Quick Movie Reviews (Dreamland & The New Mutants)

Dreamland

The story and-or myth of Bonnie and Clyde ends with a splatter, in part because of Arthur Penn’s seminal 1967 crime film. That movie was both a cultural statement on sex and violence in mass media and a film that magnified the mystique of the ’30s bank robbers by refracting its lens of counterculture revolt. It was special mix of Hollywood chic and large violence and it rekindled the legend and kept it smoldering. Americans seem to love their outlaws and really love them when they’re running wild, partly because the country really clings to its foundational us-vs-them identity. The underdeveloped genre exercise Dreamland is the latest to take its lead from America’s favorite bandit couple, even as it tries to chart its own course. The film centers on seventeen-year-old Eugene (Finn Cole), whose failed family farm is part of a larger national catastrophe. It’s the 1930s and times are tough, or so the movie insists, even if the production and costume design show otherwise. Eugene has the usual back story of an absent dad and a relatively stern stepdad (Travis Fimmel). And, like nearly every human being, Eugene has dreams.

As a character, Eugene is pretty underwritten, as the blank male leads in stories of maturation often seem to be, but we do know that he wants to help his family, though how he has no idea and prefers to read pulp magazines often. The promise of a hefty reward for a bank robber, Allison Wells (Margot Robbie), seems to show him the way, but mostly puts his fanciful imagination into further overdrive. He decides he will find Allison, a plan that takes a far-fetched turn after he finds her wounded and taking refuge in his family’s barn. The movie more or less writes itself after he tends her wound, especially since Nicolaas Zwart’s script doesn’t really disguise its clichés. Dust swirls and so do passions, and before long the two have become a pretty unbelievable couple on the run. There’s a standard-issue obviousness to their bond, and Dreamland often wrings too much tension from its circumstances and plot rather than from character.

Image via Romulus Entertainment

Throughout, director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte evokes deserts landscapes with the mysticism of Terrence Malick, as cinematographer Lyle Vincent saturates every part of this world with deep colors and soft poetry and there’s even other weaker Malickisms, especially a voice-over (by Lola Kirke). Except unlike Malick’s, this narration fails to elevate its narrative, bringing petty character psychology and weak poeticisms. Early on we see Eugene in the aforementioned barn, his eyes locked in on his magazine. He’s “fantasizing about a life like his heroes,” the narrator reassures us as the movie cuts to a scene of bank robbers using hostages as shields against police fire. The implication here is that Eugene is turned on by the violence he reads about, an idea that the movie rationalizes by ending the robbery with a pointed close-up of Allison’s face. Pop culture, it turns out, was just the first temptation for Eugene, who finds his second in Allison, who, from the moment she appears, makes it clear that we’re watching a movie about the wrong character. Never really escaping its rote tropes, Dreamland occasionally shines with its visual ideas, but it fails filling in its underwritten gaps, in the end feeling locked in a deflating sense of suspension.

Grade: C+

Dreamland is available on VOD

The New Mutants

How does one disavow an unruly mutant? Lock them up, says the Essex Corporation, the villain of The New Mutants, a X-Men-adjacent thriller about a detention hall for ultra-destructive kids — and 20th Century Studios, the manufacturer of this ramshackle flick, agrees. Directed in 2017 by Josh Boone, The New Mutants spent three years on the shelf before being allowed to escape into the slowest summer movie season ever. Yet the build up isn’t much. Adapted from the first X-Men spinoff run by Chris Claremont from the early ’80s, The New Mutants originally brought the franchise back to its hormonal roots of Xavier’s academy. Yet the professor and his school are nowhere to be found here. The film takes place instead in the aforementioned half research compound, half asylum. It’s here that Cheyenne teenager Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt) awakens after the mysterious eco-disaster that wiped out her family. She’s a mutant, though her powers remain unclear. At least, that’s what she’s told by Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga), who runs the facility and keeps its patients confined within via the glowing orange force fields she generates.

Dani is the latest addition to a new class of angsty, fresh-faced adolescent mutants trying to get a handle on their abilities. The group includes Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams), a lycanthropic Scottish girl plagued by Catholic guilt; soft-spoken Kentucky coal-miner’s son Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton), who zips around on jet-powered legs like a cannonball; Brazilian rich kid Robert da Costa (Henry Zaga), a human solar panel with no identifiable character traits; and withering Russian rebel Illyana Rasputin (Anya Taylor-Joy), who can open wormholes to a hellish alternate dimension called Limbo. All of the teens are haunted by the demons of their past — quite literally actually, as The New Mutants puts its institutionalized ensemble against malevolent manifestations of their fears and trauma. That’s an interestingly psychological angle for an X-Men movie… or at least it would be, if any of these X-minors had psychologies to speak of. Boone has assembled a fine cast of young stars, but he’s barely found a personality for any of them. One of the first Native American characters to co-headline a mainstream comic book, Dani has been reduced to nothing but her cultural heritage; she’s a one-dimensional YA cipher. Taylor-Joy comes closest to finding an actual human being in this roster of stick figures. But that’s mostly just by virtue of playing the most adversarial of the team.

Image via 20th Century Studios

There’s not much personality in the filmmaking, either. Boone fares best when steering the movie toward ordinary teen conflict and desire. Unfortunately, Boone proves much less adept at staging VFX enhanced showdowns. There’s not a memorable action scene or good hero pose in the whole film, which is a problem given how fully it eventually devolves into the usual green-screen rumble. Nor does the movie really work as horror: Its monsters are generic digital phantoms, its haunted house low on atmosphere. The script, which Boone co-wrote with Knate Lee, borrows plot elements from what’s generally considered the definitive New Mutants run, “The Demon Bear Saga.” If only the director had searched for visual inspiration in its pages. All told, The New Mutants marks an underwhelming end to a series that basically kicked off the whole modern era of superhero cinema, created a continuity nearly as convoluted as the comics, and alternated increasingly interchangeable sequels with some genuinely novel variations. It’s not quite the disaster one might expect from a film with such a tortured, years-long path to a release. But maybe that’s because Boone takes no big swings over this brisk, bland ninety-four minutes of setup; it plays like a glorified pilot for a series that would likely limp to complete its episode order. Ultimately, it seems that the film’s long shelf-stay left it to starve. Aspiring as some inventive mash-up, The New Mutants feels more half-baked and often inert with each step, being so unrealized that it’s not even tangible.

Grade: C

The New Mutants is available on VOD

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