Sweet ’16: 25 of the best films from the worst year ever (that I actually saw)

Man…

2016 was the pits.

Sure, there was some good moments here and there but what a stinker. It wasn’t a complete bust but my goodness did the lows seem extra low this year or was it just me.

Anyway, it’s almost at an end and unfortunately we can’t even celebrate because 2017 is shaping up to be even more of a shit storm.

As it is the end of the year, those of us with a passing interest in movies are mandated to regale the uninterested masses of what we think were the best and worst the year had to offer cinematically. So guess we should get started…let’s the worst out of the way first because boy howdy there were a ton this year. First off…

You know what?

Fuck that.

It’s time to be positive for just a few minutes.

So guess what?

I’m going to completely forgo a “Worst of” list this year, because frankly this year is the embodiment of a “Worst of” list OUTSIDE of the cinema. It wasn’t even a bad year all in all as far movies were concerned. Yeah, some of the big releases ranged from disappointing to absolute garbage wrapped in burning hair. But that’s every year.

And you know what else?

Not even going to bother with ranking movies either. Why make things that are awesome compete?

This year was all about the lingering factor. Which were the movies that really stayed with me rather than bleed into the background?

Now, as I am not a professional critic I have neither the time or resources to see every movie under the sun. Being smack-dap in the midwest doesn’t help either. That said, at the time of publication, I have yet to see critical darlings like Manchester by the Sea, Hell or High Water and Toni Erdmann. I have however, through connections or sheer happenstance, been able to expand the variety of movies I actually got to see in theaters this year. So I am “proud” of that at the very least.

I also don’t get too deep into individual plot specifics here so A) if what I have to say about the movie intrigues you but you’d like to know more, I recommend you watch the trailer and B) there won’t be any spoilers for those worried about such things.

Said individuals may rejoice and thank me later.

Said individuals may rejoice and thank me later.

I also spend significantly less time on those I’ve already reviewed. I’ve provided links to those aforementioned reviews because well…I like attention.

Let’s say goodbye to the bad for just a little bit, and embrace everything that there was to love about 2016…at the local movie theater at least.

Some honorable mentions:

Hail, Caesar! 

Midnight Special 

The Jungle Book   (Full review here.)

Captain America: Civil War  (Full review here.)

Sing Street

Rats 

The Neon Demon 

Tickled

Star Trek Beyond 

Kubo and the Two Strings 

Into the Inferno

Hacksaw Ridge 

Amanda Knox 

Moana 

20th Century Women 

Green Room

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If I were to pick any film to watch over and over again from this year, I think Green Room stands at the precipice. By no means a “fun” movie, Green Room is the best movie John Carpenter never directed. It’s Die Hard by way of Assault on Precinct 13 as it borrows the same basic concept: good guys (represented by a desperate band of wannabe punk rockers) trapped on the inside with the bad guys (a legion of Nazi skinheads led by ubermensch Patrick Stewart) on the outside.

Jeremy Saulnier’s third feature shows no mercy to its characters or its audience. There’s a moment that I feel will go down as iconic as it never fails to illicit a guttural reaction from whomever I watch the film with. It involves a box cutter, exposed belly and a point of no return.

As he did with Blue Ruin, Saulnier emphasizes the frazzled, hapless and mistake-prone eccentricities of his protagonists and isn’t afraid to make its characters look scared and weak and powerless and recognizably human; something I’ve harped on in the past.  This focus on pure desperation—as opposed to a Gary and/or Mary Sue-level of competence, provides for more tense scenarios as well as a much-needed shot in the arm of genre-filming altogether. Or in this case, a few HORRIBLY-REALISTIC lacerations to it. (Quasi-spoilers.) When violence comes (and boy does it) the actors don’t treat it like mosquito bites in the way the Fast and the Furious crew would.

It’s also really important to note that Green Room truly is a gift from the genre gods, deliveries from whom seem all too rare these days. It is at once both a nasty, down-and-dirty midnight movie made an actual filmmaker, aware of both the people and location he is cascading in gore. 

Moonlight

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Real talk: I went into Moonlight expecting to hate it. Well…hate is a harsh word I guess. But I’ve been burned by word-of-mouth festival darling award bait more than once these past couple of years (see Boyhood and The Revenant). Pretty important to also note that I have no business being pretentious about which movies I think do and don’t deserve Oscars, Golden Globes or what have you and you should attach no weight to my opinions on that matter either.

The final film however is, by and large, the movie I’d argue is objectively the most proficient of the year. In that every single thing about it is top notch. From acting to score, lighting to pacing, there is not a chink to be found in Moonlight‘s seemingly flawless armor.

Following a “3-Act of a Life” model most recently evoked by last year’s Steve Jobs, we are shown three vignettes in the life of Chiron, a closeted young man who struggles through a variable gambit of themes. As with Boyhood, we get different chapters in a young man’s life. This time however played by three different actors. Unlike Boyhood however, Moonlight actually tells an interesting/compelling story. While they may not look that much a like, the three (Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders and Alex Hibbert respectively) create a wholly singular performance that is absolutely astounding in consistency and attention to detail. 

If one were to place it in a box, one could define it as about being black or being gay, but writer/director Barry Jenkins has a made movie accessible to anyone unable to articulate his or her desires.

I also adored the way this movie played against stereotypes and/or audience expectations. Take Mahershala Ali’s Juan, a drug dealer. One automatically equates that character-type as someone who will send Chiron down the wrong path. Refreshingly however, things are much less clear cut than that. The same could be said of Chiron’s mother, played by Naomie Harris, a woman with clear demons but more complex shades than simply “uncaring parent.” Harris is also dynamite here; providing, for my money, the best performance of the year.

The Witch

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For full review. 

As perfect as horror movie can be. That’s my quick summation of 2016’s best horror film, although a terror film would probably be a more apt description given the film’s lengthly slow build as it favors a slow build over a cavalcade of jump scares.

It’s an incredibly small story, made large by its astonishing attention to detail. Its opening title card, The VVitch, being an early indicator of just how dedicated first-time writer/director Robert Eggers is to conveying 17th Century Puritan life.

Don’t Breathe 

For full review. 

While we’re on the topic of superior horror, let’s knock out Don’t Breathe while we’re at it. Don’t Breathe is much more in line with The Witch than initial appearances may let on. True, it’s more inclined to fun-house horror, unafraid to go for a cheap jump scare here and there. It’s strength however clearly relies on good-ol’ fashioned tension.

It’s a dumb movie made by a smart filmmaker. Yes the characters make largely stupid decisions. Yes it tampers with your suspension of disbelief. Like a master trapeze artist, director Fede Alvarez walks the line masterfully.  

Arrival 

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If I were to attach a “I NEEDED this movie” title to anything out of this year, it’d be Arrival. Two days after one of the most divisive election years in this nation’s history (the results of which leave me with little hope for the future), we get a science fiction film that ditches bombast and stupidity in favor of actual thought; for conversation, something I think we can all agree will be increasingly important (yet unfortunately neglected) over the next few years.

Denis Villeneuve, director of such feel good films as Prisoner and Sicario, doesn’t automatically bring about catharsis any viewers mind when attending one of his pervious movies. But much like David Fincher (the filmmaker I find to be the closest to Villeneuve in terms of the approach both men take to their projects), the guy is a film-making chameleon. Arrival represents the director’s most uplifting output to-date. 

The film owes a bit to those that came before (Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Contact spring to mind) and some of the grandiose posing of the blockbusters of Christopher Nolan, yet another director whose career Villeneuve seems poised to emulate. Where Nolan stumbled (in my opinion) with Interstellar in a narrative sense, Arrival soars. While there are little action sequences (something I’m 100% behind, I assure you), the movie thrillingly executes sequences that equate to simply two characters/beings trying to converse with on another.

The only part in which it stumbles that I can recall is when it harkens the cliche of ignorant military guys acting stupidly. Some of this works (and unsettlingly predictive given our incoming president-elect), while others involving a coup fell a little flat for me. Arrival‘s successes equate to much more than the sum of its (very minor) failings however.

I’ve heard rumblings of the twist being predictable and undeserved to which I wave a dismissive hand. Predictable or not, the turn that comes around the third act serves a higher purpose.

All of this resting on the considerable laurels of Amy Adams, an actress more deserving of Oscar gold than any other in her current peer group. Rooting for her to finally nab the Best Actresses gold that has long eluded her and for a role in a science fiction movie no less. 

Swiss Army Man 

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For full review. 

I kind of have to eat my words looking back as I boast this would be the most singular cinematic experience of 2016.

Forgive me as I had not seen or heard of The Greasy Strangler yet. But more on that in a bit.

Swiss Army Man is so many things that it almost demands a thesis paper. This while also being a stupid buddy comedy about a corpse that farts and has a boner compass. It’s an onion of a movie with so many layers that I argue it should remain almost undefinable, both in meaning and genre.

The Nice Guys 

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The Nice Guys makes the cut simply on the sheer power of charm and likability but would you expect any less from a Shane Black film? The plot is almost unnecessary when you’re operating with dialogue and characterization of such caliber.

I’ve heard talk that some may have found this movie boring as there aren’t that many action scenes in it and the ones that are in it primarily revolve around guys shooting at each other.

The meat of the movie truly is the way in which our leads are characterized and interact. Similar to Green Room, a lot of what Nice Guys does right can also be directly attributed to how much our heroes fuck up albeit a lot more comedic in tone in this case.

As it lacks the manic energy of Black’s earlier film, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the film does get weighted down in its unneeded complexity from time to time. Nice Guys does best when it sticks to leads Russell Crowe (who turns out can do comedy…quite well in fact) and Ryan Gosling (who appears to do literally anything he puts his mind to). When it sticks to those two (with appearances by Gosling’s character’s teenage daughter played by the excellent Angourie Rice), the movie is pure, Black dynamite.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople 

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Another film that basically snuck up on me. In this case, I hadn’t even seen the trailer. I simply saw writer and director Taika Waititi’s name attached and thought I’d give it a shot. Waititi, whose credits include last year’s phenomenally funny What We Do In the Shadows, carries over his trademark oddball wit here all while successfully melding it with the growing pains struggles he embed with another critical favorite of his, Boy.

Given the film prominently features Sam Neill running around in woods, it plays a little like Jurassic Park minus one kid and dinosaurs. Waititi also does a commendable job at meeting the needs of a larger budget. The writer/director’s next project is a Marvel film; something I wouldn’t automatically peg him for given his penchant for the smaller scale.

Newcomer Julian Dennison is an acquired taste as far “cute movie kids” go, a choice that I believe was entirely deliberate. He balances the fine line between making Ricky both likable and exasperating. Even the cavalcade of fat jokes that seem to come his way land more as good-natured ribbing rather than straight-up bullying due to Dennison’s impressive confidence.

Something I’m sure you’ll notice (or already have by this point as I am basically the most predictable person you’re likely to meet) is that this year I put a heavy emphasis on genre (or subgenre) films because that is where my interest in movies is largely focused. This is the fifth one to appear on this list and it won’t be the last.

An old man paired with a cute kid is a movie we’ve seen time and time again. It’s basically a genre onto itself at this point. Wilderpeople doesn’t break the mold, but it provides a perspective all while being 100% entertaining; and that’s really all you can ask from a market with seemingly hundreds of other films with similar premises are vying for attention. In that regard, Waititi’s film stood above the pack.

Tower 

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As is the case with any given year, I am late to catch most documentaries. Unless its a Netflix exclusive, they’re rather hard to catch playing out here in the middle of nowhere…that is unless their far-right docs like Hillary’s America or for the more insane, Vaxed. Luckily due to the wonderful Oklahoma City Museum of Art however, I was able to catch Tower not just once but twice.

Too often we forget whenever a deranged lunatic commits murder on a gun, we lose sight of the brave men and women on the ground. In other words, at times humanity’s best is often highlighted when we are very best. This is the essence of  Director Keith Maitland’s quasi-documentary Tower. The film centers around the horror inflicted by former Marine Charles Whitman, who ascended the clocketower at the University of Texas on August 1, 1966, and proceeded to shoot 49 people, killing 15.

Maitland opts to stick close to the ground as it were, relying on moment-by-moment testimony from those that were there. There’s never a voice over to connect the dots as it were. Only inter-spliced individual perspective woven together to provide a larger picture. Given the unfortunately common place of such incidents these days, Maitland finds an effective way of conveying just how utterly surreal the experience was at the time. Combining archival footage with newly shot dramatic re-creations, presenting the latter as black-and-white rotoscoped animation (with occasional flashes of color),Maitland blends retrospective interviews with survivors and police officers, though their words are largely spoken (as well as their actions on the day in question) by much younger actors.

Perhaps the boldest move however is that Maitland dedicates virtually no time to the gunman, whose own story is perhaps interesting enough to warrant its own film.  The argument for this is simple enough however: Nobody on the ground knew who was shooting at them, so why should we?

If I were to have a nitpick it would be the inclusion to a closing montage of recent shootings from Columbine to Sandy Hook if only because it seemed unnecessary as Tower never came off as a lament or plea for sanity.

While they are all vital reactions to gun violence, this movie offers something equally valuable: the terrified perspective of the average person, who sometimes look past their fear and take actions that remind us why life is worth living in the first place harkening back to that iconic tried but true quote by the invaluable Fred Rogers:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping 

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The movie I have hands-down quoted the most this year. Bar none. Also the catchiest soundtrack in a year of catchy soundtracks some of which are also represented on here. It’s also great for my generation’s Top 40-obsessed mentality its own Spinal Tap.

