The 17 best films of 2017…that I actually saw in 2017

Do I begin with some cliche sentiment about how 2017 sucked? Because I can.

I don’t really want to though, so instead of that how about we just jump in?

Wait.

Crap.

I almost forgot.

I didn’t see EVERY movie this year, partly due to my location in the country (limited releases are not kind to Midwest audiences) and mostly due to my limited time. I sure did see a lot over the course of 2017. Just not everything.

Movies I still need to see but didn’t before the end of the year:

Call Me By Your Name

The Florida Project

The Killing A Sacred Deer

Mudbound

The Post

Coco

Good Time

Paddington 2

The Blackcoat’s Daughter 

Probably like 100,000 more I’m forgetting. 

So yeah, hopefully I get to all of those in the near future. I’m oh so sorry I could not get to them before now. Speaking of, here are some movies that I DID see and really liked HOWEVER I lack the time, resources, inclination, etc. to write about them all. I do wholly recommend you check them out though because they’re all great (in my opinion).

Some honorable mentions:

Brigsby Bear

Free Fire

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Wonder Woman

American Made

It

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

The Lego Batman Movie

John Wick: Chapter 2

Personal Shopper

Colossal

1922

It Comes At Night

War for the Planet of the Apes

Detroit

Wind River

Ingrid Goes West

So see those movies as well, please.

Now can we start?

Oh yeah.

I excluded documentaries from this year’s contenders just because it was hard enough ranking all of the movies I did write about. I saw a lot of great docs this year (Icarus, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press, Casting JonBenet, to name just a few) but…well, my time.

So…

Some movies I really liked in 2017…

Some may even say they were my favorite…

Some…

Including me…

MY 17 FAVORITE FILMS OF 2017 (that I actually saw in 2017)

17. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. II

Full review here.

It seems like there’s a lot of shade out there directed towards the second volume of James Gunn’s Guardians saga. I, for one, loved the hell out of it. (It also made me ugly cry but that’s neither here nor there really.) I’d stake my claim that the first is a stronger movie it doesn’t really matter whether Vol. 2 a better movie than the first film; it’s a hell of a lot of fun all while being much more mature, opting not to rest solely on the past accomplishments of its predecessor to make it great. It builds on them. Think of this as the Paul’s Boutique to the first film’s License To Ill. Sure, it lacks the populace appeal of the first outing as well as its conciseness, but it’s deceptively simple as it hides layers of complexity to be discussed and examined beyond its initial release. The first was a mission statement; the second is the fulfillment of a promise.

16. Logan Lucky

As much as I loved all the new treats 2017 offered, sometimes you can’t argue with the classics. Logan Lucky not only represents Steven Soderbergh’s return to feature filmmaking (after a remarkable 4 year retirement) but also his return to a genre he helped revitalize with his rebooted Oceans franchise in the first decade of the 2000s. Like any heist flick worth its weight in salt, the movie sports a memorable cast of enduring, memorable characters (matched by some of our best and brightest acting talent to boot) and its script is more concerned in the “why” than the “how” in why they need the money. We have Channing Tatum and Adam Driver as a pair of smart, soulful country bumpkins at the heart of it all, Riley Keough as their plucky sister/wing woman, Daniel Craig in a career high as a batshit criminal mastermind (who necessity to the plan is somewhat complicated by his current incarceration) and many, many more.

15. The Big Sick

I’m a big fan of a movies with perspective, and The Big Sick is about as personal perspective you’re going to find in an outright comedy this past year. A large part of that probably has to do with the script coming from real-life couple Emily Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani (the latter also stars), and is loosely based around their real-life experiences during the first year of their relationship. Now interesting anecdotes don’t always universally translate into interesting movies to be sure, the film makes use of some dramatic licenses with its characters and throwing obstacles larger than the typical ones the dating scene tends to produce. A common theme throughout this list is a fresh take on a borderline-stagnant formula; in this instance, the romcom.  From the offset, this may seem like a standard romantic comedy. The main conflict being Kumail’s fear of upsetting his traditional Pakistani family by bringing home Emily (played here by the ever-charming Zoe Kazan), a white woman, rather than finding love with a Pakistani woman through an arranged marriage. While the two hit it off, the split as Kumail doesn’t want to risk losing his family. One may expect something like that to hit near the tail end of the second act; here, it occurs in the first as this movie spins into something much more. No spoilers to be found here. This is a movie that’s best enjoyed as a blank slate (i.e. skip the trailer I’ve included below…).

14. I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore

There sure were a lot of actors-turned-directors in 2017. To be fair, many of those that made the jump also at least had some pretty successful turns as screenwriters as well meaning they at least have a firm grasp on what constitutes a structurally sound movie. Macon Blair, a mainstay of writer/director Jeremy Saulnier, steps into the chair for the first time with I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore, a movie that is very much “of the moment.” A woman’s deep dive into an existential crisis, the inciting action of this wildly unpredictable romp is a simple theft. From there, we touch on everything from modern day gender dynamics to the very foundation of societal norms. Featuring standout performances from the likes of two former Peter Jackson collaborators, Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood, it’s a movie defined by drastically different tones, something that is often attempted but rarely executed as well as it is here. Think of it as the Three Stooges by way of the Coen Brothers. Much like a Reese’s, it’s two great tastes that inexplicably taste great together.

13. Raw

Raw’s thesis statement is as follows: “An animal that’s tasted human flesh isn’t safe.” It comes midway through, from a father who has yet to discover the dark craving that has utterly upended both of his daughters’ lives. Julia Ducournau’s French horror film gained a weird reputation as a gross-out cannibal gore fest. While not TECHNICALLY correct (the best kind of correct), it detracts from the often striking yet beautiful story at its center. We have Justine (Garance Marillier), a first-year veterinary student. She’s a classic overachiever, vegetarian and virgin. All three come to play in a big bad way as the movie proceedings in which she goes from demure, self-righteous innocent to feral, sex-craving beast. (Did I mention the movie’s French?) This is only complicated by her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumf), who suffers from the same cannibalistic  urges. For Justine’s struggle is whether to succumb to these primitive urges that overtake her after her fateful first bite (easily the most insanely uncomfortably horrific scene in the film), or whether to follow her ingrained moral code in the face of unholy temptation. It’s a struggle we all go through at one point or another, just hopefully not to these extremes. Raw only cements my opinion that horror may just be the best genre for all up-and-coming directors to cut their teeth. Here’s hoping this isn’t Ducournau’s last contribution. 

12. mother!

It’s a giant biblical allegory. It’s a cautionary tale on the threat of global warming. It’s a creative type’s manifesto on the process of being creative. Darren Aronofsky’s mother! wears a lot of hats, and clearly that’s not everyone’s cup of tea as reflected by its 69% RT score. It’s a movie designed top-to-bottom to provoke its audience, encompassing all of recorded history and beyond within the confines of a single house. Our perspective is contained exclusively to our titular young, unnamed mother (a career high for Jennifer Lawrence), either by keeping her in frame or shaky first-person POV shots. There’s an unspoken tension from frame one that only grows and grows as the film continues. Arguing what it all means is part of the fun, but it’s a movie best experienced as pure sensation as everything ebbs and flows, a roller coaster plummeting you at 500 miles per hour, culminating in the most insane third act you’re likely to see in a major release for quite some time.

11. Dunkirk 

Recounting Operation Dynamo – the evacuation of over 300,000 British, French Allied solders from northern France off the beaches of (you guessed it, Dunkirk) – Dunkirk gives us three interwoven sections (air, land, sea) that all unfold over different lengths of time. I’d compare watching it to reading three chapters of a novel simultaneously, all of which eventually converge on a single, solitary word. Unlike most war movies which are about winning, Dunkirk is all about survival. (Never before I have I seen a movie capture quite so distinctly the terror of an air assault before as the stranded soldiers can only can fall to the sand, all in the small hope of not being torn to shred by the enemy planes.) I may not have cared for his last couple of flicks (largely in regards to their plots), but Christopher Nolan still stands nearly peerless in his cinematic craft and technique. He’s a style all unto himself, as all the best directors are. He and his team are the rare few in big budget studio movie-making still allowed to work and innovate in environment defined by micromanagement.

10. Gerald’s Game

Dark Tower aside, 2017 was really strong year of Stephen King adaptations. Within a two month time period, we got 1922, Gerald’s Game and It; all of which could have been contenders for my year-end “Best Of” list. Gets the edge if only for being A) topical and B) a more impressive feat given the limitations of its source material. Give the original novel a read and one discovers very quickly that it would be one hell of nut to crack onscreen as much of it takes place inside the mind of our main character, who is handcuffed to one location for a majority of the proceedings as her husband lays dead on the floor. Thankfully, co-writer/director Mike Flanagan is up to the challenge, thanks in large part to Carla Gugino and her compelling performance, which effortlessly pivots from panic to grief to despair to rage, sometimes all at once. I’d go so far as to say she delivers her first Oscar-worthy performance here, a shame given the Academy’s penchant for over-looking strong performances in genre fodder. The same goes for Flanagan, who in any other race would be up for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. It’s a movie that really benefits from his signature directing style. If he opts to tackle more King in the future, I wouldn’t protest. 

9. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

There’s a lot of split positions on Martin McDonagh’s latest pitch-black dramedy. I guess I found it perfectly in line with a lot of his other work. However I get the criticism without altogether agreeing with it. I favored the unpredictability of everything to be quite honest, along with an emphasis on portraying ever single character as its center with dimension. The movie goes out of its way to muddy our allegiance at multiple turns. Do we root for the grieving, angry Mildred (Frances McDormand) who has purchased three billboards…outside Ebbing…Missouri, in the interest of finding her daughter’s killer while also shaming the local sheriff’s department for what she feels is a lack of effort? The movie definitely positions us to initially. Her grief now calcified into a single-minded, nothing-left-to-lose mission, bulldozing anyone who gets in her way.  Do we emphasize with said sheriff’s department, headed up by Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson)? It’s revealed early on that Ebbing’s police department, while populated with knuckleheads and racists, didn’t so much bungle the investigation as run into dead ends due to a lack of evidence. Also Willoughby is a pretty decent guy, sympathetic to Mildred’s plight. Oh, and he also happens to be dying of cancer, something Mildred knew about before putting up her signs. Has grief pushed Mildred past reason? There are no easy answers to be found here and no real resolution either. Given closure is out of reach for its characters, it seems only fair it should be for us as well.

8. A Ghost Story

A musician (Casey Affleck) dies, returns to haunt his wife/lover (Rooney Mara) and their shared house as a stereotypically bed-sheet garbed specter (only visible to us, the audience). He travels the range of space and time, speaking no audible dialogue throughout. That’s pretty much the gist  of David Lowery’s A Ghost Story. It’s deceptively simple on paper, but in many ways it is quite possibly the most thematically dense cinematic outings I witnessed in 2017. As our titular ghost is bound to the house, the world begins to move on without him going beyond a simple examination of a relationship beset by grief. It is that, but a lot more. It is a movie that is at once epic and sweeping and still incredibly intimate, touching on fears, thoughts and anxieties that keep many awake late at night. As with any good ghost story, it’s one that haunts the back of your mind long after it’s finished.

7. The Shape of Water 

It’s no secret that Guillermo Del Toro is quite the fan of cinema. The Shape of Water works as almost like a love letter to a life-long affair with the medium from the Mexican maestro. Now his movies have always generally felt like bubbling cauldrons of superfandom to be fair but here it’s as if Del Toro has dropped all pretense, transmitting his obsession by concocting a story that is entirely old-fashioned (with some twists here and there) but aided by modern day movie magic. A riff on the Beauty and the Beast tale, we have a mute cleaning woman (Sally Hawkins) falling in love with a towering fishman (Doug Jones, obviously).  She doesn’t mind the scales; he doesn’t speak the language she can’t. You could almost consider this an Abe Sapien spin-off feature given we’ve got Jones playing yet another lovable creature that may or may not stem descend from a Black Lagoon. For those fearing Del Toro’s gone soft, fret not. As with any of his best films, this is a fairy tale meant for adults and there’s plenty of gore and darkness to go around. For my money, Sally Hawkins gives THE performance of the year here, conveying a cornucopia of emotion without uttering a line of dialogue.

6. Logan

It’s about time the X-Men series’ “fluid” continuity was a source of inspiration rather than outright frustration. Cut free from franchise mandates, Logan serves as a poignant, proper cap to Hugh Jackman’s tenure as the cigar-smokin’, claw-poppin’ Ol’ Canucklehead we’ve grown to know and love over the past 17 years. The same goes for Patrick Steward’s Charles Xavier, with both men turning in franchise-high performances and placing their respective definitive stamps on the characters. I pity anyone who attempts to feel their shows, particularly after this (hopefully) last outing. Director James Mangold opts to create an emotional continuity between the two’s long-shared pain. It’d be shallow to say something as simplistic as, “It was better because it was rated R…‘cause blood n’ guts are cool…and swear words.” Sure, seeing Wolverine deliver the severed limbs and viscera after all this time is pretty goddamn satisfying but it’s even more satisfying to see the consequences of a life defined by violence laid bare. It’s spared from the dredge of nihilistic abyss by a combination of new takes on well-worn characters and tender relation shared between Logan and his kind-of daughter Laura (Dafne Keen).

5. Okja 

In many ways, the online direct-to-consumer model is perfect for Bong Joon-ho. The risk being that his movies may get lost in the shuffle of Netflix’s “MORE, MORE, MORE” release mentality is valid, but it’s here that his movies stand less of a chance of getting cut down or mired in the web of studio politics much like his last film (Snowpiercer) did. The man’s chaotic sensibilities are all over this thing and admittedly not everything sticks; however, I can’t help but marvel at the attempt none-the-less. Part E.T., part Fast Food Nation, part Wes Anderson, part Pixar, part….countless other things, Okja is the cinematic equivalent to a pot luck dinner; everyone brings something unique to the table, and as is the case with good pot lucks, the end result is ultimately delicious. That isn’t to say this movie is free of some heavy handed messages. The social commentary is laid on so thick this time out you may just feel your cholesterol rise at one point or another. When we advance to the more metropolitan area of the film, things start to become all at once more wacky and incredibly dour. And it’s when those two key elements (the whimsy of the country side and the wacky yet bleak, over-the-top metropolis) where things don’t really click all the way for me. Perhaps Joon-Ho meshes these two, from the offset, incompatible sides intentionally. The down home values of rural living don’t often sit well with the cynical crassness of the corporate circus. It might be more than a little blunt, but that could also be the point.

