True Detective 3.7 – “The Final Country”

Though “The Final Country” didn’t pack quite the wallop of last week’s “Hunters in the Dark”, one can mostly chalk that up to the role of a penultimate episode of television in properly setting the stage for a finale. “Hunters” seemingly had a cliffhanger, but in actuality the hour told one of the most self-contained stories in True Detective to date. We saw and understood Tom Purcell’s shift from sobered-up reformee to off-the-wagon vigilante, spurred by an unjust targeting from those he thought were his friends (and by a little eavesdropping at the police station). Tom’s ultimate fate wasn’t necessarily something we knew, but then again the reveal of his dead body in the opening minutes of “Final Country” felt pretty inevitable. If “Hunters” hadn’t been such a closed loop, any remorse over Tom’s death would’ve felt unearned.

The end of “Final Country” was a true cliffhanger, though. The primary question isn’t so much whodunit? anymore, though we do still need specifics regarding how the Hoyt Family, a man named Watts and/or Mister June, Lucy Purcell, Dan O’Brien and Princess Julie all fit together. The primary question now, as 1990 Wayne hops into the car with The Character That Knows the Truth, is how 2015 Wayne could still be so far away from that truth all these years later.

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Destroyer (2019)

I was pretty darn excited by Destroyer just prior to watching Destroyer. The fact of a female-led, female-directed crime film with such noir grit would’ve been enticing enough. That female lead, of course, is Nicole Kidman, which always helps in the Excitement category. But frankly director Karyn Kusama was even more of a draw, coming off her last effort The Invitation. While not altogether a classic, Invitation stuck in the mind for its slow-burn tension and creepy performances. It was almost a suburban spin on a haunted house tale, Ice Storm meets Amityville Horror, accomplished with confidence by Kusama on a comparatively small budget of $1 million. Destroyer upped the ante, left the suburban mansion for the L.A. streets, but the fact that it was still an original thriller was mighty exciting.

And I was even pretty darn excited by Destroyer just after watching Destroyer, because the ending was a deft twist with a songlike quality only hinted at elsewhere in the film. But I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Destroyer while I was actually watching Destroyer. As an upstanding member of the critical community, of course, I must admit, reader, that in entering the screening for Destroyer I simultaneously expunged every bias while still expecting, honestly, based on advertising, to be destroyed.

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True Detective 3.6 – “Hunters in the Dark”

If you’re as into this season of True Detective as I am, “Hunters in the Dark” had it all.

Plot-wise there were developments we knew were coming, like the wrongful incrimination of Brett Woodard in the 1980 timeline. There was a whole bunch of stuff we probably didn’t know was coming, mostly stemming from the 1990 timeline and Tom Purcell’s regression back into a suspect in the eyes of the police. There was, of course, a big ol’ reveal at the end, one that we’ll talk about in a second after we issue a spoiler warning for that spoilery spoiler.

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Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

I went to the Tate Modern in London once. Modern art is easy to shit on, the philosophy of experimentation and willful disregard for tradition seeming to some haphazard, easy, cheap or just plain juvenile. That day at the Tate somebody had left a crumpled-up brochure on the ground, dead center of a pristine exhibit hall, and visitors would occasionally encircle it with hushed regard as they mistook it for art. It was the most surreal thing in a museum of exclusively surreal things, watching a piece of trash receive such vigilant appreciation.

Velvet Buzzsaw grips that inherently satirical premise and throttles it bloody. There’s a scene that almost recreated my day at the Tate verbatim, except it’s a dead body in a pool of blood that museum-goers believe to be a cutting-edge installation. Dan Gilroy’s follow-up to Nightcrawler is on Netflix now and stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Toni Collette, John Malkovich and Daveed Diggs as critics, agents, curators and artists in the world of high-end L.A. art. When a mysterious artist’s work begins to gain posthumous acclaim, the sales and monetization of that work result in supernatural consequences for those involved.

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True Detective 3.5 – “If You Have Ghosts”

My favorite moments of True Detective, regardless of which season we’re discussing, are those that find an artful way to play with the storytelling devices. Very few television series even attempt something besides linear narrative, but at times ‘Tec goes beyond just a standard bookend flashback structure. At the outset of the first season, “The Long Bright Dark” seemed content to tell a 1995-set story framed by grainy camcorder footage of two characters recounting their experiences in 2012. But by the end of the episode our 2012 lens separated itself from the camcorder, and from that point on the first season had two timelines running with equal weight on both.

The third season has three of those timelines, more of a challenge in maintaining the feeling that each of them is as important, and “If You Have Ghosts” wobbled ever so slightly in juggling all of that. 1990 Wayne may always have been predisposed to snapping into an argumentative holier-than-thou rant, but his fuse in those segments of the story is now almost comically short. “Ghosts” felt like the longest episode of the season (which was actually last week’s 75-minute “The Hour and the Day”), partially because we’re inescapably at the threshold of a big break in all three timelines. We know the Woodard Altercation is linked to the Purcell case in 1980, we know Wayne and Roland do something bad in 1990, and we know 2015 Wayne will experience a revelation in what he does and does not remember about his life’s work. The fact that the specifics of that knowledge are still being withheld is still mostly tantalizing, but slightly frustrating in an episode as “long” as this one.

