xXx: The Return of Xander Cage Review

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In xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, having a good time is placed above everything else. This is a view espoused by many of the film’s characters as they quip about doing excessive, show boating stunts for the sheer fun of it. This reverence for fun was also clearly the organizing principle of the filmmakers, who clearly spent way more time cooking up elaborate shoot outs, ridiculous chase sequences and well choreographed fight scenes than they did on telling a traditionally compelling story. Failing to tell an engaging story might sound like a major failing on the part of director D.J. Coruso but the film achieves a sort of bad movie greatness over the course of its run time that the narrative ended up falling pretty low on my list of concerns by the time all was said and done. xXx is at once an ego stroking vanity project for Vin Diesel, a bro culture saturated ode to extreme sports and a great time at the movies. It shouldn’t work at all but, fascinatingly, it does.

The film’s plot concerns (you guessed it) ex-xXx agent Xander Cage coming out of retirement to avenge his friend Higgins (Samuel L Jackson, essentially playing Nick Fury on cocaine) and retrieve the film’s McGuffin de jour, a device called Pandora’s Box that can hack into satellites and send them crashing down to earth like meteors. For this task, Xander recruits a crack team of what can generously be called operatives. Adele Wolf (Ruby Rose) plays a sniper who we first meet killing big game hunters to protect lions in Africa, Tennyson Torch (Rory McCann) seems to have the super power of crashing cars into things without getting killed (he proudly proclaims that he has been in over 190 car crashes) and Nicks (Kris Wu) is just a DJ, which I guess Xander thought he might need on his black ops mission. If this team line up sounds strange to you, it’s only the tip of the absurd iceberg of stupidity that is this film.

It doesn’t matter that most of his team doesn’t have any skills that seem helpful on a mission of this kind because Vin Diesel is essentially playing Superman in this film (if Superman stood for Truth, Justice and the Monster Energy Drink way). The degree to which this is a vanity project for Vin Diesel cannot be overstated. Every woman that Xander encounters shows some degree of sexual interest in him (except for Toni Collette’s tough as nails boss character and Adele, who the film indicates is a lesbian). Furthermore, many of the characters speak of Xander’s prowess like he is some kind of hybrid of Snake Pliskin, Wolverine and Jesus. The reason that this ends up being charming and funny rather than grating is because of the sheer excess. Vin Diesel’s lack of charisma and screen presence ends up creating a peculiar juxtaposition, where the characters fawning over him starts to feel like a note perfect parody of a bad action film instead of a bad action film in its own right.

I wasn’t joking when I said that the film was saturated in extreme sports. In fact, the moment that ensured I would see the film opening weekend was when Vin Diesel said in an interview that Xander Cage has hit own martial arts style: MXMA (Motocross Martial Arts). There is a lot of skateboarding, skiing, skydiving and bike racing in this film which would normally not appeal to me at all. However, the film’s enthusiasm for the stuff becomes kind of infectious. I couldn’t wait to see how they would work in another extreme sport into a narrative that could so easily have gone entirely extreme sport-less. This is mainly because the stunts are well choreographed and partially because you kind of have to start going with the flow when you watch a film so full of nonsense or you’ll end up having a pretty bad time.

I can call the action scenes ridiculous, one must look no further than the water ski ejecting motocross bikes and complete disregard for the laws of physics to see that, but what I can’t call them is poorly assembled. Caruso keeps his camera steady and his action rarely becomes the Jason Bourne-esuqe cacophony that one might expect from a film that has to make it look like Vin Diesel could believably fight actual martial artists and win. Even in the film’s climax, which intercuts between an elaborate fight scene on a plane as it is crashing and a giant warehouse shoot out, is always clearly edited and lacking in the confusion that befalls so many modern action sequences. It helps that the supporting cast all sport visually distinct looks and that they are all given something interesting to do. For all this film’s faults, it gives the sniper stuff to snipe at and the car crash guy stuff to car crash.

The xXx has to fight an evil xXx team (including characters played by both Tony Jaa and Donnie Yen!) and things are a lot of fun when all the characters are interacting with each other. If you haven’t noticed from the actors that have been listed, the film sports one of the most diverse casts of any American action movie that I have ever seen. I recognize that diversity is about a lot more than simply checking off boxes but one can’t help but appreciate the novelty of, for example, an Indian woman and her lesbian teammate in a back to back shoot out that looks like something out of Equilibrium. A movie in this genre has never been so inclusive and it is a welcome change of pace if ever there was one.

I could gush about the loveable nonsense to no end but it is entirely possible that the elements that made me able to appreciate this film might very well just irritate the hell out of you. If you think that Vin Diesel getting hit by a car that is moving at full speed and then getting up and continuing to run as if nothing happened sounds silly, I would avoid the film. If you think Samuel L Jackson attempting to recruit soccer player Neymar (playing himself) to the xXx program is incredibly dumb, you probably won’t like the movie. Lastly (though I could make this list much longer if need be), if you think that Vin Diesel having an orgy with a number of beautiful women he just met for the sole purpose of him being so awesome that they choose to check him for a tracking device by having sex with him sounds too indulgent, stay far away from xXx: The Return of Xander Cage. I, on the other had, loved every idiotic minute of it.

