ownership riding on the season’s outcome, the St. Louis Cardinals add a hotshot player, Larry Kelly (Robert Young) to their roster in an effort to seal their bid for the pennant.
With several powerful interests and gamblers invested in the Cardinals’ performance, things start to get dangerous and the team begins to suffer casualties, with never the same method of killing. At one point a mobster tries to get friendly with Kelly, who rebuffs. But as the body count increases, accusations fly and fingers start pointing – with “the new guy” as the prime suspect.
In a historical context, I think the film was made and released in a time where the Black Sox Scandal of 1919, in which several Chicago White Sox players conspired with gamblers to throw the World Series, was still a somewhat recent memory.
Major League Baseball reorganized and spent some years rebuilding its tarnished image, and fifteen years later enough time had passed that a movie about baseball scandal could be viewed as an evening’s entertainment rather than a commentary about present corruption.
The film isn’t gruesome or horrific, but the deaths are memorable. One particular POV shot, focusing on a rifle held by an unseen assailant as it locks onto an onfield target, feels both impactful and familiar, echoed in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (sniper at a race track) and Two Minute Warning (sniper at a football stadium).
The film has a strange tone which mixes a lot of zany comedy and a rather silly twist ending with its macabre murders, which some viewers may find off-putting. I kind of appreciate the oddness.
I’m a Cardinals fan so for that reason I’m a little predisposed to like this, and I do. But it’s definitely the less memorable and certainly less endearing of the two films.
Death on the Diamond is available on Warner Archive DVD.
– A/V out.
Death is an inescapable part of all our lives. There is the obvious way it hangs over all people, in that it is the ultimate end that awaits all of us. But perhaps even more painfully, we are all destined to at one point lose someone dear to us. The agonizing process of grief, especially in the immediate aftermath, can create spaces for crisis. This is where others may need to step in, to walk us through the complicated, painful process of imaging our lives without someone we love. One such calling is hospital chaplains, who must remain on call to provide spiritual and emotional support to those facing some of the most profound grief imaginable.
A Still Small Voice, a new documentary from director Luke Lorentzen, explores this vital role and the harrowing impact it has on the people who choose this path. It focuses on Margaret “Mati” Engel, a Jewish chaplain on residency at New York Mt. Sinai Hospital. While no year is given for when filming took place, it is clearly during the height of COVID precautions. Chaplaincy in the best of circumstances is standing with people in their most vulnerable moments; doing the same in the height of pre-vaccine COVID pandemic is excruciating. The impact it clearly has on Mati throughout her time at Mt. Sinai is immense, as she struggles with burnout and empathy overload.
While Mati is part of a cohort that we get to see and know in passing, Lorentzen keeps his focus firmly focused on her experience. The portrait then is quite intimate, as we see just some of the difficult scenarios Mati walks into. Perhaps the most harrowing is having to step into performing a Baptism, a rite she’s not even entirely familiar with, for a couple who has just lost their newborn infant. She performs the ritual for the departed, held in the arms of her mother, both parents still slowly processing precisely what has happened. For them it is a harrowing moment that is derailing the life they had planned before them. For Mati, it is part of the job. Her whole existence in living in these moments, of having to be there for those she serves.
Mati’s personality can come across as prickly at times. She is compassionate and present for those she is serving, pouring out her own vulnerability and pain as a means of providing empathy and connection. But she also will one moment ask for harsh criticism, but act defensively once she receives it. She commonly will relate other people’s pain back to her own, both connections to losing her father at a relatively young age, but also generational trauma as a Jew still coming to terms if it is worth it to serve a God that allowed the Holocaust to occur.
Most remarkable about Lorentzen’s style as a documentarian is the degree of access he is allowed. Not to necessarily classified information, but certain intimate ones. Sometimes the film is forced to watch Mati’s interactions from a distance, but often they are up close and personal. The quiet wisdom and recognition discovered in cancer patients realizing their time is rapidly running out, speaking out their life’s wisdom to Mati, who serves as a sort of sounding board. For most of the run time, there isn’t much a specific singular narrative to draw from the film, though a tension between Mati and her supervisor does pop up throughout. Rather it is a sampling of interactions, all heartbreaking. In just an hour and a half, you can only imagine how exhausting living here must be.
The beauty of the work, and the film, exists in that pain. Mati is told over and over again that she needs to work on making boundaries, and it’s in her inability to do that where she comes across as both vulnerable and noble in her pursuits. The tension between those callings, to take care of herself and give herself over to others, we see the ultimate tension of being so intensely human. After all, all of us will die, but most of us try not to dwell on it. It takes someone special to live the shadow of that all the time.
