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In ANYONE BUT YOU, Looks Aren’t Everything – But They’re Not Nothing, Either

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

Looks aren’t everything, this is true. But in movies, they’re not nothing, either, no matter how hard filmmakers may try to politely demur. In the new romantic comedy Anyone But You, writer-director Will Gluck makes an effort, as he probably must, to downplay the superhuman attractiveness of his stars, Glen Powell and Sydney Sweeney. Ben (Powell) may have “like a ten-pack,” as Bea (Sweeney) quips at one point, but his beach sit-ups are made to look silly – uptight and overexerted – and when he goes for a swim with Bea, she’s shocked to learn he’s “hot-girl fit,” all tone and no stamina for cardio. (This doesn’t really comport with what we see anywhere else in the movie, but good effort!) As for Bea herself, the movie can’t find much fault with her own eye-popping body, so Sweeney’s whole deal gets scrutinized; at one point another character describes her as a sad-eyed girl who looks like she’s hiding a secret.

Yet despite this false modesty designed, in concert with various slapstick escapades, to keep audiences from outright resenting its characters, Anyone But You is very much about its looks – in ways that even the most unabashed romantic comedies tend to shyly avoid. Gluck’s sorta-update of Much Ado About Nothing isn’t especially raunchy; it’s rated R, but not really in the Apatow-era mode of all-talk raunch-coms situated squarely from a boy’s point of view. This is a rom-com that embraces plenty of tropes – tries to pass them off as cutely Shakespearean, even – while at the same time rejecting the tacit prudishness of the genre revival we were supposedly getting via streaming services – a cornerstone of which, the mild Set It Off, starred Powell in bland-bro mode. He’s playing a similar type here, and maybe I felt more affection toward him after watching such a sly acknowledgement of his ramrod dorkiness in Hit Man, a weirder and trickier Richard Linklater version of the rom-com. Maybe, though, I was just appreciating how he and Sweeney both play familiar characters who are simultaneously types who seemed to have been banished from the genre: Hot people who take their clothes off.

It would be easy to oversell this aspect of Anyone But You, because it’s relatively tasteful as T&A&A (imagine one of those is for “abs”; Bea’s right, there are a lot of them, maybe too many to count). Ben and Bea meet cute and wind up spending the night together in about a chaste a way as possible for two people who are obviously dying to jump each other’s bones: They cross paths in a coffee shop, do some walk and talk, hang out at Ben’s apartment, and fall asleep together, clothed, on his couch. Then a series of misunderstandings quickly separates them and leaves each party wounded and angered by the other’s presumed rejection, only to have fate knock them back together when it turns out Bea’s sister Halle (Hadley Robinson) is marrying Ben’s pal Claudia (Alexandra Shipp). Trapped together at a destination wedding in Australia, with Bea’s parents pushing her recent ex on one side and Ben’s own ex looming tantalizingly on the other, the pair agrees to put aside their bickering and pretend to be a couple for mutual advantage. But how long can you fake the blush of new lust before it turns into the real thing?

There’s no suspense, not even rom-com suspense, in the answer, because Bea and Ben’s mutual dislike is so canned. The cuteness of their initial encounter requires genuinely barbed screwball banter to sell the thin line between love and hate, and like last year’s Ticket to Paradise, the movie isn’t up to that task, failing to discern between witty dialogue and bluntly traded insults. (Worse, because these two so obviously like each other from the jump, there’s no comedy-of-remarriage ruefulness to their attacks; they’re both essentially shooting blind, which is realistic but not especially funny.)
Continue reading In ANYONE BUT YOU, Looks Aren’t Everything – But They’re Not Nothing, Either

ASTEROID CITY: Wes Anderson, the Universe, and Everything

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

Wes Anderson is known for his precision, to understate matters. So it’s striking when, early in Asteroid City, Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) tells his four children that they’re going to stay with their grandfather on their recently deceased mother’s side for “an unspecified period of time that has yet to be determined.” This fumbling redundancy isn’t a one-off verbal joke, either, or confined to just this one character (though he does it again at least once more). Throughout the movie, characters add extra clauses and repetitions onto their sentences (“I wonder if I wish I should’ve”), even more noticeable than Anderson’s favorite go-to words and phrases (a nonchalant “anyway” being perhaps the most frequently used).