4. Baby Driver 

I really am beginning to doubt Edgar Wright has a bad movie in him, or at the very least, a non-entertaining movie. As with Nolan, Wright GETS cinema in way so few seem to these days, thereby making his movies actual events, an experience worth actually venturing out to the theater to see. Baby Driver is his latest event, and well-worth the price of admission. The level of technique on full display here is next level for Wright as he crafts what equates to mix-tape with a movie happening around it, scored from everything to alt-rock to classic R&B and everything in-between. Literally nothing is superfluous as Wright makes use of every shot, cut, effect and music cue to tie seamlessly in the visual composition as a whole. It’s quite unlike anything I’ve seen before outside of a musical, which you may very well consider this. Against all odds, Baby Driver keeps this near-breathless momentum throughout its near two hour runtime. Much like the work of his buddy Quentin Tarantino (a clear influence here, along with George Miller and Walter Hill), Baby Driver is one of those singular movies that will inspire countless others that follow in its footsteps.

3. Blade Runner 2049

Full review here. 

Wow. Not only do we live in a world were a Blade Runner sequel FINALLY happened, that same sequel is better than the original in just about every single way imaginable. Maybe that has something to do with Denis Villeneuve taking the reigns. Much like Rian Johnson did with The Last Jedi, Villeneuve and screenwriters Hampton Fancher (one of the co-writers of the original film) and Michael Green aren’t concerned with giving fans what they want and instead focus on giving them what they need, a delicate tightrope act to be sure. Whatever it is though it worked like gangbusters. 2049 is very much a story torn from the same cloth as its predecessor but this time the narrative actually matches the quality of its visuals. The world of 2049 feels very much like an expansion to the world we were first introduced to back in 1982 (albeit with a few cosmetic enhancements here and there obviously). The first movie gave us the blue-print whereas the second is here to give us the nuts and bolts. A critical factor in the original’s longevity dealt in its iconic visuals and score, something that’s carried over here exponentially; no surprise really given the astronomical leaps movie effects have taken in the intermedium. It doesn’t hurt that the greatest cinematographer working today (that’d be Roger Deakins) behind the lens, canvasing a future that is all at once sad and beautiful. 

2. Lady Bird 

Hyper-specific. Universally relatable. Lady Bird is a masterclass in the always seemingly-tired but still always proven “coming-of-age” genre. Writer-director Greta Gerwig’s first cinematic effort as a director (she won’t be the only freshman you’ll see on this list) takes place in Sacramento over the course of the 2002-03 school year and is centered around 17-year-old Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) but it feels like it could take place anywhere with anyone of us in the staring role. Gerwig treats Christine’s arc as delicately as a mother bird would, favoring natural tension to arise organically rather than hackneyed or melodramatic. Too rarely does a filmmaker dare to opt for ordinary. And while it’s frequently hilarious, there’s some pretty real tension at its heart too. It’s a movie so in-tune with what it is to be a teenager, you inadvertently feel the desire to pull Christine aside like a parent and tell her to stop rushing to adulthood.

1. Get Out

I, like many others I imagine, made the mistake of going into Jordan Peele’s directorial debut as if it were a one-joke Key and Peele sketch (kind of like Keanu), reimagining the “black guy meets his white girlfriend’s parents” as a horror movie. But execution is EVERYTHING, and the biggest, biggest, BIGGEST strength of Get Out is how seriously he treats the genre. It’s a genuinely unsettling, surreal experience in which Peele forgoes a lot of easy laughs (and there are laughs to be sure), instead favoring a mounting unease in his hero, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya, one of the many on and offscreen involved in this masterpiece that should be under consideration come award season). It doesn’t hurt he’s packed his movie with oh-so subtle foreshadowing and easter eggs that not only rewards multiple viewings, but demands them. Gerwig may have given us a nostalgic teenage dream, but Peele gives us a modern day racial nightmare. Bravo sir. Bravo.

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‘Blade Runner 2049’ not only meets the quality of its predecessor, it surpasses it (SPOILERS)

Better late than never, right?

Last month, I dedicated a lot of words to It.

Some say too many words and I would not disagree with them.

There was just a lot personal context I felt needed to be expressed before getting into the nitty gritty of the movie because…well, because frankly I thought said context was important and possibly shaped how I view the final film.

You can bemoan that and I would not fault you. Typically, a film review should not consist of the reviewer inserting themselves into the movie they are writing about. Too frequently do I do that and just as frequently do I attempt to combat that.

Unfortunately, I kind of have to do the same thing with Blade Runner 2049. 

-BABBLING ABOUT THE ORIGINAL BEGINS HERE-

There’s been a lot said about Blade Runner. Like a whole lot. Like almost to the degree that the conversation around the film is almost more interesting than the film itself.

For those interested, there is a plethora of reading/documentaries on all the work that went into making the movie as well as multiple versions of the film itself, allowing for a unique compare and contrast opportunities. I highly recommend it as this movie has gone through quite a lot.

And if you haven’t seen the movie, I would most recommend the 2007 Final Cut (when I talk about the original, this will be the version I’m referring to) as it best cements everything director Ridley Scott intended, for better or worse.

To be blunt, I love just about every single technical aspect of Ridley Scott’s 1982 adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It’s only when we will look a little bit closer at the story do I really draw issues, particularly in the focus of Rick Deckard and the (added later) aspect that he may or may not be a replicant. I hate this addition because A) it really makes no sense, B) it has no real direct effect on the narrative and C) it’s a certainty now, according to Scott.

Far be it from me to tell Ridley fucking Scott how to direct a movie. I can only attest to my preferences. The overall appeal of Blade Runner to me, in relation to its story, is its ambiguity, favoring no one single interpretation. By retroactively adding a twist (that really amounts to nothing), Scott is in a sense straddling us with an unneeded practice in mental gymnastics.

That isn’t to say I think the story is bad. Not at all. It’s perfectly fine largely and even phenomenal in some areas, but in the years since I was first introduced to it I’ve noticed cracks in the armor of what equates to a technically perfect movie. If anything, I go back and forth on it on what feels like a regular basis.

On one hand, I love how (to a degree) how ambiguous and open to interpretation the whole movie is. Unlike Scott’s later works (coughPROETHEUScough), Blade Runner asks questions but they aren’t maddening questions that take pothole sized chunks out of the story; they’re maddening questions in that they linger in your head and leave room for healthy debate and interpretation. As one Leon says, “Nothing is worse than having an itch you can never scratch.”

It’s also a poignant story about loneliness, focusing on characters in search of meaning and identity in a  modern world.  The real fun is how it uploads old gumshoe troupes into a wholly new, futuristic setting, something that really hadn’t been put on display in a film beforehand.

Some detriments include the “love story,” if you can call it that. Harrison Ford and Sean Young share no chemistry, largely due to the fact the two hated each other behind the scenes. Ford and Scott also feuded so I’m sure that also didn’t lend a hand in making this movie any easier to make.

Once again, not to be harsh or anything. Both are…fine. I think Young may fare better given she’s suppose to act somewhat artificial. Ford has his moments in the film although sometimes his frustration is tangible.

The real stars of the show of the first film are the replicants however, particularly Roy Batty as played by Rutger Hauer.

It’s in these scenes the film flourishes. It’s here, in these moment, we get question of meaning. It is in Batty we see a being resign to his identity happily. His life having closed on a act of compassion and pity, Batty has seen the worth of not only his life, but all life: human and replicant.

So yeah, there are moments where the story gets pretty good and others where it isn’t. It’s only in the visuals, music and all technical aspects does the movie never falter. I’d go so far as to say these are the best effects of the pre-CGI era or at the very least the most influential and definitive. There had been future cityscapes before Blade Runner (in any number of things you are welcome to look up if you want to stick it to me), but I place my money on Blade Runner being the one that defined the look for just about every bit of media to utilize future cities that came afterwards.

TL;DR version: I’m much more in love with all of the technical aspects of Blade Runner than the actual story.

And I can’t be the only one that feels that way, can I? Surely not.

You hear this movie brought up a lot by movie nerds to the degree that I think it may be detrimental to those that come to it completely blind.

-BABBLING (LARGELY) OVER-

In almost every way, for me, this film surpasses the original. I was aghast and torn as the credits popped up. It was the exact same feeling I had at the end of Mad Max: Fury Road. Here we have a sequel to something commonly accepted as iconic. The even notion that a sequel could meet it (or even) surpass the original 30 or so years later is absolute lunacy on paper.

Equally surprising that it is a sequel I assumed would never happen/didn’t really want.

The original Blade Runner is such a seminal work, with influences felt to this day in science fiction and film. However it’s not a movie that initially made a lot of waves and watching the original theatrical version it’s easy to see why. The technical aspects are still masterful, but it’s largely hindered by an intentionally terrible V/O by a “couldn’t be bother” Harrison Ford really hinders it. It’s only after the tinkering I just spent a lot of time harping on did it become something truly special.

Therefore I kind of feared the same happenstance with this film. I fear we’d get something akin to a big budget fan film in the same vein as where it seems like Disney is taking Star Wars (something I’m going to be bringing up quite a bit below). I’m fine with a director and crew being head over heels for their source. If anything, that’s a huge positive. But there’s a line in which some directors/writers/studios can cross in which their fandom serves as a barrier, blocking them from doing anything truly interesting with a property.

There are going to be spoilers all throughout this review. I can’t really get into the nitty gritty of what I wanted to discuss without looking at some of the finer details of the plot. The reason I’m prefacing it here is A) common courtesy and B) I fully respect Blade Runner is a singular, definitive movie for a lot of people, myself included. Also I’m going to sound high/aloof at more than one point I’m sure given just how tired I am while I write this up. I wish I was in a better headspace given this review is going to be the last one for the year (if not ever on this site).

So as always…

I apologize for being kind of bad at this.

The plot:

“Thirty years after the events of the first film, a new blade runner, LAPD Officer K (Ryan Gosling), unearths a long-buried secret that has the potential to plunge what’s left of society into chaos. K’s discovery leads him on a quest to find Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former LAPD blade runner who has been missing for 30 years.” – Warner Bros. Pictures

The review: 

As with the original film, there is a lot to unpack here.

The two or three of you that actually read this may be wondering why I feel this movie is, in almost every way, superior to its predecessor. Well, let’s break that one down first, shall we?

Denis Villeneuve.

I’m starting to think the man is a replicant himself given just how consistently good the man’s output has been in a relatively short time frame. He’s directed 5 films (including this one) since 2013, all of which have been either perfect or as near to perfect as a film can be. His next project is an adaptation of another seminal science fiction classic, Dune. I can’t think of a director today whose hands I want on that particularly property more than Villeneuve’s.

There was a moment pretty early on whether this movie was in great hands. Apparently this was common knowledge that I was not privy too, but 2049‘s opening is a homage or reference to the original opening to Blade Runner. There’s a shot Scott talked about in a making-of documentary that would have had a replicant (something we don’t know yet) returning home to a farm in the middle of nowhere. As he enters his kitchen, Deckard is already there waiting. It’s a sequence that’s mirrored beat-for-beat here with Ryan Gosling’s K and Dave  Bautista’s Sapper Morton.

Now it shouldn’t be a surprise given Scott’s producer credit, but this subtle nod (to a concept scene that wasn’t even filmed) told me this was going to be a treat in more ways than one. I’d like to think this can be credited to returning screenwriter Hampton Fancher (who was a credited screenwriter on the first film although he too had issues with a Scott). He, along with Michael Green, recapture a lot of the same malaise that defined the story Fancher helped bring to life all those years ago.

Much like the earlier movie, 2049 is a visual masterpiece. No ifs, ands or buts about it. As far as I’m concerned, it should be a clean sweep for every technical award next year. It builds upon the foundations of the future L.A. we were treated to in the earlier film without exceeding plausibility. Every visual feels like the natural next step to something we saw in Scott’s movie.

I’m not exactly sure if it’s fair to say the effects are better this time around given the astronomical leap movie effects have made since 1982. I will say the effects carry the baton rather nicely however, keeping to pace with the innovation of the earlier model. Some of the effects heavy sequences are just utterly jaw-dropping. The synchronization sequence by itself may just be the most beautiful effects sequence of the year, allowing for a since of play I don’t think I’ve seen in a effects-driven scene for a little while. It’s up to par with what we got last year in Doctor Strange.

There’s also nice little world-building treats sprinkled throughout. We get to see where replicants’ memories are made and who makes them for example, similar to how we visited where they get their eyes in the previous movie. We don’t go to the off-planet colonies (a visual that I’m personally glad our filmmakers decided to avoid), but we do travel beyond L.A. to get a better scope of this crestfallen world. As A.A. Dowd writes, “If Blade Runner gave us the world, Blade Runner 2049 has come to fill in the universe.”

And it doesn’t stop at what they did in the film either. Three shorts were released online prior to the film’s release with each serving as a piece in the puzzle in terms of linking the 1982 film to 2017’s. The best of these (directed by Cowboy Bebop director Shinichirō Watanabe) gives us some insight into the much discussed earlier black out in the film.

It’s not necessary per se but it allows for more stories in a world I’m very interested in seeing more of. The world of Blade Runner (as established in the 1982 film) is one of untapped potential. And I don’t mean exclusively cinematically either. Quite the opposite actually. Given just how wide this (now) series’ influence is entrenched in science fiction, you’d think it’d provide so many creators a massive sandbox in which to define and expand. For what it’s worth, these shorts (particularly the one above) are great and I wish more studios would implement similar marketing tools.

It’s all stuff like this that make this such a good sequel and sets itself apart from other nostalgia-mining outputs (Rouge One: A Star Wars Story, Jurassic World) as those movies prefer to play it say, feeding audiences what they know will get a cheap applause. Villeneuve opts to explore uncharted territory however all while recognizing the original has fans for a reason. Harrison Ford, Edward James Olmos and Sean Young (via some visual trickery) all return in some way, shape or form but their appearances aren’t to illicit applause. Reactions for sure, but not for the simple sake of a reaction. Unlike this bullshit…

And it goes beyond just involving older elements, like Ford. It’s about utilizing them to an effect that is at once meaningful without shamelessly pandering.

