Old

Written by Patrick Hao

75/100

There is a simple beauty to the premise of Old, M. Night Shyamalan’s latest feature. A seemingly idyllic family goes to a seemingly idyllic beachside. Of course, the families and the beachside are not quite idyllic as the surface suggests. For those on the beachside, they find themselves rapidly aging – a single lifetime can span 24 hours. It’s a simple metaphor and an existential terror we all face – one that can be gleaned from the trailer itself. Life passes by in an instant. Shyamalan wrings that existential vein of terror with all his earnest verve and virtuosity to make his best movie since Signs.

Old, loosely based on the graphic novel Sandcastle by Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters, centers on Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) and their two precocious children, 6-year-old Trent (Nolan River) and 11-year-old Maddox (Alexa Swinton). Guy and Prisca are on course to separate but decided to give their family one final vacation in an unidentified island resort. They soon find themselves on a private beach alongside one other family, the vain Chrystal (Abbey Lee) and her even more vain husband Charles (Rufus Sewell), their six-old daughter Kara (Kyle Bailey), and Charles’ aging mother, Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant), a couple, Jarin (Ken Leung) and Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird), and a mysterious rapper Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre) who had been on the beach tending to his bloody nose when everyone arrived.

From there, a pleasant and serene beach day slowly escalates as everyone discovers that they are rapidly aging. Shyamalan and his director of photography, Mike Gioluakis, expertly utilize the Dominican Republic beach location. The sand, stuck between high rocks and the wide-ranging blue ocean, creates a claustrophobic atmosphere heightened by the camera’s lateral movements across the beach. Characters, in the tensest moments, are often shot in close-ups, with the wide lenses allowing for large amounts of negative space. There is no escaping the situation.

Within these tense spaces, Shyamalan allows his actors to give soulful performances that are no easy feat. Krieps and Bernal convincingly navigate their rapidly aging bodies, personalities, and minds. Shyamalan does the smart move of only relying on subtle hints of aging – extra wrinkles, liver spots, a touch of grey. All the while, the children, Trent, Maddox, and Kara, age into older performers Alex Wolff, Thomasin McKenzie, and Eliza Scanlan respectively. In another clever move, Shyamalan shoots these transitions between the young actors to their older counterparts slightly off center.

If anything, Shyamalan as a storyteller has always been underappreciated. Like all great thrillers, the film is filled with set up and pay off from the get-go. The screenplay is efficient and clear in setting up it’s rules and the core stakes of its ludicrous concept. 

Ultimately, it is Shyamalan’s earnestness and utter conviction in his film’s silliness – traits that have made him an easy target for cynical film fans – that allows the film to thrive as much as it does. But what that means is that Shyamalan can navigate the schlocky horror that is expected from this premise as well as the natural human emotions that would be derived from such a scenario. This may cause whiplash for some, but it mostly works – though I admit that the schlock may be a bit uneven at times. The ending might be the only cynical thing about the movie and, not because of the classic Shyamalan “twist,” but because it is the only time the film feels like it is following a studio note and not Shyamalan’s own story instincts.

The recent reappraisal of Shyamalan’s career has been heartening. After years of being an irony-laden punchline, an idiosyncratic original filmmaker like Shyamalan should be cherished in this movie landscape inundated with IP. Old is a worthy reminder to all the doubters that he is indeed one of the best suspense directors working today.

Old Trailer

Old is now screening theatrically in wide release.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

Tribeca 2021 Film Festival Review: Last Film Show

Written by Anna Harrison

70/100

Pan Nalin’s Last Film Show opens with a thank you to people the director has likely never met: the Lumière brothers, Eadweard Muybridge, David Lean, Stanley Kubrick, and Andrei Tarkovsky. Some of these names are familiar to the public at large, some less so, but all giants in the world of cinema, and Nalin’s thanks to them as the film opens sets the tone of love and reverence on display throughout Last Film Show, a beautifully shot ode to filmmaking and storytelling, told with care that practically bleeds through the screen (the irony that I watched this on my computer screen and not in a theater with a projector is not lost on me, don’t worry).

It’s hard, even knowing little about Nalin himself, not to view this film as an autobiography of sorts, but then again it could be an autobiography of sorts for anyone who has ever stared transfixed at a movie and wondered at what they were seeing. Last Film Show follows nine-year-old Samay (Bhavin Rabari), who, like so many of us before him, falls in love with the movies. Even if we can’t relate to his specific circumstances, we relate to the feeling, to the transcendence Samay feels as he holds his hand up to the projector light and watches the beams dance through his fingers. Samay’s father (Dipen Raval) disapproves, but Samay begins to sneak away from school and spend his afternoons with the Galaxy Cinema’s projectionist, Fazal (Bhavesh Shrimali), giving Fazal food in exchange for knowledge and free movies. (The love for food is also quite evident in the film; movies tell stories one way, and food another.)

Samay becomes fascinated by the inner workings of the projector: the lights, the reels, the reflections. He finds broken bottles with colored glass and holds them up to his eyes, the world now filtered through blue, or red, or green. He uses a mirror to create light, watching it refract and bounce. “I want to become movies,” he says. Eventually, Samay ropes his friends into helping him build his own projector, using the knowledge that Fazal taught him to bring movie magic to his friends. Cinematographer Swapnil S. Sonawane makes all these scenes as beautiful as possible, and fills them with homages to other movies, most notably 2001: A Space Odyssey. The monolith in Kubrick’s film awakens our ancestors’ consciousness; here, a movie does the same to Samay.