This inexactitude, exactingly portrayed, could be chalked up to an affectation of fictional playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), but even this is uncertain: The framing device is not precisely a production of Earp’s play Asteroid City, but a theatrical-style live-television production of a play about Earp writing Asteroid City. So, we see black-and-white TV-square footage of a host (Bryan Cranston) introducing various scenes of Earp and his associates, and then we see most of the action of Earp’s  Asteroid City, portrayed in full widescreen color – and what color! Some of the most vivid pastels and richest yet lightest sky blues I’ve ever seen! – as a feature film unencumbered by the physical limitations of a TV set.

Though of course, all of this was still performed on an actually-elaborate film set meant to create a kind of hyperreal version of the American desert in 1955. Scarlett Johansson’s character is a movie star – which means she is an actress, playing an actress, playing an actress. And on it goes. Is Anderson, following the nested stories of The Grand Budapest Hotel and the magazine construction of The French Dispatch, performing the narrative equivalent of his newly redundant sentences? How many hats can balance on top of how many hats?

Continue reading ASTEROID CITY: Wes Anderson, the Universe, and Everything

PAST LIVES Is Secretly an Internet Movie (and a Great One)

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

Movies have had an uneasy relationship with the internet since at least the days of ubiquitous American Online diskettes. Whenever a movie (especially a clunkily humanist one like noted non-classic Men, Women and Children) expresses any alarm about the pitfalls of digital technology, anyone with online levels of medium or above tends to point and laughs—and not for nothing do so many members of a particular subgenre have the adjective “paranoia” inserted between “internet” and “thriller.” Really, though, who can blame the movies for their paranoia? Anyone who spends a reasonable (read: unreasonable) amount of time online will readily admit what a cesspool it is, then gaslight any movies that agree with them—and that was before the internet enabled a haphazard half-dismantling of the already-fragile big-studio movie pipeline. This makes it all the more impressive that Celine Song’s new movie Past Lives sees the internet, particularly social media, with such clarity, and depicts it with such restraint.

That’s typical of the movie of the movie in general, which is not principally about digital technology, but rather a pair of young friends with middle-school crushes on each other who are separated, then reunited decades later. If the movie is a romance, it’s one of bittersweet small gestures and longing looks—the small spaces in between major life decisions.

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YOU HURT MY FEELINGS Review: A Sitcom Premise with Real Bite

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

It’s a premise that could have inspired a sitcom episode, and probably has: Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a writer who has been working on draft after draft of her new novel, accidentally overhears her husband Don (Tobias Menzies) offer his honest opinion of her work, which he’s repeatedly praised to her. The truth is, he doesn’t much like it, and he feels like it’s too late for him to tell her this. What makes this seem like a potential sitcom episode is also, oddly, what makes the movie seem true to life: This revelation isn’t just an embarrassment for Don or a surprise for Beth; it spirals into a crisis of confidence for both of them. The rawness is right there in the title: You Hurt My Feelings, a phrase that (unless I’m misremembering) no one in Nicole Holofcener’s new movie actually directly says out loud. Beth doesn’t need to; it’s all over her face, whether accompanied by anger, sadness, or uncertainty (over her career, her marriage, her family… you name it).

You Hurt My Feelings is, to be clear, very funny – I laughed out loud repeatedly, especially in scenes involving Beth, her sister Sarah (a perfectly cast Michaela Watkins), and their fussy mother (Jeannie Berlin, ably and hilariously impersonating someone five or ten years older than her actual age). Those laughs feel fuller because the movie allows the truthfulness of that hurt to burn through the mild shenanigans of sneaking up on your spouse while he’s sock-shopping and hearing something you shouldn’t. Rather than letting her movies turn into farce-lite trifles without the wherewithal for full slapstick, like some later-period Woody Allen pictures, Holofcener only gets sharper and more precise as she moves through her career. Feelings, along with Enough Said, her decade-ago previous collaboration with Julia Louis-Dreyfus (whichI see I also described as deceptively sitcom-ready back then) and Please Give, from a few years before that, sits among her best.