 There honestly isn’t too much to say as this is a straight up comedy, an area I absolutely hate writing about. What can I say? The Lonely Island brand of comedy speaks to me, and this is the trio working on a scale way beyond Hot Rod, another movie I feel as if I quote on a daily basis. It doesn’t hurt that just about every pop parody is as equally catchy as any of the real things on your iPod.

The Lobster

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Another film I was fairly late to the draw on as well as on where I fell on actually liking it.

I include it, not because I loved it, but more than any other film this year, it lingered in my psyche long after I finished it and continues to do so now. I’d be a stone-cold liar however if I claim to “get” every little nook and cranny however.

Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos presents a scenario that could easily have been an extended Black Mirror episode, albeit with more laughs and less technology. Staring an effectively cast-against type Colin Farrell, The Lobster posits a world, not too unlike our own, in which societal pressure to seeks companionship and settle down is all encompassing. Quite literally in this case as those that fail to do so are hunted down and turned into animals. It places an unforgiving mirror to our dating, engagement obsessed society. 

More than just a witty parody of meaningless, shallow couplehood, The Lobster is much more probing in how it delves deeper into the strange and cruel world it establishes, ultimately questioning whether two people can truly love one other on any meaningful terms rather than those forced upon them. As you laugh, you may notice you’ve curled up into a bawl and tears slowly emerge from your eyes. 

OJ: Made in America 

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File this under “I’ve seen a number of other reviewers include it on their lists so I’m going to too.”

While technically a miniseries, OJ: Made in America is under consideration for a number of best documentary awards, so fuck it, it is a documentary and more than qualified to be featured here.

It’s a five-hour sprawling epic, unparrelled in scope and content regarding the subject on-hand, much less about the crime in question and more about the much larger context of American class divisions and the ingrained biases in the American legal system. Yes, Simpson’s trial is covered extensively but I’d say that only makes up half of the beast. We also get the best look yet of who OJ Simpson is as a person as well. And it ain’t pretty.

What makes this documentary so effective (to me at least) is that, much like Tower, it doesn’t bold-face any of its messages and rather lets subjects speak for themselves. Director Ezra Edelman, his editors and researchers mostly let people tell their own stories, in full and uncensored, and then find pertinent archival material to support said testimony. 

It’s a film about how a story changes depending on how it’s framed.

Was the Simpson case about the fall of a beloved athlete or the death of a scared and battered woman? Was it about how the media narrowly focused to recognize widespread patterns of injustice? Is it about our tendency to force a narrative onto messy real-life events, distancing us from the truth? These are uncomfortable, yet necessary questions, choses to leave at our feet rather than answer outright. 

The film is journalistic marvel; something to be shown in law and journalism classes in the years to come. 

High-Rise 

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As with The Lobster, I was a fan of High-Rise right away…I think. No wait. Maybe? Okay, give me a second. Hmmm….was I? Yes. Yes. YES. Wait. No. Yes. Of course. Maybe.

I’ve never read J.G. Ballard’s novel, but I bet it is one that has been considered un-filmable for decades. This movie is DENSE in the way only a movie adopted from a DENSE novel can be so it’s fair to say the end result isn’t going to be for everyone.

The apocalypse comes quick in High Rise; so fast in fact that I felt an almost visual whiplash, a decision I wasn’t 100% on board with initially. It’s as if the film’s entire second act was cut out. There’s barely any transition between order and chaos outside of a brief montage, and it took a 2nd viewing for me to get the point. Societies can devolve to ruin so quickly that people simply accept the rubble as the new status quo.

Of cult English director Ben Wheatley’s other films, I’ve only seen Kill List, a movie I really liked for the most part but was more lukewarm towards once it entered the last act. With High Rise, Wheatley plays heavy with allegory, setting the film against the cultural nightmare of Thatcher’s England. Take a scene where our de facto “protagonist” Dr. Laing (a very, very good Tom Hiddleston) peels back the face of a cadaver, revealing the ugly bone and muscle underneath. All that glitters indeed.

I’ve heard it anarchically referred to as a “vertical Snowpiercer,” as the two films revolve primarily around class warfare. I’d argue the two are very different however with only fleeting similarities. Wheatley really avoids anything that could be considered a point of view. I only name Laing the protagonist as Hiddleston is on the poster. Wheatley shoots a wide gaze on the titular 40-story high rise complex, which gets more than a little disorienting once the proverbial shit hits the fan. Things aren’t as simple as “rich on top” and “poor on bottom,” particularly once the puzzle pieces start to move, amalgamating into a cocktail of poignant surrealism, unforgettable imagery, claustrophobia and nightmares.

The Greasy Strangler 

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Where oh where do I even begin?

I really, truly and honestly thought nothing was evening going to come close to touching the coherent weirdness of Swiss Army Man. Then this thing creepily shuffled into the spotlight from out of a the filthy ally I presume it originated from.

The closest thing I can compare it to is Tim and Eric by way of John Waters. Processing it completely comes in various stages. First comes, “What the fuck did I just watch?” Followed closely by buoyant exuberance as you start quoting the film with your friends. The final stage, and most divisive, will be if you’ll ever come back for a second helping.

After a lot of thing and soul-searching, I’ve reached a conclusion:

Xenu, forgive me, I loved every second of it.

This is by no means a movie meant to please anyone. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to find many that I’d actually recommend it to. It’s main goal is to cause discomfort, and maybe just maybe you’ll be entertained…probably by accident. I still think my level of enjoyment was a fluke. I was torn between this and The Neon Demon as I enjoyed both for very similar reasons. Both are well-made trash, and I mean that in the highest regard.

WARNING: THE VIDEO BELOW IS ABSOLUTELY NSFW.

La La Land 

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It’s rather jarring to pivot from something like The Greasy Strangler to a film as classy and refined as La La Land, a film that I’m pinning down as Best Picture at next year’s Oscars. Those guys and gals just love acknowledging movies ABOUT making movies. Go figure.

As with Saulnier and Green Room and Eggers and The Witch, writer/director Damien Chazelle is a relatively young talent that has captured my attention so quick fast you’d think he’s been around much longer. His last film, Whiplash, is as perfect a movie as there can be.

I saw a lot of movies I enjoyed this past year, but I think La La Land deserves special credit for being so instantaneously enjoyable. I’d even go so far as to call it the movie I had the most fun watching this entire year. It certainly didn’t hurt I saw it in a theater equipped with recliners and heated seats. Within the first minutes and its opening music number, I knew this movie was going to have seriously TRY to make me hate it.

An utterly joyous throwback to the musicals of yesteryear (Singin’ in the Rain, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), Chazelle’s second feature serves as perfect companion piece to Whiplash, both films being testaments to artistic ambition. (La La Land notably being the more positive of the two by a large margin.) There’s also an emphasis placed on balancing relationships with the tough, often crushing business of following one’s dreams. The 10 minute epilogue is so pleasing yet simultaneously bittersweet that shockwaves of feeling ripple backwards through the whole extravagant production.

It also fortunately capitalizes on the bottled lightening that is the chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, in what is their third time out as love interests. They make for a couple that you actually root for, their past shared onscreen relationships only building on that credibility. Stone in particular carries a lot of the weight on her shoulders, in regards to acting and singing chops. The movie owes so much to her La La Land feeds off her heartache and elation. In playing a wannabe starlet, Stone achieves movie-star transcendence.

And we haven’t even gotten to the songs. While I could always use more of the old song and dance (particularly when they are all as good as the ones written by Pasek and Paul with a absolutely gorgeous score by Chazelle’s film school buddy, Justin Hurwitz), but I rather enjoyed each. Neither Gosling or Stone have the strongest singing voices but their imperfection is part of the point. This is a musical set out to acknowledge the discrepancy between spotlight fairy-tales daydreams about and our more blemished reality of wage-slave circumstances. In summation, the Los Angeles of movie screens versus the noisy, gridlocked, unforgiving “real” version. Also, good “City of Stars” out of your head. 

La La Land doesn’t really break the mold in a significant way. It’s simply good harmless ol’ fashioned entertainment that only a simple movie of its caliber can provide.

 Shin Godzilla

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Don’t get me wrong: I was a definitely a fan of Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Americanized attempt at a Godzilla picture. No country on earth quite has the same handle on the character (and giant monsters as a whole) quite like the Japanese however.

And every few years, Toho wakes up the jolly green giant to show us all how its down. There latest effort, the 29th to be exact, is perhaps the most surprising source of political satire and commentary of the year. Heading into a Godzilla film, you’re not exactly ready for biting political satire. They’re not really known for their humor either…well, intentional humor anyway. All that changes here.  It’s Veep taking place within a kaiju film, meaning while it isn’t a laugh-a-minute, the jokes that land do so in way that bites deeper than your standard food orgy or used tampon gag.

In one of the best/most clever visual gags of the year, we are bombarded with a new bureaucratic situation on a scene-per-scene basis with each introducing a new official with accompanying text giving their title. As the movie progresses, those titles get longer and longer, until one person’s title LITERALLY takes up half the screen. It’s a subtle joke, highlighting the flat out absurdity of not being able to attack a giant monster currently leveling the city because, as it moves from sea to land, there is no set consensus as to whose jurisdiction the campaign should fall under.

Co-directors Hideaki Anno (Neon Genesis Evangelion) and Shinji Higuchi (the lackluster Attack on Titan adaptations) also do an effective job at returning Godzilla back to his nuclear roots. In what must be a clear allusion to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, this iteration is mutated by nuclear waste dumped into the sea and is powered by nuclear fission. In a very Japanese touch, the ways in which to combat the monster are entirely communal; relying on many, rather than one lone solider. 

As with any of these movies, its far from perfect. It gets pretty dialogue heavy at points and its climax is a bit anticlimactic when stacked against some of the earlier set-pieces, but all these imperfections play into the larger charms of a proper Godzilla movie. 

Jackie

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Like Moonlight, I really wanted to write this one off.

I feel as if I’ve seen every variation of the biopic at this point. So forgive me when I’m not immediately chomping at the bits for yet another (what I assumed) standard piece on the life and times of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; particularly one starting Natalie Portman, an actress is really hit-or-miss to me as a performer.

Once again, I’m happy to report that I was super wrong and really should stop being a pretentious asshole.

Jackie offers something more impressionistic, focused primarily on how the first lady’s dealt with the death of President John F. Kennedy. We get a few flashbacks here and there on Mrs. JFK during her time in the White House, but as with the best biopics, the film focuses on single point in its subject’s impressive life rather than a jukebox of their “greatest hits” as it were.

Direction aside, it’s Portman who really solidifies her place among the A-list in a performance that comes the closest to being iconic since her very first in Leon: The Professional and actually be just that (I’m sorry Black Swan lovers. I thought her output in that was largely overrated). As with Michael Fassbender’s largely underrated potrayal of Steve Jobs last year, it would be very easy to dismiss Portman’s characterization as a distracting impression. Couldn’t that be said of the real Jackie O though, a woman many can (and have) argued was simply playing a Kennedy.

Sure, the script gets a bit on the nose at times, but it takes the existential crisis at its center wholly seriously.

Silence 

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It’s should go without saying that Martin Scorsese would probably have to try his absolute best to turn in a movie that wasn’t at least worth watching two or three times at this point in his career. I honestly fear that it is cliche to just include on of his new movies on a “Best of” list without question. To be frank though, I was a little hesitant going into this one.

It looks for meaning in the contradictions and absurdities of faith, rather than its assurances. More obvious filmmakers would probably turn scenes of Christians being tortured and persecuted into pornographic spectacle. Ever the conflicted Catholic however, Scorsese instead (and more interestingly) shoulders the burden of our protagonists’ suffering.

It may not be a very fun movie, but it is an incredibly powerful one; Andrew Garfield’s less-than-perfect accent aside.

The Handmaiden 

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As with documentaries, I’m often late to the party when it comes to international cinema. If anything, it’s probably thing I’m most bitter about whenever I have to a year-end wrap up such as this because I feel as I’m only eating from the appetizers table when their is a whole host of a main course just around the corner.

To be frank, The Handmaiden is fucked up in every shade. But should one expect anything less from director Park Chan-Wook, author of such cinematic WTFs as Oldboy and the Vengeance Trilogy.

Based on “Fingersmith,” Sarah Waters’ novel of hidden identities and lesbian passion, Chan-Wook’s film transports the action to 1930’s South Korea. Now this isn’t a movie I’d be automatically be chomping at the bits to see and mainly gave it a shot purely based on Chan-Wook’s involvement. While it may sound like something akin to 50 Shades of Garbage, under the direction of an auteur at the level of its director The Handmaiden is pure Hitchcock.

I hate to get into plot specifics with this one because it really is all about the ride it takes you on. So you’ll just have to take my word on this one. Resting on standing performances from its two leads (Kim Min-Hee and Kim Tae-ri), The Handmaiden is a con-movie in all the right ways, all while being unafraid to tamper with conventions of the genre.

Pete’s Dragon

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For full review. 

Text book example of a remake done right. I’ve long maintained that Hollywood focuses on remake good movies instead of giving middling stories another shot with the vision of a new director. Sure, this is fiscally sound. People are often to flock to something they recognize fondly over a new version of something they didn’t like or forgot about the first time.