Todd Haynes’ latest peers into the performative and parasitic relationships between an actress and her controversial subjects
In Todd Haynes’ latest film, May December, popular TV actress Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) descends upon Savannah, Georgia to explore the lives of Gracie (Julianne Moore) and Joe (Charles Melton), a longtime married couple eagerly awaiting the graduation of their twins Mary (Elizabeth Yu) and Charlie (Gabriel Chung). Elizabeth is about to play Gracie in an adaptation of her romance with Joe, and the couple are initially eager to divulge a lifetime’s worth of secrets and anecdotes to ensure their story is portrayed accurately. But layered amidst the family barbecues and polite smiles is something darker and repulsive. As much as everyone tries to ignore it, Elizabeth embodies the same uncomfortable truth behind Gracie and Joe’s relationship that she doggedly pursues for her impending performance. When their romance met the world’s spotlight, Gracie was 36–and Joe was in 7th grade.
The camp and melodrama that defined much of the director’s previous work takes a more reserved backseat in Todd Haynes’ latest outing, yet the sumptuously raw emotion of the performances remains a constant and provocative virtue. May December is a challenging, morally grey examination of how two women weaponize the truth to their own similarly insidious ends, blurring lines of victimhood and agency until it isn’t quite clear which of the two leads is the better actress.
Samy Burch’s screenplay, developed alongside Alex Mechanik, teases out the exact nature of Gracie and Joe’s relationship beginning with Elizabeth’s arrival. At first glance, the couple’s age difference seems apparent yet not out of the ordinary–yet with disturbing details cropping up amidst picturesque scenes of their lakeside suburban life, Elizabeth’s fascination tempers our natural initial shock. Elizabeth is earnest in her determination to mine the minutiae of Gracie’s life as research for her portrayal of her subject, which warms the couple to what would in other circumstances (a true crime podcast or streaming special, for example) be equally predatory or dubious behavior. But Elizabeth has an unerring drive to get answers to questions that Gracie and Joe haven’t bothered to ask themselves–and for good reason. In tandem with the revelations behind understanding Gracie and Joe’s relationship, all three confront ugly yet necessary questions about agency and complicity that threaten to upend lives and personas that they’ve meticulously developed for themselves.
All three actors walk an incredibly fine line for their characters that push the audience’s natural empathetic inclinations into necessarily provocative and uncomfortable places. Portman’s Elizabeth, who seems to have taken on a dual acting-producing role in the adaptation of the Gracie/Joe story, corners her subjects with innocuous lines of questioning to get her timeline straight, which forces everyone to reconsider just where their acts of rationalization led them to further acts of denial or delusion. The insidious thing about Elizabeth is that there’s no hint of malice or judgment in her actions; her pursuit of emotional truth in preparing for her role leaves her blind to the trauma that she dredges up as a result of her actions. There’s no stone Elizabeth leaves unturned, interrogating not just Gracie and Joe, but her ex-husband, her first kids (some now the same age as their half-siblings), and even the manager of the pet store where Gracie and Joe first met and were eventually caught in the act. No act of immersion is off limits for Elizabeth–and by the time she worms her way into re-creating a pantomime of Gracie where she was caught with Joe, her earnest pursuit of emotional justice for Gracie has crossed nearly as many moral boundaries as Gracie herself.
But even then, Gracie and Joe are wrapped up in decades of performance themselves, compartmentalizing their lives into an ideal relationship as a husband and wife facing an empty nest, all while downplaying or ignoring their own arrested development. In his fleeting interactions with his children and stepchildren, Melton’s Joe comes off as much as a sibling to them as a parent. Whether it’s preparing these teens for graduation or fumbling a shared joint between them, Joe shares our own increasingly uncomfortable awareness that both “parent” and “child” are experiencing these milestones for the first time. In seeing these children navigate between teenagerdom and adulthood, Haynes and Burch painfully illustrate how much Joe has been prevented from doing the same himself.
Gracie, however, tries to turn a blind eye to all of this, wrapped up in the idea that she’s succeeded in overcoming her trauma and has come out the other side as the ideal mother and wife. In a delicious parallel to her performance in Haynes’ earlier Safe, Gracie’s attempts to remain blissfully unaware of her inner pain only create the perfect environment for it to fester beyond control. In the film’s most gripping scene, in which Joe finally tries to confront what he means to Gracie, Moore deftly attempts to turn the tables on Melton regarding just who is/was the victim and perpetrator. By the conclusion, however, it’s clear that the only way this couple can survive is by labeling each other as equally complicit rather than acknowledging anything more disturbingly definitive.