One of Holofcener’s gifts is her ability to casually, convincingly fill out what could seem like a cloistered upper-middle-class New York City world. Though Beth and Don are the film’s focal points, we also spend time with Sarah and her actor husband Mark (Arian Moayed), as well as Beth and Don’s son Elliott (Owen Teague), himself an aspiring writer, who expresses discomfort over his parents’ closeness and, eventually, their loving encouragement. Is he actually good at all the things they tell him he is, or does he just have a doting mother, desperate to reverse her own, less nurturing upbringing? All of the characters ultimately struggle with forms of this question, and while Holofcener clearly has affection for all of them, she’s unsparing enough to allow for the very real possibility that none of them are particularly good at the things that they’ve self-designated as their skill sets, their passions, their callings. Maybe no one is? Maybe even a calling is subject to the muddling-through mediocrity of everyday life? That’s not exactly the point she’s making (at least not explicitly), but it’s tantalizing to watch a movie that itself seems cautious about providing too much encouragement, too much coddling for its audience. This is a comedy, not a therapy session.

Although, as it happens, this is a comedy that contains multiple therapy sessions, because Don is a therapist, and, in keeping with the artier aspirations of his friends and family, something of a flailing one. He catches himself mixing up patients’ backgrounds, he sees a couple (real-life spouses David Cross and Amber Tamblyn) who seems comically incapable of positive change, and, in a devasting social exposure to match Beth’s, he even overhears someone else muttering about the sessions’ – about his, really – uselessness. In the starkness of these low moments, it’s hard not to ruefully think of how many movies and TV shows trend in the opposite direction, earnestly espousing the benefits of therapy and emotional openness. It’s hard not to think specifically of Ted Lasso, a feel-good workplace sitcom where every character seems to eventually arc toward moral instruction for the viewers, apparently in such dire need of guidance that they not merely laugh at Ted’s culture-clash antics, but laugh with them, and, worse, learn from them. In Holofcener’s films, even moments of understanding can sting: “Leave him alone,” Tamblyn’s character says when her husband criticizes Don for not helping them enough. “He looks tired.”

It would be a stretch to describe You Hurt My Feelings as a rebuke to the fact that Ted Lasso’s second and third seasons have kinda sucked. It’s a bigger achievement than that, and bracingly alive all on its own, all the more impressive for existing near-exclusively in an Allen-ish world of privilege without using that world as a narrative problem-solver. (It’s a little vexing that no one in the movie seems to have any financial concerns, but the writer-director of Friends with Money can probably be granted a pass there – and anyway, the fact that Don and Beth are potentially well-compensated for their work only makes questions of their competence cut deeper.) But it’s still a relief to see that starting with sitcom simplicity doesn’t have to mean a bunch of squishy revelations that engulf comedy and attempt to decompose it. It can, instead, build out into something exacting and almost anthropological in detail. And even so: funny, too.


Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

“Worlds within worlds.” That’s the well-worn descriptor—Quotation? Catchphrase? Cliché? Really, that universal catch-all-three “from the comics”—one character uses to characterize the primary setting of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. The characters are goggling at the previously glimpsed and now heavily explored Quantum Realm, a beyond-microscopic section of the Marvel Cinematic Universe reachable only by advanced (and dangerous) shrinking technology. Ten years ago, though, this phrase might have applied to the MCU’s numerous overlapping mini-franchises, Iron Man’s world not quite the same as Captain America’s which was not quite the same as Thor’s—until they pulled a few narrative threads together and converged into The Avengers. Now, it could also apply to the way the MCU seems obligated, whether by due dates, artistic conviction, or pure high-roller self-confidence, to paste together its wonders with green-screen, dim lighting, and suspiciously empty one-shots. Whenever it’s possible to look at Quantumania and idly wonder whether anyone on screen was actually in a room together during shooting—which is often!—you may be peeking at the worlds-within-worlds built by visual effects artists and actors’ conflicting schedules. In other words: a Zoom call with (somewhat) better backgrounds.

