by Rob DiCristino
The Bad Batch (2017, dir. Ana Lily Amirpour)
Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) staggers aimlessly across a barren, post-apocalyptic landscape. This waifish exile is one of the titular Bad Batch, a group of citizens deemed unfit to participate in Decent American Society and relocated to a fenced-off desert outside Texas to fend for themselves. Branded and abandoned, Arlen is soon kidnapped by Miami Man (Jason Momoa — apparently doomed to an eternity of hanging out in deserts with tiny blonde women) and his merry band of Beefcake Cannibals. After losing an arm and a leg (get it?), Arlen escapes to the nearby haven of Comfort with the help of a mute hermit played by Jim Carrey (for real). While inexplicably wandering through the desert again, Arlen murders cannibal Maria (Yolonda Ross) and takes her young daughter, Honey (Jayda Fink) back to Comfort. She then treks back into the desert for a third time (because drugs) where she is reclaimed by Miami Man, Honey’s father. The former adversaries soon bond, and Arlen resolves to rescue the captive Honey from the clutches of Comfort’s drug kingpin The Dream (picture Keanu Reeves dressed up as Tony Clifton) and return the young girl to The Big M.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was met with critical acclaim upon its release in 2014, so it’s no surprise to see her eye a bigger and more ambitious project for her sophomore effort. The trouble is that The Bad Batch’s colorful world (Burning Man meets Mad Max) lacks meaningful texture, its characters lack strong definition, and its metaphors are so naked and obvious that they’d make Darren Aronofsky’s mother! blush. Characters are told to “find Comfort” and “live the Dream” (which ends up being a form of LSD) to escape the horrific conditions of life in the Bad Batch. It’s a laughably simplistic approach to thematics that — worse yet — is also incredibly dull. When the vaguely-redneck Arlen chides Cuban immigrant Miami Man for what she calls his “animalistic” lifestyle, he fires back, “You don’t see things how they are. You only see things how you are.” Got it. Later, after reminding Arlen that it’s only through his sewer pipes that her feces flows harmlessly into oblivion, Reeves’ kingpin encourages her to embrace The Dream (again, it’s LSD) and to become a blooming flower in his garden (read: a willing concubine in his cathouse). Surprise: she doesn’t.
Lazy symbolism aside, The Bad Batch’s most egregious sin might be its absolutely debilitating two-hour running time. A leisurely pace is one thing — and arguably appropriate for the film’s acid trip hangout feel — but a slim 85-minute cut might have granted a little more leeway for the more indulgent moments. Amirpour’s direction is best when it’s slow and deliberate (think “Wiggle your big toe” or “I drink your milkshake”) but those moments just happen so often and lead to so little narratively that they quickly become tedious. Waterhouse and Momoa are rarely asked to do more than stand and look around, which makes a lot of their behavior seem random and unmotivated. Arlen especially lacks definition — one real moment of characterization (the magazine and the mirror) is about all she gets to distinguish herself from the rest of the Batch before she’s thrown into disparate scenarios as the plot demands. To be clear: there’s nothing wrong with a hangout movie, but this one still feels half-baked. Birth.Movies.Death. writer Jacob Knight, however, recently argued that The Bad Batch is a great movie to do drugs to, that it “[floats] along its own frequency like a prophetic alien transmission from the near future” and embraces the disjoined narrative in order to feed the viewer’s trip. I’m far too square to try it, but hell, movies are for everyone, right?
American Assassin (2017, dir. Michael Cuesta)
In all seriousness, American Assassin is the perfect Redbox movie: the plot glides easily along predictable genre rails, it stars between one and three people you recognize, and it ends with Michael Keaton having his fingernails pulled off with pliers. While its opening act embraces some pretty hilarious right-wing political bravado (O’Brien’s character believes he can single-handedly infiltrate a jihadist cell by growing a beard and reading a pamphlet on Islamic martyrs), Keaton shows up to sooth the savage beast, reminding him that the USA is more important than his personal revenge. However, when O’Brien discovers that the bomber is a disgruntled American who used to work for Keaton, he begins to suspect that his employer will soon find him equally expendable. Wait, no he doesn’t. That’s Skyfall. This movie is Skyfall for Dummies, more or less, a thriller that wants to combine the jingoistic paranoia of post-9/11 America with a moving message about Why We Fight to begin with. It succeeds at none of this, of course, but while it’s too dull and forgettable to make an impact on the larger action landscape, it’s worth noting that director Michael Cuesta really goes for the R rating with the headshots. A few moments were legitimately gnarly.
Two more quick things: This taught action-thriller about people talking to each other in rooms inexplicably blows its load (and presumably its budget) on a climactic ocean set piece involving giant battleships and a nuclear bomb. The movie stops for this five-minute orgy of VFX, which, since our lead characters are only tangentially involved in the action, could easily be repurposed for other movies. Watch out for that in the future. The second thing is the aforementioned Michael Keaton torture scene. One might wonder why an actor of his caliber (whose career renaissance has included two indie darlings AND a Marvel blockbuster) would take on B-level schlock like American Assassin, and the only defensible answer is that he gets to bite a guy's ear off while being electrocuted. It’s “Wanna get nuts?” level shenanigans from Keaton, and it’s something we need to start seeing from him again as soon as possible. Other than that, there’s little reason to seek out American Assassin aside from catching up on my upcoming year-end Redboxing All-Stars list (which I made up just now but am definitely running with). Who will win? Who will lose? Is The Last Face still the worst movie I’ve ever seen? The answer is yes!