I think it’s safe to say that the original Pete’s Dragon isn’t many peoples’ favorite in relation to the massive, ever-growing Disney canon. Therefore it makes more sense to me to let someone else take a crack at it. Less risk, higher gains in relation to creativity and story innovation. (Unfortunately, this is the exact opposite financially so get used to beat-for-beat remakes of popular movies like…oh I don’t know…Beauty and the Beast? I don’t think I’ve seen that one remade enough. You?)

In many ways, it reminded me of Robert Altman’s Popeye or Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are; less a work-for-hire gig and more a genuine attempt to imbue children’s entertainment with a little more personality, a little more heart…some would accuse this of being boring and truth be told, Pete’s Dragon could have stood to be a little lighter. It’s never too grim, but its definitely darker than your standard Secret Life of Pets fluff. But so where a lot of the most memorable/best films of our youth.

I think its sole stumble is its villain, played here by the ever-underrated Karl Urban. He’s serviceable, but he comes off as almost one-dimensional in a film that is anything but. He’s definitely more misguided than mustache-twirler, but he could have stood to be more developed.

Zootopia 

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While we’re on the topic of Disney, the company’s global domination is well-under way and the fact there are other major studio releases to “compete” with them can simply be considered pity.

Out of all their major releases this year though (The Jungle Book, Captain America: Civil War, Finding Dory, Moana and Rogue One respectively), I feel as if Zootopia will be the one I come back to more frequently if only because at it could have have come out at a more appropriate time. Which surprised the hell out of me as the concept did not exactly inspire confidence in me.

The subtext on display isn’t exactly hidden, but isn’t exactly spoon-fed either refreshingly.

Near the beginning of the film, our protagonist Judy Hops (maybe the best Disney has provided in the past few years) protests: “A bunny can call another bunny cute, but when another animal does it…” She trails off, letting the resemblance to certain human distinctions hang in the air. 

Zootopia is often delightfully specific about said subtext, about the way different groups share certain spaces in the world, trying for peace (or at the very least, manageable harmony) but continuing to stumble over presumptions, stereotypes, and the often uncomfortable legacies of how things “used” to be. These are important, even hefty, lessons to place on kids 10 and under but what better year for Disney to put out a movie about understanding one’s neighbor, overcoming fears and so forth? Okay, so we all didn’t exactly get over all that stuff (don’t say the Trump word, Tyler, we’re being positive remember?) but this will be things that will become increasing important as times get scary, more volatile and even more divisive. Kudos to Disney for getting ahead of that with the perfect movie to open up those important conversations. 

Love & Friendship

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I feel like such a snobby tool for enjoying this movie as much as I did, but what can I say? It charmed the living hell out of me. I watched it on a whim, not expecting much, and remained completely absorbed throughout. An adaptation of Jane Austin’s “Lady Susan,” (no easy task given it’s a epistolary novel as well as material Austin herself didn’t intend to publish, only becoming available after her death) this isn’t really a movie I’d necessarily seek out either. Just check out this official synopsis:

“Recently widowed, Lady Susan arrives, unannounced, at her brother-in-law’s estate to wait out colorful rumors about her dalliances circulating through polite society. While there, she becomes determined to secure a new husband for herself, and one for her reluctant debutante daughter, Frederica, too. As Lady Susan embarks on a controversial relationship with a married man, seduction, deception, broken hearts, and gossip all ensue.”

Oh joy.

But credit where credit is due; this movie was just what I needed right when I saw it.

If anything, its nice to see Kate Beckinsale take a part that reminds us all of how lightening quick she can be as an actress and wear a wardrobe that consists solely of tight, black leather. (As a male, the latter is always fine but the movies in which she does this are anything but.) Everyone is on fire, but Beckinsale really is the main attraction here. She delivers cutting lines with the casual cheeriness of someone who can’t even conceive of caring what others might think of her and she’s just pure dynamite. In a fair world, she’d be in the same conversation with Adams and Stone for Best Actress come Oscar season.

It doesn’t hurt the movie is also a lot of fun. You don’t have to be an English major or literary snob either. I credit writer/director Whit Stillman, a man who seems adept at taking droll, quasi-pedantic material and making it easily digestible for someone as stupid as me. 

Special kudos must also be extended to Tom Bennett as Sir James Martin in what may be the best comedic performance of the year. Martin is a lovable doofus for the ages. Any competent actor could get a chuckle from a choice line, but it requires a special sort of auteur to be handed “How do you do?” and turn the basic response of “Very well, thank you” into something hysterical. Bennet does this by having Martin consider the question as if it were a riddle from the fucking Sphinx.

Gold.

Storks

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For full review. 

So there was a split decision among this, Star Trek Beyond and Captain America: Civil War. Don’t take this as anti-franchise snark but as awesome as it is to see how the well the Marvel characters have translated on the big screen as well as the closest thing we’ve gotten to an actual cinematic Star Trek yarn in well-over two decades, I tend to skew towards equally entertaining original material. In keeping with the oddball theme of 2016 and the movies that came out of the woodwork, I’d feel remiss if I’d reserve a special place for Storks. And let me stress this isn’t some ballsy attempt to “be different” or “standout.” I just fell in love with the zany world this movie sort of passes along like some sort of hot potato.

It made money to be sure, but it’s largely left the conversion. I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a torch bearer. That’s imply this movie is forgotten, when it fact it’s fair to call it a success. I just don’t want it to disappear. There’s so much to love here. It gives us a return to Looney Tunes-physics, something I feel has largely disappeared from major studio releases. Fast-paced, line-a-minute dialogue that comes from recording sessions involving multiple actors, another rarely utilized tool. It also provides the standout character of the year in Tulip (Katie Crown, in what I hope is a bright future in voice acting).

So if you happened to have missed Storks, I recommend seeking it out particularly if you’re an animation fan. I was a little harsher on it after my first viewing, but with each viewing since, I’ve softened on it considerable even growing to love this weird $70 million blip on the 2016 radar.

A Monster Calls 

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Cathartic.

That’s the one word I’d use describing both A Monster Calls and the the young adult novel upon which it is based.

Some accuse the movie of being…overly simplistic, even unsophisticated, in relation to its statements and themes on death, mourning and general grief. I accuse those who may do that of losing sight of the movie’s intended audience: children.

Having lost more than a few loved ones, some unexpectedly and others slowly, the film hit me in the same way the books did, something that rarely transfers over from page to screen. The plot follows your typical pre-teen fantasy formula: we have Connor, a young, artistic yet intrinsic boy, who feels alienated at school and at home, save from the relationship he shares with his terminally ill mother. Each night at 12:07 a.m., The Monster (voiced here by Liam Neeson at his growliest) arrives to tell a story that pertains to Connor’s current predicament. The Monster warns however that once these stories are done, Connor will have to tell his own story and it must be true…or he will suffer his worst nightmare.

The crux of why the film hit me deals largely in just how personal it feels, all while being universal as well; akin to movies like A Christmas Story or Stand By Me. It’s hard to say if the movie will do much for anyone else to me and it’d be easy to dismiss it as simple Oscar bait. If that is the case, I guess fell in hook-line and sinker. Watching it, I was reminded of a Guillermo del Toro, a director I could easily see Monster‘s J.A. Bayona emulating. (The two have worked together in the past, most notably Boyona’s terrific 2007 horror flick, The Orphanage.) Now I don’t think When Monster Calls ranks as high as a movie like Pan’s Labyrinth, but the same sort of magic is certainly there.

Weiner 

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I add this movie last as it was the toughest to include. Given the part Anthony Weiner ended up playing the 2016 election, I’m not exactly his biggest fan. Set aside his personal demons. Set aside he’s a massive piece of shit as a person. Set aside the massive disappointment he turned out to be. Remember that period where he had actual promise behind? I’m not from, nor have I ever been to, New York City but this guy’s heat was palpable and felt all the way out here from those who cared to pay attention.

It’s bad enough the guy trashed a promising political career derailed by a dumb Twitter sexting scandal. Then he went and did it again disappointing millions willing to look past his transgressions. Everyone loves a good comeback story after all, right? The filmmakers behind this doc obviously thought so originally.

A lot of what the movie does well is completely by accident. That isn’t a knock on the filmmakers at all. Co-directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg didn’t set out to document a scandal. This was a movie meant to give us rare insight to a political comeback.

They instead happened to be on the ground floor to be there right as the final nails in the coffin that was Weiner’s hope of a political career. It’s astounding at the level of access we are treated to, not all of it is pretty either. It’s a spiritual successor to War Room, perhaps the most important political documentary of all time. The most dramatic sequence takes place on election night. Weiner’s loss is basically assured. However as a publicity stunt, his sexting partner, Sydney Leathers, shows up at his concession speech to confront him and his wife, Humma Abedin, on camera. Th back and forth between Leathers and Weiner’s team as a potential confrontation approaches is genuinely nerve-wracking and one of the most tense of the year. 

Perhaps the best element of Weiner is that it doesn’t just put up a camera to the man himself but also the parties that took him apart. The filmmakers effectively indict the rivals, reporters, and cable hosts who seemed offended that Weiner stayed in the race and kept trying to talk about real issues. Weiner is at once about the downfall of a politician, but it’s also about the smugness and hypocrisy of those who took a politician down mainly because dick pics make better copy than substantive explanations about zoning laws.

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‘Rogue One’ looks great, thrilling even at times; all while failing to justify its own existence (SPOILERS)

By reading the title, I think one surmises I am going to be complaining just a tad throughout this view. Well, I wouldn’t say complaining. I’d say critiquing is a more applicable term.

I saved this for the end last time, but I’m going to address right at the jump now and (hopefully) keep it short: it is completely okay to like or dislike any given movie and it sucks to be criticized for falling in either category.

You don’t have to go that far back to see my views on the last film, which were mostly positive. I say that only because I don’t want to be accused of only liking old things or being some sort of Star Wars snob.

I’m not.

Or at least I don’t think I am.

I could be though?

I don’t think my views on the series as a whole are all that controversial either.

I love (for the most part) the original trilogy.

I don’t care for a large portion of the prequels.

I’m a huge fan of both The Clone Wars and Rebels animated series.

I LOVE Marvel’s recent revamp of Star Wars comics.

I grew up reading the AU material, and remember enjoying quite a bit of it.

So when I say I didn’t really care for a large portion of the new Star Wars movie, please don’t take it personally. I’m not attacking you or Star Wars.

One of the most interesting ideas about this movie (and its one I feel it almost achieves) speaks to the entire Star Wars-verse as a whole. This universe is HUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUGE. There are a crazy amount of stories, perspectives, arcs and what have you to explore and the story of how the rebels got the plans for the Death Star is one that immediately conjures interest, or at the very least a raised eyebrow.

The peak it must surpass is monumental however as the telling of that story is arguably pointless given we know the end. Therefore your approach must emphasize journey over destination in way that is actually satisfying. Adding color and levels to something that arguably did not need them in the first place. (See: the Star Wars prequels) To surmise, I wanted a movie that sucked me int to such a degree that I FORGOT that “Oh, of course the rebels win.” Also probably important to note that when I say useless, I don’t mean automatically bad. I mean it needs to be a story worth telling.

For me, this prequel did what most do and tell a story we know the ending to without justifying its reason for doing so.

Before diving in, it’s also important to note there will be spoilers peppered THROUGHOUT. I don’t think I reveal anything that huge but still be advised. There is no set spoiler section this time so enter at your own risk.

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The plot:

“Jyn Erso, a Rebellion soldier and criminal, is about to experience her biggest challenge yet when Mon Mothma sets her out on a mission to steal the plans for the Death Star. With help from the Rebels, a master swordsman, and non-allied forces, Jyn will be in for something bigger than she thinks.” – IMDb.com

The review:

Rogue One‘s biggest sin is its utter failure in convincing me to care about what was going on, and I think that relates right back to the rather flat cast of characters that round out our main team.

Jyn Erso, as played by the wonderful Felicity Jones, was perhaps the biggest disappointment for me overall, particularly in relation to her characterization. She’s posited as a quasi-Han Solo surrogate. Cocksure, stubborn, a scoundrel through and through. Oh wait. No. Sorry I’m describing Han Solo. Jyn Erso…is…hm….she’s….confident sometimes? She’s brave. And…stands by her beliefs? Right? Like near the half-way point, she starts doing that….for reasons? Really, and let me stress I cannot prove this, her character reeks of re-tooling from the much maligned and (allegedly) extensive reshoots from earlier this year. Her transition from “I don’t give a fuck” to…

…kind of comes out of nowhere. Sure, (utterly-wasted here) Forrest Whitaker TELLS us she has this backstory of a freedom fighter, but we don’t see that in action all that much. We get the sense that she’s a decent enough person given she saves a child at one point early on but I’m struggle to remember another instance of that pop up.

Jones plays the character with no charm. There’s no flair to the character. Now I’m not arguing she be more like Solo. I’m arguing that she be a character. Jones, who I’ve seen be great time and time again in other things, is flat and unaided by the fact that almost everyone around her is playing a more interesting, but equally undeveloped characters. That’s a MASSIVE problem for a lead.