Which is not to say Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania entirely lacks for sights. Previous looks at the Quantum Zone somewhat resembled the spongy insides of Fantastic Voyage crossed with a lava lamp; this time, we see cityscapes that look like a more gelatinous Star Wars, and creatures to populate them. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), also known as Ant-Man, is on accidental extended visit there, along with his girlfriend Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), his teenage daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton), and Hope’s parents Hank (Michael Douglas) and Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer). The whole family gets sent there in a sequence of admirable expediency and perhaps not a lot of sense; the stakes may be higher in this third Ant-Man movie than they were in the previous palate-cleansing adventures, but returning director Peyton Reed seems to vaguely recall the crispness of his best comedies like Bring It On and Down with Love (if not their colorfully winking wit), and attempt to bring things in around the two-hour mark. (For a contemporary superhero movie, this is the equivalent of 91 minutes.)
Continue reading ANT-MAN AND THE WASP: QUANTUMANIA is all small favors

80 FOR BRADY is a Fancy Grandma Adventure That Works

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

Plenty has been written about the enabling of the streaming-era ubiquity of geezer teasers, direct-to-video action movies that tantalize older viewers with heavily advertised appearances, often brief, from stars of yesteryear like John Travolta, Sylvester Stallone, or Bruce Willis. But for women of a certain age who aren’t particularly associated with crime thrillers or gunplay, there’s a parallel track involving more screentime, less (though not zero) nefarious marketing, and actual theatrical releases: Fancy Grandma Adventures, wherein a group of actresses (usually four) with storied careers (usually at least two Oscars) get together for a groove-reacquiring girls’ night that lasts around two hours.

The Robert De Niro of this emerging mini-genre—the workhorse who seems to really enjoy working—is Diane Keaton, whose close associations with Nancy Meyers made Book Club (also starring Jane Fonda, Mary Steenburgen, and Candice Bergen) into a stop-gap solution for anyone craving cream sweaters, copper pots, and post-menopausal reclamations of purpose. A sequel is coming this spring. Steven Soderbergh even made a vaguely art-house version of this story with Let Them All Talk, where Bergen, Dianne Wiest, and Meryl Streep play old friends reuniting on a cruise ship.

80 for Brady is a Fancy Grandma Adventure based on a true story—
presumably in the sense that at least once, a group of older women went to the Super Bowl together. (A real-life photo is provided as the credits roll; no other details accompany it.) Keaton is inexplicably absent, but Book Club’s Fonda appears, joined by her frequent co-star Lily Tomlin, plus Oscar winners Sally Field and Rita Moreno. After becoming diehard fans of the New England Patriots later in life, the four women decide to get themselves into NRG Stadium in Houston to watch what could be Tom Brady’s final Super Bowl appearance in 2017. Being in his 40s, they reason, he is “80 in people years,” just like them.
Continue reading 80 FOR BRADY is a Fancy Grandma Adventure That Works

PEARL is a pandemic horror movie, but not how you might think

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

Earlier this year, Ti West released his horror movie X, which was shot one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, just before the wide availability of vaccines, taking advantage of New Zealand’s rigorous quarantine standards and relatively contained virus. The movie, about a small crew attempting to shoot a porn movie on a secluded farm in 1979, is a recognizably pandemic-related production in its limited locations and modest cast size, but that’s ultimately just a behind-the-scenes tidbit—one of many COVID-era productions where the precautions and nerves are allowed to stay mostly offscreen. X has plenty else closer to front of mind, too, about the joys of low-budget filmmaking, the desperate drive of young flesh and corresponding frustrations of old age, and how society expects sexual desire to dwindle with time, especially in women. (It’s also, somehow, a wildly entertaining slasher picture.) There was no need to make it a pandemic movie, too. But it turns out, West and his star Mia Goth did actually make a pandemic movie out in New Zealand; they just didn’t tell anyone until X was all done.

