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

Better late than never, right?

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

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

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

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

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

-BABBLING ABOUT THE ORIGINAL BEGINS HERE-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-BABBLING (LARGELY) OVER-

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

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

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

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

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

So as always…

I apologize for being kind of bad at this.

The plot:

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

The review: 

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

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

Denis Villeneuve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other technical aspects worth raving about:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Need more depression?

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

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

However…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’ impresses with its maturity and continued personality

Editor’s Note: In an attempt to keep some resemblance of consistency, I’m actually getting another review out the gate faster than I thought I would. I’ve written a review for almost every Marvel movie (Thor: The Dark World and Ant Man) since Iron Man so I wanted to get this out there as quickly as I could. Actually really liking the movie didn’t hurt either. 

The first Guardians of the Galaxy is definitively my favorite of the Marvel Studios’ canon at present period. I wouldn’t say there was a single terrible movie in the batch. It mainly falls to some being much more memorable than the others, and out of all of them I’d wager Guardians is the one to beat in that regard.

My review of the first film can be found here.

Writer/director James Gunn just brought such a voice to that film movie it  transcended beyond anything the company had done up to that point. Much credit to Marvel for actually allowing the guy to down his thing albeit within the confines of their big picture. I just wish the same sort of situation could have worked out for Edgar Wright and his Ant Man movie which I would have thought to the be the one that topped Guardians but I digress.

Going into the sequel, I didn’t have much doubt I’d enjoy it particularly since Gunn was coming back along with the entire original cast. The question was whether it could actually surpass the original. Too often sequels go too big, favoring familiar rather than innovation. Luckily Gunn is a smart enough filmmaker to largely bypass some sequel (Chris) prat falls other directors do, delivering a product that may not be as good as its predecessor but comes mighty damn close in some respects.

This will be a spoiler free review, Nick.

The plot:

“Set to the backdrop of ‘Awesome Mixtape #2,’ Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 continues the team’s adventures as they traverse the outer reaches of the cosmos. The Guardians must fight to keep their newfound family together as they unravel the mysteries of Peter Quill’s true parentage. Old foes become new allies and fan-favorite characters from the classic comics will come to our heroes’ aid as the Marvel cinematic universe continues to expand.” – IMDb.com

The review: 

Thankfully that all important personality I was drowning on and on about in the preface carries over here, almost even more so. There are so many weird things I want to talk about because Gunn goes for some off-the-beaten path pulls this time around. I remember freaking out in the first film when he went so far as to include Howard the Duck (who returns briefly) near the end. Here we have Ego the Living Planet as a major character as well as shout-outs to the original Guardians of the Galaxy (led by an actor I’m surprised wasn’t included in the marketing more) and even the Watchers.

Pardon me as a scratch off yet another thing I assumed I’d NEVER see in a major motion picture.

It’s also a movie bursting to the brim with color, unafraid to embrace an entire palate rather than brood in the shadows providing yet another line-in-the-sand for Marvel against their distinguished competition over at DC.

Gunn is our sole credited writer this time out and it shows, given this movie does something almost unthinkable in relation to the sequel-dominated cinescape we find ourselves in today: rather than expanding this insane universe, Gunn brings us inward. At times, this movie is downright intimate; given that once again a talking raccoon and sentient tree are major characters, this is all the more shocking.

From the offset, Gunn shows us how these characters have changed since last we met. Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) is a little less reckless, recognizing himself as the caretaker of his team’s larger-than-life personalities. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is less hardened, actually opening herself up to genuine care and affection. The same could be said of Drax (Dave Bautista), who is downright jovial this time around. Conversely, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) is a much more bitter; his wise cracks sporting a sharper edge.

Also Groot (Vin Diesel) is now a baby….referred to as Baby Groot, obviously.

Oh by the way, Gunn communicates all this subtly within the first ten minutes of the film; no easy feat to be sure, particularly just how many characters I just listed without even getting to the rest of the returning cast and new recruits.

Largely focused on the idea of a family being what you make of it (much like the first film), Vol 2 splits our characters off from one another for portions of the film, partnering them up with another guardian as to allow for some further development/playing of each other in different ways. 