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Oh sure, with the exception of Erso, the other characters are entertaining. They range from cool to less-bland. None are particularly memorable by themselves however outside of Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO who has the excuse of being a droid and the film’s de facto comic relief. (No matter what, the fact that Tudyk is now considered Disney’s lucky charm delights me to no end.) Riz Ahmed, so good in HBO’s The Night Of and movies such as Four Lions and Nightcrawler, is probably the one I’d point to when asked who my favorite was if only because I found his turncoat Imperial pilot Bodhi to be the most compelling. It was also really, really, REALLY cool to see an actor of Middle Eastern descent as one of the good guys in a major studio release. Having an entirely diverse cast is also just flat out refreshing. I just wish the movie had been up to their talents. Donnie Yen and Jiang Yen (playing blind Force-sensitive monk (?) Chirrut Imwe and his mercenary pal Baze Malbus) are cool enough when the action comes a calling but never really expand beyond passing amusements. We no next-to-nothing about these people outside of their shared interest in not liking the Empire. What we are told is often conveyed interestingly through flat-exposition. The original films are almost effortlessly characterize its leads. It’s done so breezily that you almost don’t even notice it. Take the first time we meet Lando in Empire. 

Extrovert.

Doesn’t carry himself too seriously.

Not overtly trustworthy.

Smooth like fine wine.

You get just about everything you need to know about Lando pretty quick in one scene. I don’t really remember any of the characters in Rogue One getting a similar introduction. I use Lando because he’s a somewhat morally grey character from the offset, much like the characters in this are purported to me.

It’s also telling that I literally had to look up the names of each and every one of the new characters. And don’t even get me started on Ben Mendelsohn’s imperial scientist whose name I’m not even going to bother looking up. Not sure I’ve seen such an ineffectual bad guy since….well, since Ghostbusters this year. Man, this year was not great for franchise baddies. I guess when Donald Trump is an actually out there, all other conceited, whiny, creepy villains pale in comparison, huh?

Even characters in the prequels were memorable, to one extend or another. Hate him or loathe him, I fucking remember Jar Jar Binks. (Pump the breaks, I’m not making the case that Jar Jar Binks is a better character than anyone or thing in Rogue One. Maybe characterized? Not a better character by any means, but I KNOW who that idiot is within seconds of his introduction.)

This isn’t a slant to the actors at all. All of them are completely fine. All do well with the material they’re handed; a feat most of the actors in a set of other prequels set in a galaxy far, far away failed to accomplish.

The relatively weak characters play into the plot, which also failed in more than a few respects for me. Because those characters are what’s going to justify whether this is a story that needed to be told, and they don’t. At least no for me.

I wanted something akin to 13 Assassins or The Dirty Dozen. Instead, the mission is relegated to the tail-end of the movie with the rest of the movie spent fumbling around from set-piece to set-piece with actual character development being waved away at nearly every corner.

Our core group goes through enough adventures together that by the we got to the climax, I really felt no tension in regards to whether they would ultimately succeed. There was never really a moment where I felt our heroes were properly fucked. It’s almost the exact same problem I had with Suicide Squad, a movie I have largely soured on since seeing it this past summer. 

Can you imagine for one second actually forgetting about whether these rebels ultimately succeed in their mission? To me, it would have awesome to just have the movie be the mission rather than the movie lead up to the mission. Like cut all of Jyn’s backstory stuff or at the very least minimize it. Use that time to bulk up our leads, emphasize that desperation, dedicate ALL action to the mission. That or having something akin to Munich wherein our team goes from place to place, taking out Imperial higher-ups, finally landing on the architect of the Death Star. Once again, I’m skidding the line of “HEY DER I COULDA WROTA BETTER MOVIE THAYN THEM” territory which really, REALLY hate doing so let’ pump the breaks and move on.

We’re granted glimpses of a desperate Rebellion, filled with shades of moral grey stuff which defined the best season of Battlestar Galactica. 

I loved that aspect (more on that later), but once again, it felt small rather than being emphasized. Except when the movie felt like taking a paint-by-numbers soapbox stance on what “sides” are.

Before we move on, I do need to address another negative and that is fan service. Well… the overabundance of it, I should say. Some of it’s great, particularly when it doesn’t feel like pandering. (Vader’s house from the abandoned Empire-screenplay is a deep, DEEP cut that I never thought I’d see in a million, trillion years. Not to mention the Whills get an actual shout out. You’re past the point of rabbit hole at that point.)

Some fan service really gets in the way however. Sure, it’s great in the moment when a bunch of others are screaming in excitement but the true test all relates back to if that nod was just that or something closer to a distraction. Which brings me to Grand Moff Tarkin’s inclusion.

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It would have been very simple to have him appear in a one-scene bit, explaining how the Death Star was placed under his command. But no, he’s arguably a pretty major player here. The problem? Peter Cushing has been dead for a few decades now.

The uncanny valley is very real and very at play here. It’s completely baffling to me that Disney rather CG an entire person that go for an actual actor. They found someone who looks EXACTLY like Mon Mothra (to be fair, actress Genevieve O’Reilly was cast as the character for Revenge of the Sith with her scene not making the final cut), and yet they cannot find someone who looks enough like Peter Cushing to cast and put some prosthetics on? Hell, just have Ben Mendelsohn play Tarkin! The same goes for the surprise appearance at the end. Neither are bad effects in and of themselves. But there is a major difference between a CGI character like Gollum or K-2S0 (literally had to scroll back up to see what its name was again) and a CGI person, or even doing minor touch ups to an actor to make them look younger or older. Speaking of…

Let’s move ahead to the positives of which there are a number, which may surprise some who think I hated this film.

The entire climax is utterly masterful. I daresay possibly the best action sequence in a Star Wars movie on the level of sheer spectacle. Well-worth the price of admission alone. Leaps and bounds ahead of the dog fight over Starkiller Base near the end of Force Awakens which seemed tacked on in the face of the saber-duel on the planet-surface. The iconography at play is also outstanding. We actually get a proper war film in a film with WAR in the title. It’s Star Wars meets Saving Private Ryan as the rebels face off against Imperial forces on a beach planet, something already cooler than any of the planets we saw in TSF. The ways in which the Star Wars iconography is put to use is utterly drool-inducing as well. AT-ATs storming the beach, a Star Destroyer coming out of light-speed out of nowhere, etc. It’s phenomenal.

If the entire film built to that entire sequence it would have been all the sweeter. Particularly given all the respective fates of our heroes. I credit the twinge of sadness I felt to credible filmmaking in that section rather than anything beyond that. As far as I’m concerned, the whole last act could be a short film with the first two done away with completely. Does that justify the movie existing? No, but I had a shit ton of fun watching it.

I’m also a huge of how un-Star Wars like the whole affair is. Right off the bat, no title crawl. Something that immediately jars an audience with a near-Pavlovian expectation to be smacked with the iconic John Williams fanfare right away. It’s also nice the film doesn’t fall back on said score all that often either. Composer Michael Giacchino adds hints and there but saves those cues for the bigger moments, largely falling back on original music which fine. You can kind of tell he only had a few weeks to write it here and there, but it was competent enough to get through and I don’t think the man is capable of turning in a score that is anything less than at least hummable.

Also really important to note that the film is flat out gorgeous. Cinematographer Greg Fraser shot the hell out of the movie with some of the most breathtaking shots you’re likely to see in a Star Wars movie. He opted to go for digital over film (all three original films and TFA were shot on film) which I ultimately think was a good call. There’s an abundance steadicam, giving it a more gritty feel. As I said, this movie isn’t concerned with looking like a Star Wars film and nor should it. I say embrace your existence outside of the spectrum/saga, and be your own thing to the best of your ability. Letting different directors, cinematographers, composers and what have you contribute is something I’m most excited for looking ahead. Star Wars is at its best when not under one unified vision but in the capable hands of craftsman at the peak of their craft. That’s how we got the two best movies in the series after all as well as two incredibly good TV shows and fleshed out AU. It’s something I think the Harry Potter films or Pirates of Caribbean could have greatly benefited from.

I’ve been reading a few reviews of the film here and there, some good and some bad, and a common theme is just how dark it is. As if Star Wars

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…has been nothing but…

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….sunshine and lollipops.

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That all being said, yes this film is pretty bleak. Not bleak enough to be a determent mind you. This is a war movie. We get scenes of rebels being rebels, and you know what? Sometimes rebels aren’t exactly squeaky clean.

In this “silly sci-fi film for kids” we are treated to visuals of suicide bombers, friendly fire and more.

Given the very real situation underway in Aleppo, I can’t recall a time in which Star Wars got this  “real” or relevant. Well…

I should probably also discuss the Vader of it all…

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It should go without saying, the prequels did quite the number on Darth Vader as a character. It isn’t wholly fair to say those movie ruined such an iconic character. Pop culture did its part too, but man, was the characterization just off there in relation to use feeling empathetic towards him.

Star Wars: Rebels has been doing the Lord’s work in terms of bringing him back to speed in terms of how utterly terrifying he needs to. Oh and not to mention the insane level of pathos it provides for fans of Clone Wars.

Not to mention Kieron Gillen’s masterful take on the character in his solo-Marvel series which I highly recommend anyone with even an ounce of Star Wars love in their hearts to go pick up and read right this second.

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So I approached his appearance here with initial trepidation. He’s not in the movie all that much; by the end I believe he only appears in two scenes, one of which could have been cut entirely with no consequence whatsoever.

However, it is really hard for me to sit atop an ivory tower when I enjoyed LITERALLY every second he is on screen. His appearance near the end is the closest the movie ever comes to being full-blown cathartic, all while returning the menace and dread such a character demands. His saber emitting from the black is an image I could never tire of and it is used to maximum effect here. Director Gareth Edwards is incredibly adept at not (and pardon my crudeness here) blowing his load so to speak when it comes to giving audiences what they desperately want, also evidenced by his approach to his 2014 take on Godzilla. Giving the viewer a taste here and there, only to given them a full taste right at the end.

I compare his appearance to Spider-Man’s in Civil War; wholly unnecessary, but so much fun.

So, I wasn’t a big fan of Rogue One but don’t let my whining fool you. It was a passable movie, at best, to me and really that is what defined this year for me in regards to many of the bigger studio releases.

There’s a wonderful video essay that basically covers all the same beats I would make.

If you had fun, great. If this movie meant something to you, great. More power to you in fact and that’s not meant to be condescending. I had fun for a good portion of the movie and not so much in others but I’m not here to take away anything from you. People get way too personal about movies in general these days, something I’m sure that will only worsen as division gets easier and easier. That’s a different rant for a different day though. What matters most though is the experience that is wholly subjective.

A lot of people seem to like or even love Rogue One, and that’s fine.

I thought it was kind of empty providing only the most basic-level of entertainment, and that’s fine.

I think Christopher Orr of the Atlantic said it best in his review:

“These are the risks and rewards of trying something new (or rather, new-ish): Rogue One is neither as good as a good Star Wars movie nor as bad as a bad one.”

How about I meet you in the middle and say that it is hands down the best Star Wars prequel to date.

Now, can we still be friends?

‘Doctor Strange’ is but a glance through a key hole at Marvel’s mystical multiverse

Maybe this is where I preface with how much I love the character of Dr. Stephen Vincent Strange a.k.a Doctor Strange a.k.a the Sorcerer Supreme.

Well…

There really isn’t all that much to say honestly.

He’s a character I sort of stumbled upon by accident actually when I was much younger. It’s probably not too much of a stretch to say I was initially drawn to the visuals to which I argue there are no better to be found in the comic book medium than a Doctor Strange book. He also probably has my favorite look of any in the Marvel canon as well. Not to mention possibly the best base of operations of any superhero. Yes, I am including the Bat Cave in that debate.

Character-wise, I think what I like most is his matter of fact-ness approach to magic. As a neurosurgeon, he is anything if not pragmatic. That goes along way when you’re dealing with stuff as goofy and outlandish as the typical problem of a Sorcerer Supreme. His last name should be a pretty clear indicator for the general tone of the conflicts in which he deals with issue to issue.

I also loved how his house served as a hub for a good portion of Marvel’s street-level New York heroes. I’m fairly certain everyone has stayed there at some point and when it was destroyed (for a bit…for like 40 minutes….for the fourth time….that year) it was always cool to see his friends rally around him and trusty manservant, Wong. Seconded maybe my Nick Fury, he had possibly the most extensive contacts lists of any one in Marvel.

All that said, I had no illusions in my mind that a Doctor Strange movie would ever exist. Well…except this one…

And yes…that is a young Jessica Walter (Lucille Bluth).

To me, more than any other comic book character, he was the bar upon which films would never reach.

Then this little movie happened…

Now that this exists, where does that shift? Squirrel Girl?

Oh.

Right. 

Well, for what it’s worth, this movie was made and I was pretty gosh darn(?) excited about it.

I wanted this to be my favorite Marvel movie.

And the trailers did very little to levy the fact that this would be incredible.

End result? Not incredible. Not great, really either. But a lot of fun. So…at least there’s that!

doctor-strange-comic-con-poster

The plot:

“Marvel’s ‘Doctor Strange’ follows the story of the talented neurosurgeon Doctor Stephen Strange who, after a tragic car accident, must put ego aside and learn the secrets of a hidden world of mysticism and alternate dimensions. Based in New York City’s Greenwich Village, Doctor Strange must act as an intermediary between the real world and what lies beyond, utilizing a vast array of metaphysical abilities and artifacts to protect the Marvel Cinematic Universe.” – Marvel

The review:

See this in IMAX 3D.