Pearl, a prequel of sorts to X, offers an origin story for that movie’s principal killer (played by Goth in old-age makeup in the film, the better to double her with Maxine, the aspiring porn actress still in full command of her youthful heat). It doesn’t best X, but it certainly out-pandemics it: West and Goth co-wrote the movie quickly during their New Zealand arrival quarantine, preparing to take advantage of the X sets by placing Pearl largely on the same farm sixtysomething years earlier. Beyond that practicality, though, Pearl is a COVID movie in its soul, even if the movie doesn’t exactly come out and say it.
Continue reading PEARL is a pandemic horror movie, but not how you might think

RESURRECTION is a well-shot workshop-level mediocrity

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

The new psychological horror-thriller Resurrection burns slowly, with two elements guaranteed to hold my attention. One is Rebecca Hall, who has become one of the movies’ foremost chroniclers of a loosening grip on rationality, in large part because she projects such an unwavering intelligence. The other is the city of Albany, located 30 miles south of where I grew up, and rarely captured on film with such evocative clarity. (Usually, if it’s being captured at all, it’s to stand in for other cities.) Hall plays Margaret, a successful executive and single mother, whose Albany-based life is a feat of imposed order, reflected in the modernist/brutalist architecture of the city skyline. She’s a mentor at work at a doting, perhaps overprotective mother to her teenage daughter Abbie (Grace Kaufman), who is close to leaving the nest for college. And when David (Tim Roth), a figure from her past, re-appears, she slowly begins to unravel.

David seems to know he would have this effect on her. At first, their encounters are barely that—Margaret thinks she glimpses him in the distance, or finds him on a public bench, seemingly minding his business. Is he a hallucination, even? He’s such a ghostly figure that it seems possible, though no one looks askance when the two appear in public together. Margaret may wish that she was merely talking to herself, but that’s not the case. Fearing for the safety of her child, she tightens her grip, and of course Abbie, and the rest of her world, resists this attempt at control. David won’t make a move to generate suspicion in the eyes of anyone else, but he also refuses to be denied.

I may have just described to you an eerie, unnerving horror movie of rare discipline and exactitude. If so, I apologize, because Resurrection is, for the most part, a well-shot crock of shit.

As a slow burn, it’s intriguing but ultimately low-key incompetent. Half a movie’s worth of creepy build-up gives way to a monologue from Hall that’s obviously supposed to be a bravura minimalist one-take set piece, where she unloads her character’s entire salient background as it pertains to her nightmarish relationship with David. There’s relief, at first, in the way the movie finally lays its cards on the table after so much intentional withholding—a clever reversal after creating the expectation that maybe writer-director Andrew Semans would keep everything close to the vest for the entire runtime, or at least until the final minutes. But though Hall gives this scene her best—if she can convincingly feign concern over a massive CG ape in Godzilla vs. Kong, of course she can kill it with a juicy monologue—it’s also the point where Resurrection no longer seems to trust her carefully calibrated performance. She can convey so much through her expression or her behavior, as she does in The Night House and countless other movies; giving her a baldly expositional ten-minute monologue doesn’t necessarily serve her character or performance. It serves the movie’s desire to shock and provoke.

It is provocative, I’ll give it that; this is a movie dying for its “F” CinemaScore badge of honor. Without getting too deep into spoiler territory, I’ll say that Margaret reveals the details of an abusive relationship she had with David when she was a young woman, capped by an off-screen (both in terms of the movie and her own eyes) act of pure evil, made especially insidious by Margaret being forced to rely on David’s account of the incident. His telling adds a layer of fantastical impossibility, and now that he’s returned to her orbit, the psychological gravity of his bizarre claims threatens to pull her back in.

The thing is, what David tells Margaret about their old life together sounds like incoherent (and, conceptually, rather abstract) ranting, delivered with am eerie (some might say minimally acted) calm by Roth. It’s a gambit doubtless designed to make Resurrection really go there. The movie is clearly trying to say something both about the controlling, irrational nature of abuse, and, perhaps secondarily, about the psychological horrors of a parent attempting to keep their child safe. Mainly, that… they really suck and can make you do bad stuff? That central monologue does both too much and too little; it explains everything so precisely and directly that it breaks the film’s mysterious spell, while also failing to make a convincing case for Margaret believing something that is not just highly unlikely, but literally impossible. Yes, yes, this is the insidious and seductive nature of abuse, illustrating how that power may never actually go away, and so on. But if this is metaphorical, it’s also tautological: Believing stuff your abusive partner says is as irrational and unwinnable and damaging as… believing stuff your abusive partner says.