Think of it like the fourth season of Arrested Development only here we actually have multiple scenes of the entire family altogether.

As you may have guessed, the story kind of takes a back seat in this entry leaving a film that is much more leisurely in its pacing. The larger MCU doesn’t really factor into the events, leaving our characters to take the reigns which I actually ended up liking quite a bit. It doesn’t hurt that these are such lovable and weird characters obviously.

The cast is again uniformly outstanding. Dave Bautista’s Drax is yet again the comedic highlight and in many ways come to represent the heart of this franchise. He gets to spend some quality time with Mantis (Pom Klementieff), a personal favorite of mine from the comics. Their interactions are basically everything I wanted and more, leading to some of the movie’s funniest bits.

I was kind of worried Marvel was going to lean in really hard on Baby Groot, who is obviously very adorable, but luckily he’s used effectively and more or less sparingly.

If the movie were to belong to anyone in front of the camera, it’d be Gunn mainstay Michael Rooker pictured below with a local drunk.

Rooker’s Yondu is partnered with Rocket and the two really get down to the nitty gritty as to why their characters are they way that they are, both of whom share arguably the best arcs in the entire film. Quill’s notion of “building your family around” is something that obviously stemmed from Yondu, and is explored to poignant effect here.

Rooker’s one of those character actors that is basically good in everything he appears in, which is no easy feat given the sheer scope of his body of work as a character is. Seriously go check out his IMDb page and come back. So know I’m serious when I say this may just be his best performance to date. I won’t divulge into specifics but the movie’s best beats (both comedic and dramatic) all go to him, and I feel it’s a performance we’ll all be talking about for a while. Given the guys super talented, it should come as no surprise and it’s awesome to see Gunn give his friend such a hefty role in such a huge movie. Not that he needs it, but I hope this means we’ll only see more of him in bigger films.

This film also passes the bechdel test, which is something I always like noting in major blockbusters. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, perhaps the least developed of the guardians, is given much more time with her adopted “sister” Nebula, played by my favorite companion Karen Gillan. The two share quite a few nice story beats throughout, playing once again into the whole family theme.

If anyone gets shortchanged, oddly enough it’d be Chris Pratt’s Star Lord, who is paired with his father Ego (of course he’s played by Kurt Russell). Pratt really doesn’t do a whole lot another the final act and it’s not like he’s out of commission a majority of the movie. He’s just a lot lest dynamic to the plot outside of he’s just met his apparent father. To go another further would be too spoiler-y, but even though it’s kind of late in the game, Pratt is consistently in his element here. Unlike Jurassic World or Interstellar, Pratt is the perfect quasi-level headed mantle piece for this insane galaxy to rest its shoulders. He’s an insanely charismatic everyman, unafraid to look stupid or take a joke at his expense.

So if I were to take any qualms with this one it’d be that it’s almost too easy on plotting, drifting off in some sections where some tightening could have been beneficial. This becomes increasingly apparent during the middle section where we linger on beats that drag on just a tad too long. This becomes jarring once things ramp up in the third act and we have action happening at a lighting fast rate.

The film’s soundtrack, following in the footsteps of the unlikely mega-hit that was the Awesome Mix, Vol 1, is similar to the film itself in that it is perfectly great but just not up to the exact bar of its predecessor. Their are certainly some stellar tracks put into play here though with my favorite Fleetwood Mac song of all time being the largest standout for me personally.

Although Glen Campbell’s inclusion was also a worthy of note too, particularly the ludicrously silly scene it accompanies.

To be a nitpick, I’d argue the songs in the first film “fit better” in that each and every one was obviously carefully picked one-by-one as to go specifically with each scene in which it appears. Vol. 2‘s soundtrack, while also doing this to a degree, feels just a little bit more like an oldies jukebox. There’s really nothing wrong with that. It kind of just boils down to personal preference. It comes no where near the level of ego/incompetence behind the ADD music cues in Suicide Squad, which were part showing off and part shamelessly attempting to emulate the success of the first Guardian‘s soundtrack.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether Vol. 2 a better movie than the first film; it’s a hell of a lot of fun all while being much more mature, opting not to rest solely on the past accomplishments of its predecessor to make it great. It builds on them. Think of this as the Paul’s Boutique to the first film’s License To Ill. Sure it lacks the populace appeal of the first outing as well as its conciseness, but it’s deceptively simple as it hides layers of complexity to be discussed and examined beyond its initial release.