I fully anticipated/fear this movie was going to flat out give us an answer regarding the whole Deckard being a replicant situation in the same way Scott thinks we, as an audience, want.

Villeneuve however decides to do something infinitely more interesting (and my opinion better) and posits the question, adds new layers to it and rests it in our laps to decipher for ourselves.

Story wise, we also get much more of a detective story than the first film. Whereas our time is split between the fugitive replicants and Deckard in the first film, we largely remain with K in 2049 leaving an air of mystery the first film kind of lacked. We know the replicants plot in Blade Runner and we basically just watched Deckard try to play catch up. We’re largely on the mission with K here and it adds more suspense to the overall narrative.

Other technical aspects worth raving about:

Roger Deakins. Basically the star (for me) in any movie he has a hand in. As a cinematographer, I believe Deakins remains unparrelled. What the man does with light and shadow is nothing short of miraculous.

I may have been hesitant going into this one, but I was absolutely foaming at the mouth to see what Deakins was going to present this world and he did not disappoint one iota. It’s almost tempting to just fill this post with screen shots from the film accompanied with text reading “OOOOOOOOO” and “AAAAAHHHHH.’

The bigger task was meeting the music of the original. Vengelis’ score is, without a doubt, my favorite film score of all time to this point. It transcends beyond a perfect film score and relays into the realm of just great music. It’s the music of a dream made tangible, while also perfectly underscoring this exact futuristic world that is at once foreign yet recognizable, grim and ugly yet hopeful and beautiful.

It should then be considered no coincidence the music in Blade Runner has apparently been sampled in music more than any other film of the 20th century.

(NOTE: this video refers to original 2049 composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who is Villeneuve’s go-to-guy for a trio of his films. Since this video was released however, the two split as Villeneuve felt the”movie needed something different, and I needed to go back to something closer to Vangelis.”)

Whoever was going to take up that task had mighty big shoes to fill. Luckily, Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch take the reigns almost effortlessly. There are echoes of that iconic score peppered throughout (and whenever it hit, I felt near tears every time) but they do such a spectacular job at making this score their own without betraying the masterwork Vengelis gave us all those years ago. There are times when Zimmer’s bombastic assault on the speakers threaten to cannibalize the more subtle ebbs and flows of the synth, but luckily those moments are few and far between.

As this is a sequel, we also get a plethora of new characters. Many are great while others kind of register more of exposition machines (heh, heh). But there is one major standout and thankful that is our lead. I think K may just be one of the best additions (character-wise) to science fiction we’ve gotten this year.

Man, I love the character of K (Gosling). His arc throughout the movie is so tragic yet uplifting. Right off the bat, we are told he is in fact a replicant. There’s no dancing around the issue here.

He also stands apart from Deckard. I was largely worried we’d be tasked with a relatively similar character and they certainly do mirror each other in a couple of ways, but K largely stands on his own and I’d say he’s even a more tragic character.

His relationship with hologram girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) is manufactured. He is tasked with hunting down his own kind for the sake of a populace that largely hates him. A highlight for him is getting an upgrade so said hologram can follow him around and unlike Her where the question of a program is called into question, 2049 all but confirms that Joi is in fact not much more than 1’s and 0’s in quietly devastating scene later in the movie.

Need more depression?

K’s arc is a complete subversion of the “chosen one” arc (character is plucked from obscurity to be the leader for a great wave of change), but in subverting it the movie elevates itself to something truly spectacular.

K is ultimately just another replicant, sharing some of the same memories as so many other replicants. In fact, he’s simply a decoy for the real hero this universe purportedly needs. That hero being the first child born to a replicant.

However…

In K’s role as a blade runner, he was the first replicant to end up in a respective memory i.e. the chance to actually test if their memory was legitimate. (This “test” being the sequence where he “returns” to the orphanage and finds the wooden horse.)

Much like Deckard, K is on a goal to find something that is not tangible. In Deckard’s case, we had a man (I’m retracting my earlier statements. I don’t give a fuck what you say, Ridley Scott. EVERYONE else in the production says he was not a replicant. HE’S NOT A REPLICANT.) looking to reclaim some semblance of his soul. With K, we have a replicant looking to see if he has a soul at all.

Once K witnesses the miracle he was told he had not witnessed earlier, he begins to rebel. While it may have been the wrong conclusion, a miracle does take place through his actions. We, as an audience, are with K. I don’t wish to speak for you, but if you’re like me you too bought into his supposed importance by this point. We sympathize with him, now believing him to be human.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether K was just a decoy or the chosen one: the only thing separating K from having a soul, so to speak, was his and the audience’s shared belief that he was in fact naturally born. He broke the “wall” that was spoken about by Robin Wright’s character at the beginning, without even knowing it.

Questions of what it means to be a live, questions of what it means to be “important.” It’s all material that define all truly great pieces of science fiction. There’s so many fucking great little touches sprinkled throughout that nearly demands a second viewing right after the first.

The scene near the end of K watching snowflakes softly hit his hand, realizing what it’s like to be human only to smash cut to the Ana with fake snow at the end, a real being unable to feel those same things. Or how about the fact that sinister yet malevolent CEO Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) has whited out eyes, fueling speculation he may in fact also be a replicant that has burnt out his eyes to remain undetected. It’s all makes for good after movie discussion and it’s the exact reason I still hold the original to such high regard even in the wake of script issues.

The main detriment for 2049 is, as you may have guessed, is its length. The movie runs at about 2 hours and 40 minutes. That’s quite a hefty runtime. It’s a movie so long you almost have to plan your day around it. It’s hard to argue given the depth of beauty we’re treated to, but I’d be lying if I said some scenes didn’t linger just a tad too long.

We have an extended sequence of K wandering around Las Vegas, now decimated by radiation. It’s jaw dropping but, man, it goes on for a bit without any sort of narrative action taking place.

There are moments where a huge revelation would occur and instead of proceeding the movie would loopback around to basically spoon feed us why the revelation was important. This is something that could make more sense if it were flashing back to an earlier movie but flashing back to events that occurred IN THE SAME MOVIE seems a bit gratuitous to me.

I’m not sure if I am in the minority in regards to thinking this movie is superior. Among my friends, I know I’m not. I don’t really get a common consensus for the world at-large however.

I’ve read a lot of trite regarding why this movie “failed” at the box office. Ranging from stupid and meaningless click-bait (Not enough women went to go see it apparently.) to pretty accurate (the marketing really did not have a handle on how to sell this one).

I really, really liked Blade Runner. Like I said, it’s everything I liked about the first movie amplified marginally and largely corrects many of the elements I didn’t.

So to me, it’s not a stretch to call this a great sequel. I think it’s a little hasty to be calling it one of the best of all-time however. I always am hesitant to say anything is the best of anything this close to release however. You kind of a need a year or two (in my opinion) to properly access something’s place in the canon.

2049 is a movie of the moment however, both personally and at-large. I see a future like this being all but plausible, (not so much in the flying cars) where things worsen before they get better. Where we drift further and further away from one another. Where meaning is reduced to lines of data in a computer. Where individuality is largely thought of as an illusion, progress defined by the backs of foundations to get us there.

Loneliness is already a known symptom of modernity. You see it in just about every daily aspect if you’re looking for it. At least I do and becomes more and more apparent everyday. It’s hard not to place yourself in K’s position, hoping you, as an individual, mean something more. To be special.

By what is special any more these days? How can one actually be considered special in such a crowded market place. I certainly don’t feel important or special all the time and it may be a mistake to think this but it’s true to a degree. I don’t matter and I’m not special. The list of people that’ll remember me when I’m gone will be short and effects of my web short-lived.

Think of it this way, in what way does this blog stand out? It’s written by me? But who am I? Why does my opinion matter in a sea of others that seem to have some value, whether intrinsic or carved out.

I guess all that matters is not whether we have meaning or not but whether we ourselves are meaningful. That’s really the best any of us can do, right? Do we let ourselves define who and what we mean or do we so ourselves? I don’t think there’s a right answer there. K finds himself at this crossroads and it’s this aspect I think I connected with most. Not many of us are very special and those that are face a similar gap in the sense what is that going to mean in millions of years?

It’s nihilistic yet also poignant, conflicting ideas that have all but defined what makes up the world of Blade Runner and now 2049.

“It” successfully floats above countless failed Stephen King adaptations by way of its core cast and behind-the-scenes vision

I’m 12 years old, it’s summer and I’m reading Stephen King’s 1986 novel, It.

It’s night time so I have to use my book light, a solitary beacon in an otherwise pitch black bedroom. As I lay the book aside to go to bed, one thing becomes immediately apparent: my closet door is open. Now as I’m sure more than a few of you are aware, you can’t really see into a closet at night.

As the titular monster can shape-shift, there’s a literally cornucopia of places it could be. You know if it was real…which it definitely isn’t…right?

By having me second guess myself before getting up to close the door, King won.

When was 12, It was probably the scariest thing I willingly put myself through. There’s just something much more cerebral about a really scary book than there is a really scary movie. A movie spoon feeds you scary imagery and nightmare; a book makes your brain work against itself in conjuring up moments that will have you second guess getting out of bed to go to the bathroom at night.

“So what makes It so scary,” an individual who may not have read the book before may ponder.

I haven’t read most of King’s work but out of the small portion I have indulged in, It was was the most consistently terrifying. In it, King gives us a pervasive and nightmarish vision of an archetypical small town that’s sold its soul to a monster that puts on masks and eats children. Those masks provide It (technically It is a “she”, but that is a discussion for another day) and Stephen King with a chance to dig into just about every archetypal boogeyman imaginable, ranging from werewolves and mummies and even a giant bird.

And don’t forget Pennywise The Dancing Clown.

While many of King’s antagonists are scary, there’s something that sets Pennywise apart. There’s an imaginative brutality to his kills, the way gore and nightmare fuel combine with mean-spirited humor to create an impression of some sadistic, cosmic, shape-shifting bully; something that takes as much, if not more, pleasure in mocking you and your suffering as it does in ripping you to shreds. There’s also the matter of who he preys on specifically.

Several adults die within the book’s pages, but a majority of It’s victims are kids as they have a special vitality that the monster craves; a vitality that serves as one of the book’s major themes. Basically, it craves your fear over your flesh.

And it wasn’t just about the scares either. Sure, that played a big part but what made It such a powerful experience where who those scary things were happening to.

I wasn’t alive in 1958 yet King captures a certain feeling so accurately and enthusiastically that it doesn’t matter if the specifics weren’t something I could relate to. Reading about outcasts my own age, isolated from the larger portions of their peers in a way I understood, playing games in the woods away from things like football or band felt more real than my actual life in a way that’s hard to put into words. As broken as the members of the Loser’s Club are, they were friends, and that friendship, and the unwavering faith in that friendship, mattered a great deal to me.

To me, the book is and always will be this section:

“Maybe there aren’t any such things as good friends or bad friends – maybe there are just friends, people who stand by you when you’re hurt and who help you feel not so lonely. Maybe they’re always worth being scared for, and hoping for, and living for. Maybe worth dying for too, if that’s what has to be. No good friends. No bad friends. Only people you want, need to be with; people who build their houses in your heart.”

I think it’d be fair to say I didn’t really read the book as much as I experienced it (although I never had to personally deal with an intergalactic, fear-consuming clown but that’s neither here nor there), something I think every one goes through with more than one piece of popular media or literature in their respective lifetimes.

It tapped into a direct mainline of my subconscious and drilled down so fucking deep that I’ve never been entirely rid of it. Randomly, aspects of the book will pop into my mind and at times I’ll recognize it and others I won’t.

And this is all (mostly) in regards to the portion of the novel dedicated to the Losers as kids. The other portion sees them return to Derry to finish the job they started back over 20 years beforehand. When I was a kid reading that section seemed, not bad, but less important. Adulthood seemed so far away back then. It wasn’t something tangible. In the 1958 portion, most of the adults are largely neglectful, if not outright abusive. In this world, the kids are largely on their own.

As King writes, “Eddie discovered one of his childhood’s great truths. Grownups are the real monsters, he thought.”

Flash forward more than 10 years later.

I still hesitate to call myself an adult, but I’m certainly not a kid anymore.

Last summer, I found myself thinking a lot about It. I knew there was a new movie coming out and I had really fond memories of reading it as a kid but couldn’t remember every aspect of it as I once could. I wanted to go back, although I was initially intimidated by the length, and see if the book stood the test of time.  Because that’s what books do: they’re always the same when you reread them, but you’re always different. Even when you don’t want to be.

Now a “grown-up” myself, I’ve come to realize that the loss of vitality between the kid chapters and the adult ones is not an incidental effect; it is, in fact, a core feature of the premise of the entire book. Without those adult chapters, It would still be scary but it wouldn’t be special. 

As one Loser observes, growing up means the “magic of childhood belief” goes away. It’s never really clear when and where it happens, but it inevitably does. Everything that was big, bold and capitalized turns out not to be a really big deal after all. An adult Bill Denbrough (the Losers’ de facto leader) takes a taxi through Derry, the book’s setting, and reflects on a town he hasn’t seen since his adolescence. He’s shocked at how strained the place looks to him: how things have changed, and how even the things that stayed the same seem blander somehow. Almost like a knock-off of something that used to matter. Every time I go back to my home town, I almost always have a similar feeling.

It’s also about regret. There’s a reason why “Youth is wasted on the young” is an an age-old sentiment. We sometimes fall prey to looking at our childhoods with proverbial rose-tinted glasses, maybe bypassing the unpleasantness.

I finally watched T2: Trainspotting, a movie that I assume the second half to this latest It adaptation may mirror at least thematically in is that it doesn’t cherry coat that the notion that our youth can be just as grimy as our present. It’s really only by recognizing these do we become somewhat adept at dealing with them. And even then, some trauma can never really be healed.

That isn’t to say It a perfect book by any means. King could have definitely used some toning back. It’s a story that really has no need to be as long as it is and there are more than a few sequences that could have been cut as they are either A) unnecessary or B) largely uncomfortable to the service of nothing. (The sewer gang bang fits under both categories.)