But Samay’s world comes tumbling down with the rise of digital photography, replacing his beloved film reels. There is a real melancholy here, the colors becoming stark and cold as the projector in Galaxy Cinema gets hauled away, replaced by a computer and a room with bleak white walls. The closeness that Samay felt holding the film in his hands, cutting it, winding it through the projector—it all fades. Last Film Show is all about transitions: Galaxy Cinema goes digital and Fazal loses his job, the train that runs through Samay’s town becomes electric and the town loses its train stop and thus Samay’s father loses his job, Samay goes from child to if not adult, then at least a child with his eyes opened to the uglier side of the world.

The gentle awe with which this film is imbued wanes somewhat in the third act, becoming replaced with slightly overwrought melodrama, and the pace quickens too rapidly from the steadiness of before. Yet Nalin crafts Last Film Show with such care and gentleness that even then you can’t help but feel like a kid again, watching a movie for the first time, or perhaps even those first theatergoers who believed the Lumière brothers’ train was going to come out of the screen and into their seats. It’s nostalgic, but not stuck in the past, as the ending voiceover reminds us: the film that Samay watched burn gets turned into bangles, and so the stories of Spielberg, of Ozu, of Eisenstein all live on, even as their medium changes. 

Maxim Gorky, upon seeing his first film—that famous train from the Lumières—cried that cinema was “the Kingdom of Shadows,” forever resting on the edge between real and unreal; Fazal in Last Film Show explains that “movies were invented to con people.” Yet even if the films themselves are lies, what we feel from them are undoubtedly, achingly true, and Nalin lets Last Film Show reminds us of that.

Last Film Show Trailer

Last Film Show was screened as part of the Tribeca 2021 Film Festival.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Ted Lasso: Season 1 Review

Written by Alexander Reams

In honor of Ted Lasso Season 2 premiering today we have a full review of Season 1 in it’s entirety below. Once you’re done reading you can watch Season 2 Episode one here.

Season 1 Overall Rating: 93/100

Episode 1: Pilot

90/100

Our first introduction to titular Ted Lasso is of him dancing with his American football team after taking them from being a garbage pile to state champions. This gets the attention of recently divorced Rebecca Welton who subsequently hires Lasso as the newest coach of her ex-husbands association football club (AFC). When he arrives in London, followed by Coach Beard, his best friend, he is greeted by Nate, who Lasso dubs “Nate the Great”, and meets the owner, Rebecca Welton, and her lackey, Higgins. Ted Lasso is one of the most genuine characters to enter the television medium and after this introduction moment, I immediately wanted him to succeed in every aspect in the show. His rapport with Coach Beard is one of my favorite aspects of the show, and in this episode in particular. During the plane scene their rapport is hilarious but also so heartwarming and was easily my favorite scene of the episode. 

Episode 2: Biscuits

86/100               

Ted Lasso: Hold on, now. If I were to get fired from my job where I’m putting cleats in the trunk of my car… 

Coach Beard: You got the boot from puttin’ boots in the boot. 

Ted Lasso: [laughs] I love that.

One of the perfect examples of why Ted Lasso captures the “fish out of water” trope with such precision with a perfect level of aloofness. The quote above is one of my favorite interactions between Lasso and Brendan Hunt’s “Coach Beard”. This moment not only is a great showcase of their relationship, but also shows Lasso’s unfamiliarity with the territory still, while Beard has already assimilated and soaked up knowledge of their environment, serving as a guide to Lasso in this new terrain. With this moment I felt like I immediately knew everything about Coach Beard, he studies his environment, can keep a calm demeanor and let his coaching partner do the emotions for him, while he focuses on the team on an even deeper level, and has an unwavering loyalty to Lasso. 

Episode 3: Trent Crimm: The Independent

92/100

I think going into this show, we were all in some way Trent Crimm, Ted Lasso’s most vicious critic and one who takes joy in exploiting his lack of knowledge about the sport he has been hired to coach. However this episode not only stands as a turning point for myself, but also for Crimm. During the final major scene of the episode, where Trent and Ted finish their day at a restaurant, the restaurant is owned by the father of the driver who picked him and Coach Beard up from the airport in the first episode. There Lasso and Crimm eat food that is far spicier than either of their palettes are used to, however Lasso will not relent, signifying his loyalty to Richmond AFC, and like he eventually gets used to the spice, he assimilates into the environment of AFC. I love this moment as it appears on the surface to be a very simple moment of showing how polite Lasso is, and how far he will go to be nice and kind to others, but it is so much more, quite like the show itself. 

Episode 4: For the Children

94/100

A night of lights! Drama! Intrigue! Fallout! Egos clash!