Split Review: Shyamalan’s Latest Has More in Common with His Hits Than His Misses

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I am about to lose a lot of film critic legitimacy upfront and admit that M. Night Shyamalan is one of my favorite directors. I don’t think that he’s one of our best directors or anything like that. It’s just that Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs are the reason I am sitting here right now and writing a film review. They’re the films that got me interested in films and I followed Shyamalan’s career closely over the years as a result. He’s made some underappreciated films (The Village, Lady in the Water) and some truly awful films (The Last Airbender, The Happening) but he always makes something idiosyncratic and worthy of dissection. His most recent outing as writer and director before this film, The Visit, indicated that he might well be returning to form. So, does Split continue Shyamalan’s forward momentum or sink a promising reignition of his career before it even starts? I am happy to report that, despite the film’s flaws, the answer seems to be the former.

The protagonist of Split is Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy), a high school girl who gets kidnapped after her friend’s birthday party. Casey and the two friends who were in the car with her wind up being held hostage underground by Kevin (James McAvoy), a man with dissociative identity disorder. Throughout the course of the film, the girls plot their escape before Kevin can use them all in a ritual to awaken his twenty-fourth personality, named The Beast. We also intermittently spend time with Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who gives us all the necessary exposition about DID, as well as Kevin’s past and the nature of his identities.

Right out of the gate, I want to say that Split is a well directed thriller. The movie takes place in a series of incredibly confined spaces but you hardly realize it, as Shyamalan finds new angles and interesting ways to keep things feeling fresh over the course of the film. Shyamalan shouldn’t get all the credit, though, since McAvoy could probably have been acting in an entirely vacant purgatory and remained transfixing throughout. McAvoy has always displayed range, but he really has fun imbuing all of the different personalities with quirks, cadences and traits that make them distinct from each other in noticeable ways. You never forget which personality you’re currently watching on screen because McAvoy makes his face, voice and body language distinct throughout. I think that we have a tendency to heap praise onto actors who go big in the way that McAvoy does in this film but, in this case, it will be praise well deserved.

Now that we’ve talked about the performance, we can address the elephant in the room. Namely, that the film displays a version of dissociative identity disorder that doesn’t require you to suspend your disbelief so much as throw it out the window on the car ride over to the theater. It is not lost on me that the last thing we really needed was another film that depicts the mentally ill as dangerous murders (or the objects of ridicule, as is sometime the case with Kevin’s child persona). I personally found that at some point the film became so detached from reality that it became less offensive. When you actually meet The Beast, we are far enough out that I can’t imagine anyone forming beliefs about how DID works based on this movie.

These unsavory elements aren’t just in the name of having fun. Shyamalan is telling a story about victimization and coping that has real emotion, and real tragedy, behind it. Both Casey and Kevin are victims and the film uses the two characters to explore the psychology of trauma. While I do think the film does this effectively for the most part, the tragedy is a little too real. We’re getting into spoiler territory here but suffice it to say that we learn certain things about the film’s characters that feel way too hard hitting to be comfortably juxtaposed next to the film’s schlocky silliness. These elements are effective on their own but they are undercut by the heightened reality that pervades over the rest of the film. Shyamalan has always had problems with tone. In his previous films, an abiding self seriousness robbed his stories (even his great ones) of a certain sense of fun. In this film, he goes too far to the other end of the spectrum and he’s having a little too much fun where he shouldn’t be.

I don’t want this review to sound too negative since I really did enjoy the movie. It’s a tightly directed thriller with some great performances and an interesting thematic core that merits consideration. The film’s failures just stick out as more interesting to me because it comes so close to sticking the landing and entering into true greatness. As of now, I can only report that it is a good film that I can safely recommend with caveats about the tone and depiction of DID in place. Oh, and the ending is a total showstopper. I can’t speak for anyone else but if you are anything like me then you will really want to get out and see this movie before it gets spoiled for you.

Fences, Adaptation and Storytelling

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There is a general rule regarding the quality of an adaptation of material from one medium to another. Good adaptations translate their content across mediums whereas bad adaptations merely transport the content to the new medium in the language of the initial medium. A good adaptation justifies the story being told in a new medium, using that medium’s strengths and tweaking the story to be better suited to said strengths. For an example of this, look at the way that the Game of Thrones TV series trims the fat of George R.R. Martin’s novels. A book is generally considered to have no real limit in terms of length, so Martin can dedicate an entire paragraph to explaining the lineage of a particular character or family. It would be a completely unacceptable thing for the show to stop dead in its tracks and list a given character’s lineage right as the audience is introduced to them. On top of eating up precious run time, cinema does best when conveying action and worst when things are static and expository.