Re-reading It was a lot more fun than I was expecting but I found myself appreciating the book’s sense of melancholy for things lost and hope for those gained more than the scares this time around. King doesn’t pull a single punch when it comes to the realities of getting older, but suggests there may be just a little magic left for those willing to fight for it.

Suffice to say, It is a pretty important book to me and any form of adaptation was going to be met with strict scrutiny. Not in the sense that I am a stickler for a film that was 100% faithful to the book. It is a beast of a novel, coming in at well over 1,000 pages. There’s a lot there that can be cut or modified (some material I fully advocate for the removal of, but more on that in a bit) and the story would remain largely the same.

No, I’m speaking more to the “feel” of the book. There’s a misconception that the book is a pretty simple read as well which it is really anything but.

Even though it’s in no way a book for children, there’s a ton of adolescent touchstones included in It, both apparent and hidden between the lines. First love, “lazy” summers, goofing off with your friends, adulthood on the horizon, the final days between “kid problems” and “adult problems,” etc.

Director Andrés Muschietti was not a name I was familiar with before this movie. I skipped Mama if only because it seemed like it fit into every category of something I don’t really want in a horror movie…

Still, I was willing to give the man the benefit of the doubt. First off, splitting book into two parts (the first half dedicated to the kid, the other to them as adults) was a pretty smart movie. The book cross-sections these two portions rather than divide them which works in that medium but would have ultimately been to the disservice to both had they been smushed together. Unfortunately, this could also lead to a movie that doesn’t feel whole as a result as it has been intentionally halved, a move that rarely ever works with films.

So I’ve rambled enough.

Did this experiment work? Did I leave this movie even remotely satisfied? Do you care?

Answers to all (maybe) below…

The plot:

“In the Town of Derry, the local kids are disappearing one by one, leaving behind bloody remains. In a place known as ‘The Barrens’, a group of seven kids are united by their horrifying and strange encounters with an evil clown and their determination to kill It.” – IMDb.com

The review: 

-Cracks knuckles-

Get comfortable, folks. We may be here for a little bit.

Right off the bat, I should say I really, really enjoyed this one. It’s way too early to fully declare but this was probably the warmest reaction I’ve had to a King film adaptation in a good long while.

That said, I think it’ll be hard to fully gauge this one as it is very much a Part 1 of a 2 part story. I can only assume that Warner Bros/New Line were hesitant to fully commit to immediately funding two movies back-to-back. These aren’t guaranteed hits like a Star Wars or Marvel film after all.

So while I stand by it being a smart that this was a movie split in half in the interest of telling the story more effectively, it comes at the cost of a first half feeling a little hallow and without a proper climax. Much like Kill BillIt very much feels like a flashier half of a longer story; the second, I expect, will slow things down considerably. It’s by no accident that the film’s conclusion doesn’t particularly feel like a victory. There’s a lot more ground to cover.

With the recent announcement there will apparently “for sure” be a Part 2, I’m a little bit more relieved but I’m not a fan of having to wait around and see if I’ll actually get the end to a story I want to see. It’s not a great model outside of television.

So I’m going to talk a bit about the differences between the book and movie in this upcoming section. If that annoys you/don’t want spoilers for the book (as a whole), I’ve sectioned it off for your convenience.

-ANNOYING BOOK CHATTER-

There are quite a few changes and omissions Muschietti implements in his version, many of which (surprisingly enough) work and even, in some instances, could be considered improvements. I won’t touch base on every, single one but I would like to highlight a couple (both positive and negative).

The update from the 1950s to 1980s was a little suspect to me, just given the recent popularity of Stranger Things (a series that owes more than a little to King and It in particular).

Largely, the movie (thankfully) doesn’t shove the 80’s down our throats as I was fearing more nostalgia overload. Outside of a few song choices, the basic story remains as timeless as ever.

We lose some of the bigger concepts of the book, i.e. It’s origins and The Turtle. I’m largely fine with this material beginning omitted in the interest of digestibility for a standard audience but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping that they’d at least touch on it a little bit in the sequel. For now though, it doesn’t really matter where It came from or what It wants. As is the case with many movie monsters, there is enough horror to be mined from the mere existence of a shape-shifting monster that kills and eats kids.

I’ve read that original director (and still credited co-screenwriter) Cary Fukunaga wanted to emphasize some of the darker sexual aspects of the book in his version of the film which I fully understand the studio hoping to, not avoid, but not exacerbate. Thank The Turtle the aforementioned sewer gang bang was mercifully left on the cutting room floor.

It’s important to remember this is meant to be a mass consumption version of the book. That isn’t to say a lot of that uncomfortableness doesn’t sprout up in different ways. A sexual-abuse subplot that largely remained subtext in the book is made much more apparent in the film, and a love triangle between three of the Losers is given outsized importance here.

I often find that page-to-screen adaptations either lose the subtly of their source material or the exact opposite and go for the obvious. Muschietti often goes for the latter, to mixed effect.

There are a couple of sequences and/or aspects I would have liked to see but am not all that disappointed by their exclusion such as Bev’s slingshot for example or Richie’s encounter with a teenage werewolf or more of Mike’s look into the town’s bloody past.

There’s been a lot said about the 1990 miniseries, an adaptation that I don’t think holds up very well with the exception of Tim Curry’s role as Pennywise. It does an okay job of telling a story about kids fighting a monster only to have to return as adults to finish the job. As an allegory for confronting childhood trauma, that’s fine but to me, the book was a lot more than just that.

For what it’s worth, I think this film does a much better job at compartmentalizing one half of the book while also delivering the tone/feel of its source material. It’s kind of disappointing to have what is not a conventional book crammed into a conventional three-act structure, the effort largely works here. Muschietti and the screenwriters made a clear effort at maintaining this tone, and show a clear affection that too often gets lost in translation. It is in this effort/affection, that I really appreciate what they’ve gone for. The only thing that worries me is that they’ll get lost in the shuffle when the studio gears up for the second round.

-ANNOYING BOOK CHATTER OVER (MOSTLY)-

Now let’s get on to the movie itself. Y’know, the reason why I assume most of you are here.

I don’t really want to deep dive into what I consider scary…I’ve done that waaaaaaaaay too much in the past. Suffice to say, I didn’t find this movie all that scary but there were some pretty effective scares in it. Muschietti has a pretty good eye for what dictates a good horror set piece. Rather than go for a slow build, he goes the alt route of big, bombast, making use some very effective nightmare imagery and creature effects. If anything, I’d say It is more intense than it is scary which I generally lean towards anyway.

Visually, the movie is straight dynamite. Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung delivers a movie that looks better than a grand majority of what else is out in cinemas right now, let alone just horror movies. This is combined with top notch sound and production design that makes for a movie for award consideration, but will sadly most likely be ignored due largely to the unfair stigma attached to the horror genre.

We open with the murder of six-year-old Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), arguable the novel’s most iconic scene, adapted largely beat-for-beat. The notable difference between this and the previous adaptation however is there aren’t prime time standards to adhere to. Kids are murdered en masses by It and Muschietti pulls no punches.

Speaking of horror, let’s take some time to talk about Pennywise, played here by Bill Skarsgård. Skarsgård’s performance isn’t as immediately iconic as Tim Curry’s and almost leans too heavily into the “creepy clown” troupe but more often than not he is effectively used. Delivering dialogue in a Bugs Bunny meet Bane lisp, his physical performance hints at an entity too big to fit fully into its shell; his eyes almost perpetually off-center.

All this horror, gloom and doom would be irrelevant if we didn’t have a quality set of characters trapped therein for us to root and cheer for, and luckily this movie carries more than its fair share of likable characters.

It may be somewhat pertinent that casting director Rich Delia be given his due as, with the exception of two, each of these kids were complete unknowns to me and each of them fits their respective Loser P-E-R-F-E-C-T-L-Y. I’ll concede that pacing and writing does some of them a disservice but none of our young actors falters and does a pretty spectacular job at bringing characters ingrained in my mind since youth to life. These kids have almost an inherent chemistry with one another and interact in a way that is believable and comes off as almost improvised.

As with the book, Richie (Finn Wolfhard) and Bev (Sophia Lillis) are personal standouts. I’d go so far as to say Wolfhard walks away with the movie given just how much comedic heavy lifting placed upon his shoulders. Lillis similarly has a lot of heavy lifting on the dramatic front, and seems to effortlessly elevate her role beyond “token girl” although, like the book, is the center of a love triangle, much more obviously here.

While I’m never really into those story angles, I think what was brought to the table here was as good as it could be. Both Bill (Jaeden Lieberher)and Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) are quick to fall in love with Bev, and the film is as sensitive to the sometimes tender, all-too-real awkwardness that occurs when puberty opts to rear its ugly head into the tight-rope of male-female friendships.

The group is rounded out by Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), a sheltered hypochondriac, Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), the skeptic and Mike (Chosen Jacobs), a home schooled kid from the other side of town. Like in the book, Mike tends to disappear in the group scenes. Hell, they give away his major task as “town historian” to another Loser so he’s often just there in many scenes. Some confusing edits suggest a longer version of the story in which more characters were allowed to develop.

There’s also some bullies led by Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) that play a role as secondary antagonists but kind of lose their edge as the movie bypasses a lot of their racism, misogyny and outright nastiness on full display in the book. They are, after all, Stephen King bullies. Given this movie only hints at the effect It has on Derry, all of the other antagonists feel…unnecessary.

A major complaint of mine is that there is a really odd rhythm to the pacing here. Like, it almost feels unnatural in the way it’s stacked together rather than organically building dread or building to its climax. I guess that can be chalked up to the transition. Where the book Losers get a whole summer to build their plan to fight back against Pennywise, their film counterparts get two hours.

And I think that largely sums up my thoughts on this end result and it’s sort of the cliche every review of an adaptation shares: it’s not the book, and that’s okay because it largely shares the heart of what made me like the original so much. The book will always be there as well my memories from reading the book.

The point is, it remains faithful without having to be 100% beholden to the book and that’s basically exactly what I wanted. There’s an ambition here that mainstream horror lacks these days and it’s exciting to see something like this with a little bit of cash behind it as well. If movie’s like this within the horror genre were the norm rather than the exception I feel like the stigma constantly holding it back would be lifted and richer cinematic landscape could prosper.

Now give me Chapter 2!

Both ‘Baby Driver’ and ‘Okja’ represent directors in love with their work done right while ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ finally combines the best of both worlds

When I get two movies of this caliber back-to-back, I can’t help but write about them. It’s what I started this blog for in the first place and would be squandering an opportunity to rave about films I unequivocally loved from top to bottom.

I’ve lumped these two films into one post not only because they are both uniformly excellent (and the best of the year up to this point, bar none) but because they highlight something I argue for again and again on this website and that is vision.

Edgar Wright and Bong Joon-Ho are two writer/directors that have had clear trouble within the studio system lately. Wright’s came in the form of his very public split with Marvel over creative differences on Ant Man, a movie he was involved with for almost a decade; Joon-Ho’s was a fight for edits on his latest Snowpiercer. Prior to releasing the film in North America, the Weinstein Company (the distributer) attempting to cut down the film for wider appeal against the director’s wishes. While Joon-Ho eventually won out, I don’t doubt this experience may have soured him to the traditional studio/distributor model.

This isn’t to say studio collaboration is a wholly bad thing. More often than not (I assume), collaboration results in a better product as everyone is working towards making a better product.

However there’s a point where creators with a vision should be allowed to create collaboratively and others when a creator needs to be given more wiggle room.

In these two instances, the risks taken by both Sony and Netflix paid off spectacularly and resulted in two of the year’s finest.

….

Oh! Also I threw in a last minute Spider-Man: Homecoming review….

So we got ourselves a three-parter!

Baby Driver

The plot:

“After being coerced into working for a crime boss, a young getaway driver finds himself taking part in a heist doomed to fail.” – IMDb.com

The review:

Baby Driver will probably end up being one of my favorite movies of 2017. As of now, it sits comfortably right next to A Ghost Story (a movie I’d love to get into more here but alas I have two other movies to talk about already). There are a lot of days between now and the end of December but as far as a bar, Baby Driver is head and shoulders above just about everything else I’ve seen this year thus far and it DRIVES home a suspicion I’ve had about Wright for the better part of a decade…

Edgar Wright has no business making any movies outside of Edgar Wright movies.

While it’s a shame his vision for Ant Man didn’t work out it would have been an even bigger shame if he made the movie but without putting his entire heart into it. Something that transcends beyond just a movie-watching experience with every one of Wright’s five movies thus far is how much of himself the writer/director clearly puts into each film.

I ultimately really liked how Ant Man turned out (particularly given how much worse it could have been) but I’d be lying if I don’t ponder how it would have looked/played out under Wright’s direction. However given the creative differences we’ve all been made privy to between Wright and Marvel in the making of the movie, I’m happy he decided to step away. I don’t want to see a movie Edgar Wright made and didn’t love. He clearly LOVES Baby Driver and this luckily turns out for the best because his passion is simply infectious here.

Part of this, I assume, is because this is an idea/movie the guy’s been sitting on since as far back as the 90s (so long ago, I know) and even went so far as to let the general concept inform the music video he directed for Mint Royale.

Much has already been said about the film’s soundtrack, admittedly one of the best in a good long while. It’s one thing to have action set to good music; it’s another entirely to have the music direct action. Taking a cue from his music video experience, Wright masterfully weaves his mix tape into the proceedings and makes lanes of traffic his dance floor. Too often do we see  a recognizable song inserted into a movie to garner audience reaction (looking at you, Suicide Squad). Baby Driver‘s soundtrack has a clear mission statement and it’s “Buckle up.” It’s different even from James Gunn’s much beloved track lists for his two Guardians films. Whereas those film’s fit a specific niche (i.e. a mix of 70s/80s standards Peter Quill’s mother would realistically include on a mix tape), Wright assembles a mish mosh of different genres and eras of music to create some glorious clusterbibble of musical insanity, including songs you wouldn’t automatically associate with tension or high octane action. Like massive props for squeezing out as much tension out of Barry White track, something I never really ever considered I’d one day write.