All go down in this episode, Richmond AFC just suffered another loss, prompting Roy and Jamie to fight even more, old school vs. new school. It’s the night of the annual gala that Rupert and Rebecca used to host when they were married, but now Rebecca is hosting it by herself, adding more responsibilities to her shoulders. Ted sees this as an opportunity to mend fences between Roy and Jamie. Of all the episodes, this is probably the best written, taking all of the storylines set up in previous episodes and bringing them to this event. I loved the exchanges between Roy and Jamie, the undertones they exude are nothing short of hilarious, and the ending of this episode is one of my favorites in the show. 

Episode 5: Tan Lines

84/100

Ah the old buffer episode, usually towards the middle of the season of a show, especially one with a story going throughout each episode, there is a buffer, or breaker episode to give everyone some breathing room. However this show takes it and turns it on its head, instead giving us a break from the team, and a deeper look into Lasso’s personal life. Showing the troubles that were brewing before have followed him to England. Emotionally this is the first time the show takes a darker turn and a more real tone. I thought this was a brilliant move, turning the comedy into drama, but never losing the comedic beginnings the show started with. Never does comedy subvert the drama and vice versa. Spoilers ahead, there is a moment between Lasso and his wife that broke me. It shows Sudekis’ chops as a dramatic actor as well as some of the underlying nature of Lasso is still true and kind, no matter what is thrown at him. 

Episode 6: Two Aces

98/100

Comedy series often will forget the important moments of the previous episode, but the start of this episode deals directly with the fall out of Episode 5, Tan Lines. I found this to be a very nice touch. Although new issues arise quickly when mysterious injuries and folk tales begin troubling the team. Instead of being deterred, in true Lasso spirit, Ted takes this as an opportunity to bring the team closer together in a heartwarming ceremony in the treatment room. However first he has to deal with issues with Jamie, fully quoting the Allen Iverson “We’re talking about practice” speech, however adding a tone that is full of emotion from issues with his personal life. This moment in the show might be my favorite, one I think about daily. While also welcoming back Jamie to the team after benching him last episode. The way the treatment room ceremony is shot could be viewed as basic, but it lets each actor shine in their role, and made me fall even more in love with Ted Lasso. 

Episode 7: Make Rebecca Great Again

87/100

Reinvention. Not only in the team but in Rebecca. So far she has been mocked, humiliated, and overall berated not only by her ex-husband, but also the press. Now she has some time away from Richmond, followed by her new best friend Keeley Jones, the ex-girlfriend of star Jamie Tartt. To add insult to injury however, this away game that AFC Richmond is playing is against a rival who they have not beaten in 60 years, and it is the weekend of Rebecca and Rupert’s wedding anniversary. Of all the episodes this seemed to be the least important, not in terms of quality, but overall effect on the show. This is the most disconnected from the Richmond environment. However somehow the show does not suffer from this disconnect, instead providing some more much needed breathing room. 

Episode 8: The Diamond Dogs

92/100

How does the saying go “Behind every great man is an even greater woman”? Well in our titular character’s case, behind every great Lasso lies his diamond dogs. After the ending of the previous episode, where Ted hooked up with Rebecca’s friend Flo, he feels weird, given that he just signed divorce papers from his wife, and seeks counsel from Nate, Coach Beard, and Higgins. There is another who also seeks counsel. Despite her budding relationship with Roy, Keeley sleeps with Jamie, and admits it to Roy. Who then proceeds to seek the counsel of the Diamond Dogs. This is one of the more serious episodes of the series which is nice, since we are now back in the Richmond environment, and the tension adds to the overall tone of the intermingled storylines. This does seem to detract from the overall team. Despite this, its another great episode in the series. 

Episode 9: All Apologies

100/100

The penultimate episode to a mindblowing season one is here. Penultimate episodes have a special place in TV history, most recently being Game of Thrones, as well as miniseries such as Sherlock, Mare of Easttown, and Loki. Roy is dealing with the ultimate issue that has been hanging over him throughout the show and the butt of a lot of jokes, his age. He is having to finally come to terms with the fact that he is not the same player he was when he was younger. Rebecca has to pay for her sins from the start, and finally tells Ted everything. However his response is not what she expected, given all the marital issues he has experienced, he understands how she feels, and the position she was in. He responds in the most Lasso way possible, he gives her a hug, which she does not try to break free. This moment can seem small, but is one of the biggest in the show, he broke through almost everyone on the team, sans Jamie Tartt, who left Richmond AFC. Now he has broken through the toughest one yet, Rebecca. This episode provides a much needed catharsis to their relationship and is a truly beautiful moment. The other beautiful moment is at the end of the show, when Roy accepts his age issues, but still shows up to lead the team. In a show full of meaningful moments, these 2 standout. I’m not one to get emotional, but I will admit that a tear or two was shed. 

Episode 10: The Hope That Kills You

100/100

The finale. 

After a season filled with as much drama as comedy, somehow the finale lives up to everything built before. Ted has been through a lot since taking his post as coach of AFC Richmond, however despite his positive influence on them, they are one game away from being relegated. Meaning they would no longer be a premier team. Despite this pressure, Ted continues his positive outlook. Even if the pressure is clearly eating him up, add on a looming divorce, and you’ve got someone who is a pressure cooker with a time bomb. This episode drops most of the comedy that has infused the show and trades it in for tension and drama, and still fits perfectly in the show. The futbol scenes are expertly filmed, using long tracking shots which heighten the suspense. In the end, the team is relegated, however hope is not lost, because that isn’t the Lasso way. With Rebecca now wanting the team to succeed, everyone is on the same side and are now stronger than ever. The only casualty of this being Roy getting injured, and whose fate on the field is unknown. 