You’re doing yourself a real disservice if you bother with any other format. Perhaps the highest praise I have for this is that it truly is the first Marvel film that needs to be experienced on the biggest screen at your disposal. Oh sure, many of their past endeavors have been treats for the eyes as well but Doctor Strange elevates the bar (visually) to level in which all subsequent releases are sure to be compared.

Visually and conceptually, the effects owe quite a bit to the inverted physics of Inception with a healthy how-do-you-do to the East-meets-West influences of The Matrix. From those sparks however, Doctor Strange becomes what I presume to be the winner all of next year’s visual effects awards. Like…all of them.

Every sequence feels distinct, more innovative than the last. While it doesn’t reach the comic book-y glory that was the airport sequence in Civil War, there’s something to be said about just how outside the box this movie gets in relation to how it operates on a basic, visual level.

You’ll probably hear that certain sequences will make you feel as if you took LSD, molly, or whatever the kids are calling it these days. And to a degree, those statements carry validity.

Let’s go down the list. We have:

A race through an M.C. Escher-fied Manhattan war zone.

A fist fight between disembodied spirits.

More than one instance in which the Doctor’s iconic cloak gets a punch or two in.

A 2001 meets ultimate acid trip through all of time and space.

And that’s just a taste. Director and co-writer Scott Derrickson (who really hasn’t stood out to me as a director before this) really outdid himself in delivering such a distinctly-visual film in an environment that unfortunately seems to widdle down the unique flairs of its directors.

The cast, as is typical with Marvel movies, is perfect to a tee. I’d be lying if I didn’t say the could have been given more interesting things to do, but they perform admirably with the some lackluster lines scattered throughout.

There was a considerable amount of controversy surrounding Tilda Swinton’s casting as the Ancient One, a typically Asian role. To me, it’s a double-edged sword. Sure, it would be great to see an Asian actor given a high-profile role such as that but the stereotypes imbued with it, I think Marvel chose wisely in just casting an incredibly talented actress.

I also liked Cumberbatch’s Strange. He wouldn’t have been my first pick, but he defied my expectations here. He imbues Strange with same level of charming arrogance Robert Downey Jr. can in his sleep at this point as Tony Stark albeit different enough to where it doesn’t seem like he is merely mimicking the success of the other actor.

 I’m more than ready to see how he fits in with the rest of the MCU as a whole, particularly the ever-skeptical of magic Tony Stark.

Not to mention the onscreen reunion of the Facial Hair Bros.

Not to mention the onscreen reunion of the Facial Hair Bros.

We get a preview of what role he’ll play in a future movie in our now mandated first of two after credits scenes and SPELLS exciting things for a certain film involving a certain God of Thunder and a golly, green giant. Not to get too spoiler-y, but that quick scene made me so giddy at the mere fact that Strange is taking a similar role to the one he’s had in the comics for decades.

Every other actor and actress, while talented, kind of fades into the background. Similar to Terrance Howard in the first Iron Man film, Chiwetel Ejiofor serves as sidekick Mordo (not yet a baron), who will go on to become much more interesting in the sequel. (Hopefully they actually keep him around for the second film though.)

Our villain, Kaecilius, didn’t really do a lot for me. I guess he was fine to say the most, helped mainly by the fact that he’s played by our most recent Dr. Lecter, Mads Mikkelsen. The guy probably sleeps with a menacing face on.

I got a kick out of Benedict Wong’s take on Wong. It would have fairly easy to get uncomfortable with that character, but I think this interpretation is largely successful.

Also he’s not in it long enough to really offend anyone. Assuming he plays a larger role in future films, (as I require him to) hopefully they keep that balance up.

The only performer who I felt was kind of wasted was Rachel McAdams. She’s fine but she’s equated to same role as Natalie Portman in the Thor films in that we needs someone to humanize this asshole of a main character for us but otherwise serves no real purpose in the plot. Oh wait….I just remember….Michael Stuhlbarg is in this too. Okay, mark that as TWO wasted performers.

As with the comic, the character’s origins mirror that of Iron Man’s which leads me to the only substantive argument I can petition concerning this film, and it is a biggie. For all the bells and whistles, it is about as generic as white bread with no crust and a side of milk. There are some flourishes here and there (I really love how the good doctor approaches his final confrontation with the big bad at the film’s conclusion as well as its resolution), but the crux of the story is something we’ve seen again and again and again and again.

It’s a common complaint I share regarding superhero films in general.

I’d probably be less disappointed if I hadn’t been naive enough to buy into the rumors spread by alleged gross person Devin Faraci at birth.death.movies that the film WOULD NOT be another origin story.

Look, I get it. Disney is all about accessibility and when you’re entering a pool as crazy as the magical side of the Marvel Universe, you’re going to want to go in with some floaties first particularly if you have no experience with it.

There is also lion’s share credit to had by Derrikson and his co-writers for cramming what could have been Star Trek levels of exposition and explanation and quasi-comfortably fitting it into something much more digestible for John and Sally Q. Public. Fortunately, when that explanation does start to wear a little thin, the film wisely cranks up the action.

It’s a similar complaint I had to last year’s Krampus. Sure, it’s crazy but there’s so much potentially for more without getting bogged down in logistics. That’s the beauty of magic, particularly comic book magic.

I don’t want to play “Tyler writes a better movie,” but maybe they could have place a bit more focus on a normal character -coughmugglecough- who is cursed or is in someway affected by magic in which they need Strange’s assistance. Strange, is already Sorcerer Supreme as this point much in the same way Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is already a detective at the start of Sherlock. We then find out more about his world through an audience surrogate. I’m not arguing that is an anyway better. Hell, we’ve seen that story before too, but as we press forward, my origin story burnout is becoming all the more real.

I wouldn’t even hazard to say I’m disappointed. 2016 has been a fairly disappointment year in the blockbuster department, but I wouldn’t classify Doctor Strange as one of them. It’s fine. I say that a lot, but trust me it’s true. Movies can be just fine. They neither have to blow you away or make you angry. They can exist in the in-between successfully. I often harp on the fact that the most important aspect of any movie is whether it carries a memorability or not. That’s the most I can really ask of any film. I think The Incredible HulkIron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World suffer the most in terms of that.

Doctor Strange‘s mere existence is a win for me. It’s coherence another.

So yeah, I enjoyed the movie for what it was. I’m honestly more disappointed I don’t have more to say about it given this is something I’ve been wanting to see for a good portion of comic book-reading life.

I don’t particularly have anything that profound to say about it outside I hope this sample platter of a film is simply a fraction of what Marvel has in store should we get a fully-fledged sequel. I think I said the same thing about Green Lantern, a movie I still maintain was not as bad as everyone made it out to be. It wasn’t great, but it too was fine. Like Doctor Strange, it left the door of limitless comic book possibilities open for something akin to my expectations. Unlike that movie, I think we have a competent company as represented by Marvel Studios behind the reigns to ensure we actually get to see those possibilities brought to fruition competently.

“The horror…the horror…”: 13 scary scenes (not in scary movies) SPOILERS…OBVIOUSLY

 

We are right in the thick of October and for any one on the internet claiming to know a thing or two about movies is coming up with some sort of “Best of” in relation to horror films. Scariest movies ever. Scariest movies of the past decade. Scariest scenes. Scariest kids’ movies. It goes on and on. Well, I’m here to add to that cavalcade because I have a one post a month quota to fill and there aren’t too many promising films I want to review scheduled for the month so why not a list?

Now I am in no way claiming to be outside of the box on this one. Given my outlet is the internet, I’m well aware hundreds of better written lists like this one exist.

So what makes mine different, you may ask?

Well…

Um…

This one…

This one is…um…

Mine?

Yeah!

This one’s mine!

Also, as you may or may not have surmised, I’ve pulled from non-horror films.

As an added condition, I’ve also avoided the typical “this scared the pants off me as a kid” scene you often find such as the boat ride in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Judge Doom in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Large Marge in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. That isn’t to say any of these movies aren’t scary. No one here is arguing that. No one.

The point is I wanted more of a challenge. To think OUTSIDE of the box as it were. In other words, I had to think on this one. It was actually a lot harder than I thought it would be once I set out. Like many, I go to horror movies to get scared. For whatever reason, I never assume fear is something that’s necessarily going to translate into other genres which is inherently absurd.

There was also an effort on my part to avoid documentaries as well. I could probably dedicate an entire, separate post on frightening documentaries. No real defense to their lack of representation here other than I wanted to keep things simple.

Now as we navigate this cinematic myriad, it may be important for me to preface with the notion that most, if not all, of these scenes are going to relate back to what I personally find frightening.

Words you’re going to see again and again will be “realistic” and “relatable.”

And possibly even….EXISTENTIAL. Ooooooooo scary.

So yeah there will probably be more than one moments while you scroll down where you find yourself asking, “Really, Tyler? Really?”

Then I’ll look down out the ground and get really quite for a bit.

I’m going to do my best not to ramble in the descriptions even that’s kind of like my thing at this point. I highly recommend you watch every one of the scenes because…they’re great. I’ll add a little commentary but kind of just want them to speak for themselves.

It’s also important to note that I am in no way arguing these are the scariest films of all time. They’re are just 13 that I happen to think of off the top of my head. If you have any to add, I’d love to read about them in the comments section.

Quotas. Am I right?

Why 13?

Um…

13 is unlucky, right?

That’s kind of spooky.

….

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO SPOOOOKY NUMBERSSSSSSSSS!

1) “Not quite my tempo.” – Whiplash (2014)

It speaks volumes that I’ve had nightmares just like this after seeing this movie.

We’ve all had that one person we want to impress. Whether it be a parent, professor, boss or what have you. There’s always going to be THAT person who’s validation you’re going to be perpetually fighting for.

We all also harbor deep-rooted fears of failure. Failing in front of your person of reverence AND being called out on it by said person? Well, you have yourself one dandy of a nightmare cocktail.

Through in being an introvert, you have why this scene (and whole movie, really) got deep down in my psyche.

I almost thought it was a comedic scene the first time I saw the film because in as is oft the case when faced with any form of conflict, tension or general uncomfortableness, my immediate instinct is to laugh as to hopefully ease tension.

But this is not a funny scene. There really isn’t any aspect of it that is treated as a gag.

It could even be argued that the scariest aspect of all of this how it seemingly works in the long run. Fletcher’s methods of pushing someone to the very precipice of their limits through psychological (and even physical) torture comes back in a big, bad way by Whiplash‘s finale and it is as unsettling as it may be triumphant.

2) Plane crash – The Grey (2012)

We’ve seen a lot of plane crashes in film.

We never LEAVE the plane. Director Joe Carnahan and Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi don’t give us spectacle. Instead we’re right there with Ottway (the camera never trailing too far from his perspective) as the vessel goes down. It’s many of our worst nightmares brought to terrifying reality.

It’s scarier than anything with the wolves because it’s such a universal fear. I’m pretty damn sure anyone who has stepped foot on a plane has had this exact scenario in the back of their head. Many easily conquer that fear. After all, if they didn’t we probably wouldn’t have many airlines.

3) A festering pit of NOPE – King Kong (2005) 

By this scene’s inclusion, I think you may be able to ascertain that I am not OVERLY fond of bugs. It’s clear director Peter Jackson isn’t either.

Sharing his entomophia in interviews before, Jackson GETS what makes bugs scary. For those paying attention during Return of the King, Shelob acts and moves just like an actual spider. Moving lightening fast and then abruptly stopping. Waiting. Waiting. Then moving in an unanticipated direction. (Least we forget, spiders have eyes on every side of their heads.)

Jackson’s ode to creepy crawlies is no where expressed better however than in the revitalized Spider-Pit sequence in his 2005 remake of King Kong.

It’s surface-level horror, (not to mention a complete deviation from the main conflict in an already overstuffed film) but it works. All the bug designs are unsettling, with the meat-weasels and massive weta’s being the true-standouts.

To me, this is all the fears I had about jumping into a leaf pile or the mud made manifest.

4) The red dress – Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Requiem for a Dream is a movie I never need to revisit.

It’s a very good movie, don’t get me wrong. If you haven’t seen it, I fully recommend you do so at the nearest connivence.

It’s just a real bummer. Like, a HUGE one.

There’s no light at the end of the tunnel for anyone in it.

I know that’s kind of the point. It’s a film about the horrors of drug addiction after all.

Moving along though, this is the most “traditional” scary sequence in the film, and it’s pretty damn effective. That fridge gets me every time. There are a number of creepy drug sequences (some of the most famous come from this very film) but this is the one that I’d argue is the scariest.

Sara’s descent is probably the one that hits closest to home for many viewers as it’s hard not to project our own mothers on to her. Where she ultimately ends up is another key reason I avoid the film. Without getting too personal, it hits too close to home in things I worry about almost on a day-to-day basis. My mom is NOT a drug attack, but she deals with things and every time I see this film (or just this scene or this one), I’m compelled to give her a call.

5) “He’s coming towards us.” – Zodiac (2007)

Almost all of David Fincher’s cannon appears to have at least one memorable frightening moment in them. So many in fact, that is was hard limiting myself to just two (the other we will get to momentarily).

Murder is common element of any crime film. Other it’s dramatized via gore, score, or all of the above. In Zodiac, Fincher takes a different route.