A movie canny enough to simply rip off The Vanishing might have shifted the emphasis from the impossible to the unknown: David is in the position to promise Margaret access to something she desperately wants, if only she submits to him. Isn’t that more in the realm of abuse, the promise of something that could technically happen—that the abuser will provide some semblance of what the abused desperately wants—but in reality will not? Instead, David promises Margaret something absolutely insane, and she submits to him.

This could make a case for operating on a more abstract, dreamlike level if Resurrection was more visceral, or even just entertaining. On a purely practical level, this revelation sends the movie into a slog of repetition: Margaret faces David, spits venom at him, tries to strong-arm him into leaving her alone; he reacts with an unflappable, sanguine smugness; she bends to his will in some way or another; repeat, repeat, repeat. Add in some boilerplate scenes of Margaret trying and failing to exert control over her daughter, and Semans also sours a potent metaphor about parenting into programmatic plot points (while tacitly insisting that these are no mere plot points).

All of this simmering tedium does come to a head, in a scene that is, admittedly, a wild ride—though perhaps it seems more like one because the movie has heretofore self-consciously restrained itself beyond all reason. Resurrection ultimately feels like it was reverse-engineered to reach this big confrontation between Margaret and David, and look, the sequence has its moments; there is one in particular, involving the appearance of a knife, that made me laugh in delight, a momentary heedlessness taking over all the preciously arranged writer’s conceits. Then—and again, trying to avoid spoilers on a movie I by this point despised—there’s a “crazy” turn as predictable as any writing workshop short story, chased with an equally predictable note of ambiguity in the denouement. These aren’t moments of impossible-yet-inevitable clarity that dot good literary fiction; they’re the only moves Semans can really make, because the movie’s nightmare logic is narrower than it looks. Mostly, it looks a lot like an “elevated” horror movie greenlit in the wake of Hereditary. Even the distinctive Albany Look gradually recedes from view.

At best, Resurrection is a geek show. At worst, it’s a game of three-card monte that’s all shuffling and no meaningful catharsis. It’s one thing to rig a card game; it’s quite another for the dealer attempt to convince you it’s actually been an interpretive dance.

THE BATMAN is a twelve-issue miniseries of a movie

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

The Batman is dark. It takes place largely at night, features multiple scenes of its costumed hero slowly emerging from the shadows, and its new build of the always-murky Gotham City seems to be located in a rainier climate than before, somewhere near the unnamed city from Seven. And yes, The Batman is that other kind of dark, too. Batman, still a little green a year or two into his self-appointed job as protector of Gotham, spends much of the movie chasing down a serial killer who leaves clues scrawled in a creepy-kid handwriting/font-in-waiting, alongside a series of prominent corpses. This is the handiwork of the Riddler, last glimpsed wearing a series of brightly colored, question-marked bodysuits, springing his child’s-garden-of-brainteasers material with the infinite elasticity of comedy superstar Jim Carrey. Now he is a masked, muffled weirdo played by Paul Dano, watching his victims from a distance, working himself into a messy froth to subdue them, leaving taunting messages for the flummoxed authorities via complicated ciphers.

The Riddler may be the most flagrantly antisocial Gothamite we meet in this movie, but the other characters dress up in their own costumes of discontent. Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz), recognizable though not referred to as Catwoman, grimaces through her degrading server work at a criminal-friendly club, as she sets up cat-burglary scores, attempts to protect her friends, and plots various forms of revenge, while Batman (Robert Pattinson) stalks the streets and irritates any cops who aren’t his tentative, already-weary ally Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright). The Bat and the Cat are matching his ‘n her skulkers with voids where their families should be. Only a scarred gangster known as the Penguin (Colin Farrell) seems to be having much fun.