Season 2 begins today July 23rd

Ted Lasso Season 1 Trailer

Ted Lasso is currently streaming on AppleTV+

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.

The Avengers

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Avengers, assem— wait, not yet, that comes later.

80/100

Take a moment, if you will, to go back to summer of 2012. I was 13 years old, about to enter eighth grade and be at the top of the middle school food chain, when my sister dragged me to see The Avengers against my will. I was an intellectual, I protested, who didn’t want to see some dumb superhero movie. I had taste.

Well, all those complaints died pretty quickly, and here I am almost a decade later, still invested (perhaps overly so) in these dumb superhero movies. 

The Avengers was a cultural phenomenon. It was ubiquitous, it was unavoidable; references dripped from everyone’s lips, memes were spawned, records were broken. For a period, it was the third-highest grossing movie of all time, and still stands at a very comfortable eighth place. It transformed the burgeoning Marvel Cinematic Universe into a fully-fledged monstrosity, cementing Marvel’s theatrical and cultural dominance; for many, this would become their Star Wars. It was Big in a way that no one could have predicted. The Avengers proved that the previous films weren’t simply flashes in a pan, and that Marvel was here to stay​​—like it or not.

In hindsight, it seems obvious that it would work, now that we have three other Avengers movies under our belt, but at the time, it was risky: there was every chance that these characters, when thrown in a room together, would refuse to gel. This wasn’t the self-contained Spider-Man trilogy, nor was it the X-Men movies, which came with a pre-formed team. This was something new, a grand cinematic gamble that had every chance of crashing and burning. A Russian assassin, a World War II veteran, a wealthy playboy, a man with anger issues, a guy with a bow and arrow, and a Norse god all walk onto a helicarrier—it sounds like the setup to a bad punchline. On top of that, at the time of production, both Thor and Captain America hadn’t come out in theaters yet. No one knew how audiences would receive these characters or the more outlandish aspects of these movies, but The Avengers hinged upon them; if their respective movies did poorly, there was nothing Marvel could do.

But somehow, impossibly, it all worked. How?

It certainly helps that we had five solo movies to establish each character beforehand by the time of The Avengers’ release. Audiences knew Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). If you watched the previous MCU films, you were automatically invested in the stakes of this one—even more so, now that you were watching your favorite characters interact. 

Still, even if you walked in with no prior knowledge (as I did), the movie carefully takes its time to reestablish its characters in the opening third. We are reacquainted with S.H.I.E.L.D. boss Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), who have been working with scientist Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) to uncover the secrets of the Tesseract, last seen falling into the ocean at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger. When Loki (Tom Hiddleston) arrives through a portal in space powered by the Tesseract and begins wreaking havoc, putting S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner, first glimpsed in Thor but given a tiny bit more to do here), aka Hawkeye, under mind control, Fury decides it’s time to finally activate the Avengers Initiative, first mentioned in the end credits scene of Iron Man

So, Fury goes to collect the de-iced Captain America, who has been working out his feelings of loss on sandbags at the gym. (I have a very distinct memory of rewatching The Avengers for my 14th birthday party with all of my friends and having a lightbulb go off in my brain during this scene. There were several pause requests, for no particular reason.) Coulson gets sent to collect Tony in his new Stark Tower, and Natasha is dispatched to India to find Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo).

Ruffalo is at a disadvantage here: all the other key players have already been introduced in prior movies, and while Bruce Banner had his own movie, Ruffalo did not, and taking over for another actor midstream is never easy. However, even despite this, Ruffalo immediately puts his own stamp on Hulk; his Banner is simultaneously kinder, sadder, and more frightening than Norton’s, making him quite a bit more interesting. When he later says the now-oft-memed line, “That’s my secret, Cap. I’m always angry,” you buy it.

Everyone boards the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier to apprehend Loki, who has been setting himself up as humanity’s savior. “The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity,” he informs the crowd. Where Loki in Thor was a rather tortured figure, here he becomes a full-fledged villain, trying to become Earth’s fascistic ruler in order to assuage his own insecurities and ego. It’s enormous fun, and Hiddleston is solid as always. The Avengers stop his plan and bring Loki aboard the helicarrier, meeting Thor in the process (so much for being stranded on Asgard with a broken Rainbow Bridge), and then we are well and truly off to the races now that everyone is in the same room.

Much of the credit for Avengers’ success has to go to director and writer Joss Whedon; even with all the gross allegations against him that have come to light, it is still thanks to him that The Avengers works as well as it does. While these accusations should be treated with the utmost seriousness (and are made even worse by the fact that Whedon built his initial career by positioning himself as a feminist icon with works like Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Whedon was the director who truly solidified the MCU, and he did it well—though depending on your view of the MCU at large, his work in making it a cultural juggernaut may just be another strike against him. His fast-paced dialogue keeps things from getting too bogged down, and his obvious love for these characters shines through with enthusiasm; it’s a comic book movie made by a comic book nerd, but one still accessible to everyone.