I for one can’t wait to see this motley crew back in both Avengers 3 and the third (and presumably final) film with Gunn on writing and directing duties. Like it or not (why would you not), Gunn has carved out a whole universe for himself; largely undictated by the larger demands of the MCU and a sandbox for which he and his team may let their collective imagination run rampant.

The 8th Wonder of the World: The Revolutionary Visual Effects of King Kong, and the 2005 Remake

For disclosure, I wrote this for a college film studies class.

Second full disclosure, I made a B+ on it. 

HOWEVER.

There is a new King Kong film out this weekend…

And sensing an opportunity to capitalize….I mean…discuss…yeah that’s it. Sensing an opportunity to discuss other Kong films, I thought I’d share this above average essay I wrote in college that just so happens to center on the big ape. I wouldn’t say it’s all that good per se. If anything, it’s overly simplistic. But given the fact I don’t really foresee posting stuff all that regularly anymore, this gives me a chance to at least get something else out this month. I have something in mind for the near future, but who knows if I’ll actually get to it….but I digress. 

Anyway, I hope at least one person finds this kind of maybe interesting? Maybe that’s being overly generous. I hope at least someone might glance of over it, see it’s too long and just leave. Is that too much to ask?! 

In his 1986 essay, “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator, and the Avant-Garde,” Tom Gunning coined the term “the cinema of attractions” in relation to early films. Before 1906, films were largely considered novelty attractions much like a roller coaster, or a haunted house. Their audiences were drawn to the new and exciting technology, with the thrill coming from the movement of the camera. In other words, the main draw was not necessarily the narrative because most films at the time did contain any form of traditional narrative, with notable exceptions including the films of Georges Méliès. However, even his films were heavily aided by the visual effects they utilized. As film technology evolved, so did the ability to tell narratives, and the special effects they could showcase.

 A common belief, both then and now, is that general audiences are not going to big-budget, effects driven films for substance. They come for the spectacle. Look to the recent revival of 3-D, for example. For the most part, the effects are dictating the story, not the other way around. However, when compelling material is combined with a team of talented artists with a vision, visual effects can transcend beyond some gimmick to sell tickets. When these effects are used as tool, instead of as a gimmick, a film can become a portal to another world, or house a beloved character that could not exist otherwise. In textual mediums, creating a character like this could be somewhat simple. The audience is asked to use their imagination to create this character in their heads. In film, however, this process can be trickier. You are asking an audience to accept this fictional character as an actuality. A number of factors have to work perfectly in order for general film goers to suspend their perception of reality just long enough to become invested in a character completely created by the use of visual effects. The performance no longer lies on the shoulders of one actor or actress, but a team of people behind the scenes. 

Over the decades there are numerous instances of a character created by visual effects finding mass acceptance by audiences, but there is one such character that has a unique distinction among his contemporaries. The two major film iterations in which he appears are also distinct for the same reason.  That character is King Kong, and the films are the 1933 original, and the 2005 remake.  These films share a plot, but also highlight the massive leap in visual effects technology between their two respective releases.  In her book, Tracking King Kong, Cynthia Erb calls Kong a “cultural icon,” and it’s hard to argue considering that the character has appeared in almost every facet of popular culture since his creation, becoming not only an icon of American cinema, but of the entire medium. The iconography of Kong’s last stand atop the Empire State Building has been etched into the public consciousness.  He is one of the most recognizable icons in movie history, and he could never have existed without the innovation of two different generations of visual effects , and the hard work of the artists that brought him to life.  This success completely legitimizes the use of visual effects in film.