Of course, Batman has a heavy burden to bear—thematically, sure (you ever hear about his parents?!?), but also practically, as the only mainstream superhero who allows rich swirls of darkness and shadow in their palette. (Plenty of superhero slogs get stuck in the gray zone of bad cinematography, falling short of inky blackness.) Certain fans believe that this confers a grown-up respectability upon this Bat-material, which, of course, is largely hogwash. This reputation does, however, give filmmakers more leeway to add textures and shading into the superhero universe. It’s been that way ever since Tim Burton and the stunning production design of Anton Furst brought Gotham to nightmarish life in the 1989 Batman.

Burton’s two movies about this character, especially his masterful Batman Returns, whimsically cross-faded gothic tragedy with circus-sideshowmanship. By comparison, it’s a little difficult to discern how seriously we’re supposed to take The Batman. Based on the past work of director and co-writer Matt Reeves—the dramatic clarity of his Planet of the Apes sequels; the ultimate doominess of his monster movie Cloverfield—it seems like he’s aiming for psychological realism, not too far removed from Christopher Nolan’s beloved Dark Knight trilogy. Those movies were pulpier than some of their most ardent fans gave them credit for, and The Batman is pulpier still, whether or not the filmmakers admit it.

Reeves must at least appreciate comic books; his compositions favor close-ups and shallow focus, and he extends this preference by occasionally affixing his camera to an unusual vantage point—the back wheel of a car, or Batman himself—as action shifts in the background, keeping his foregrounded image unnaturally steady. Here, those shots look especially like panels, without the ostentatious pose-and-crib styling of Zack Snyder, or even the experimental page-flipping of Ang Lee’s Hulk. It’s a more modest and (relatively speaking) subtle way of making the on-screen action resemble the dynamic action of comics. If his Warner Bros. stablemates the Wachowskis specialize in splash panels, Reeves seems to enjoy the smaller corners of the page, the way complicated action can be broken down into single images. He places these eerie moments of clarity within action-sequence tumult, most impressively in a scene where Batman’s muscle-car Batmobile relentlessly pursues the Farrell’s sputtering, wiseass Penguin, or in his longer shots of Batman in combative motion, deflecting bullets and bulldozing various stooges.

Batman does this a lot; he also keeps tromping, workmanlike, out of the shadows, and when he attempts a more majestic, fantastic escape flight, he wipes out spectacularly. I didn’t clock the screen time, but it feels like Robert Pattinson spends more time in that durable Batsuit than some of his predecessors. On the human side of things, he recalls the Keaton/Kilmer Batmen of the ’90s cycle—aloof, remote, and downright socially awkward as a Bruce Wayne who seems to be distractedly thinking of his superheroic tithing even (or especially) when he’s forced to appear unarmored in the harsh light of day. Reeves seems to want to give Bruce/Batman a worthy, knotty case to untangle, and remake his image as a sleepless, irritable private eye. Some of the movie’s zip derives from how unsuited Batman is to reclaiming that world’s-greatest-detective mantle: He clumsily interrogates the Penguin, tries to team up with Catwoman only to watch her repeatedly go rogue, and generally fails to make the friends or surrogate family that might sustain him. (How many Jokers have we gotten on-screen, and yet Chris O’Donnell is the only one allowed to play a proper Robin?!) The ever-loyal James Gordon brings around him to crime scenes and keeps referring to him, from a slight distance, as “man” (as in, “we really gotta go, man”).

Wright makes that line sound like his own, whether it is or not. He brings some actorly personality to his short scenes, as does Farrell. Pattinson and Kravitz rely more on their looks, but not in an empty-model sort of way. They cut the right figures in their various guises, which is half the battle in such a visually driven environment. Regrettably, Pattinson is denied the opportunity to masquerade as Bruce Wayne’s undercover identity as a low-level criminal named Matches Malone. Kravitz, however, has enough DIY for the both of them, sporting a cat-eared ski mask and fingernail claws. It’s fun to watch the Bat, the Cat, and the cop warily circle each other and attempt to chase down clues.