The murders are so startlingly real, that you don’t recognize they’re taking place initially. There’s no build up to the violence. It just happens. No pomp or circumstance. Random violence is often the scariest as it cannot be defined. To cope with senseless death, we as human often do are best internally “make sense” of things. “Oh, he was crazy,” or “Of course that she killed them. We saw the warning signs.” But the Zodiac Killer(s) were never “found out.” To this day, we don’t know who he, she, they were or why they committed such heinous deeds, adding another layer to just how unsettling this scene is.

6) Sloth – Se7en (1995)

I’ve gone on record through multiple avenues to declare my undying love for Fincher’s Se7en.

I went with Mills’ and Somerset’s discovery of Sloth because, as with the last scene, it exemplifies Fincher’s knack for taking a well-worn troupe and making it fresh. In this case, it’s the jump scare.

The scene draws you in with every little detail. Much like the unnamed SWAT-member, we are drawn to this body under the assumption that of course it’s dead.

Fincher doesn’t even bother with racketing up tension. The cough comes out of nowhere and we’re flat on our asses once again.

7) The Pale Man – Pan’s Labyrinth  (2006)

I mentioned I avoided scenes that scared me as a child; opting instead to focus on those I still found frightening as an adult. This is the one main exception I made as it successfully plays to those fears we all had as a child but placed in an adult setting; something director Guillermo del Toro appears to have an absolute hard-on for.

Ever a slave to detail, del Toro builds up his monster masterfully through silent clues throughout the set.

As with any good movie monster, the Pale Man is slow, quasi-methodical. It doesn’t need to move fast because it nows the playing field. Run as fast as you like. It’ll get you. One way or another.

8) “LOOK AT ME.” – The Dark Knight (2008)

The initial horror in this scene is on-the-nose.

The Joker is on a crime spree as he attempts to goad Batman into facing him; a part of his larger scheme to bring the Caped Crusader down to his level and show that ANYONE can fall. Typical Joker scheme.

A common thread you’re going to see, and may have already noticed, is “real.” Joker’s tape is a video that could have easily been leaked to reddit, 4chan, or any other social sharing site. I’ve seen ones before, much more violent of course, that could have served as the inspiration.

Look to the on-air murder of Alison Parker and Adam Ward last year. That is but one of many examples.

It’s the most frightening aspect of Heath Ledger’s Joker. He isn’t about elaborate death traps.

9) Curb stomp – American History X (1998) 

I really wrestled with including this scene. Not because it isn’t scary. It’s why it’s scary, and that gets into a touchy space that is a breeding ground for contempt and hurt feelings.

I hate how racists have recently begun to appropriate this movie. As if they only take certain scenes (like this one) without context. As if to say, “See, we were right! Ed Norton was right at the beginning!” And I hate that. Of course, there are multiple ways to view a movie but revising a movie altogether and making it out to be representing something it isn’t is moronic and insulting.

The main message of the film, at least in my opinion, is how hate is taught from one generation to another. It’s not the glorification of one man’s racist ideals; it’s the deconstruction of them altogether.

This scene could easily be considered a “fuck yeah” moment in a piece of action junk.

It isn’t though.

It’s horrific, and director Tony Kaye treats it as such. Yeah, these guys were robbing Danny but we’ve seen the chain of events that led them there. No one is innocent truly innocent in the instance.

Violence begets violence. It’s a cycle that continually loops.

“Hate is baggage. Life’s too short to be pissed off all the time. It’s just not worth it.”

10) “Hi, this is Nikki. Leave a message.” – Swingers (1996)

Well, well, well.

My old nemesis.

To many, Swingers may be nothing more than a comedy and it truly can be experienced as just that. I love the movie, but I rarely re-visit it, largely due to this scene.

It’s so frighteningly real, particularly as a guy who continues to struggle with forming relationships. I’ve been in this exact position with women I liked in which I had a little voice saying, “Leave it be,” but another, much louder one saying “No, don’t make it weird. KEEP GOING TO MAKE SURE SHE KNOW’S YOU’RE NOT WEIRD.” I don’t think I’ve ever left quite this many voicemails, but we are in the texting/Tindr age.

Last night I just found out about “ghosting.” If I’m relating this correctly, this is when one half of a relationship abruptly stops communicating with the other.

Every time I sit through this scene, I’m verbally yelling, “STOP IT” at the screen before it’s over.

Relationships are scary.

Actually getting into one is a whole other beast.

11) “Is it safe?” – Marathon Man (1976)

I guess this scene is pretty much a given. But classics are classics for a reason, right?

To be honest, I don’t remember the rest of this movie all that well. It’s been a while since I sat down and watched it. It seems to be on TV every time I visit one of my parents (who have cable) so I definitely could point out where it is alternatively. I just couldn’t relate specifics to you…the main exception being this fucking scene that plays through my head every time I have to go to the goddamn dentist.

There are a lot of torture scenes I thought about including on this list which is a statement that sounds really creepy with or without context but I went with this one because it pinpoints a fear I think a lot people share and that’s an evil dentist given full-reign to do whatever they want with your mouth.

12) The other side – 50/50 (2011) 

Behold, another comedy. Like Swingers50/50 is a fairly consistent comedy (jokes land more than they miss) that nails frighteningly realistic situations. In this case, it’s dwindling minutes before we are put under the knife.

You may be thinking,”Tyler, you coward. This scene is relaxing. If anything it’s melancholic.”

I’ve never been diagnosed with cancer, nor have I had to have a life-saving surgery. I have, however, had more than one procedure. Ranging from outpatient to several days in the hospital. Every. Single. One. Stressed. Me. The. Phunk. Out.

You’re kidding yourself if you think that any time you go in for ANY surgery, you’re guaranteed to wake up. The odds are minimal, but that doesn’t stop your brain from going to darker places right as the needle is hooked into your arm or the mask slipped over your face. And being alone sucks. You want someone there. Whether it be a parent or friend.

The conversation with the mom here has played out with me and my own mother every time I’ve laid on that bed in my gown.

 13) The war begins – War of the Worlds (2005)

Having grown into adulthood in the post-9/11 landscape, I’d argue it’s very easy for someone my age to become…how do I put it…detached from the 9/11 imagery that utterly dominates popular culture’s depiction of mass destruction.

I argue that imagery has largely fallen flat for me with the key exception being Steven Spielberg’s take on the H.G. Wells’ classic novel, The War of the Worlds. As with any good science fiction, the book zeroed in on contemporary anxieties. In Victorian England, that was the threat of foreign invaders. Wells, clever as he was, took those fears and flipped them on them right back around on your average English Joe, making the book a clear commentary on imperialism.

“For that moment I touched an emotion beyond the common range of men, yet one the poor brutes we dominate know only too well. I felt as a rabbit might feel returning to his burrow, and suddenly confronted by the work of a dozen busy navvies digging the foundations of a house. I felt the first inkling of a thing that presently grew quite clear in my mind, that oppressed me for many days, a sense of dethronement, a persuasion that I was no longer master, but an animal among animals; under the Martian heel.”
Flash-forward to 2005. You’re 4 years after two planes struck the Twin Towers, 1 hit the Pentagon and another a field in Pennsylvania. Two years into our dual wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The anger is still palpable. Fear of outside invaders striking again is ever present.
Spielberg, like Wells before him, is using his craft to give us a skewed view of our present through the prism of science fiction. In this case, America’s post 9/11 anxieties as well as our various dealings within the Middle East that took place in the early 2000’s. Some are a bit more on the nose than others. (Tom Cruise frantically attempting to cleanse himself of the dust of those unlucky enough to be vaporized, a boy screaming “WE HAVE TO GET BACK AT THEM,” a girl literally screaming, “IS IT TERRORISTS?!,” etc) but it all services a point. Spielberg isn’t exploiting a tragedy in the same way Zack Snyder did in Man of Steel. He’s actually making a point.
The first tripod’s assault is a clear allusion to a terrorist attack, sadly given new relevancy month after month with conflicts in Syria, the terror attacks in Paris and so on. I picked this scene because it highlights how well science fiction be in representing real life, skewed just enough to allow some distance.

In defense of ‘Storks’

I don’t normally do this, but I’ve just seen a movie so good, so under-appreciated and I want to say a little bit about it because it’s still in theaters right now. Like you could look up times right now, go see it (it’s only an hour-and-half) and skip this poorly written review altogether. It wouldn’t even hurt my feelings. Go ahead. Just take my word for…if you put any currency in my words.

That being said, I’m going to get to this (quickie) review for a movie you may or may not have guessed is Storks, a some-what glossed over animated film last week. It came in somewhere around 60% on RT as well. To be fair, it came in second at the box office the week of its release but I’m seeing very little reaction via the interwebs and thought I’d do my (VERY, VERY, VERY, VVVVVVVVVEEEEEEEEEEEEERRRRRRRRRRRRRYYYYYYYYYY) small contribution and help spread the word about this little gem of a movie.

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The plot: 

“Storks deliver babies…or at least they used to. Now they deliver packages for global internet giant Cornerstore.com. Junior, the company’s top delivery stork, is about to be promoted when he accidentally activates the Baby Making Machine, producing an adorable and wholly unauthorized baby girl. Desperate to deliver this bundle of trouble before the boss gets wise, Junior and his friend Tulip, the only human on Stork Mountain, race to make their first-ever baby drop – in a wild and revealing journey that could make more than one family whole and restore the storks’ true mission in the world.” – IMDb.com

The review:

I love how unapologetically weird this movie is. I mean, I feel like you could also surmise that by either A) reading that synopsis or B) just watching the trailer. Ostensibly a road movie, Storks sports some truly weird, at times confounding, pit stops in its relatively breezy runtime. As far as themes, I’m sure there are messages of “follow your dreams” and “families are what we make them,” and that’s all well and fine. There are some actually moving moments to be had here. Look, there’s doesn’t really an emphasis on things like hefty themes or deep interpretation in family movies. At least for me. Sure, it’s nice to have them around but the bare minimum can suffice as long as the journey fun or at the very least engaging.

My main take-away from Storks is what joyously bonkers time I had as Junior (Andy Samberg) and Tulip (Katie Crown) attempt to navigate the sexless world it creates. Hazards include a pack of wolves led by an Alpha and Beta (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele respectively) as well as Pigeon Toady (Stephen Kramer Glickman), an odd pigeon co-worker of Junior’s that really defies logical explanation.

It’s consistently funny (always a plus), moves at nearly break-neck speed and is so weird adults will most likely have as much fun as their kids. It’s the perfect family package.

This is co-director Nicholas Stoller’s (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek, Neighbors , etc.) first foray into animation and the second feature for (other) co-director Doug Sweetland, a long-time workhorse for Pixar yet the two already come off as long-time veterans of the medium. The animation is stunning, and the physical comedy harkens to the days of the “rubber bones” approach utilized in the classic Looney Tunes’ days of old.

The cast is nothing to balk at either. I’m convinced some of the actors recorded at the same time (a practice that isn’t typically the case in voice acting) given the quick yet steady pace (particularly in scenes with Samberg and Crown as well as Key and Peele obviously) dialogue moves. They feel and move like actual dialogue and that stood out to me on more than one occasion.

EDIT: CONFIRMATION!

Samberg, whose done his fair share of voice jobs, is a perfect fit for this zany world as his unhinged, borderline random comedic delivery is allowed to soar unrestrained by the rules of reality.

The real find here however (on the acting side) is Katie Crown, a voice actress I highly suspect/hope we’ll be hearing a lot more in the future.

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I’m aware of Crown primarily through her voice work on shows like Total Drama, Bob’s Burgers and some small, yet noticeable roles on Adventure Time. I think it’s fair to say she isn’t exactly a house hold name. She meets Samberg tit-for-tat at every opportunity, moving ahead of him on more than one occasion. It’s not often you see actual voice actors given beefy roles like this in multi-million dollar studio features like this. I assume actresses like Jennifer Lawrence or Brie Larson were considered and Crown may have been ultimately chosen in favor of budget or she could have been a replacement OR maybe, JUST MAYBE our directors picked her for her considerable talent. I’d like that last instance to be the case as well Crown’s casting to represent a recurring trend in which voice actors and actresses being recognized and given the chance to shine on the big screen as much as the do on the small one.

All this praise isn’t to say the movie is perfect by any means. It’s world may be unique and wonderfully realized, but the plot fairly thin and low-stakes even with all of its set-pieces. I’d if I was even aware of what the general stakes were at certain points. Like, there is a throw-away line about why storks not delivering babies anymore as A) there wasn’t a real revenue gain (?) and B) there are many other ways of making babies. So…what purpose did they really serve? Is it bad for the world as a whole that they stopped? Do they only deliver human babies? Is there world, at large, aware of the storks still? Did they forget? Why? Where do babies come from now? Best not to overthink it, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t asking myself these dumb questions. And it doesn’t take a genius to eventually see parallels between this and Monster’s Inc., particularity since I didn’t until the third act. Also when we occasionally leave Junior, Tulip and their ward for the family that requested the baby in question the momentum takes a noticeable turn.

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I wouldn’t go so far as to say their boring, but their antics certainly don’t meet the same level of joy we see over on the other side of the plot.

I’m not sure if Storks is a classic in the making or not, but I do plan on revisiting it. It’s nearest comparison, in my opinion, would be Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (funny that Phil Lord and Chris Miller serve as executive directors here). There’s nothing revolutionary here. As I said, the stakes are somewhat minimal (they’re even unclear at points) but I kind of liked that. It’s a cartoon after all. Not every animated movie needs to have the lofty ambitions of any given Studio Ghibli or Pixar feature. Nor do they have to devolve into the general laziness we see on display over at Illumination…

(Why do they need to be animals for a movie about a fucking singing competition? It’s not like Zootopia where that was a critical element. No, they had a boring script and added animals later.)