It should be no secret that the original 1933 King Kong was the initial brainchild of one of its directors, Merian C. Cooper, but as with almost every creative process, it came in stages. It should also go without saying that the director’s vision could not have been possible without the assistance of various special effects pioneers. Ray Morton discusses Cooper’s initial idea for his proposed “ape picture,” as a combination of a longtime desire to make a film about gorillas, as well as a description of the newly found Komodo dragon by explorer W. Douglas Burden. Morton writes, “Cooper was intrigued by Burden’s description of the dragons and began imagining exiting scenes in which his gorillas would fight them. He planned to realize these scenes by filming the gorillas in their natural habitat (most likely in the Congo) and the dragons on Komodo and then intercutting the two, with some sort of artificial stand-ins used in joint shots.” Later, Cooper would go on to add various key elements to the narrative that can be seen in the final version of the film, such as the love story, the journey to a primitive island, and the tragic death of his simian hero in New York City.

The issues Cooper would have deal with while pitching Kong Kong would not only be how he intended to bring Kong to life, but also how he would create the world he inhabited. The director would go on to find a solution in a mixture of several innovative visual and audio techniques, not least of which was the stop-motion animation of special effects pioneer, Willis O’ Brien. Stop motion found its beginnings when early filmmakers attempted to make still two dimensional objects “come to life.” As Morton writes, “The motion picture image is an illusion created by photographing a series of individual still picture of a single moving subject one right after another in rapid succession a single strip of film. Each still picture captures an incremental piece of the subject’s overall movement. When the still pictures are projected onto a screen in rapid succession at the same rate of speed at which they were photographed, the human eye blends all of the images into one to create an impression of continuous action.” It was O’Brien that had the idea to apply this process to three-dimensional figures as well. Fueled by a life-long interest in dinosaurs, O’Brien shot a test film of a dinosaur fighting a caveman. In 1915, this test footage became The Dinosaur and the Missing Link, which was eventually picked up by the Edison Company for distribution. It wasn’t until 1925 that O’Brien and his team would first experience wide-spread acclaim for his work on the film adaptation of Arthur Conon Doyle’s The Lost World. This film was a massive worldwide success, and would eventually lead O’Brien to his masterpiece. 

After the success of The Lost World, its director, Harry O. Hoyt, began to work with O’Brian on a new script, titled Creation, for RKO Studios. Hoyt once again signed on O’Brien and his crew to work on the film’s special effects, and began to build models for several sequences for the film. The film’s script and test eventually crossed paths with none other than M.C. Cooper, who had been hired to do a studio inventory at the time. Cooper, who had little interest in the script, instead saw potential in the stop-motion effects that O’Brien and his team had created. Cooper would later say, “When I saw all the prehistoric animals they had lying around this studio, I decided to make my gorilla picture anyway – and make it right here.”  By using O’Brien’s animation, the studio could produce the film completely in-house, with no need for pricey and lengthy location shooting.  Soon, Creation was scrapped, and O’Brien began to work with Cooper on his new proposed feature film, which at the time, did not have a title.  Cooper was able to sell the film to RKO executives completely based off of a test sequence that used O’Brien’s models. Production soon began in earnest, and the film was granted an initial budget of $500,000, thanks to former RKO president, David O. Selznick, the film eventually found its title: King Kong

Cooper would soon share directing duties with long-time collaborator Ernest Schoedsack, who would direct most of the non-effect sequences of the film. As work began on the effects for the film, the two would complete another film for RKO, an adaptation of Richard Connell’s, “The Most Dangerous Game.” This production proved financially beneficial as Cooper and company were able to reuse the film’s jungle sets. On designing the title character, Cooper related,“O’ Brien built a miniature steel framework of a gorilla that had joints that could be locked into position so that you could get smooth movement when you animated.” After completing the framework, Marcel Delgado would go on to add rubber muscles that would bend and stretch realistically. This “skeleton” was then stuffed with cotton to produce an animal shape, and detail. It was then covered in prune rabbit fur. When it was completed, every feature of the miniature was moveable, weighed a little over ten pounds, and stood 18 inches high. In all, there were six miniature Kongs built, as well as full-sized sections of the ape for close-up shots, including a head, arm, and leg. For Kong’s movement, O’Brien and his animators observed gorillas at the Central Park Zoo in New York City, and according to IMDb.com, also drew inspiration from their directors for key sequences in the film. “Both Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack had been wrestlers, and they acted out the fighting moves for the battle between the T-Rex and Kong in the effects studio, before the animators shot the scene,” the site says. O’Brien, who had also been an amateur boxer in his youth, added several boxing moves into the fight scene. Cooper would also go on to act out Kong’s death sequence set on top of the Empire State Building. Cooper would later relate that the scene had to be redone due to Cooper’s initial overacting. Cooper said, “The first time I did it, I was too broad, too hammy, and they did it just like that. Well, it was the funniest damn thing you ever saw, that ape, pop-eyed, rolling, writhing, and clutching. We all had a good laugh and then I did it again for them, this time toning everything down, and this time they got exactly what I wanted.” Work on the animation was a slow process, and an increasingly frustrating one as the production moved into the summer months, making the non-air-conditioned stage comparable only to an oven. At one point, O’Brien’s hand developed gangrene from working with the various chemicals and moldy hides. While recovering, Cooper was forced to do much of the animation himself. 