In balancing this trio of delusion and repression, Haynes provocatively pushes us to question any initial positions of moral superiority. Whether it’s picking at the scabs of the past, negging the choice of a graduation dress, or taking advantage of victims for their own curiosity or satisfaction…everyone in May December has their own trauma they long to repress. Each of them has dealt with it in a myriad of unhealthy ways that, arguably, in turn, beget more trauma. There’s no clear way to break this cycle of abuse and abuser, not when there’s potentially something to gain from the propagation of this process on both an individual and societal level. There’s always a reward to be gained for our lack of self-awareness–which, as the cameras roll on Elizabeth’s production, suggests that any attempt to search for the truth will only leave us blindly hungering for more.
May December opens in limited release on November 17th courtesy of Netflix, followed by a streaming debut on December 1st.
Nikyatu Jusu’s spellbinding Sundance-winning psychological drama marks Criterion’s latest streamer collaboration
The first horror film to earn the top laurels at the Sundance Film Festival, Nikyatu Jusu’s Nanny exquisitely blends fantastic folk horror and all-too-real terrors of immigrant exploitation and maternal anxiety.
Aisha (Anna Diop) is a Senegalese immigrant who takes a job with a wealthy Manhattan family as a nanny in order to earn enough money to bring her young son to the United States. The allure of the job quickly fades, however, as Aisha’s time and labor are casually exploited by employers Amy (Michelle Monaghan) and Adam (Morgan Spector); pay is deferred or forgotten, and overnight visits become common last-minute demands. Amy and Adam’s attitudes towards Aisha also devolve from respectful to dehumanizing, treating Aisha like an ornament or appliance. She’s dressed up in order to impress visitors, complete with unexpected and unwelcome touch; in the midst of Amy and Adam’s crumbling marriage, Adam comes on to Aisha–while Aisha resists, she can’t quit and jeopardize her income; and as Aisha becomes more of an active maternal presence in child Rose’s life, mother Amy’s microaggressions become vocally abusive lashes. In the vein of Ousmane Sembene’s Black Girl, the promise of a new, better life outside of Senegal quickly reveals itself to be an empty one–another tool employed by affluent white people outsourcing domestic burdens to those they treat as less than human. Jusu wryly updates these themes with a neo-progressive bent, with Adam and Amy’s indifference or cruelty masked by a veneer of socioeconomic blindness that only underscores just how blind they are to their own privilege.
Where Nanny shines, though, is in how the casual torment Aisha faces is augmented by supernatural forces rooted in West African Folklore. Anansi the Trickster Spider and water spirit Mami Wata hide in the shadows and waters of Aisha’s life, often accompanied by violent visions of drowning or repression. Their presence alternates between beguiling ambiguity and outright horror–yet the visceral emotions they evoke are always rooted in Aisha’s current anxieties. Jusu and cinematographer Rina Yang drench these horrors in contrasting, colorful tableaux, blending folklore by way of Dario Argento or Mario Bava. With this approach, Nanny richly expresses universal fears through the cultural specificity of its characters’ personal experiences–granting Western audiences not just an understanding of Senegalese nightmare imagery, but a deeper, emotional understanding of the angst and suffering of the experiences of immigrant mothers separated from their children.
In recent years, Criterion has seized the opportunity to diversify the film canon it has helped shape since its inception, reviving and re-contextualizing films from BIPOC and Queer filmmakers from Charles Burnett, Donna Deitch, and more. With Nanny, Criterion dovetails this cultural course correction with a continued cultural appreciation of Horror as a crucial societal lens, recognizing how films across the globe have the power to give a provocative voice to our deepest fears regardless of borders. Nanny is a thoroughly modern and terrifying film by a striking debut voice in American indie film, one with deeply unsettling imagery and dynamic performances by its female leads.
Criterion presents Nanny in a 1080p HD transfer in its original 2:1 aspect ratio, sourced from a 4K transfer provided by Amazon Studios and approved by director Nikyatu Jusu. The transfer is accompanied by a 5.1-Channel DTS-HD master audio mix, also sourced from the Amazon master. Both English subtitles and Subtitles for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing are available for the feature film.
In a continued collaboration with Amazon, Criterion’s presentation of this once-streaming-only film decadently preserves Nanny’s surreal, color-soaked imagery. The muted colors of Adam and Amy’s apartment pop against Aisha’s vibrant presence, while the multicolor neon lights of Manhattan nightlife bleed and merge with one another as Aisha hits the town with love interest Malik (Sinqua Walls). The accompanying 5.1-Channel mix champions the musicality of the film’s dialogue as it alternates between English, Wolof, and French, punctuated by skin-crawling sound design as Aisha’s visions take hold. Segments set underwater are notable here, with each speaker’s muted yet oppressive channel creating an immersive and claustrophobic experience.