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

Marvel has come under criticism for having too many quips and jokes thrown around, robbing certain scenes of any emotional impact; while the amount of jokes per film actually vary wildly (think of Captain America: The Winter Soldier versus Thor: Ragnarok), it seems that tendency largely originated from Whedon in The Avengers. Sure, Tony has a snide comment for everything in his solo outings, but here the quips come a mile a minute. While Whedon would overplay this in Avengers: Age of Ultron, here the gags work, by and large; they help establish a repartee between characters who previously had no interaction with each other, and the awkwardness of some of these interjections (“I do! I understood that reference”) only serves to highlight the awkwardness of the characters as they are thrust into this unfamiliar situation. Plus, they can be pretty damn funny: “[Loki] is of Asgard and he is my brother.” “He killed 80 people in two days.” “He’s adopted.” Worthy of a chuckle, at least.

The best thing about Avengers isn’t the big fight scenes (though those certainly can be a blast), it’s watching all of these actors and characters bounce off each other. Tony tries his hardest to push Bruce’s buttons, Thor watches everything with a certain level of amusing bemusement, Natasha rolls her eyes at all this posturing. The rapid-fire Whedon dialogue works like gangbusters, and he manages to give each character in his ensemble cast individual moments even in the team scenes.

The only thing that mars the more character-driven beats is Steve: he functions too much like a polished Boy Scout here, with none of the recklessness and smartassery that was present in Captain America: The First Avenger. Steve spends most of The First Avenger lying to his superiors and breaking rules, but here he berates Tony for investigating S.H.I.E.L.D.’s shady business? I’m not buying it. Whedon opts for the oversimplified, caricatured Steve Rogers, an easier version of a character that should be far more complex than what this script gives him. It stands out even more upon rewatch when there are more movies to compare against, movies where Steve Rogers continually flouts the chain of command to follow his own largely unerring moral compass. Steve is unmoored and set adrift in time, but there are better ways to play that up than an overreliance on his apparent old fashionedness.

Still, even with that misfire, the banter in The Avengers is just fun. You feel like a kid in a candy store, but like all your favorite candies had combined into one great delicious candy. (I’m not great at metaphors.) The film is at its best when foregrounding character over spectacle; the emphasis on the people behind the masks, the shields, the hammers, is what has given Marvel its staying power in the cultural consciousness and what made The Avengers a phenomenon in the first place. Mindless blockbusters are a dime a dozen, but rarer are the ones where you genuinely worry about a character’s safety, or where their deaths can make theaters full of grown men and women cry (see: Endgame). That’s what sets The Avengers apart. When all these characters come together for the first time, you remember it in a way you don’t remember Transformers. The Avengers may be a dumb superhero movie, but it’s one anchored by a beating heart.

But, of course, we can’t stay in character land forever: this is a superhero movie, after all, and so we need some big fights.

Several things happen all at once: the gang discovers that S.H.I.E.L.D. has secretly been building weapons of mass destruction (a government organization up to no good in a Marvel film? Say it ain’t so!), a verbal fight erupts in the science lab between everyone, and the brainwashed Hawkeye attacks the helicarrier. This spurs our heroes into action, but by then, Coulson has died (apparently), Thor and Bruce have been grounded (but separately), and Loki has escaped. Finally, this disparate group of people realizes that they need to work together.

What follows is just an excuse to have your favorite comic book heroes go and punch things. The Battle of New York (as it’s known in-universe) could certainly stand to be shaved down several minutes, and the alien Chitauri suffer from bland-generic-evil-henchmen-in-Marvel-movies syndrome. The Avengers’ final act is its weakest: no matter how cool it might be to see Hulk smash some bad guys, the fight against these nameless alien hordes goes on for too long. 

But damn if that circle shot of the assembled team with Alan Silvestri’s now-iconic theme swelling in the background doesn’t inspire a quiet little fist pump. We’ve had the setup in the previous five movies; here is the payoff. And it works. 

The Avengers is the first real Marvel movie: not just an action movie, or a superhero movie, but first and foremost a Marvel movie. It establishes the fun, zippy tone that by and large dominates the MCU. It—and I don’t think I’m exaggerating here, given just how enormous Marvel has become—starts an empire. Without the rousing success of The Avengers, the MCU might have fizzled and waned; with its triumph (your mileage may vary on how pretentious you think the use of that word is here), Marvel put its stamp on the collective cultural consciousness in a way not seen for a long time. Within the span of four years, Marvel transformed from a struggling studio forced to sell its best assets just to keep afloat to a pop culture juggernaut—so what’s next?

