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Plus: Rushdie and Hitch
Beast is the sort of movie that Hollywood studios used to make a ton of. Call it a programmer or whatever you like, but it was, once upon a time, a mainstay: a competent, modestly budgeted, efficient, high-concept thriller with a recognizable-if-not-hugely-popular star that could do okay business.
Idris Elba is that star, and he’s charming as ever as Dr. Nate Samuels, out on a safari with his two teenage daughters, Norah (Leah Jeffries) and Meredith (Iyana Halley). They’re met by family friend, Martin (Sharlto Copley), who is set to give them a private tour through the wildlife refuge on which he works as a guide/anti-poacher. Bad news: there’s a killer lion on the rampage, a giant male whose pride was killed by poachers the evening before.
Needless to say, the lion sets its sights on Dr. Samuels and his family; their struggle for survival is documented in the final hour or so of this 93-minute thriller.
Director Baltasar Kormákur keeps things moving and manages a handful of interesting sequences; at one point, Nate, his kids, and Martin are working their way through a village that appears to be empty and the camera tracks along in a faux-oner, a couple of twirling movies looking as though they hide the edits. The whole thing is well done without being showy (this isn’t Henry Hill waltzing through the back of the Copa) and it delivers a sort of mounting claustrophobia to the scene. As Nate, in a panic, runs through the village, getting lost in what feels like a maze, it called to mind the Resident Evil video games. I mean that in the nicest way possible, as that series has always excelled at inducing tension and amping up fear by keeping the player moving with the camera angles slightly askew, leaving us unsure of where danger will come from.
Again, Beast isn’t reinventing the wheel. It’s solid, if unremarkable, fun. A “let’s get out of the house and do something” sort of movie, the kind I saw a hundred of as a kid. But this sort of quietly competent picture is distressingly endangered at this point in the life cycle of the entertainment-industrial complex. Just look at the upcoming release schedule: between now and the release of Halloween Ends in early October, there are a handful of horror films (The Invitation, Barbarian, Smile, Pearl) getting a wide release, a new picture from George Miller (3,000 Years of Longing) that feels destined to achieve cult status in five years, and a historical epic that feels like a non-MCU Black Panther spinoff (The Woman King).
It’s a fairly dire stretch, is what I’m saying, and there’s a chance the Dragonball movie dropping this weekend posts a better opening frame than any of them. Beast, in a weird way, is a throwback of sorts. I wish there were more like it in the pipeline.
Hitchens on Rushdie
Last week as I was writing this newsletter, word broke that Salman Rushdie had been attacked on stage during a speech. Thankfully, he survived; unfortunately, his injuries were rather severe.
It was, frankly, gutting news, just terribly depressing. Artists should be safe to produce art that offends and we, as a society, should ensure their defense. I spent much of the week flipping through various books—Rushdie’s Joseph Antonand Languages of Truth among them—before finding words for my angst in Christopher Hitchens’s delightful memoir, Hitch-22.
When the Washington Post asked Hitchens for his opinion of the fatwa placed against Rushdie by the Ayatollah, Hitchens recalls feeling “at once that here was something that completely committed me. It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved. In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying, and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humor, the individual, and the defense of free expression.”
This week I reviewed Orphan: First Kill, a movie that is just as bonkers as the original. I hope the version that’s showing on Paramount+ is not the version that I sat through via the screener app for critics I watched it on; it was like someone had turned motion smoothing on within the video file itself. Like it was shot in high frame rate or something. It was very annoying!
Over at ATMA we talked about Prey and on the members-only bonus episode we talked about the recent boom in Native American-starring TV shows and films. Interesting times!
For more on Rushdie, make sure to check out Cathy Young’s essay on the attack and the broader state of freedom of expression.
I thought my essay in the Washington Post about the (excellent) show Better Call Saul was pretty straightforward, but people on Twitter lost their minds because I stated simply what the television show spent years demonstrating: Slippin’ Jimmy was a bad person and his brother Chuck was correct that giving him a law degree was like giving a monkey a machine gun. The law is an ideal, but malleable, and if people with lax morals are given control over that ideal, disaster can result. I dunno, you make the call.
I revisited Event Horizon recently and was struck by the fact that the effects work in it looks so good in part because almost everything about it feels so real. It had real sets and real practical effects and a real model ship; the CGI was sparse. It feels like people are hungry for that sort of tactile filmmaking, stuff that feels, well, real. So, I was a little gratified to see director Paul W. S. Anderson tell Bilge Ebiri at Vulture that this was one of the reasons he too thought the movie has received something of a reevaluation in recent years.
Assigned Reading: Heat 2, by Michael Mann and Meg Gardiner
The novel Heat 2, which is both a sequel and a prequel to Michael Mann’s opus, is delightfully entertaining. I would quibble with the convenience of a few of the plot points toward the end—things come together a bit too neatly in the climactic Los Angeles scenes—but it didn’t really bother me because the voices and the looks from the original are captured so perfectly. I defy you to read it and not hear Hanna’s dialogue come out in Pacino’s staccato delivery or see Val Kilmer’s cold eyes cutting through his targets.