- Truth and Terror: In a new program for Criterion created by Amazon, this is a 17-minute compilation of interviews with Jusu, actresses Anna Diop and Michelle Monaghan, and cinematographer Rina Yang discussing the intricate, intimate indie production of Nanny. Of particular interest is how Jusu and Yang delve into the dreamlike yet grounded cinematography of the film, down to the color palette bible used for the production.
- Suicide by Sunlight: A 17-minute short film by Jusu, about a Black vampire mother who must suppress her hunger for blood in order to regain custody of her estranged twin daughters.
- Trailer for Nanny’s theatrical release.
- Essay: Vulture critic Angelica Jade Bastien breaks down how Jusu skillfully employs tropes of fantasy and horror to interrogate the real-life terrors that BIPOC and immigrant mothers face as a reality of daily life, as well as how respite is found within the community protagonist Aisha is able to create for herself.
Nanny is now available on Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
It’s been five years since Brie Larson stepped on screen and instantly became the most divisive entity in the MCU. Not only did she have the audacity to be an empowered woman in the testosterone soaked comic book universe, but she also made a point when doing press to try and be more inclusive, actively granting more access to women and women of color, so that the coverage isn’t predominantly from the white male perspective. It was something that effectively put a target on her back by purposefully ignoring the most vocal and entitled fanbases in recent memory. This of course led to review bombing and just some of the most negative, and as a comic book fan, embarrassing behavior by a group of fans.
I however, personally enjoyed Captain Marvel, it was a look at the toll of being forged into a human weapon and what that does to a person. Of course the fish out of water stuff is fun and nostalgic, but the meat of the story is the soldier who loses faith in both her country and the war she’s fighting. It was a very poignant metaphor and one that was sadly lost on a big chunk of its audience because of the gender of the character.
Now here we are about 5 years later and it appears the MCU has heard the gnashing of teeth from the basements, because this story is less a meditation on the female warrior and more your standard team up film. I have a sneaking suspicion that the original intended Captain Marvel sequel was what was eventually turned into Secret Invasion, which is why it felt like it was missing something. Instead this has the infinity powered Danvers teaming up with not only the young girl she left behind in the first film who is now a S.W.O.R.D. agent (Teyonah Parris), but the ray of joy that is Kamala Khan or Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani). The three women have to stop a Kree warrior Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton) who is robbing resources from all the planets Carol Danvers calls home in an act of vengeance. This is because we soon discover, that when Marvel destroyed the Supreme Intelligence that ran the Kree homeworld of Hala, a civil war broke out that had the planet of warriors destroying their natural resources in the process.
Surprisingly enough given its 105 minute runtime, each woman gets their own throughline. We have Monica Rambeau reconnecting with Captain Marvel whom she believes abandoned her, we have Carol coming to terms with the consequences of her actions from the first film and finally we have Ms. Marvel learning why you should never meet your heroes. Captain Marvel’s journey is probably the most interesting since we have a hero who believes she was saving a world only to destroy it, and the weight that puts on her shoulders. I mean while the film gets gloriously weird, and hilarious in a gag filled third act, it feels like it’s to soften the blow that basically the main hero was responsible for nearly committing genocide on the Kree home world.
While the film honestly lacks an opening act, I think that was a smart move. I think especially with these MCU films, you should have done the required reading before coming to class and this film rewards that, by throwing you right into the thick of it. From there the film is planet hopping whimsical joyride that has the trio learning to put aside their respective traumas and differences to try and be a real team. One of these scenes of team building I swear was inspired by one of my favorite episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion, “Dance Like You Want to Win”, where the Eva pilots are charged with being in perfect sync to a musical number to take down a monster. There’s that playful team building vibe to the requisite MCU needle drops here as the women have to learn to control this anomaly that is affecting them, that causes them to switch places with one another whenever they use their powers.
While the film thankfully has one of the best Disney+ series to lean into for its supporting cast, who are as charming as they were on the small screen, this time they are teamed with my favorite version of Nick Fury – the one who can’t stop playing with his favorite flerken. While the toxic fanbase will of course cry foul sight unseen, The Marvels more than lives up to its name as far as I am concerned. With the current slump the MCU has been in, this film does its best to remind us of the characters and stories that kept bringing us back to the MCU thanks to the story of not only our war torn hero and her estranged niece, but her biggest fan, who is essentially one of us – who never gives up hope. In a MCU phase where most films really struggled to engage with its viewers, I think those who give The Marvels a chance will be pleasantly surprised. It’s wonderfully weird, charming and just a hell of a lot of fun. I haven’t laughed this hard at an MCU film since Thor: Rangarok, seriously.