You can have your cake and eat it too by delivering something smart AND stupid, and if that was the goal of Storks, I’d argue it passed with FLYING colors.

Favoring tension over jump scares, ‘Don’t Breathe’ joins the growing pantheon of new horror classics

I love talking about what makes a good horror movie. Maybe more than any other genre (possibly tied with comedy), horror divides people in so many ways that thesis after thesis could be written on what one person finds scary, why, why not and so on and so forth. You can find more than one example of me harping on the topic on this very blog if you look hard enough.

There’s been a small but noticeable trend in horror over the past 3 or 4 years. It isn’t momentous but a substantial bar has been raising year after year in wide-release horror films, meaning we generally better horror films put out in local theaters more frequently. And by better I mean recent films like It Follows, The Babadook, the 2013 Evil DeadGreen Room, Cabin in the Woods, The Witch and The Guest. Even The Conjuring films, which I wasn’t overtly impressed by, are by-and-large better than many of their big-budget counterparts. There is still an overwhelming majority of better material in the on-demand rack, but its nice to see studios Oft times the best stuff is hidden among the pack of the worst of the worst you go looking for at 1 in the morning because you’re stoned and need something to watch/laugh at. All of those movies I previously mentioned I was lucky enough to see in the theater and I live in the Midwest, a part of the country where art house and indie theaters are hard to come by.

After Evil Dead (a movie that had no business being even half as good as it was), I am completely on board with whatever director/writer Fede Alvarez has to dish out particularly if it’s a horror film. Upon seeing the trailer for Don’t Breathe, it shot almost immediately on the higher end spectrum of movies I NEEDED to see before the end of the year. I’d put it even higher than Rouge One and a good number of the remaining major (sure to be disappointing) franchise films the remainder of the year has in store for us.

Now, I never want to “oversell” any movie, particularly one that operates like Don’t Breathe.

Part of a reviewers job should be to levy expectations. Otherwise those that read said review may go into a movie with a pre-determined bar that no one film can ever reach. That’s not fair to audience or the film itself.

Don’t Breathe isn’t going to change your life, or at I at least don’t think it will. Not many movies are really ever going to do that unless you worked on them or they motivate you to improve on who you are as a person. (That was The Social Network for me, for example.)

What it will do however, is take you on an absolute ride; something this summer has sorely lacked at least where the local cineplex is concerned. Whether that comes at the film’s determent with subsequent viewings is something I’ll get to momentarily.

I’m going to keep this review relatively short because I’d love to keep a lot of the surprises in tact and it’s just so good I don’t want to simply place my nose firmly up its ass. Better to keep my fingers rested for the next flop I see….

The plot: 

Author’s note: I typically pull from IMDb for a film’s synopsis but their’s for this film is way too spoiler-y for my tastes so I’m going to reword it a bit. 

Rocky (Jane Levy), a young woman wanting to start a better life for her and her sister, agrees to take part in the robbery of a house owned by a wealthy blind man (Stephen Lang) with her boyfriend Money and their friend Alex. But when the blind man turns out to be a bigger threat than anticipated, the trio, they’ll experience a night more deadly than the could have ever imagined.

The review:

Many, many decades after the Audrey Hepburn classic, Wait Until Dark pitted a blind heroine against the three crooks trying to break into her home, along comes Don’t Breathe to go above and beyond in terms of successfully reversing the scenario. Now we have terrified criminals as our heroes hiding in plain sight from a psychopath the should never have crossed. Their obstacles? Creaky floorboards, unsuppressed breathing, narrow thin hallways, bumping into objects and any other sounds we take for granted. 

It was this very basic yet intriguing premise (combined with Alvarez’s involvement) that were enough to get my ass in the seat. Having now seen this, the highest compliment I can pay the man on how much of an emphasis making cinema an experience. Where the script may be lacking, he makes up for in every sense going into overdrive and exercises every trick in the book to make sure the audience feel rewarded for providing their funds and time to his product. He aims for the stars, ensuring you never forget what you just saw. In other words, he makes movies that remind of what a singular experience watching a movie is. They just happen to be horror films.

His last film literally relied on buckets and buckets of blood and mountains and mountains of practical effects for its thrills, which is 100% A-Okay as it was a fucking Evil Dead remake.

It makes sense that he’d opt for a complete 180 on his next film in terms of scale which is impressive given the earlier film also revolves around a single location. Whereas that movie was about keeping the monsters out, Don’t Breathe is all about escape, both literally and figuratively.

Right off the bat, I feel safe in saying this just may be the most technically efficient film I’ve seen all year. Not a moment is wasted and everything builds towards an the climax.  For example, we maybe get 15 minutes with our three leads before they set out for the score of a lifetime. In hindsight, that’s really all we need to get a sense of who these people are. Sure, some are favored over others but it’s incredibly efficient to keep things relatively simple on a movie build around such a basic concept. Once are “heroes” are in the house, there isn’t going to be a single second your at ease for a good reminder of the movie. 

And that extends to the camera work as well. Cinematographer Pedro Luque glides through each room, between people, giving a sense of painful urgency as if we too are trapped in this nightmare house. There’s a masterful shot early on that takes across the house, room to room, setting up important bits along the way.

Often times the use of “Chekov’s gun” can be a little obnoxious, particularly in a horror movie. This movie had several and each and every one of them worked. Even the use of a dog, usually an element that gets tossed off unless it’s the main monster, feels important and shocking here. I loved how Luque gives his location a sense of scale, importance and detail that ultimately work far in favor to the film’s success. By the end of the take, we know just about every nook and cranny as well as the Blind Man does. The film uses long takes to give it immediacy and pitch perfect sound design that makes every gunshot sound like a cannon going off and uses silence as a key to building tension. And breaking that silence will almost certainly mean death.

The only section of the house we aren’t made privy to in the aforementioned tracking shot is the basement, which leads to perhaps the best sequence of the movie in which all of our characters are placed upon an even playing field. It harkens back to a similar sequence in Silence of the Lambs…

Like our young thieves, we have no idea who or what’s around the next corner. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the scariest scene any movie has pulled off since the much cited introduction of Mr. Babadook. Which brings me to a quick point I don’t know if I’ve harped on in the past or not but perhaps the most underrated aspect of the horror genre is sound design. Well placed sounds can go a long way in term of creating mood and spiking tension. Knowing when to cut music, add music, amplify noises, dull them and more is a talent in an of itself and a lot of the most successful scares in Don’t Breathe stem straight from sound design. If this were a just world, horror films (those that use sound in such a strong, concise way as this film) would lead the pack for the awards come Oscar season.

You can easily pick away at this film’s plot. It’s a horror movie after all and character’s make stupid decisions. If we were dealing with certified geniuses you’d end up with something like this…

That isn’t to say the characters are one note, or even the meat bags we’ve grown accustomed to in modern horror. Quite the opposite actually.

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Teaming up once again with Jane Levy, Alvarez puts his leading actress through the same emotional and physical ringer he did with Evil Dead. One can’t help but draw parallels between Sam Raimi (another returning Alvarez collaborator) and Bruce Campbell. The two truly brought out the best in one another and the same could be said of Levy and Alvarez.

By and large, Levy’s Rocky is given the most to do in terms of actual depth and characterization. Her two cohorts (played by Dylan Minnette and Daniel Zovatto) still feel important, albeit a little less developed. This isn’t really a fault; more of an observation. It’d have been nice to get a better sense of who the other guys are, but for what it’s worth, they make their mark.

While we’re on the subject of the film’s cast, let’s talk a little bit about our monster….

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It wouldn’t be fair to say Stephen Lang’s role as The Blind Man (he is never formally named in the film) is a “star-making” performance. The man has been putting out solid work for decades, not to mention he is a major player in a little movie called Avatar you may or may not have heard of from a few years back.

However, I am fully comfortable in saying that this is most he’s popped in a role in a few years; Avatar included. He utters hardly any dialogue and yet you feel like you know this character from the get go, that is until Alavarez flip those expectations on their collective heads in the third act. Still, Lang never loses sight (haha) of the humanity of our monster. He’s a man unable to deal with a horrific amount of grief he’s suffered both at war (he’s a veteran) and at home, all of which has calcified into complete and utter insanity.

I can already foresee Lang’s character sticking in the craw of more skeptical viewers. The Blind Man’s disability is more of a device than something that should be henpecked to the death. Yes, one minute, he’s realistically impaired. In another, he may as well be Daredevil. It’s a way for Alvarez to toy around with conventions of the home invasion genre, creating whole new ways for establishing  tension.

Look, as with any horror film, there are some additional tiny logic nitpicks. Cynics are going to have a blast picking apart why one aspect doesn’t make sense or what have you. I participate in those conversations rather frequently, but when the logic leaps ultimately service a good film by making it better, I argue: why ruin a good thing? Yes, characters are going to make dumb decisions. It is from this we derive conflict, or you know, a basic fundamental element of story-telling.

The final twist regarding Lang’s character is utterly creepy and horrific. No spoilers, but chances are you’re not going to see it coming, at least not specifically. I certainly didn’t and I’m not sure how I felt about it. On one hand, it gets the reaction it sets out for. On the other, it’s the closest the movie comes to “over-doing it” so to speak. There’s never really a dip into “torture porn” territory (i.e. relying heavily on human misery to conjure either scares or enjoyment from an audience which filmmakers like Eli Roth seem to exclusively operate in rather than craft a genuinely scary film), for which I was thankful.

Back in the preface, I mentioned that the excitement I have for this movie may dwindle upon subsequent viewings. I say that because, and this ties in with what I actually like most about Alvarez as a filmmaker, because you can only have an experience so many times before it grows stale. I can never experience this film for the first time again and I work that it won’t be able to walk as confidently on its two legs once all the shocks and surprises are mapped out in front of me. Upon a second, third and fourth viewing, I’m sure the razor thin tension I felt the first time will surly have faded at least somewhat but my ultimate hope is it still operates as a compelling movie I’ll actually want to revisit, examine and find new things each and every time I watch it again.

What I will say is seek this movie out while it’s still showing on the big screen. It’s one of those rare movies that actual is serviced better by the communal experience of sitting in a dark theater. Once you’ve seen as many movies as I have (not many at all when put side-to-side with actual professional review), it’s sometimes easy to forget how much fun of an experience a movie can be. To actually lose yourself in a movie, forget that what you’re watching is fake and let the magic only cinema can provide is a diamond in the rough; ironic since we’re slowly but surly moving to an age that favors immersion through bells and whistles. Then along comes Don’t Breathe, a low-cost thriller that sucked me in more effectively than Avatar and Gravity combined and I didn’t even have to pay extra for 3-D glasses.

I will warn you that seeing this in theater theater comes with some cons however. The theater I saw it in – that would be the Cinemark Tinseltown in Oklahoma City – saw one of the most involved audiences I’ve ever had the pleasure of sitting through a movie with, culminating in one of the best/worst theater experiences of my entire life…thus far. In some instances its great to have an audience gasp, squirm, laugh and scream alongside you. It’s another to have certain members text during the film or talk to the movie as if there is a participation round in which we, the audience, effect the outcome. I sure the Alamo Drafthouse did something extra special by warning death by blind man should any member of the audience feel the need to talk or text. I sure as hell wish mine did.

While ultimately just “meh”, ‘Suicide Squad’ lacks the MASSIVE personality the marketing promised

Good marketing can be one hell of a double-edged sword, can’t it?

Like it can be really good and really bad of course, but doesn’t it suck when it’s REALLY good and the actually product is something else? Namely, a bad movie.

Remember the trailer for Battle:Los Angeles?

Or the trailer to just about any Zack Snyder film?

Suicide Squad isn’t what I’d consider a bad movie, but it sure as hell fell way short of the incredible time the marketing set me up for.

And I really wanted to love this movie too. The Suicide Squad is a concept I’ve loved for a fairly long time now (although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a stronger affinity for a similar DC team, the Secret Six) and longly anticipated a film version of since it’s announcement.

The Dirty Dozen with C and D-list super villains is an idea so good that it sends even the mildest of nerdy brains into a frenzy. And the marketing around this movie did an absolutely stellar job at selling that to us. Every trailer, still, spot and BTS feature sold us an insane flurry of action, comedy and general fucked-upness that promised a wholly unique comic book movie, the antithesis of DC’s earlier cinematic outing, Batman Vs Superman:Dawn of Justice, a movie so boring it dared you to stay awake.

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The plot:

“It feels good to be bad…Assemble a team of the world’s most dangerous, incarcerated Super Villains, provide them with the most powerful arsenal at the government’s disposal, and send them off on a mission to defeat an enigmatic, insuperable entity. U.S. intelligence officer Amanda Waller has determined only a secretly convened group of disparate, despicable individuals with next to nothing to lose will do. However, once they realize they weren’t picked to succeed but chosen for their patent culpability when they inevitably fail, will the Suicide Squad resolve to die trying, or decide it’s every man for himself?” – IMDb.com

The review:

So yeah, I was fairly disappointed in this flick. It’s not BvS bad by any means. I was actually engaged for a good portion of this movie and even had fun more than once.

