Skip to main content

You know what successful people do, Detective Bell? They get over shit. They move on.

Destroyer
(2018)

(SPOILERS) Karyn Kusama seems to get offered a steady stream of TV work these days, but her movie career has never quite taken off. Following the well-received Girlfight, Æon Flux was a well-documented disaster, and Jennifer’s Body was unable to capitalise on either Megan Fox or Diablo Cody, then both then in fashion, sort of. More recently, The Invitation proved a very pleasant surprise, one of those instant cult movies that, despite bearing a resemblance to other fare (I’ll say no more) managed to etch out its own distinctive furrow. She’s working from a screenplay by her husband Phil Hay (who writes with Matt Manfredi) again for Destroyer, but the results are less than compelling.

Hay and Manfredi also penned Æon Flux, which isn’t their fault either, but if you’re going to be charitable, then they’ve had a whole lot of bad luck that the likes of Clash of the Titans, R.I.P.D. and the Ride Alongs have turned out to be so inessential at best. Pairing with Kusama would appear to allow them to up their credibility rating, differentiating from more overtly commercial fare with something more dedicated to genre and allowing the writing and characterisation to shine. Except… well, with The Invitation, the concept was so strong, it carried the picture through any consequent rough spots. In Destroyer’s case, this is a character study first, granting Nicole Kidman her most striking face lift since actual face lifts and her nose job for The Hours, but managing to strike far too many clichés and indulgences en route.

Indeed, the most compelling elements are again ones based on plot twists rather than seeing a disintegrated soul on a last desperate quest for atonement. Thus, the reveal at the end of the identity of the body seen in the first scene is quite neat, and filling in that Kidman’s Erin Bell is so consumed with self-loathing and alcohol not only because her partner/lover Chris (Sebastian Stan) was killed during an undercover operation gone wrong, but also because she’d persuaded him that they should ditch their moral and ethical code and take their cut of the bank robbery for themselves. While the latter makes sense of the empty vessel Bell has become, the actual arguments her flashback self presents never really scan, perhaps because we aren’t presented with anything to show how she’d ended up in a place where she’d seriously consider that option.

As a result, while Kidman’s very good, one nurses the feeling throughout that there’s a lot of effort being put in for material that just isn’t up to the quality of the filmmaking. Destroyer further underlines that Kusama is one of the very best directors out there at the moment, whether it’s conjuring atmosphere, co-ordinating action or eliciting fine performances from her actors, but she really deserves that one classic screenplay that propels her into the big leagues. Too much of Destroyer, while framed as a serious, thoughtful character piece, is about genre posturing, whether it’s Bell getting all Dirty Harry on her contacts or doing a Keanu Reeves during a bank robbery and going in, automatic weapon blazing. Yes, you can point to the shape she’s in come the final scene, but that doesn’t retroactively make the rest of the picture more verisimilitudinous.

Talking of which, Toby Kebbell sports a ridiculous wig and never really quite comes across as a convincing criminal mastermind, while scenes like the Russian roulette one merely underline how indebted to tropes this is, rather than striking out on its own. There are strong supporting performances, and accompanying sequences, from Tatiana Maslany (as Kebbell’s girlfriend) and Bradley Whitford (as his cocky lawyer). But there’s also an entirely redundant and entirely rote subplot regarding Bell’s estranged daughter (Jade Pettyjohn) and the jerk older boyfriend Kidman tries to pay off (Beau Knapp). Indeed, it’s this more than anything, the part of the movie that’s supposed to underline how much substance it has, that ultimately exposes it as rather shallow in its workings.

I had high hopes for Destroyer after being so impressed by The Invitation, but I came away thinking it was just so-so. Hopefully its box office failure (another strike against Annapurna, although this one at least came cheap) won’t be a blow against Kusama making her next movie very soon.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

It’s like an angry white man’s basement in here.

Bad Boys for Life (2020)
(SPOILERS) The reviews for Bad Boys for Life have, perhaps surprisingly, skewed positive, given that it seemed exactly the kind of beleaguered sequel to get slaughtered by critics. Particularly so since, while it’s a pleasure to see Will Smith and Martin Lawrence back together as Mike and Marcus, the attempts to validate this third outing as a more mature, reflective take on their buddy cops is somewhat overstated. Indeed, those moments of reflection or taking stock arguably tend to make the movie as a whole that much glibber, swiftly succeeded as they are by lashings of gleeful ultra-violence or humorous shtick. Under Michael Bay, who didn’t know the definition of a lull, these pictures scorned any opportunity to pause long enough to assess the damage, and were healthier, so to speak, for that. Without him, Bad Boys for Life’s beats often skew closer to standard 90s action fare.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Still got that nasty sinus problem, I see.

Bright Lights, Big City (1988)
(SPOILERS) A star’s quest to buck audience – and often studio – preconceptions is invariably a dangerous game. You can quickly flame out the very thing that made you an attractive prospect in the first place. Or you can plod on, entrenching yourself determinedly in a style that doesn’t suit you (Robert De Niro in most broad comedy, Bruce Willis in most straight drama). Michael J Fox wanted to be taken seriously – being adored for Family Ties, Back to the Future and, yes, Teen Wolf just wasn’t enough – and it took him three attempts to realise no one really wanted to come along with him on that journey, whether he was serviceable in those roles or not. Bright Lights, Big City arrived after the John Hughes teen wave had peaked and a more cautionary tone was being taken towards youthful 80s abandon. It’s major problem, however, is that it’s all cautionary; the excess never looks like it’s fun, even for those partaking.

How many galoshes died to make that little number?

Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)
(SPOILERS) Looney Tunes: Back in Action proved a far from joyful experience for director Joe Dante, who referred to the production as the longest year-and-a-half of his life. He had to deal with a studio that – insanely – didn’t know their most beloved characters and didn’t know what they wanted, except that they didn’t like what they saw. Nevertheless, despite Dante’s personal dissatisfaction with the finished picture, there’s much to enjoy in his “anti-Space Jam”. Undoubtedly, at times his criticism that it’s “the kind of movie that I don’t like” is valid, moving as it does so hyperactively that its already gone on to the next thing by the time you’ve realised you don’t like what you’re seeing at any given moment. But the flipside of this downside is, there’s more than enough of the movie Dante was trying to make, where you do like what you’re seeing.

Dante commented of Larry Doyle’s screenplay (as interviewed in Joe Dante, edited by Nil Baskar and G…

Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …

Welcome to the future. Life is good. But it can be better.

20 to See in 2020
Not all of these movies may find a release date in 2020, given Hollywood’s propensity for shunting around in the schedules along with the vagaries of post-production. Of my 21 to See in 2019, there’s still Fonzo, Benedetta, You Should Have Left, Boss Level and the scared-from-its-alloted-date The Hunt yet to see the light of day. I’ve re-included The French Dispatch here, however. I've yet to see Serenity and The Dead Don’t Die. Of the rest, none were wholly rewarding. Netflix gave us some disappointments, both low profile (Velvet Buzzsaw, In the Shadow of the Moon) and high (The Irishman), and a number of blockbusters underwhelmed to a greater or lesser extent (Captain Marvel, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Terminator: Dark Fate, Gemini Man, Star Wars: The Rise of the Skywalker). Others (Knives Out, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum) were interesting but flawed. Even the more potentially out there (Joker, Us, Glass, Rocketman) couldn…