Baby Driver is a pretty funny movie throughout, but Wright never loses focus on what exactly at stake here and what’s so refreshing about the film is that it feels as if there are actually stakes at play. Until now, Wright has utilized his considerable cinematic eye for the purpose of parody but like all great parodists he knows what makes his targets tick, and he’s a pro at mimicking the language of the movies he loves. Just like Jordan Peele did for horror with his directorial debut earlier this year in Get Out, Baby Driver not only pays tribute to the canon; it becomes a new defining contemporary. He’s always skirted the line of paying homage to idol turned friend Quentin Tarantino but here he goes all out. It’s as if Tarantino got a hold of the script for Drive and through in some Mario Kart, and as hokey as that sounds, it works like gangbusters.

I guess if I were to (nit)pick any element of the movie I’d point to the romantic aspect of the story being a little less developed than the crime side of things. True Romance (an obvious influence here) suffered from a similar problem. It isn’t bad per se. It’s just not as engaging, partly I assume due to the level of cast on the crime side where Ansel Elgort and Lily James, as good as they are, sort of pail in comparison when put side-by-side with Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm. Once again, I stress this is a nitpick more than an substantial complaint as the cast is uniformly spectacular, particularly Foxx and Hamm. No spoilers but where Hamm goes in this movie is easily the best stuff he’s done since Mad Men ended and a keen reminder that this guy needs to be headlining films. Eiza González rounds out the main criminal cast and is probably given the least to do. However thanks to sheer charisma, she leaves her mark and would not be upset to see her get more projects as a result of her participation here (and the same goes for everyone else in the cast too).

It’s really hard to pin down just what works best about Baby Driver when I unabashedly loved just about every square inch of it. Call me a Wright fanboy if you must, but that man’s cinematic sensibilities largely coincide with mine in a way not many other filmmakers do. Part of me wants him to return to making more films with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, yet a larger part of me wants him to keep exploring new, uncharted areas but most of all: KEEP MAKING EDGAR WRIGHT MOVIES.

Okja 

The plot:

“Meet Mija, a young girl who risks everything to prevent a powerful, multi-national company from kidnapping her best friend – a massive animal named Okja.” – IMDb.com

The review:

If you’re not a fan of Bong Joon-Ho’s earlier directorial outings (which include the likes of The HostMother and Snowpiercer), chances are Okja is going to do very little to convince you otherwise. The man’s chaotic sensibilities are all over this thing and admittedly not everything sticks; however, I can’t help but marvel at the attempt none-the-less. Part E.T., part Fast Food Nation, part Wes Anderson, part Pixar, part….countless other things, Okja is the cinematic equivalent to a pot luck dinner; everyone brings something unique to the table, and as is the case with good pot lucks, the end result is ultimately delicious.

And given the proceedings, “delicious” may not be the best term but I felt it was apt therefore I’m just going to commit to it. It’s been kind of odd to see Netflix market this thing as a more of a family film which it most certainly is not. The only real whimsy is near the beginning of the first act as we see Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and the super pig by which the film gets its name live out their idealistic lives in the South Korean countryside. After about 15 or 20 minutes though, things take a considerably darker turn. And not in the same way Gremlins or The Goonies did. While darkly comedic at points, this movie is pretty bleak and offers very little in the form of resolution. No spoilers but this movie ends about as happy as it could given everything that occurs.

That isn’t to say the movie isn’t fun at all. Joon-Ho sets his chase scenes up there with the best of them.

His camera glides set pieces, providing a genuine sense of scale, that harken back to the likes of Spielberg, a director to whom he is often compared. And that’s not the only bit of Sir Steven’s DNA Joon-Ho infuses in Okja. The same could be said of how he utilizes visual effects. Okja is a Netflix Original but you see quite a few dollars in its titular super pig. Joon-Ho really gets a handle on special effects being a tool rather than a crutch by which to set your film. Okja, and the rest of her ilk, all look startlingly real at points.

I also really hope he continues this trend he began with Snowpiercer in assembling a truly global cast. I know this is not the case but it felt like there was representation on every front here as reflected by a cast made up of some of our best and brightest actors working today. Rather than run through them all, I’ll make note of one in particular before saying the obvious…

Jake Gyllenhaal, one of the most underrated big name character actors we’ve got working today, goes full Nicholas Cage here in that he goes big. Like really big. What one may call hammy (pardon the pun) acting, I call rising to the material as many of the actors go really large here. I particularly liked the team of Paul Dano, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Daniel Henshall and Devon Bostick as a team of Animal Liberation Front members set on bringing the evil corporation behind the proceedings down in a flaming ball of wreckage. The movie could have easily made these characters noble martyrs devoid of anything interesting. Instead, we get a cluster of characters that may have hands just as dirty as those they condemn. Here’s hoping that if for whatever reason this spawned a sequel, that group would be at the center of it.

Now what was that obvious thing I was going to say?

Oh yeah, the cast is great and a great ensemble. Some have larger parts for sure, but I think everyone was great in terms of memorability. Also cool to have a cast of people I wouldn’t automatically associate with one another in any way come together and actually work really well together. Points to you, Okja cast.

That isn’t to say this movie is free of some heavy handed messages. The social commentary is laid on so thick this time out you may just feel your cholesterol rise at one point or another. When we advance to the more metropolitan area of the film, things start to become all at once more wacky and incredibly dour.

And it’s when those two key elements (the whimsy of the country side and the wacky yet bleak, over-the-top metropolis) where things don’t really click all the way for me. Perhaps Joon-Ho meshes these two, from the offset, incompatible sides intentionally. The down home values of rural living don’t often sit well with the cynical crassness of the corporate circus. It might be more than a little blunt, but that could also be the point.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

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The plot:

“Thrilled by his experience with the Avengers, Peter returns home, where he lives with his Aunt May, under the watchful eye of his new mentor Tony Stark, Peter tries to fall back into his normal daily routine – distracted by thoughts of proving himself to be more than just your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man – but when the Vulture emerges as a new villain, everything that Peter holds most important will be threatened.” – IMDb.com

The review:

I’m writing this one sort of last minute because…well, I don’t really have a proper excuse. It’s mainly to A) keep in line with my self-imposed Marvel tradition and B) I love Spider-Man….as in “He’s my favorite superhero” level of love (least we forget I wrote a terrible outline for a proposed 4th Sam Raimi movie…you may call it fan fiction) so I’d probably be a waste if I didn’t take some time to talk about this latest movie (the third cinematic iteration for those keeping count) starting ol’ Web Head.

I’d still say Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 is still the best of the Spidey films if only for the insanity he brought to the table, but this is EASILY the best one since that one. It’s always been comical how better adept Marvel is at making superhero movies than Sony is, objectionably solidified here as Marvel took the creative reigns with Homecoming and Sony footing the bill for distribution and marketing.

Perhaps the best thing about the film as a whole is how Marvel seemingly made a checklist of things we have and have not seen in a Spider-Man film (we’re up to 6 now), placing an emphasis on the “HAVE NOT” section. Elements worth noting: Spider-Man forced to traverse landscapes without the use of New York’s tall buildings, Peter gets a side-kick, no city-wide threat, minimal stakes (at least in relation to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole) and minimal set up for future films. Given it took six screenwriters to bring this latest outing to life, it’s remarkable this movie is as comprehensible and breezy as it is.

It’s been said a lot but this is Spider-Man at his most basic core and it is so f*cking refreshing to have him solving problems below the level of a city destroying disaster while also balancing high school problems like studying and finding a girlfriend. We’re also at the stage of Spider-Man’s superhero career where he’s about as competent at saving the day as the kids in director Jon Watts’ first feature Cop Car were at grand theft auto (and just as bad of a driver, I might add). We get a pop in from Tony Stark (played as always -until the money runs out- Robert Downey Jr) who offers kind of advice and glimpses at the larger universe Spider-Man has finally rightfully entered pop up here and there but this movie is at its prepubescent best when it “keeps its feet to the ground” and let’s Spider-Man be Spider-Man. I’m excited to see where Peter Parker fits in come Avengers time, but right now it’s just nice to have a solid solo adventure unconcerned with sequels and spin-offs. -coughAMAZINGSPIDERMAN2cough-

Based off of this sole outing, I’m happy to see where we go with these characters. I wasn’t immediately onboard with Peter Parker having a comedic sidekick but Jacob Batalon went far and above in winning me over. Peter’s never really had a sounding board in a movie before and it’s a refreshing change of pace to have someone he can communicate with about superheroing outside of a love interest. There’s been some chatter about Aunt May being played by a younger actress (in this case, Marisa Tomei) but I attribute that to just nerd bitching for the sake of bitching. I thought she was perfectly fine here and honestly wish we had gotten some more scenes between her and Peter.

We also have Zendaya playing Michelle “MJ” Jones. I think the whole crew has expressly said up to this point this character is not Mary Jane Watson, but I’d be interested to see if they go down that route in future film’s in having her become a love interest. Zendaya plays MJ more akin to Ally Sheedy’s in The Breakfast Club rather than the red headed, street smart bombshell Mary Jane is in the comics which I am by no means opposed to. I’m jut curious as to why Marvel opted to have her play a wholly originally character with the nod to Mary Jane without just having her play Mary Jane. Maybe I’m just over-thinking it but given the PP/MJ relationship is one of my favorites in all of comicdom, I’d be lying if I were to say I wasn’t just a little disappointed it apparently won’t have a place in the new films.

I think Tom Holland may represent the closest we come to in terms of a consensus on who is THE Spider-Man. Tobey Maguire was a wonderful Peter Parker, bringing a truly geeky shine to the part as well as shouldering the inner turmoil and downright bad luck that also defines just who Parker is. However his Spider-Man lacked zany energy and the nonstop banter we know and love from the comic. Andrew Garfield had the exact opposite problem. Where his Peter Parker was a vanilla hipster, his Spider-Man was just about everything you could want out of that character.

Holland is the first (in my opinion) to finally blend those two together, being at once the perfect Peter Parker AND Spider-Man. I believe he’s only a year or so younger than Maguire was when he first donned the tights but his overeagerness and endless enthusiasm make for a character that comes off as genuinely youthful where Maguire (and especially Garfield) seemed almost too old.

Marvel is actually 2 for 2 this year in the quality villain department between this and Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2. It’s been written about in length elsewhere, but most disappointingly the Marvel Studios films lack genuinely interesting menace.

Michael Keaton plays Adrian Toomes, more popularly known as the Vulture, a villain that’s never really lit my pants on fire in terms of Spider-Man’s main rouges gallery. Sure, he can be interesting but there are a lot more compelling cards in the deck if you catch my meaning. Well, I’m happy to eat my words here because Toomes, as played by Keaton, embodies everything I love about Spider-Man villains and why the represent the best of the bunch out of any Marvel superhero’s.

Toomes and his crew, rounded out by some other well-known (and not-so-well known) Spider-Man baddies, have no interest in global domination. They aren’t really out for revenge either. They mainly just want money and, at least in Toomes’ case, to provide for their families. In fact, the only time our villain kills someone it’s a complete accident…and I loved that. The best Spider-Man villains are generally either regular guys or super geniuses, all of whom could probably better humanity if their rage and/or interests were directed to positive outlets.

While this movie is really fun (outside of Baby Driver and Lego Batman, I’d reckon this is the most fun I’ve had at the cinema this year), it neglects one of the key aspects of the Spider-Man mythos that left me somewhat…cold.

I’m all for skipping the origin story. We’ve seen it enough times at this point, particularly in Spider-Man’s case. This movie never shows us the fateful spider bite. Nor does it show us the death of Uncle Ben. It fact, I don’t remember Ben Parker ever being mentioned even at one point and this leads into my larger issue with Disney’s approach here.

There’s really never any moment of grief expressed at almost any point in this roughly 2 hour movie. It’s clearly a calculated move and it takes a toll in more than one aspect. More than once, Peter’s inexperience threatens the lives of innocents. At no point are we really told, “Great power = great responsibility,” either explicitly or even through action. Not one of his stupid, selfish choices effect him or his life emotionally.

Let’s go down the list…

SPOILERS

Botch an attempt to stop a robbery and nearly get someone blown up. It’s fine. In fact, both he and his cat are also fine.

Ditch your friend at a party? It’s all good. He’s not mad. They called you,”Penis Parker” for a few seconds, but no one bullied you or made fun of you for not bringing Spider-Man.

Ditch your friends for a really important competition? It’s fine. They still won.

Almost get your friends killed at the Washington Monument through your own stupidity? It’s fine and you’re even more famous now and Tony is even happy with you. Good job blowing up the Washington Monument!

Foolishly attempt to thwart some bad guys on a boat which directly leads to its destruction? No one died so it’s all good…BUT YOU DON’T GET YOUR SUPER COOL SUIT ANYMORE.

Ditch your prom date? It’s fine and she wishes you luck later.

Steal someone’s car? It’s fine and it’s never mentioned again. It’s funny even! (Editor’s note: it is really, really funny. I really liked this bit….I’m just adding it to prove a point.)

Crash a plane into a populated area? No one was on it and no one died! Yay! Also the bad guy likes you now…and so does Tony! Good job! You get your suit back!

END OF SPOILERS

This lack of consequence is somewhat disappointing because it’s something the first two Raimi film’s emphasized so well. Spider-Man 2 hammers home just how much it sucks to be an adult, let alone an adult with spider powers. Adulthood limits us and comes with a true cost. It doesn’t come with a parent-block or imaginary line. You learn through the piles of shit life throws at you, not by life handing things to you and saying, “Good job.”

Perhaps it’s highly appropriate this movie references Ferris Bueller, a movie about the ultimate in unchecked teenage fantasy. The problem is the movie tells us differently at times. Tony gives Peter lectures about responsibility, but tangible consequences are no where to be found.

This by no means ruins the movie; it’s just something I wish had been included if only for a moment. Like it or not, tragedy is a defining element to the Spider-Man character. Hell, it’s a motivator for just about every superhero under the sun, both red and yellow. In Spider-Man’s case, the death of his uncle is something he could have prevented. The death of Gwen Stacy is something he directly caused. Now I don’t want a glum, emo Spider-Man. We got that with the last two movies and it sucked in every way conceivable. But this is a character that lends itself to some darker elements, and I hope Marvel doesn’t lose sight of that moving ahead. Luckily, at this point, I have a rather large amount of faith in that company given their track record so my expectations going into the sequel will be astronomical.