Groundwork: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • What’s up, Thanos?
  • Loki’s scepter contains the Mind Stone, and will next be seen in the hands of Hydra as they use it to grant powers to Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
  • That whole scene between Loki and Natasha provides a lot of groundwork for Black Widow. “Dreykov’s daughter” becomes not just a throwaway line but a significant plot point, and Natasha will repeat tactics she used on Loki with Ray Winstone’s Dreykov, including her iconic “thank you for your cooperation” line. It doesn’t work as well the second time around, though, and feels a bit lazy. Oh, well.
  • “This is just like Budapest all over again” also gets addressed in Black Widow. (Before the ill-fated Black Widow/Hulk romance and Hawkeye’s farm family in Age of Ultron, a thousand pieces of fanfiction spawned from that single line.)
  • The clock on Grand Central Station gets destroyed in this film and in subsequent outings gets replaced by a monument to first responders to the Chitauri invasion.
  • Coulson’s death will begin a whole #CoulsonLives movement online, eventually resulting in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., where Clark Gregg reprised his role for seven seasons. (Though he wasn’t playing Coulson all those seasons, and in fact plays a Life Model Decoy—first mentioned in The Avengers by Tony—in season seven. It gets complicated.) The cellist that he mentions to Tony here will also show up in season one, played by Whedon alum Amy Acker. 
  • The World Security Council that repeatedly frustrates Nick Fury in this via the Marvel version of Zoom will pop up in person in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
  • Gideon Malick (Powers Boothe), a member of the World Security Council, will appear in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (including a younger version played by Cameron Palatas) and be unmasked as a Hydra agent. In fact, there are lots of Malick family members working for Hydra. This probably isn’t canon anymore, but as Kevin Feige has not come out and directly said that S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t canon, I will cling to it.
  • Enver Gjokaj, another frequent Whedon collaborator, plays an NYPD officer here; he’ll go on to play Daniel Sousa in Agent Carter and, later, S.H.I.E.L.D., leading to a lot of different theories about this officer, but he turned out to be just a random cop and not related to Sousa at all. 

Anna’s Favorite Scene: Tony wheedles Bruce in the lab about the whole Hulk situation, producing what the internet will dub the “Science Bros” and revealing quite a lot about both characters involved. Or the Loki and Natasha interrogation, because Hiddleston is so great and the twist is fantastic (the first time around, at least).

MCU Ranking: 1. The Avengers, 2. Captain America: The First Avenger, 2. Iron Man, 3. Thor, 4. Iron Man 2, 5. The Incredible Hulk

The Avengers Trailer

The Avengers is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

What Lies Beneath

Written by Michael Clawson

70/100

A spooky and occasionally quite sexy supernatural horror-thriller that gets by on its Hitchcockian vibe and a superb performance from Michelle Pfeiffer, despite it being deadly obvious after a certain point where the story is going. 

Pfeiffer plays Claire, an empty-nested housewife, who begins snooping around and spying on her neighbor after suspecting he has murdered his wife, while at the same time, strange things happen around her newly renovated lakeside house – doors creak open on their own, a picture frame keeps falling over, and she keeps walking by her bathroom to find light and steam spilling out of it, her claw-foot tub inexplicably full to the brim. 

Claire’s suspicions of foul play next door suggest a take on Rear Window, but that proves to be a red herring; the real threat is the ghost in Claire’s own home, the question then being who is haunting her and why. The script lays out bread crumbs for Claire to follow with a groaning lack of subtlety, and once Claire’s husband Norman (Harrison Ford) is revealed to have been unfaithful with a student who has since gone missing, it leaves little doubt as to who this malevolent spirit really has it out for. 

Pfeiffer makes Claire’s hunger to unravel the mystery compelling, and Zemeckis delectably directs more than a handful of thrilling scenes, aided by Alan Silvestri’s inherently suspenseful, Bernard Hermanesque orchestral score. The steamy bathroom is the site of a late game nail-biter, sharply edited and tightly shot, and a pulpy eroticism reaches its apex in a seduction scene where Pfeiffer oozes a deliciously frightening sexual confidence. So although it’s hampered by its eventual predictability, as well as incoherent development in Ford’s character, the movie’s unshowy stylishness and lead performance keep it afloat.

What Lies Beneath Trailer

What Lies Beneath is currently available to rent from on multiple streaming platforms.

Tribeca 2021 Film Festival Review: All My Friends Hate Me

Written by Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde

55/100

All My Friends Hate Me is Andrew Gaynord’s directorial feature film debut. It tells the story of Pete (Tom Stourton, who also co-wrote the film) as he reunites with his posh university friends to enjoy a birthday getaway in a fancy country manor. What ensues from this mini-reunion is a series of strange and uncomfortable events as Pete and his friends try to live it up to the good old days when they were still at school. On the surface, this is a simple premise but as the story progresses things get a bit more convoluted. 

The most interesting thing All My Friends Hate Me has going for it is the discussion of classism in British society. These differences between Pete and his more affluent friends are hinted at throughout the movie. The dynamic among them made me wonder why Pete was even friends with these people in the first place. They seem to have nothing in common, or at least nothing in common anymore. These differences intensify as the film progresses and the friends grow more paranoid making the weekend incredibly uncomfortable. The tensions we observed on screen combined with the score helped set the tempo for their reunion. 

If you enjoyed the vibes of The Cabin in the Woods (2011) or Ready or Not (2019) this movie might be for you, although, I have to admit that those movies did it much better. For me, if the characters aren’t compelling enough it is hard for me to want to learn more and enjoy their story. This was the case as I watched this film. Perhaps if the film leaned into more of its campy aspects, as a way to explore what happens to friends when they drift apart and differences in social status, it would have been more effective. With those caveats aside, this was an okay effort for a debut director. I am sure it will find an audience somewhere but it wasn’t for me. In any case, I will keep my eye on Gaynord and Strourton’s next projects to see where they go from here. 

Recommended. 