Where the clues ultimately lead, though, feels less lucid. Not so much because the movie is indecipherable (it’s not) or overplotted (it probably is that) but because it scans so much like a comic book, and not a great one. Like most past Batman movies, it pulls from and amalgamates a number of sources. Unlike those past movies, the dominant rhythm is that of a readably unspectacular twelve-issue miniseries—though the comics-world coinage of “maxiseries” makes particular sense for this three-hour movie that’s neither endless slog nor gripping epic. The story adds up, in a nominal sort of way, and has some unexpected twists and tweaks in the final stretch, meant to challenge Bruce Wayne’s obsessions and guide him toward the lessons he’s lost in the pursuit of, as he puts it and as Selina drolly echoes back to him, “vengeance.” What the movie doesn’t do is reach a true crescendo, either of tension (as in Nolan’s films) or grotesque beauty (as in Burton’s). It hits its notes early and often, like the insistently memorable Michael Giacchino theme that accompanies it.

That leaves The Batman most resembling, of all things, the follow-ups to Burton’s work, when Joel Schumacher took the reins for Batman Forever (the one with Carrey’s Riddler) and Batman & Robin. It’s a different tone, of course. Schumacher embraced live-action cartooniness—sets that look like sets; actors that act like chattering wind-up toys—and making kids laugh. If anything, Reeves’ comic relief carries the faintest echo of Burton’s mordant humor. Yet Reeves shares with Schumacher an inability to make the characters feel like they truly exist in between the plot points and set pieces. That’s why certain characters, like Bruce’s loyal butler-guardian Alfred (Andy Serkis), depend on the presumption that they’re arriving pre-endeared to the audience at large, and therefore in little need of character development.

The Batman isn’t completely devoid of feeling. Kravitz has a heat that short-circuits some of Pattinson’s more po-faced tendencies, and it lingers in the air between them even as they’re pulled apart. (Imagine, superheroes with the desire to kiss each other before their relationship is fully and clearly defined!) There are even moments, toward the end, when the movie turns hearteningly optimistic amidst the viscerally rendered gloom, evoking the muddling-through so many of us have found ourselves performing (albeit on a less dramatic scale). Yet much of the actual story consists of lateral piece-moving, dependent on a bunch of gradually revealed and remodified backstory. If the serial-killer trailing and cipher-decoding is supposed to evoke the historical unease of Zodiac (“This is the Riddler speaking,” Dano intones at one point), it lands closer to ’90s thrillers that slickly repackaged dread as flashy excitement–aimed at adults in quote marks, perhaps equally well-suited to fourteen-year-olds. Sound familiar, comics readers? The darkness of The Batman is somehow both richly textured and flimsy–a painting done up on newsprint.

Is SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME self-improvement or giving up?

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

Let’s start with what we’re allowed to say about Spider-Man: No Way Home without spoiling anything, because it’s something you already know or could have guessed (or maybe even watched online already): It begins immediately after the end of Spider-Man: Far From Home, with J. Jonah Jameson, recast as an Alex Jones-like renegade buffoon but, crucially, still played by the inimitable J.K. Simmons, exposing Spider-Man’s secret identity to the world. So No Way Home starts in a tizzy, and only gets tizzier from there: Peter (Tom Holland) is accosted by the public, pursued by the press, and mortified that his nearest and dearest—the select few who already knew his secret, including his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya), his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), and his beloved Aunt May (Marisa Tomei)—are getting swept into his Spider-Drama. (He claims to also feel for the plight of Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan, but who really believes him?)

These opening scenes represent a welcome pivot to the beleaguered Spider-Man who hasn’t always felt central to the Marvel Cinematic Universe incarnation, guided here, as in the previous two installments, by Jon Watts. Sure, Peter Parker has faced plenty of tough choices, but they’ve often felt a little softened: by a lifestyle that has appeared more middle-class than just-scraping-by, a mentor-benefactor in the form of Tony Stark, and by the support network of Ned, MJ, and May that’s gradually formed around him. The tradeoff has been that the Watts Spider-Man movies, especially Homecoming, have an appealing lightness of tone, where the patented MCU comedy beats mostly feel natural and in-character, with a sense of teen-comedy community around Parker’s misadventures (at least when he’s not blasting off into space for other people’s epics). Having the world learn his secret is a setback that Mr. Stark can’t buy out. Dr. Strange, however…
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