For what it is, Spider-Man: Homecoming is by and large my favorite of the comic book bunch this year which is saying a lot given what else is included in its 2017 graduating class (The Lego Batman Movie, Logan, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, Wonder Woman and those are just ones that have been released). And when I say, “favorite,” I wouldn’t automatically say that translates to best per se. This was just such a rejuvenating experience because this is largely what I’ve wanted from a Spider-Man movie for so f’ing long and it largely delivered on everything I wanted, checking off just about every box in my wish list.

It at once combines a lot of what I love about the comics with just about everything I love about the movies in one digestible cocktail. Here’s hoping they add just a little bit more spice on the next go around…in a sequel, not another goddamn reboot.

‘It Comes At Night’ revels in the enveloping fear of nothingness

I’ve gone through seemingly time-and-time again what I favor in a horror film. Time after time after time. Needless to say I’m going to try to hard on it again here too extensively. Suffice to say: I prefer a less is more approach.

It Comes At Night, much like 2016’s The Witch, is movie almost tailor-made to my horror sensibilities.

The plot:

“Secure within a desolate home as an unnatural threat terrorizes the world, the tenuous domestic order he has established with his wife and son is put to the ultimate test with the arrival of a desperate young family seeking refuge. Despite the best intentions of both families, paranoia and mistrust boil over as the horrors outside creep ever-closer, awakening something hidden and monstrous within him as he learns that the protection of his family comes at the cost of his soul.” – A24

The review:

As I’ve written in the past, any horror movie worth its weight in salt doesn’t simply taser your nerves with jump-scare after jump-scare. That’s completely within the realm of playing peek-a-boo with an infant. Look to any of the most iconic horror films, such as Alien or The Exorcist. There aren’t really roundtable scenes where the “rules” are discussed.

The more you know or understand about something, the less scary it becomes. It’s why the movement in the late 2000s to add backstory to some of cinema’s most iconic monsters (Leatherface, Michael Myers, etc) came off as simple sacrilege. It’s why I see little point in Ridley Scott diving into the origins of the xenomorph with his latest crop of Alien films. There’s definitely an argument to be made for some explanation (it all relates back to the movie itself and this is by no means a universal rule) but on the whole fear stems from a lack of understanding.

Generally fear comes from something you know very little about, and that’s the wheelhouse in which Trey Edward Shults opted to operate when crafting his second feature. There’s no scene of a news report providing exposition nor is there a scientist character to clue us in on what exactly our characters are dealing with.

As with his first film, Krisha, Shults translates the rawness of emotion from a personal tragedy (in this case the death of his father) to raw intensity, feeding into the universal fear of losing those closest to you. Like his earlier film, Shults explores the impulse and fruitlessness in seeking normalcy in extreme and strenuous circumstances, ultimately questioning whether such a normalcy is not only obtainable but if it even existed in the first place.

Those who come into It Comes At Night for an answer to what exactly “it” is, may leave this movie severally disappointed. There’s not a monster stalking the two families at its center. There isn’t even a clear villain or even a message. The horror at the movie’s core is a lot harder to define than something as tangible as a monster. Besides what could possibly more frightening outside than the thought of the danger being inside with you, under your skin.

The virus in the movie refreshingly doesn’t turn its victims into zombies or any form thereof. In fact, the film spends very little time on what exactly the disease is or how exactly it works beyond being both highly contagious and incredibly fatal. We don’t know where it originated or just how widespread it is.

At the center of it all is Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who serves as our de facto avatar. He is in the company of his teacher cum survivalist father Paul (a career best performance from Joel Edgerton) and stressed out mother Sarah (the ever-dependable Carmen Ejogo). The family lives already lives on the thin edge of a razor in their respective isolation when a stranger named Will (Christopher Abbott) appears at their front door.

Will has his own clan consisting of wife Kim (Riley Keough) and young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). The two families soon merge and things are good…at first. But as movies demand, conflict arises as paranoia sets in. Travis’ nightmares, pouring with thoughts of hopelessness and desperation, become more and more frequent, eventually bleeding into reality. There’s all matter of combustions laid before the audience (sexual tension, conflated masculinity, “looking out for one’s own); all it takes is one match to set everything off.

What ultimately happens is at once shocking and inevitable, brutally so. This movie is scary enough on its own but its true horror only sinks in after its over and you attempt to wrap your head around what it all meant.

There’s an emptiness at the heart of It Comes At Night and in that emptiness viewers will either embrace the abject terror or find frustration at the lack of clear answers. Instead, we find blind animalistic panic, lashing out at an all-consuming darkness that will one day envelop us all.There are multiple sequences draped in shadow, darkness threatening to envelop the entire frame at points. It’s at these moments where the film really, really excels.

There’s no way to fully understand human nature; why we act the way we do when we’re scared. As the film’s tagline explicitly states, “Fear turns men into monsters.”

Allow me to play Carnac the Magnificent and glimpse into the future for a moment. This is a movie that will be completely bypassed come award season. I know it. You know it. Your mom knows it. And truth be told, there are much, much, MUCH worse things to be concerned about in this ever-troubling world of ours but it is a shame to be sure.

Drew Daniels paints a jaw-dropping canvas with his cinematography, by far the best I’ve seen this year. The shots within the house are tight and claustrophobic while the few times we leave for the outside feel expansive yet uncertain, leaving us never really at ease in the same way our characters are. It’s a commendable attribute for a cinematographer to pull something off like that in way that isn’t hand-holdy or obvious. The same could be said of Brian McOmber’s score which never dips into hysteria, instead serving its tight-wound atmosphere.

A common complaint I’ve been hearing relates back to the film’s marketing. Now, as of now, I’d say the film’s teaser (posted above) is one of the best I’ve seen in a good long while. Hands down the best for a movie to come out for movie this year thus far. It works as a template of exactly what a trailer should be. It’s only when you look at the full trailer (posted below) do things get kind of murky.

I’d argue this cut is still streets ahead of your run-of-the-mill trailer house output, as is the case with a lot of A24’s stuff. However it does more explicitly market this as a more traditional horror film, which is most certainly is not. It’s only during the nightmare sequences does the film dip into more familiar ground with the occasional jump scare and shocking image. On CinemaScore, audiences gave the film an average grade of “D” on an A+ to F scale which is shockingly low but still not really all that surprising.

This isn’t a movie for a “fun” movie night with your friends. Well unless those friends are like weird and “pretentious” like me, sadists or both. It Comes At Night is not a fun movie. It’s a movie that’s actually a lot more simple than it lets on, all while never going over the top (something its B-movie title may suggest) in a way that would feel false to the world Shults creates. Some may find this boring while I argue it’s refreshing.

Throughout the film, we are reminded of the red door which serves as the only entrance and exit for the home. Said door is never supposed to be opened after nightfall. As is the case with movies however, the door does open. However, we never get a glimpse of some horror such as a monster or zombie horde. Instead we only see empty blackness. A majority of horror films presume the former is scarier. Shults favors the latter however, allowing audiences to squirm in the expanse of the unknown and contemplate the familiarity we may find within our own souls.

A perfectly imperfect organism: The beautiful metamorphosis of the ‘Alien’ quadrilogy

“Strange fascination, fascinating me / Changes are taking the pace I’m going through” – David Bowie, Changes

“If you are not willing to risk the unusual, you will have to settle for the ordinary.” – Jim Rohn

“The saddest journey in the world is the one that follows a precise itinerary. Then you’re not a traveler. You’re a f**king tourist.” – Guillermo del Toro

“Do what you haven’t done is the key, I think.” – Ridley Scott

Over the past few days there has been quite the influx of retrospectives regarding the Alien franchise. Such is the cycle of a franchise, particularly one that’s been around as long as this one.

Surely there will be much to be said of the first two film’s influence. There will be in-depth histories into the making of each, focusing once again (most likely) on the first two films and rightly so. Both Alien and Aliens are absolute masterclasses, representing the pinnacle of what can be achieved in their respective genres and their influence is obvious in just about subsequent, similar film that came afterwards. Released in 1979, Alien remains the standard of the wonders of horror and science fiction. Its sequel, Aliens, bares one of the distinct honors of being a rare sequel that meets the level of success its iconic predecessor if not wholly surpassing it. Much can also be said about the franchise’s refreshing and outright progressive steps in showcasing a genuinely badass female protagonist in the form of one Ellen Ripley, who actually showcases characterization outside of “badass female protagonist.” -COUGHJYNERSOCOUGH-

Reviewers will be quick to praise the success of these two films, all while quickly dismissing the two films that followed them (Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection respectively). Now while these films are far, far, FAR from perfect, I argue they are also very far from terrible and in some respects even almost secretly phenomenal. Now you are well within your right to argue to the contrary but I posit that each and every one of these movies have merit and that’s what I’m here to convince you of here and now.

I’m here to put forth that this franchise deserves commendation for a reason I don’t see cited all that often by critics or fans and if I can somehow convince you to see this series out, then I call that a win for both of us.

The first four Alien films stand singularly as a franchise benefited by multiple cooks in the kitchen, not least of which is the fact that each sports a different director at the helm with Ridley Scott tasked with the first film, James Cameron the second, David Fincher the troubled-third and Jean-Pierre Jeunet bringing in the rear with the utterly insane (once thought to be) final chapter. The utterly unique thing about them combined is that none remotely resemble each other in regards to their tone. Each perfectly represents what their respective director brings the table and I absolutely love that. I’d argue it may just be the most director-driven franchise we’ve yet to see.

Much like the xenomorph itself, each entry adapts to the vision of its host or in this case, the director. Over the years, this monster has evolved and warped to whoever oversaw it. Like the Mad Max films, there isn’t too much of an emphasis on continuity but there is, at the very least, a through-line through the first four; that being Ripley (Signourney Weaver), the Weyland-Yutani Corporation and the xenomorph itself. So there is a cannon and I’m all for that, but there’s also wiggle room to take the story in directions free from the constraints of your typical, more episodic narrative. I’d almost argue the DVD/Blu-ray collection should be called the Alien Anthology rather than the Quadrilogy.

Now it’d be ridiculous to fully credit each of these movies to the efforts of a single person. As someone whose never fully subscribed to the auteur theory, I think the individuality of each entry can be attributed to small armies worth of folks both in-front of and behind the camera. Watch the bonus features on the Alien Quadrilogy box set (perhaps the greatest DVD/Blu-ray release of the past decade given the absolute wealth of material) and you’ll lose track of just how many people played in important part in each, a fact we often lose sight of with every movie. The BTS material on this set covers every single aspect of the production of each film, beginning with their origins and spanning all the way to the final product’s release and reception. Every individual interviewed is refreshingly candid, unafraid to share their personal thoughts regardless of whether it paints them in a pretty picture. The making of each entry is as interesting (if not more so) as the films themselves.

Also important to note that I’m really only going to get into the first four films as well as a little on Prometheus later on so that means no Alien vs. Predator or its equally terrible sequel.  I don’t really consider either of those movies to be honest-to-Ripley sequels because outside of featuring xenomorphs, they largely stand apart. The sooner I, and the world, can forget about scenes like the one below, the sooner we can heal.

Also those movie are lack any sort of merit beyond just being bad and I’m trying to bring us up rather than down…at least in relation to the first four films. There will be plenty of Prometheus-bashing soon.

I’m not divulging that in-depth in relation to the plot of these movies but there will be some frank discussion about plot points in each film in the series meaning of course the ending or major twists will come up at one point or another.

So yeah there are some spoilers, Nick.

Alien

The gist:

“After a space merchant vessel perceives an unknown transmission as distress call, its landing on the source moon finds one of the crew attacked by a mysterious life-form, and they soon realize that its life cycle has merely begun.” – IMDb.com

So here’s our template, the movie that sets the tone for all that comes afterward. Almost all the major beats that take place a viewer from today may pass off as cliché neglecting the fact this is the film that not only created the cliché but perfected it. Typically, when EVERYTHING about a movie is iconic, it’s because more than one person was doing their job.

But another thing it deserves all the credit in the world for is just how dadgum relatable everything is. Yeah, I know. It takes place in space. Yeah, I know. There’s a face-hugging, chest-bursting monster at the center of it all. But as with the rest of these films, it’s really smart in its execution.

Our crew isn’t a group of scientists like in Prometheus. Nor are they an elite group of marines as in Aliens (with the term “elite” being used very, VERY liberally in this instance). They’re space truckers, and only one of them makes it out alive by the end. Even then, it’s by the absolute skin of her teeth. I think a lot of this reflects on the time this came out in the 1970s, where there was this larger push for the realistic; where films began to mirror documentaries in their presentation. Like A New Hope, Alien does not exist in a pristine future. It’s a world that’s been lived-in, where dated technology still exists and the grime carries over. This goes hand-in-hand with the way our character’s talk to one another. A lot has been said of the subtle yet noticeable way the crew talks over one another, similar to the way large groups of people do in real life. This is due to Scott trusting his actors in this case, allowing them to play off one another rather than fully adhering to the script.

It’s also incredibly important to point out how simple the whole affair is. The original theatrical cut clocks in at 117 minutes, chump change compared to today’s standard tent-pole but by no means a breezy movie either. But I can count only one hand how many major plot points there are, and I stress that the movie isn’t filler. It all comes down to the power of good pacing, matched with clever dialogue and stunning presentation.

In more cases than not, simple is the best option. Scott was setting out to make Dune (an adaptation he was originally supposed to direct funny enough before opting to do Blade Runner instead). There’s a much larger world in Alien, yes, but it’s at the service of the characters first. Go back and watch Alien and make a point to notice how all (or most) of the world-building is subjected largely to the background. That’s because Scott, at his best, is a MASTER CLASS world builder. When matched with a great screenplay, I argue he works best. It doesn’t hurt that he had the insight to bring in Swiss surrealist artist H. R. Giger to form his monster but everything involving the alien, ensuring a visual consistency on LV-426 and the crashed Space Jockey ship. I could go on but YouTuber kaptainkristian spoke in-depth on the matter and I’ll pass the baton off to him.