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Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

You’d certainly be forgiven for thinking Alita: Battle Angel to be a new movie by James Cameron. It gives off his scent in more ways than one, but primarily in the union of completely gangbusters special effects and a completely lackluster script. Cameron’s credited as a producer, though, not that the title of “producer” can actually ever have one single definition. Based on the manga series Battle Angel Alita, the film adaptation is in actuality directed by Mexico Trilogy and Sin City helmer Robert Rodriguez, the guy who once claimed his approach as “Mariachi-style” — in which “creativity, not money, is used to solve problems.” There’s an immediate discordance between that approach and the mere notion of James “Titanic” Cameron, and Alita very clearly exhibits the latter’s big-budget sensibility at the expense of an underdog’s incumbent creativity.

Which is a shame, because that’s ostensibly what Alita is about. The title character (played by Rosa Salazar) is a spunky cyborg with a mysterious past, brought back to life by kindhearted scientist Ido (Christoph Waltz) in a war-torn world all but discarded by the elite who reside on a giant floating city in the sky. “Lower” and “upper” class are literalized, and promise of ascension to that higher world is enough leverage to get anyone to do anything. The setup is nearly verbatim to that of Elysium, with an impending reckoning between the rough-and-tumble Earth-dwellers and those nasty domineers above. But the reckoning never happens, despite a colossal amount of exposition pointing in that direction, and apart from a useless cameo (more on that in a second) we never even glimpse one of those nasty domineers.

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True Detective 3.4 – “The Hour and the Day”

The fourth episode of a given season of True Detective is apparently where the action comes in. After the first season kicked off with three episodes of deep philosophizing, “Who Goes There” gave us a heart-in-your-throat action chase in one of television’s most ambitious tracking shots. The fourth episode of the second season, “Down Will Come”, similarly launched us into a shitshow shootout that we’d eventually learn was the high point of the season.

The third season’s fourth entry brought us right up to that point, prepping us for a major action sequence…and then it cut to black right at the literal detonation. It’s somewhat rare to have a dearth of action sequences in our modern film and television entertainment, regardless of the genre. Outside of Mindhunter — which had not a single car chase, shootout, fistfight or explosion over the course of ten hourlong episodes — police procedurals are especially reliant on action. NCIS and the like have at least one set piece per episode.

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Face Off: Noah’s Ark (1999) and Noah (2014)

When Darren Aronofsky’s Noah came out in 2014, the website I was writing for at the time sent me to screen it and review it. The film stars Russell Crowe as the biblical Noah and follows his ark-building journey after God warns him of a great world-cleansing flood. Animals arrive two-by-two for the cruise, forty days of rain ensues…you know the story. Amongst my original thoughts was the following:

“This is probably Aronofsky’s least personal work — the close-quarter character examinations of Pi and The Wrestler aren’t at play here, and while the character of Noah is drawn quite well, the confines of a big-budget blockbuster based on what may be the most widely-read story of all time just doesn’t allow for as much intimacy.”

I was wrong. Not about the impersonal nature of the film — that’s still the case — but about Noah being based on the Bible.

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True Detective 3.3 – “The Big Never”

As we discussed in our review of last week’s episode “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye,” the macro-level focus of True Detective has eschewed a mere whodunit? in favor of complex, haunted characters embroiled in ever-shifting family dynamics. When the two switch places — when plot overrides character, or when the plot twists at the expense of character development — it doesn’t necessarily make True Detective into a bad show so much as it makes it an atmospheric version of every other police procedural on TV.  Working out a case is fun as a viewer, but it’s far more compelling to tag along as a well-crafted set of characters works it out (or doesn’t).

…that being said, the case unfolding in the third season of ‘Tec is a very, very compelling one. What started as a cut-and-dry kidnapping case was already more complicated by the end of the first episode, but “The Big Never” threw several big wrenches into the mix. In 1980, Wayne and Roland look into a possible connection with the local grocery plant and chase down an angle concerning the Purcells’ “best friend.” In 1990, Roland gives a deposition that paints both of those developments as important revelations. And in 2015, Wayne desperately clings to the facts of the case in an effort to finally solve it.

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True Detective 3.2 – “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”

HBO’s release strategies for their flagship series have always been carefully planned, and the one-two punch of the first two episodes of True Detective’s new season is no exception. The hooks were in after the first episode, “The Great War and Modern Memory,” but the character depth provided by “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” all but guarantees a return audience next week. The eight episode season will take us to the end of February, when the hype train for April’s Game of Thrones will be full steam ahead. And then, though there’s no official release date, look for HBO’s Watchmen to premiere right around the end of Thrones.

The premiere placement of “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” was smart on another level, though, because it got to the heart of what made ‘Tec great in the first place. Both episodes unfurled a twisty and time-jumpy mystery, but “Goodbye” had a particular focus on family that heightened investment in the whole affair. Complicated family dynamics are what the first season had and what the second season lacked, and the characters of this third season — Hays and the Purcell Family for sure, but even “minor” characters like Woodard — are better for having to balance a home life with their work.

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