Over the course of the film’s production, the issue of combing both the animation and the live action in a practical manner arose. Cooper and O’Brien would eventually devise an ingenious technique that would achieve a realistic blend of all the effects used in the film, that Cooper would later call “miniature projection.” As Cooper later explained it, “I would shoot my live actors going the motions of reacting to the beasts or Kong, or whatever, then these scenes would be projected on small-screens that Obie [O’Brien] had in his miniature sets. We would project a frame at a time, and Obie would animate the miniature action to match the live action.”  The technique of rear-screen projection was also utilized, pioneered by director, Georges Méliès, decades earlier. This process would give the actors something to react to other than their imagination and the director’s instruction while filming a scene. On their tireless collaboration, Cooper would later credit much of the film’s visual success to O’Brien. “O’Brien was a genius…Kong is as much his picture as it is mine. There was never anybody in his class as far as special effects went, there never was and there probably never will be.”

After nearly three years of production, King Kong was released on March 3, 1933, and was immediately both a critical and financial success. It would gross $90,000 its opening weekend, the biggest opening ever at the time, and save RKO from bankruptcy, according to IMDb.com. The film also saw numerous financially successful re-releases in 1938, 1942, 1946, and 1952. There were several iterations of the character in other films due to the characters status as public domain, including two from Japanese movie studio, Toho, and a remake produced by Dino De Laurentiis, known for being eccentric.

While not a critical success, the film found an audience, and would become a box office success. It would go on to win an Academy Award for its achievements in the area, something the 1933 original failed to do. The reason key reason it will not be discussed in great detail here, is that I believe it is an example of a film dictated by its visuals, and not the other way around. Both the original, and the 2005 remake, went through lengthy script construction and character development that allowed for collaborations between their filmmakers and their special effects teams during their respective  productions. While not perfect, the 2005 remake still obtains some of that magic the 1933 perfected. The 1976 remake seems to be a cash in, hoping to hook in audiences with its admittedly impressive visuals, but coming short in terms of story and depth. Laurentiis would go on to produce a sequel to the film, King Kong Lives, which had little success, and the character would remain theatrically dormant for another 20 years. 

In the late 1960s, a nine-year-old boy in New Zealand, named Peter Jackson, saw the original 1933 King Kong on television, and was inspired to create his very own films. He would even attempt to recreate the movie on a Super 8 film camera when he was 12. Many years later, Jackson became a world-renowned director, making films that were clearly inspired by the spectacle he had seen as a child, and would eventually be brought on to direct his own version of the story that had sparked in him a life-long love of movies. Jackson is quoted as saying, “No film has captivated my imagination more than King Kong. I’m making movies today because I saw this film when I was 9 years old. It has been my sustained dream to reinterpret this classic story for a new age.” Jackson was eventually brought on by Universal Studios, a company that had had a long gestating plan to release a remake of King Kong, in 1995 to discuss the possibility of directing a remake of 1954 film, The Creature From the Black Lagoon. Jackson turned the offer down, but knowing the director’s obsession with Kong, offered him a chance to write and direct a remake of his favorite film. Initially hesitant, Jackson eventually agreed to the position after he realized the position would just go to someone else and the film would be terrible. Jackson’s original script, that he cowrote with his wife, Fran Walsh, would differ from the 1933 film on several key story aspects, with the ultimate final product resembling the original film to a closer degree. Production was originally intended to begin at some point in 1997. The New Zealand based effects studios, WETA Digital and WETA Workshop, began a six month pre-production period in 1996. However, in February of 1997, Universal pulled the plug on the project after the market became flooded with other ape-related remakes, and Jackson along with WETA, began work on the The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