Another reason just about everyone loves (snobs and paupers alike) is that it appeases everyone’s sensibilities without ever once being condescending. It’s moody and dark, building tension to white-knuckle levels (Dallas in the vents), and it provides the ever-important gore (the chest-burster). Science fiction fans love the hardware, but those who don’t are never bored with techno-babble. It’s progressive in how it doesn’t fit any of its character into a box. No one is a damsel or tasteless stereotype. 

It checks off every box, making for as perfect of a film as there ever has been. I’d be lying if I thought it even needed a sequel let alone a franchise. But seeing as it made an estimated ALL OF THE MONEY in 1979, a sequel was all but assured. The question was however would said sequel be more of the same, but on a bigger scale or a different experience altogether set within the same world. The answer was a resounding….yes/no.

Aliens

“Fifty seven years after Ellen Ripley survived her disastrous ordeal, her escape vessel is recovered after drifting across the galaxy as she slept in cryogenic stasis. Back on Earth, nobody believed her story about the “Aliens” on the moon LV-426. After the “Company” orders the colony on LV-426 to investigate, however, all communication with the colony is lost. The Company enlists Ripley to aid a team of tough, rugged space marines on a rescue mission to the now partially terraformed moon to find out if there are aliens or survivors. As the mission unfolds, Ripley will be forced to come to grips with her worst nightmare, but even as she does, she finds that the worst is yet to come.” – IMDb.com

Hard to ever really accurately gauge but if I were to make an informed guess, I’d say Aliens is the fan favorite. I’d certainly argue this as I’d say it is hands-down my favorite two films as well.

Something that’s been noted in recent years is that Aliens, for all its bells and whistles, is practically the exact same movie as Alien in that it hits a lot of the same narrative beats. The key difference is where Scott took us inward, favoring claustrophobia and paranoia; director James Cameron went much bigger, favoring action beats and encompassing scope. The connecting tissue (at least thematically) is that bigger themes weren’t lost in the shuffle.

Cameron took the mantle from Scott effortlessly, taking the world he had established without going too large. This is a tight-rope too many sequels fall short of, simply taking a “bigger is better” approach. Aliens growth all flows naturally. Informed by the insect-like design of the monster, Cameron built on that and made his monsters hive-based going so far as to have a queen. Informed by the treachery of Ash in the last film, Cameron plays with our expectations with Bishop and allows for ready-made tension. 

For all intents and purposes Aliens is an action blockbuster but as with a majority of Cameron’s films, it is an exceedingly intelligent one. Too often I see folks criticize the space marines for being one-dimensional, but Cameron and the cast do an incredibly skillful job at characterizing them all. Who is to say we really need to hear the life-story of all of these guys and gals? There’s a great deal many more of them than there were Nostromo crew members, so efficiency is key. Largely, we get all the info we really need within a few seconds of meeting each new squad member.

I love, love, love that most action-oriented of the series is the most about female empowerment as well. The image of Ripley we so often see is the one she becomes in this movie, and the great thing is that it doesn’t just happen. Ripley just barely survived the film and it had a great deal to do with luck. This is Weaver’s best outing with the character by a large margin reflected by the fact she received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her efforts; something typically unheard of for science fiction and horror.

She plays Ripley as a woman looking to find her footing in an unfamiliar world. In the Director’s Cut, we learn that her daughter died while she was floating around in space. The only thing left to her is her cat (who really needed an epilogue now that I think about it). Deciding to return to LV-426, she finds a new purpose in Newt and in doing so reclaims that lost motherhood.

This plays larger into her conflict with the Alien Queen during the film’s climax (given Ripley saw fit to torch all of her babies), which boils down the movie to a knock-out, drag-down war for motherhood told through the prism of an old-fashioned war story.

It’s easily the most accessible of the four as well. Where Alien and Alien 3 may (wrongly) be accused of being “boring” and Resurrection too weird, Aliens is just the right mix of action/horror/comedy that reaches a wide audience. It’s no coincidence that, in many cases, some saw this movie before Alien.

And that accessibility without sacrificing genuine storytelling is something I don’t think Cameron gets nearly enough kudos for.  He’s been credited for raising the bar of where effects can take us time and time again, but he always does so in a way that compliments the story too. Sure, he can be written off as unoriginal but more often than not he’s falling back on the grand tradition of acquiring a previous work and running with it.

Aliens represents a sequel done not just well, but perfectly. Anything that followed would have considerable shoes to fill. Unfortunately, the series really never recaptures the glory of its first two films. But as I said before, that doesn’t mean the two final films were failures. In fact, I argue they’re secret successes.

Alien 3

“After escaping from the alien moon, the ship carrying Ellen Ripley crashes onto a remote and inhabited ore refinery. While living in the ore refinery until she is rescued by her employers, Ripley discovers the horrifying reason for her crash: An alien stowaway. As the alien matures and begins to kill off the inhabitants, Ripley is unaware that her true enemy is more than just the killer alien.” – IMDb.com

When I talk about Alien 3, I get kind of defensive due in no small part to the involvement of director David Fincher, a man for whom I give a great deal of admiration to.

I’ll concede that the theatrical cut is a bit of a mess, a clear victim of retooling and cuts. The effects are also a series low point when it comes to seeing a dog-like xenomorph (or a cow as is the case in the Director’s cut) fully in motion. This is something I think speaks more to the limitations of technology at the time and its an admittedly a cool idea to give us a new type of creature, enhanced by a canine rather than a human. It branches out the mythos in a subtle way rather than immediately throwing elephant xenos or tiger xenos. That said the effect looks pretty bad even by early 90’s standards and probably could have used some re-tooling.

I’m mainly drawing from the 2003 Assembly Cut, a version of the film that is exactly what it sounds like. Adding in about 37 minutes of new or unused footage, this version fits in line more with Fincher’s original vision. Now it too isn’t a perfect movie, but I’d wager it’s a much more complete, comprehensible of the narrative. Not that I fault the studio all that much for making the cuts they did.

If one watches the BTS features on the Quadrilogy set (something I once again whole heartedly recommend), you’ll pick up on the fact that making each one of these movies was an absolute nightmare. Based on the production stories from Alien 3‘s surprisingly frank making-of documentaries, it’s a minor miracle that the either cut of the film is watchable at all.

Where Aliens was a big, loud, bombastic statement, Alien 3 brings everything inward; it cleans the slate, bringing everything back to a simplistic core. What it lacks in scope however it more than makes up with lofty ideas and imagery. It’s the closest the series has to an art film, something I attribute to Fincher and the early involvement of Vincent Ward, who brought forth a lot of religious context and themes to his original vision before Fincher took over. Fincher, to his credit, scaled things back considerably in favor of taking the series back to its roots. 

The last film sought to build Ripley up, elevating her to the badass we see often in the iconography.  Too often we neglect Alien 3 however, the movie that brought her right back down to lowest point we had yet to see her.

I think a lot of the hate this movie receives deals largely with the fact it is almost nothing like its largely revered predecessor. It’s in no way a fun movie and it isn’t a summer blockbuster. Hell, our movie opens with the death of Newt and Hicks. In the Assembly Cut, Newt’s autopsy is a critical scene for Ripley. There are very, very few scenes of levity to balance everything out so it is a really long, dour affair at the end of the day. I argue Fincher’s best stuff is pretty bleak though. He’s dabbled in darker comedy (Fight Club) and even prestige, feel-good whimsy (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), but his greatest movies (Seven, Zodiac, Gone Girl) match his (presumably) dark soul.

In Fincher’s hands, Alien 3 is an excursion into nihilism on a dilapidated, claustrophobic prison planet populated by celibate fundamentalist prisoners so it at least removes the immediate threat of sexual violence where they’re concerned which is refreshing. The xenomorph, in all its forms, is kind of one big sexual allegory any way so to add that unpleasant layer would have in no doubt been a major detractor given this series is sort of built upon “subtle” sexual imagery due in no small part to the involvement of Giger.

However I must concede that Alien 3 never fully recovers from just how bleak it is. Still there is a lot to be said about its stylistic bravado and the courage it has in taking the series’ darkest turns. Killing of Ripley was a bold, fitting move and one almost wishes this had been the final chapter. She and the xenomorph go down together, their fates forever entwined and closed.

But alas, nothing ends in Hollywood as long as there is money to be made.

Alien: Resurrection

“200 years after the conclusion of Alien 3, the Company is able to resurrect Ripley through the process of cloning and the scientists successfully take the Queen Alien out of her. But, Ripley’s DNA gets mixed up with the Queen’s and she begins to develop certain alien characteristics. The scientists begin breeding the aliens, but they later escape. Soon the Xeno-morphs are running amok on the ship, which is on course to Earth. The Queen then gives birth to a deadly new breed of alien, which could spell disaster for the entire human race. It’s up to Ripley and a band of space pirates to stop the ship before it reaches Earth.” – IMDb.com

At last, we arrive at the black sheep of the family.

Alien: Resurrection is hands down one of the most insane wide-releases I think a major studio has put out in the past 3 or 4 decades. It’s just so utterly bizarre it deserves a litany of think-pieces examining just how this storm came together.

Weirdly enough, it’s also the one that seems to have gotten the least amount of studio notes.

Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet had only done two movies at this point and had yet to complete the film for which he will forever be associated: Amélie.

Suffice to say, he doesn’t automatically scream franchise material. Let alone the million dollar behemoth that the Alien franchise represented at the time and unlike Fincher, I don’t think the studio hired him to be some puppet to blindly accept notes. I think this movie really only represents Jeunet’s single stab at making a Hollywood movie, and it’s really fun to see what exactly he brought to the table having since seen him find his groove outside of the system.

Oh and did I mention the screenplay comes from nerd messiah Joss Whedon? Now this may seem like an odd fit, but if you actually watch the movie you see Whedon’s finger prints all over the damn thing with all of its quippy dialogue (at inopportune times) and playful jabs at genre conventions. There’s even a pre-Firefly wacky family dynamic with the crew of the Beatty; not to mention Whedon inherits one of the most empowered female leads in cinematic history, something he made a staple throughout his work. (That said, it makes no logical sense to have Ripley be in this outside of just finding an excuse to include Weaver and the reason provided for Ripley’s “resurrection” is quite the stretch. Then again, a stupid cloning aspect fits in perfectly with all of the other stupid shit celebrated therein.)

To be fair to Whedon, he’s gone on record more than once that he’s not a fan of the final product. He’s quoted as saying:

“It wasn’t a question of doing everything differently, although they changed the ending; it was mostly a matter of doing everything wrong. They said the lines…mostly…but they said them all wrong. And they cast it wrong. And they designed it wrong. And they scored it wrong. They did everything wrong that they could possibly do. There’s actually a fascinating lesson in filmmaking, because everything that they did reflects back to the script or looks like something from the script, and people assume that, if I hated it, then they’d changed the script…but it wasn’t so much that they’d changed the script; it’s that they just executed it in such a ghastly fashion as to render it almost unwatchable.”

All credit to Whedon and he is fully entitled to his own opinion (it is a screenplay he wrote after all), but I humbly disagree. I think this a movie exudes a confidence that a lot of others of its scale at the time lacked and in that we find the spectacle.

You can almost get the sense Jeunet wanted to go crazier but was limited by plausibility and budget…probably the studio to a degree as well. This is the rare entry that probably could have used a bit more supervision to be sure. Frustratingly enough however, its utter insanity is what most elevates the movie from a forgettable chapter to arguably the most memorable if only for what your mind is assaulted with. It carries an odd integrity, consisting more of half-formed ideas combined with the ambitions of a French madman.

The one (of many) stupid things that probably could have used a touch up was….this stupid thing.

Look at its stupid face.

And my problem is more of nitpick because this…thing is supposed to be a half xenomorph/half human hybrid….even though the xenomorph is already supposed to be a half human hybrid. That said, I give it a pass because we get to see it die in a fashion that remains unmatched in the annals of cinema.

An element worth commendation that the movie never really executes is how it finally somewhat explores  the series-long thread of weaponizing the xenomorph. There’s a truly unsettling scene early on where the military is “farming” the aliens with live, human hosts they’ve essentially kidnapped. Unfortunately really never goes too in-depth with this aspect. It’d be interesting if a future movie examined this further.

While Resurrection is probably the weakest movie of all four, it features enough strong scenes like the one I just mentioned to keep it from devolving into simple schlock. It’s a roundtable movie, demanding discussion that all fall prey to it.

So while far from perfect, the Alien franchise had submitted its place as perhaps the most diverse cinematic franchise up to that point in that each entry represented something new, something different, something exciting. No two entries were ever the same. They didn’t always land, but they were distinct. In a world where studios are more concerned with consistency and inter-connecting episodic threads rather than something so risky, these movies would be downright revolutionary. 

Then Ridley Scott came back and fucked everything up…

Perhaps it’s unfair to join the masses in beating a long dead horse, airing my complains about a movie I’ve made sure to harp on in the past so I’m going to be as concise as I can before I send you out on your way. I could dedicate more than a few thousand words regarding plot holes, but that would be screaming into the abyss at this point. Add in the fact redlettermedia took on that task much more eloquently and concisely than I ever could.

Unlike AliensPrometheus doesn’t take risks with tone. It plays things safe, something no other entry had done up to that point. I can’t really stand on a chair above it, pretending I know what would have made a better movie or even that it’s a lazy movie. The production design and effects, for what they’re worth, clearly had a lot of effort put into them. It’s nice to say basic effort at least carried over where the visuals were concerned.

It would be unfair to say the movie is without merit and had it nothing to do with the world Scott helped begin all those decades ago, I’m sure my displeasure with it would have been tempered. In fact, I may have even enjoyed it a little bit more…not by much, but at least a little. The notion of Scott returning to a genre he helped define was enough to make one giddy. However it instead came off as Scott painting-by-numbers rather than be the innovator we all know him to be.

It was Alien but with a shittier coat of paint. Sure, it looks nice and new but the old layer hadn’t remotely begun to chip yet. There’s nothing distinctly praise-worthy about Prometheus outside of its visuals, a couple of half-baked unanswered questions and Michael Fassender’s turn as the android David, a character so developed and nuanced he’s a disservice to everyone else who comes off as flat and one-dimensional.