Fences, directed by Denzel Washington, appeared to me at first to be a bad adaptation. My first issue was that the film spends most of its first half in one location. The one setting approach was an indication that the film was keeping too much of the stagey, play like elements in tact. In addition, the film opts to tell so much of the story through dialogue that alarm bells started to go off in my head. “You’re watching a bad adaptation; you’re watching a bad adaptation”. It wasn’t until later into the running time that I realized I was wrong in my appraisal of the film up until that point. Fences does leave many of the elements of the stage play intact, from the minimalist setting to the dialogue heavy storytelling. Under normal circumstances, an adaptation of a play would almost certainly be the worse for that. It just so happens that Fences is a rare case where confinement of setting, lack of visual flourish and storytelling through dialogue are all features that serve the film adaptation as well as they served the play.

When I say that the film lacks visual flourish, I don’t mean to say that it was made incompetently. The editing, blocking and cinematography are all well handled. The only thing I mean to say is that the deliberate choice was made to stage a number of the film’s scenes in such a way that they feel very much like a play. The first (roughly) 30 minutes of the film are made up of a conversation between Troy (Washington, starring as well as directing), Rose (Viola Davis) and Jim (Stephen Henderson). Throughout the course of the conversation, the camera is simply pointed at one of or more of the characters while they are talking. The film never dramatizes the events of Troy’s stories by using a flashback and the director doesn’t break up this large conversation into smaller, more digestible conversations that are set in different locations, as he easily could have. Due to these choices, a certain fatigue sets in while you are watching the film. You start to wish that the film would take you to another location or that something would disrupt the conversation so you can move on. As Washington must have noticed, this is exactly what you should be feeling while watching the movie. As the film goes on, we see that each and every member of his family feels trapped and confined in the family house. Troy’s son Cory (Jovan Adepo) explains that he is miserable and anxious, always waiting for his father to judge him. Similarly, Rose shows great dissatisfaction with her life and what little she has made of it. As such, Washington’s choice to set the majority of the film in the house leaves the audience feeling exactly how the characters are feeling. Specifically, both the audience and the characters feel confined to the house as a setting and start to wish that they could move beyond it. Since the choices made bring the audience’s emotions in line with that of the characters, it seems that the restricted setting was indeed a good choice to make.

As for the majority of the story being told through dialogue, that too has a function beyond preserving the conventions of the play. Troy uses his voice as a kind of tool throughout the film. Talking is one of the ways that he makes life something that he can control and understand. The audience gets its first inkling of this right out of the gate, as the film opens on a black screen and only give us visuals once Troy starts talking. This momentary suspension of visuals signals to the audience that Troy’s dialogue is affecting the way that we understand the narrative. As things progress, Troy goes from little embellishments to outright lies that it is not even clear he knows are lies. Later in the film, his wife Rose (Viola Davis) catches him in an outright lie. She points out that he admitted his mentally disabled brother to a hospital even though he said he wouldn’t and she has his signature to prove it. Troy repeats, even after she leaves, that he didn’t sign the paper. In this scene, Troy is using his voice to try make the world the way that he wants it to be. Since Troy is actually creating narratives through dialogue, the filmmakers can’t help but tell the story through said dialogue.

When the movie starts, Troy comes off as tough but fair. He’s charming, but in an fatherly way where you like him even though you probably don’t agree with him about everything. As we learn that Troy is a selfish liar who is constantly deceiving his family, we learn that he was also deceiving us with his performative monologuing. Denzel knows that opening the film with Troy as the main source of information means that we will lend more weight to his words. The privileging of Troy as an information source and the strength of Denzel’s performance has us believing his seemingly abiding love for Rose. In a crucial scene midway through the film, when Troy reveals that he has impregnated another woman, the audience feels as stupid as Rose does for trusting him.  Since the film primarily gives us information through Troy’s dialogue, we have no choice but to form opinions about the character based on the things that he says about himself. As his true character comes to light (such as it does with his admission to Rose), the audience is once again brought in line with the perspective of the characters by virtue of the film emphasizing dialogue heavy storytelling.

Troy does not just use his voice to deceive other people, he also uses it to deceive himself. We see this tendency show itself in the previously mentioned scene with Rose, in which Troy repeats a falsity in a futile effort to make it true. In addition to that moment, Troy brings up a number of times that he feels he has control over when he will die. He, true to form, tells a story about fighting off death and keeping it at bay at one point in his life. After that, he has two monologues in which he engages in a one sided “conversation” with death. However, Troy’s death happens off screen and he ends up having very little control over it. The film reveals to us that Troy’s discussion with death was nothing more than a monologue of self deception. We see that Troy had no control at all and that he was never in dialogue with anything or anybody. The self deception seen from Troy throughout the film is another reason that emphasizing Troy’s voice as a storytelling mechanism makes sense.

Troy uses his voice to control his family and to keep them in line with his expectations. Additionally, he uses it to manipulate himself and convey a false sense of control over his life. Living in the same house as Troy creates a fatigue for his family members, which the audience feels due to the choice to focus on one setting for most of the film. In light of these examples, it is clear to me that Denzel Washington did not make a bad choice to preserve the stylistic elements of a play when adapting Fences into a film. In fact, these choices are good ones because they bring the audience in line with the characters and give them emotional reactions that properly serve the story.