All My Friends Hate Me was screened as part of the Tribeca 2021 Film Festival thru Tribeca at Home(available only in the USA). Further Distribution TBD.

You can follow Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde on LetterboxdTwitter, or Instagram and view more of what she’s up to here.

Tribeca 2021 Film Festival Review: Settlers

Written by Patrick Hao

33/100

In the past month there have been unprecedented heat waves and forest fires in the Pacific Northwest, a fire in the Gulf of Mexico from broken gas pipes(the ocean was on actual FIRE), and melting polar ice caps. With the hubris of humans on Earth causing these climate disasters, the uber-rich have begun imagining a way to travel and colonize Mars. Director Wyatt Rockefeller (yes of those Rockefeller’s) unsuccessfully tries distilling these current anxieties of unending resource consumption, greed, and colonization into the film Settlers, a grim neo-western set on Mars.

Set in the future, years after the Mars atmosphere has been made inhabitable for humans (the how is never explained) and settlements have come and gone, Settlers follows a family consisting of Reza (Jonny Lee Miller), his wife Ilsa (Sofia Boutella), and their daughter Remmy (Brooklynn Prince) on a farm, seemingly surrounded only by a vast landscape. Their anxiety soon ratchets up when it becomes clear that the family is not alone, as they begin to hear howls in the distance and the message of “Leave” is left on their window. It is revealed that the family had acquired the farm through violent means, as they begin to be terrorized by Jerry (Ismael Cruz Córdova), the son of the farm’s former occupants who wants to reclaim his land.

Rockefeller gets a lot of mileage from filming on location in the beautiful Vioolsdrif desert in South America. Filmed with the typical red hue to denote Mars, the homestead ranch juxtaposed against the miles of barren landscape really highlights the themes of isolation and loneliness that run throughout the film. Rockefeller uses the filmic language of the Classic Hollywood western to draw parallels between the old notions of settlements of the Western Frontier in the 1800’s and all the complications that comes with, and that of a possible Mars settlement.

However, the film’s allegories become muddled with its confused depiction of Jerry. The character seems to be an amalgamation of all the movie tropes of an indigenous character from an old western. He is, on one hand, in tune with nature as he is cultivates the homestead’s land for much needed resources, and, on the other hand, craven in his desires, especially sexually. His character design, as well, draws troubling comparisons to indigenous people. Any criticisms of colonialism and human greed are undermined by the shortsightedness of a depiction such as this.

Problematic depictions aside, the film quickly becomes dramatically inert after a tense first act. The film relies too much on long meandering stretches of brooding characters completing chores. While it creates a good atmosphere, there is not enough thematic underpinnings that warrant such long stretches. The film is never as thrilling or suspenseful as the opening third and premise suggests. Settlers ultimately feels like a first film, grand in ambition, but shallow in thought. Rockefeller certainly has the eye for a striking image and the ability to stretch a budget. The film is admirable in its earnestness in wanting to engage with the heady issues that underpins the film, but never seems to connect any of the sociopolitical implications of the film beyond humans having the capacity to be “bad.”

Settlers Trailer

Settlers is currently available to purchase and rent on most digital storefronts.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

Tribeca 2021 Film Festival Review: Wu Hai

Written by Anna Harrison

65/100

Yang Hua (Huang Xuan) has not been having a very good day, or week, or year in Zhao Ziyang’s Wu Hai. Hua has debtors tailing him at every corner after a failed investment into a dinosaur theme park, and his investment into his friend Luo Yu’s (Wang Shaohua) desert resort has so far coughed up nothing except empty promises. His wife, Miao Wei (Yang Zishan), has reached the end of her rope, and a surprise pregnancy doesn’t help things. In Wu Hai, money is truly the root of all evil; the characters may have flaws to begin with, but the debts they incur mercilessly bring out these flaws until the characters inflict misery both on themselves and everyone around them.

Thankfully, all this misery business does not make Wu Hai too dour to watch, due in large part to Huang Xuan’s performance. Given such a bleak script, it would have been easy for Huang to slip into melodrama, but instead he opts for a subtler approach; Hua fights to keep his encroaching sense of anguish clamped down, and so when he lets it out it becomes all the more powerful for the restraint shown before. The other actors turn in fine performances as well, but their characters largely stay on the sidelines, existing only to give Hua more grief and heartache.

Grief and heartache, however, are not enough to capture an audience, and Wu Hai often lags in spots and, despite Hua’s impending downfall, seems to lack much momentum. There are flurries of activity scattered throughout the film, such as a powerfully acted argument between Hua and his wife, but the lulls in between threaten to derail the film. More interesting parts of the film are left largely undercooked: the class insecurity that contributes to Hua’s crumbling mental state, obsession with status, the treatment and exploitation of women in order to climb the rungs of society. For a deliberately slow film that tries to be thoughtful in its handling of plot, these deeper aspects getting left behind is doubly frustrating.

Luckily, cinematographer Matthias Delvaux keeps the film looking good even as viewers’ interest in the plot might wane. Delvaux’s use of long takes builds tension in the film; instead of cutting rapidly to replicate a feeling of anxiety, he lets us linger as it slowly builds. This also allows the actors to play off each other without interruption, and we can watch Hua’s face run through the gamut of emotions all within a single take. One particularly evocative shot involves Hua climbing into the mouth of a T. rex statue, swallowed whole by capitalism, in the belly of the beast.