The comparisons to its forebear would have been there with Scott’s involvement alone but instead its hitched its trailer to a franchise it initially appears to share very little connective tissue with outside of its hard R-rating. I think this can possibly be faulted to pre-release build up that really wasn’t clear whether the film was indeed a prequel rather than a science fiction in the same vein as Alien. Given we now know it is a prequel, I believe comparisons are completely fair.

I hate accusations that a lot of hardcore Alien fans dismiss this movie because it “breaks from the formula.” This is something Scott has said in promoting the newest film, adding this is what led to said film’s creation and implying he’s “giving us what we want to see.”

I’ll get into it more in a bit, but this is probably the thing that enrages me most about Prometheus as a whole. It suggests we want to be spoon-fed rather than surprised. I could be wrong given how much money movies like the Beauty and the Beast remake make every year. It suggests audiences typically only want the same thing time after time. Sure, we love familiarity but there’s room for new stuff too…he said kind of simplistically.

Well if you want the same thing, look no further than Prometheus; a movie that could best be described as if Alien thought its audience consisted of nothing but morons. Where Alien had characters that felt like actual people, Prometheus “elevates” itself with dialogue no human being (not even a scientist) would utter.

Maybe it just falls back to personal preference. Where the characters in Alien were largely concerned about things like overtime and pay checks, the Prometheus crew are concerned with intangible concepts. “Is there a God?’ “Who made us?” “Why did he/she/it make us?” “Did I leave the stove light on?” These are not inherently boring ideas. They could be pretty interesting if framed properly. But Prometheus doesn’t really go for that. It largely hinges on the mystery. But in asking so many questions, it never really feels the need to answer any of them, leading to frustration. In a way, it undermines what made the original so great in the first place, complicating things that shouldn’t be all that complicated.

And it extends to matters beyond just dialogue as well. Whenever a new threat presents itself, the crew of the Nostromo make a point to map out to a degree their next course of action and in turn this allows us a chance to know them specifically as characters. The Prometheus crew, which I must remind you we are led to believe is a group of trained scientists that represent the highest potential in their respective fields (otherwise why else would they be recruited for potentially THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT DISCOVERY OF ALL TIME), lumber around like idiots, never really taking any time to discuss any intimidate action. We’re granted plenty of questions, but literally no payoff.

Hence my lack of excitement for the impending release of Alien: Covenant, yet another entry by Scott. From the grapevine I hear word that it is a soft reboot, meaning it is a reboot in everything but name so therefore could also be considered a prequel and/or sequel. There’s connective threads to what came before, but everything else is entirely new. Think of the Force Awakens, Jurassic World or the movie I just got done bitching about Prometheus as recent examples.

I have yet to see it, but I predict my reaction may be akin to how I gradually felt about Jurassic World, another soft reboot. I’m excited at first, seeing a franchise return to its roots but cools every single time I watch afterword.

Given it’s attached to Prometheus (thereby….sigh….attaching the two franchises), I also assume it’s a prequel. If there’s anything I didn’t need it was where the xenomorph came from. Maybe I’m in the minority here, but this is a monster that was much more interesting when my mind was allowed to fill in the gaps. Given they’re creatures that we’re not really ever asked to feel sympathy for (well, most of the time), in what instance is an origin needed.

One of the great joys in Alien is our characters land on LV-426, find a downed space ship they know nothing about. All we know is some insane parasitic creature has killed everyone on said ship, thereby making the jump to humans. Who is to say what they originally looked like? That’s never been a question lingering in my mind. I always viewed as this brilliant/terrifying coincidence that humans ran into this species at all. And as kaptainkristian pointed out so truthfully in his video essay, this is a creature we understand without any explanation. Thanks to the design, we fundamentally understand all three life stages of the xenomorph without all our characters gathered around a table to exposit each stage’s purpose.

And that’s why it sucks (to me) why Scott has saw fit to apparently take this series back under his wing, favoring a unified vision rather than experimentation. I fear we’re only going to get the same variation of the same movie year after year, joining the rank-and-file series it once set itself apart from. This isn’t to say I’m not in favor of a director overseeing an entire series. Without going down the entire list we have Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, James Gunn with the Guardians of the Galaxy and Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy for some prime examples. I’m simply arguing we could use more room for franchises that mix things up by letting new directors with different visions mess around and not in the same way as the James Bond series does, a franchise so beholden to its own formula it’s a point of humor in later installments.

Imagine how much more interesting if the Pirates of Caribbean series would have been if it ditched an over-arching narrative in favor of new directions with each entry? Much like the Back to the Future films, it dedicated its second and third to go hand-in-hand, leading to two movies that just sort of bleed into another without each really making a substantial impression. Whereas I argue the latter BtF films are marginally better, Pirates kept going after its original trilogy and appears to be going for something I’d initially consider a step in the right direction. Unfortunately it kind of comes too late. On Stranger Tides was so forgettable I struggle to remember a single thing that happened in or if I saw it all, and Dead Men Tell No Tales looks to be in the same vein. What that series could have benefited from is a new director each time, maybe focusing on someone other than Jack Sparrow and ditching a traditional arc; opting instead to bring us to new locales and adventures each outing.

This all wraps into why I’m here today, making a case for a series many dismiss as formulaic when in fact it’s a franchise (that once) was something special, something that changed from movie in the way a musical artist plays around with different genres; artists like Kanye West, Childish Gambino, Lady Gaga, David Bowie, Gorillaz and Bob Dylan.

I think we’ve largely grown complacent with sequels that barely register as mildly entertaining, and for what’s worth that’s not exactly the worst thing, but it also doesn’t really get the blood-pumping in a serious way either.

When you look back at the original four Alien films, you see a new vision each time. You see risk rather than safe, lazy imitation. For all its faults, Fox inadvertently created a highly, unique franchise (something that’s clear given they kept trying to bring back Scott and Cameron throughout the years), set apart from just about anything else of its scale in the Western studio system.

Does everything work? No. Not by a long shot but in a cinescape dominated by the “safe” and “episodic” there should still be room for a series that doesn’t adhere to a code, and mixes things up even if there are mistakes. So what if every beat doesn’t always land when the jump was completely watchable?

I argue these movies are anything but formulaic. There may be beats you expect, but tonally they could not be any more different. They match the tastes of four incredibly masterful and diverse directors, each sporting an entirely different feel than the last.

I can’t sit here and tell you what I want out of an Alien movie because my “dream Alien film” is one that I wouldn’t expect or at the very least one that is set apart from its predecessors. It would be one that does what this series and its monster (used) to do best: evolve.

Like (36 Chambers) or Fresh Cream, ‘Free Fire’ is a testament to the ensemble

The “fun” thing about transitioning to a “Do almost every movie I see” model of reviewing to a “Do it when I feel like it” model is it let’s me wax poetic about movies I actually have something to say about. Now that doesn’t mean I’m going to write anything transcendent or meaningful.

I’m just free to come and go as I please. Can’t promise that’ll translate to “better” posts all in all, but you may notice I am a bit more upbeat when I put them out.

Or not.

Who really cares?

Free Fire is a movie that’s been on my radar for almost a year now. I caught the trailer at a screening of Swiss Army Man (another A24 release) but there was no release date attached at that point. I guess it would be fair to say I keep my eye out for the A24 logo on just about anything really to be honest. A lot of that goes hand-in-hand with their remarkable track record, particularly in the low key genre films the studio distributes.

It must be said that I don’t think there is a company out there continually distributing mini-genre masterpieces at the same frequency as A24. I mean let’s look at some of their picks: Under the Skin, The Rover, Ex Machina, Slow WestMississippi Grind, The Witch, Green Room, The Monster and The Blackcoat’s Daughter to name just a few. And those are just what I’d consider their genre films. Least we forget they’re also behind bringing Room and Moonlight to the masses.

So it could almost go without saying that I was hoping for another home run with Free Fire, given not only A24’s interest in it and it’s brilliantly simple “I can’t believe this hasn’t been made before” premise but also the involvement of writer/director Ben Wheatley and just about every name listed in the cast. Having Martin Scorsese on as a producer only sweetened the pot as it were.

It may even be fair to say this paralleled my excitement levels for The Last Jedi, if not even surpassing it.

So was the hype met? Does A24 have another genre classic on their hands?

Unfortunately it falls a pretty sizable distance from of something I’d consider iconic. HOWEVER it is a ton of fun and a movie I could definitely foresee becoming a cult classic within a few years, played at 1 a.m. in dorm rooms around the country, the smell of herbal substances and Cheetos hanging in the air. And this is by no means a shot at the film. In a way I think that’s what it was going for. The plot never gets all that complicated and our characters aren’t exactly the most complex. What you see is what you get, and for what it is, it works.

The plot:

“Set in Boston in 1978, a meeting in a deserted warehouse between two gangs turns into a shootout and a game of survival.” – IMDb.com

The review: 

You look at bands like Cream or the Wu-Tang Clan; groups that made of considerable talent, with each individual member being a star in their own right.

Much can be said about the cast of Free Fire. 

We have Brie Larson for starters, who at 27 already has a much-deserved Academy Award. Props to Larson for not just cashing in, but continuing to strengthen her resume with massive blockbusters while still allowing herself to get her hands dirty with smaller films like this. She’s an actress I hope stays interesting as her career continues and even though she already has an Oscar, I hope we are far away from seeing her peak.

Then you fill in the gaps with the likes of Shartlo Copley, Cillian Murphy and Armie Hammer. All three of those guys are movie stars, turning in consistently solid work regardless of the quality of the project they’re in. Copley in particular is an actor who feels as if he should be on the A-list but opts to go for weirder, more memorable genre roles.

There’s handful of up-and-comers mixed with long-standing favorite character actors too. Standing alongside our marque talent we’ve got the MVP of last year’s Sing Street, Jack Reynor as well as Babou Ceesay, Enzo Cilenti, Sam Riley and Noah Taylor.

And who could forget Michael Smiley, or as he’s known in this household…

Possibly my absolute favorite thing about Free Fire outside of the bullet-ridden lunacy is that Wheatley doesn’t subject our lower-tier names to the sidelines. They’re placed forefront and center right alongside everyone else.

I am in no way accusing any one on this film of having an ego; this isn’t a Fast & the Furious movie. That’s a movie with stars, each with a contract I assume requires a certain allotted amount of screen-time, citing who gets to punch who and which person wins which fight.

I keep emphasizing this group effort because too often we see movies with large casts but they typically serve mainly to elevate one or two within the pool. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this mind you. I just truly appreciated how this movie didn’t have a star (singular); it has stars (plural). All our guys (and girl) feel equally integral to the story and they all elevate scenes rather than steal them.

In a movie like this, there isn’t a need for lengthy character development. Our cast of miscreants aren’t exactly the most lovable crayons in the box, if you catch my meaning. Setting the film in the 1970’s was another nice touch as it makes them think outside the box in terms of getting out of the shootout, providing at least the bare minimum of tension given they don’t have cell phone access. 

It’s a very silly movie with each of our characters serving as bullet sponges before they finally go down. For what that’s worth, I think that worked fine here for the most part. Sure, that kind of alleviates some the tension, knowing that your characters can’t really die at any moment instead straddling the suspension of disbelief as they take more and more damage without immediately bleeding out. 

This serviced the black, sort of wacky tone for me however, and I don’t think Wheatley and company were seeking any form of higher truth when crafting this movie. I could be wrong, but a movie like this isn’t going to solve many problems outside of entertaining you.And it does help that they DO actually seem to take damage with each hit, something I’ve harped on in the past. 

I guess that leads me to Wheatley himself. It’s been said many times before, but there is absolutely no consistency between this man’s films and I’m not referring to the quality. He may just be the most prolific director we have working right now. On the whole, I generally think most of his output is pretty damn spectacular. No, I’m speaking to the fact that all of his movies are widely different in terms of tone, look, approach, themes, etc. If you go in blind with no information provided as to what the connection is, you may be hard-pressed to determine what exactly the link is if forced to watch his library back-to-back. For example his last film, High Rise, dealt with big, lofty science fiction ideas. Where that film felt like Wheatley striving for Kubrick, Free Fire is his best take on Tarantino. The ending, in and off itself, might as well be a director nod to Reservoir Dogs and warehouse setting. Although this movie is much more violent and much less cruel.

Representing his first straight up foray into action, Wheatley does his best to keep the camera comprehensible before the bullets start zipping every which way. However, and somewhat disappointingly, he lacks the finesse of a John Woo.  Free Fire is more akin to a sloppy game of paintball with live rounds than a carefully orchestrated bullet opera.

Still, I guess some confusion keeps in tune with carelessness of our characters, who can’t even always remember who’s shot whom or which side to which they fall. Credit again to the uniformity of the stellar cast for keeping things light and falling perfectly in line with Wheatley’s black-comedic sensibilities, particularly Copley who may just represent a made in heaven actor-to-director match up Wheatley could draw upon for his future endeavors.

I think if I were to point to any sort substantial criticism to the flick, I’d say it lacks sequences. What I mean by that is I remember a handful of quick moments and lines, but the second half of this film is what equates to an extended action sequence. There’s not really any downtime and that sequence is largely made up of the following: characters shoot at each other for a bit mixed with some quips, the recover, change places and then shoot at each other again. Rinse and repeat about 10 or 20 more times. I’ll stress that the only point this kind of becomes monotonous is during the middle chapter where the threat of a sniper (or snipers?!) brings the momentum to an almost screeching halt as our characters are actually pinned down.

Wheatley’s prolific nature also serves as a double-edged sword as the film kind of lacks a director’s unique voice, something I was kind of hoping for.

I mentioned earlier how Wheatley likes to venture into new territory with each new film, which is all fine and well but that also means he lacks a definitive style. Compare this to other directors at (what I’d consider) Wheatley’s “precipice of mainstream” level like Jeremy Saulnier. Free Fire certainly has personality but its the personality of directors that influenced Wheatley, not Wheatley taking the proverbial baton and putting his own spin on it. At leas that’s how I interpreted it because, as I’ve said, I don’t really  have handle on what Wheately’s voice is exactly.

So Free Fire may not have blown my hair back in the way I wanted it to, but I still had plenty of fun watching it so in that it was successful. It’s something I’d fit in the category of “Hey gang! It’s 2 a.m. and we’re drunk. Let’s put on a movie.” And as far as I’m concerned, the world could always use more movies like that.