That all said though, it still suffers from a bunch of the same problems the earlier movie did.

David Ayer is a director/writer that is very hit-or-miss for me. Of his last 5 movies, I’ve only really liked one (End of Watch) with the others (including this one) ranging from bland to terrible.

I don’t even know if Ayer is really meant for blockbuster tent-poles. He’s better off doing his own thing (typically) and this film only strengthens that argument. I’m interested to see how his pairing with Max Landis with Bright pays off as both men are really, REALLY good with concepts but often seem to drop the ball in terms of actual execution.

This movie also reeks of studio tampering (which can be good at times) and lacks any real individuality that I was hoping it’d offer like Guardians of the Galaxy or Deadpool did before it. Anyone else getting sick of “big glowy thing in the sky must be stopped to save earth” in comic book movies? I cannot be the only one…in fact I know I’m not so I guess I was just being redundant. 

Now this could either be Ayer’s fault or the studio’s, but this movie moves a weird pace that kind of baffled me. Scenes sort of just happen when they will with little rhyme or reason. For example, the movie starts by introducing us to Deadshot and Harley already in Belle Reave, only to re-introduce as after the title now with backstory and the whole movie operates this way. You’ll be moving along when a flashback will hit you out of nowhere (much like BvS did with its overabundance of dream sequences).

So how about our cast? Well they are largely….fine…yep…just fine for the most part. See, this movie REALLY wants to have and eat its cake so bad that it through in just about anything it could so what we get is a bunch of actors fighting over control of the camera. I’d argue Captain America: Civil War had just as many characters, if not a ton more, but it had the benefit of pre-establishing a good amount of them in earlier movies. I think a better comparison would be Guardians of the Galaxy which this movie has attempted to emulate to a degree that is almost blatant.

In that movie, we not only had to deal with a bunch of new characters but an entire chunk of the MCU that’d we’d never seen before, full of weird things like talking trees and raccoons. It did an absolutely phenomenal job at bringing both of those elements to the table by establishing them in a way that almost seemed effortless. You guy the Guardians as a team by the end as we’ve come to know them and they each other.

This movie never really congeals in a way that makes later moments seamed earned. The team really doesn’t spend a whole lot of time talking to one another as the movie spends a lot of time establishing them independently of another, even having some just show up right before the main mission starts.

Will Smith is fine. He’s Will Smith so he’s never allowed to go too bad which is a shame given he’s playing Deadshot. Given Deadshot is one of my favorite DC-characters, I was both elated and disappointed that Smith would be taking the role. Elated as he is a quality actor whose charisma could probably power the entire Eastern seaboard if we found a way to convert it. Disappointed as since the cast Will “I make more money than you ever will in 20 lifetimes” Smith meaning he’d almost never wear Deadshot’s iconic mask. (I think he wears it maybe twice in this which is twice as many times as I thought he would to be fair.)

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But what of Harley Quinn, you may ask. If anything, she was probably what I was most interested in seeing pulled off as it’s a character I’ve been a fan of since I’ve been a fan of the Batman mythos. She also probably has the most “controversy” around her more than any other aspect of the movie as a whole.

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In short, Harley Quinn is not the scene stealer I was hoping she’d be which is fairly disappointing given how Margot Robbie was absolutely destined to play her.

I was hoping for something akin to when Robert Downey Jr. BECAME Tony Stark. While she certainly livens up the proceedings, Robbie isn’t given too much wiggle room in the way of actual character development. She gets a fair chunk of the story dedicated to her and her backstory, sure, but a lot of that is at the behest of her love affair with the Joker, which also isn’t given room to breath either.

Now while we’re on Harley Quinn, allow me to rant for a bit…

When did people start acting as if Harley Quinn was a character in which we should look to as a beacon of feminism? Did it happen over night? It feels like it happened overnight.

She will never be a figure of female-empowerment or aspirational figure, no matter how much you wish to change the narrative. It’d actually be AGAINST her character to do otherwise. Yes, she was a brilliant psychiatrist. Yes, she is a tragic character. Yes, she is a fun character outside of her sexuality. But you know what? She can also be boiled down to a murderous groupie, who at one point even mass murdered children IN CANON.

And as sexuality has evolved so has she. Yes, she seems to wear less and less with each iteration. I’ve always found that more fascinating than sexist, but I am a man so I’m probably wrong. (The only costume I remember outright not like was the “sexy nurse” outfit in the first Arkham game, but it fit for what they were going for.) And this isn’t me writing her off as some sex object expressly meant for teenage boys. But you are kidding yourself if you think for one second that sexuality isn’t an important to not only her character but her actual creation. Least we forget one of her creators (Bruce Timm) have gone on record that they created her based partly on the fact that they liked to draw women.

What’s fun/interesting about her is just how fucking deranged, bizarre and unhinged she is through her emulation of the Joker, right down to his white skin.

I mean, she is inches away from killing Batman in “Mad Love,” but throws it away at the thought of Joker not validating her.

Characters like Poison Ivy, Catwoman or Talia are characters in their own right. They can be put on certain pedestals because they stand on their own accord. Harley, as a character, has never worked for me unless she’s paired with others, be it the Joker, Ivy or the Suicide Squad. I’ve read recent attempts to move her away from the Joker in the comics (she’s basically DC’s answer to Deadpool when I last checked in) which is all fine and good but it will never be fully absolved as people are perpetually going to wait for him to show back up for her inevitable relapse. Which is sad, but hey, comics need to get sold.

Let me also make sure I’m clear: I’m all for her as a character. She’s engaging, fun, at times empowered (her joined up with the Amazons in the comics is one of her strongest arcs to date) and tragic all in one package. But let’s stop acting like just because she is a female character she needs to represent something she never did. There are plenty of strong, good female heroes for which to aspire. It’s fine to have a few strong bad apples as well.

Anyway…

I don’t really get why their are any strong reactions to Jared Leto’s Joker one way or the other as he isn’t in the movie nearly enough to properly categorize it as bad or good. He’s a glorified recurring cameo.

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I liked his look and it seemed like there was something memorable waiting to burst out but, as is the case with many things in this movie, it isn’t fully formed. In fact, outside of Katana or Slipknot, he is the most needless character in the piece. For all the hullabaloo about all the prep he did and pranks he pulled on set, I assumed he’s be a prominent figure but it was not meant to be. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume there was more abusive stuff related to his and Robbie’s characters which is still a tricky rope to cross while attempting to pull of a somewhat fun movie about individuals with SEVERE mental illnesses killing people. The moments I liked best with him though are when we see him with Harley. Joker in love isn’t something we’ve seen on-screen before and it would have been cool if that were explored a bit more.

For what’s it’s worth, I thought he was fine. Not the worst Joker by any means. If he committed any crime it would be how unmemorable he is due to his inconsequential part in the movie which is perhaps the biggest sin any version of the Joker could commit.

I’d probably give my personal MVP (on the actual squad) to Jai Courtney’s Captain Boomerang. A personal favorite of mine (as are most Flash villains) since I ever started reading comics, it gave me giddy pleasure even just seeing the character in a multi-million dollar movie.

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Don’t get me wrong: he’s almost completely useless in this film in terms of actual contributions to story progression. He doesn’t even have much in the way of any arc, but he’s amusing and that won me over at the end of the day. I also appreciated that he was caught by the Flash (Ezra Miller, in what I assume was a studio mandated cameo) instead of Batman. I hope that sets the stage for his appearance in the (hopefully fun) solo-Flash film with the rest of the Rouges.

I was also a fan of Viola Davis as Amanda Waller. Davis, like Robbie, is a perfect fit for a role she was seemingly tailor-made for her. Should the DC films, continue I hope her involvement carries through them as DC-darker answer to Nick Furry.

And the rest? I think we are treated to longer shots of Robbie’s ass than we are of a good portion of the other characters they crammed into this thing.

Joel Kinnaman’s Col. Rick Flag is just kind of…there. Kinnaman has yet to pop for me in any films that I’ve seen him in (he does some solid work on TV however between The Killing and more recently House of Cards) and he isn’t given a heck of whole lot of memorable things to do here other than make sure the team behaves.

It astounds me that Tom Hardy was originally cast in this roll which would have been a waste of talent on his front. (The again, that seems to be a recurring theme for this film so maybe he would have been right at home.) He’s given a vanilla romance with Cara Delevigne’s Dr. June Moone (comic book movie, remember) who goes on to become possessed by the film’s main villain, Enchantress, another villain so bland and awful they should have her team up with Ghostbusters‘ Ronan. 

Killer Croc and Katanna show up to, you know, just be there so I’m not really going to dedicate time to whether they actually add anything or not.

 Adam Beach’s Slipknow is in it so little that I’m not sure why I’m dedicating a sentence to him.

Not really interesting, but I brainstormed about writing a movie based on either the Suicide Squad or Secret Six back in high school (as I was being cool and what not) and actually still have some notes on how I would have liked to see one pan out….which I will now share since I bet you’re asking….maybe…probably not….oh well!

WE’VE NOW ENTERED THE ANGRY, BITTER BASEMENT DWELLER SECTION OF THE REVIEW WHERE AN ANGRY, BITTER BASEMENT DWELLER TELLS YOU, THE READER, HOW HE WOULD HAVE MADE THE MOVIE “BETTER.”

ALL ARE ENCOURAGED TO SKIP THIS SECTION AS WE MUST DO OUR BEST NOT TO ENABLE THE ANGRY, BITTER BASEMENT DWELLER. ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK.

  1. Minimize the team – A real point of contention for me in this was just how wide it cast its next in terms of its cast of characters, often at the cost of development. I mean we get longer shots of Robbie’s ass than some of the characters on the titular team. So keep Deadshot, Harley and Flag. From there you can add two more members. (I’d go with Boomerang as he is a favorite of mine and Killer Croc as you need muscle. You can keep Slipknot too if he is still only there to prove that the bombs actually work and you need a meat shield.) Maybe give Killer Croc the Diablo plot point about finding humanity instead.
  2. Minimize the scale – This movie seemed to miss the entire point of the Suicide Squad as a concept. They are a COVERT team. COVERT meaning they are sent to clean up messes too small for the Justice League but important and dangerous enough to warrant the expendable meta-human calvary. They have really no business fighting a world ending threat. Maybe follow the model of the animated film that came out a couple years back, Assault on Arkham, and have them be forced to stop the Joker or some more localized threat. Think The Dirty Dozen or Assault on Precinct 13. I think this movie would have benefited from something a bit more confined.
  3. Minimize or expand the Joker – As I said before, Leto’s Joker isn’t given the proper allotment in time actually even register. So if you’re going to have the character, I’d make the case for either limiting him to one scene (perhaps a flashback with Harley or post-credits scene for his eventual Batman-centered feud) or beef his part up by making him the film’s central threat. Maybe their was a riff between Joker and Harley, leading to her having something personal stopping him. That would have allowed her and him to have some development instead of having nothing really interesting going on between them.
  4. Embrace the R – My goodness, this movie WANTED to be an R. Now, I’m not going to argue that an R-rating equates to good, but I would argue that creators should typically play to their strengths. Ayer’s strengths lie in the obscenely violent and vulgar based on his past successes so what better comic book property to match that with than a team of hardened super-criminals?
  5. Embrace your source material – This movie went above any beyond in reminding the audience that our bad guys weren’t so bad. I argue for the opposite. Show us how deplorable this team actually is with glimpses of their humanity later a’la Game of Thrones. This movie is stemmed from the common complaint that villains are often more interesting than heroes and yet it does little with that potentially great concept and instead goes out of its way to continually remind us of how these people are actually good. (Don’t forget, Will Smith has a daughter therefore his actions are justified.)

NOW LEAVING ANGRY, BITTER BASEMENT DWELLER SECTION. YOU MAY NOW RETURN TO YOUR REGULARLY SCHEDULED REVIEW.

Some random observations:

  • Was anyone else hoping we’d be treated to a shot of Captain Boomerang riding a unicorn during the sequence in which Enchantress is showing the Squad members their “deepest desires?” Like the set-up was there and everything!
  • If Cara Delevigne’s wacky Enchantress spell-dance isn’t a gif by the end of this sentence, I will be as disappointed in the internet as I was with this movie.
  • This movie’s soundtrack needed to calm the fuck down. It reminded me of Guardians but with none of the cleverness or nuance. It seemed like their were 10 to 15 pop songs used within the first 30 minutes alone. It’s as if they thought of a song and said, “Fuck it. We got the money. Throw it in!”
  • Why did we need a bunch of army guys escorting the team throughout the film when they are proven utterly pointless? I feel the explosive chip and Flagg would be enough to keep the team in line.
  • It’s important to note that Guardians also had a fairly shitty villain but made up for with strength of its core team, something this film falls to do by trying to fit so many into frame.

A recurring theme with the last few movies I’ve gone to is squandered potential. Ghostbusters (2016), Jason Bourne, the absolutely terrible Killing Joke adaptation and now this.  Out of all of them though, this one may hurt the most. This movie was the most disappointing thing since Mr. Plinkett’s son.

It’s no where near Fantastic Four disaster that a lot of people are purporting it to be however nor did it earn its pretty rough RT score. You may disagree and that’s your prerogative, but this movie was a “meh” with the good equally measured by the bad for me.  Make of that what you will. I just hope these DC movies start showing real, tangible improvements rather than just one being a bit better than the other.