Wu Hai has enough engaging elements to elevate itself—namely, Huang’s performance and Delvaux’s cinematography—but those can only do so much. Had the script taken time to examine its components more in depth, Wu Hai could have been a searing commentary on China’s current economic system; as is, Wu Hai stands on the cusp of greatness but can never go over the edge. (In that, it might be a little like its protagonist.)

Wu Hai Trailer

Wu Hai played as part of the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. Release Date TBA.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain

Written by Patrick Hao

70/100

There is a sort of perverse curiosity when we watch a film about a famous public figure whose death came so prematurely, especially when the cause is suicide. The natural inclination is to ask, “Why?” Morgan Neville’s newest documentary, Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, is fully aware that the question “Why?” would be in the heads of an audience who would watch a documentary about the famed chef, raconteur, and television presenter. Neville does not shy away from the why, nor does he hinge his film on answering that question. Instead he presents Anthony Bourdain’s humanity and public persona with great intimacy and respect.

Neville chronicles Bourdain’s professional and personal life starting with his breakout success as an author in 2000, with the publication of his memoir Kitchen Confidential. From there, the film progresses mostly linear–describing the development of his travel shows No Reservations and Parts Unknown, highlighting key episodes from them to perceive something deeper about the man and his ethos. Interspersed are talking heads made up of friends and colleagues who are candid about their experiences with Bourdain.

Like all of Neville’s films, Neville is dexterous with his use of the 10,000 hours of footage that he had access to. Because Bourdain was a writer who specialized in an open self-monologuing style, Neville can let the film essentially be narrated by Bourdain himself. Clever use of editing and juxtaposition cause the film to have a haunting quality, so that you fall in love with the zeal that Bourdain had for life without ever forgetting his end.

The footage that Neville uses really captures the appeal of Bourdain to viewers. In every way, the TV-version of Bourdain was an aspirational figure for the modern man. Smart, acerbic, deeply empathetic, and compassionate, with the right bit of punk rock edge to keep him cool. He had the literary stylings of Hunter S. Thompson and George Plimpton, and a voracious love of film that he was able to bring to the sensibilities of his shows.

Bourdain is a natural subject for Neville’s oeuvre. Neville’s previous documentaries on Fred Rogers in Won’t You Be My Neighbor and Orson Welles in They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead were also about famous figures with intensely crafted public personas that clashed with and bled into their personal lives. Neville similarly demystifies Bourdain’s public persona by delving deep into the ways that Bourdain’s personal life was hampered by his celebrity and work ethic.

Yet, all of the carefully crafted footage and intimate talking heads could not fully capture the intense personal turmoil without traversing salacious territory. The final act of the film portrays Bourdain’s final relationship with film actress/director Asia Argento and falls dangerously close equating the blame of Bourdain’s final moments as an act of romantic revenge (Argento was not interviewed for the film). Thankfully, the film never fully puts the blame on anyone but Bourdain himself, as Neville and talking heads point towards Bourdain’s past heroin addiction creating an addictive personality, as well as his past depression and suicidal thoughts. However, there is enough insinuation there to make one queasy.

The best moments of Roadrunner are the time devoted to how the people who loved Bourdain have reacted to his suicide. Suicide is such a rare topic for any film to grapple with, especially its aftermath. Neville is able to deal with the subject with sensitivity, bolstered by the talking heads’ candidness. The interviewees display a range of anger, confusion, and profound sadness. They also display a deep love for a friend who is gone and gratefulness to have known him. The scars are still there but that means the wounds are healing.

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain Trailer

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is currently playing in theaters.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

Cannes 2021 Film Festival Review: Invisible Demons

Written by Maria Athayde

60/100

Invisible Demons directed by Rahul Jain is an examination of climate change, the free market economy and, its consequences, in India. Jain’s documentary explores this by capturing images of visible particulates in the air that are perforating lungs slowly, breathing tastes where middle aged women break out in coughing fits, and crowded streets that give you a sense of the collective strain against the environment in India and New Delhi in particular. This story will resonate with anyone that is worried about our warming climate, growing amounts of refuse, and whether a habitable future on this planet will be possible. 

Jain’s unique camerawork and visual style really help dictate the pace of this doc. Most of the “talking” in this documentary is done visually. Jain sporadically breaks his visual narrative by featuring newscasts or first person accounts about what is happening in India and the effects of air pollution in Delhi. By doing so, Jain adds a bit of heart to this story. He examines a past, present, and future that is incredibly depressing as the citizens of this megacity experience the cascading and interconnected effects of climate change. 

Ultimately, this documentary works because it explores the mostly individual and collective experiences of climate change and what they mean for the country as a whole. In a place where air pollution is one of the most deadly killers (15 of the top 20 most polluted cities are in India) Jain’s storytelling never becomes cynical. Instead, he tries to offer us a visual representation of what the present and future hold as people live and learn to deal with climate change.  

Recommended

Invisible Demons screened as part of the Cannes 2021 Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.

You can follow Maria Athayde on LetterboxdTwitter, or Instagram and view more of what she’s up to here.