August 24, 2023

Notes on a Summer Movie Season

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After a long and cold two semesters in Ithaca, where the closest non-arthouse theater is a semi-abandoned mall Regal that always felt just a couple bus stops too far away, I arrived home ready, more than anything else, for the summer movie season. And from the vantage point of a return to campus life (albeit a non-Ithaca campus due to study abroad), the season and its hits didn’t disappoint. Granted, I skipped the digitally de-aged grotesqueries of the new Indiana Jones and the child-purchasing sting operation grotesqueries of Sound of Freedom, but I still managed to keep a weekly AMC Lincoln Square appointment and enjoy more than my fair share of blockbusters. And so, here goes my flash thoughts on a whole host of summer releases: 

Asteroid City

For many film fans, myself included, Wes Anderson is how we learned about auterism: The man whose visual, narrative and comedic stamp is so distinctive that it’s impossible not to feel his hands on every single frame. Thus, it becomes a bit funny when, as has been happening recently, Anderson turns his eyes to the artifice and the authorship within his films. The Grand Budapest Hotel contained within its nesting doll structure a story of an author with writer’s block hearing a true story, and The French Dispatch framed its sequences around long-form magazine pieces, each written by characters whose relationships to the story became clear as the sequence went on. Asteroid City takes the whole exercise a step further, exploring a fictional story which is itself a teleplay, cross cutting between pieces of the play’s production and the actual story. Unfortunately, this was the first time I was left a bit cold by a Wes Anderson movie, finding the emotional beats unable to overcome the film’s obsession with artifice. It’s hard to deny Anderson’s visual talent, and his interest (being authorship) feels like something I should like a lot, but where the earlier films never stray into complete fantasy (that is to say fictional within the world of the film), this film does, much to its detriment. The central story feels uniquely vacuum sealed, even for a director accused of vacuum-sealing his worlds. Without that emotionally resonant center, I found the whole film collapsed a bit on its own premise. 

Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part 1

Tom Cruise is going to continue to try and kill himself for our entertainment, and I’m going to continue to enjoy his efforts. The latest Mission Impossible is hardly a radical departure or astonishing addition to the latest McQuarrie phase of the franchise, but it continues the series’ retreat into absurdity. There’s a new AI villain, intensely desexualized Romances and a motorbike jump that you’ve probably already seen in the trailers or promo spots, and which will still take your breath away when it happens. If anything, the action has been inflected with a kind of silent comedy slapstick, particularly in the final train sequence, which gives the whole experience a particularly fun homage-y veneer. Visually, MI7 opted for a strange convergence of intense dutch angles, and a bit of a rougher visual palette (likely the result of the film’s COVID bound production), which hardly interferes with the enjoyment of the film, but is undeniably a piece of the film’s story. At the end of the day, though, this is a film that features a potential nuclear detonation in a packed airport as the third-string narrative device in a first-act action scene. React to that as you will, and watch or skip accordingly. 


It’s hard to know what to make of Barbie, a beautifully candy-coated, hilarious musical extravaganza with the politics of a wealthy millennial woman’s throw pillow and a broader thesis that boils down to “being a person is pretty complicated isn’t it.” Gosling and Robbie are both as advertised, with the Ken performance in particular providing some unbelievably funny moments. I didn’t even mind the much maligned Mattel storyline, which felt to me a firmly tongue-in-cheek “I had to put this in here” bit of protest from Gerwig. At its core though, the bit of protest ends up stopping at that: A bit. Just as the third act ramps up some of the film’s most visually awe inspiring and musically inspired moments, it also turns the platitudes to a fever pitch, dragging the most uninspired, essentialist messaging on and on as though it represents some novel revelation. The film is undeniably enjoyable, but I can’t help but feel somber at its conclusion, with Robbie’s stereotypical Barbie presumably becoming a real woman in order to take some cushy job at BCG or McKinsey and Co. 


As a Christopher Nolan skeptic, I wasn’t really expecting much from Oppenheimer: A reactionary filmmaker doing a misunderstood genius story for the guy responsible for the Bomb? No, thanks. Nevertheless, 70MM photography will always get me out to the theaters, and I’m somewhat shocked to say that I found Oppenheimer to be fairly impressive. Allusions have been made between the film and JFK or Tarkovsky’s Mirror, but I was struck by the degree to which the edit, done by Jennifer Lame, was chasing Scorsese. The relentless momentum it builds helps to conceal some of the more pernicious and pretentious Nolan-isms and allows for a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Nolan can’t really do horror, and the few instants of surrealism are gag worthy, and his well documented woman problem reaches an almost comical pitch at points in this one, but he’s also impressively clear-eyed about the Bomb, painting it more as a warmongering first strike of the Cold War than a necessary fatal blow to Japan. Moreover, the film hardly emphasizes Oppenheimer as some misunderstood genius, instead demonstrating time and time again how he allowed himself to be manipulated and managed by military officials and politicians, conceiving of himself as a moral crusader but playing the game as a pawn. It isn’t perfect, but Oppenheimer is easily Nolan’s best, and a far cry from the reactionary disaster I’d feared. 

Talk to Me
This may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back for me in the last half decade of text as subtext trauma-story laden horror fare that was at first a bit icky and has since evolved into its status as icky AND overplayed. Talk to Me repeats A24’s trademark “girl who has experienced great tragedy must now grapple with some horror that literalises the tragedy as monstrous” premise and does surprisingly little to distinguish itself. Sans a few legitimately fun and excitingly shot sequences of our leads experiencing the fun side of supernatural terrors beyond all comprehension, the beats largely couldn’t feel more stale. The creatures themselves take the form of a now-standard CGI walking corpse, which does nothing but promote nostalgia for the days of practical creature effects and interesting monster designs. Many in my audience (including my partner) found the movie legitimately harrowing, and perhaps my experience was aberrant, but, frankly, I didn’t find the film all that chilling either. Ultimately, not even the goofily telegraphed Twilight Zone-esque conclusion can save Talk to Me, an elevated horror film that does nothing but drag the genre away from Hell.

Max Fattal is a sophomore in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. They can be reached at [email protected]