After the massive world-wide success of that series of films, Universal once again approached Jackson in early 2003 to try and tackle Kong once more. Jackson soon signed on again,  pre-production soon began, and thanks to the innovation of computer-generated imagery, or CGI for short, and the techniques that came along with it, Kong could be brought to life in a way the world had never seen before. 

If the 1933 Kong was a testament to the ingenuity and the of its effects team, cobbling together the limited resources they had at their disposal as well as creating completely new ones, the 2005 remake can be seen as a testament to Hollywood excess, fueled by the life-long fandom of its director. To a degree, this works in the film’s favor. Sporting a massive $207,000,000 budget, it was the most expensive film ever made at the time, and this further allowed Jackson and the effects team at WETA Digital to propel this movie into something bigger than Cooper or O’Brian could have ever thought of during the making of their film. Cooper’s Kong only faced one Tyrannosaurus, while Jackson’s fights three at the same time. Where Cooper had to cut his infamous spider-pit sequence for its graphic content, Jackson and his team lovingly reimagine the scene, and it really makes the viewer’s skin crawl. According to IMDb.com, the movie had the most number of visual special effect shots at the time of its release, at around 2400, along with over 800 miniature shots. The effects of WETA digital allow for almost a photorealistic effect on the creatures. The detail is so minute that one could count each and every one of the individual hairs on Kong’s body. Jackson was the equivalent of the preverbal kid in a candy store, and the director clearly spared no expense when it came to bringing his vision to life. 

In this iteration, the character of Kong is a complete special effect. However, thanks to the innovation of two techniques: motion capture and performance animation, bringing the character to life was no longer exclusively the job of the visual effects team, but also an actual actor. The animators working on the 1933 film had to hope that the movements they were painstakingly constructing were to the director’s satisfaction. Through motion capture, a performance can literally be translated beat for beat into a computer, and an animator can then translate that into the image that will ultimately appear in the final film in a product called performance animation. The two terms are often mistakenly used to represent the same thing, but are actually two different things. Alberto Meanche writes, “In short, motion capture is the collection of data that represents motion, whereas performance animation is the final product of a character driven by a performer.”

To help bring his Kong to life, Jackson cast actor, Andy Serkis, in the role of the titular ape star. The two had worked together in a similar context previously in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, in which Serkis played the CG character, Gollum. Jackson decided fairly early that he did not want his Kong to act human, so he and the visual effects team at WETA Digital studied hours upon hours of footage of actual gorillas both in captivity and in the wild, much like O’Brian and his team did in the early 1930s. Jackson and his co-writers on the script, once again Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, would even create a quasi-backstory for the character to add a sense of realistic legitimacy and character.

Likewise, Serkis drew much of his performance on studying gorilla behavior firsthand, even going so far as to travel to Rwanda to observe mountain gorillas in the wild, as well as spending hours interacting with captive gorillas at the London Zoo. This animalistic quality was very important to the performance Serkis wanted to provide the animators.  On bringing Kong to life, Serkis would say, “We didn’t want to anthropomorphize him to the point where we were explaining every single little gesture. Gorillas both in captivity and the wild have an enigmatic quality – a sense of disconnect, of otherness.” In other words, the key distinct between O’Brian’s Kong and WETA’s Kong, beyond a technical level, are the performances each gives. Due to the limited knowledge of gorillas in O’Brian’s time, the characteristic gaps are filled with more human qualities, i.e. Kong boxing with the T-rex. By 2005, mass amounts of new information on gorilla behavior had been collected, as well as seemingly infinite sources to gather it all from. The Kong in Jackson’s film is very much the amalgamation of a study of gorilla movements, and expressions on WETA’s part, as well as a study of gorilla behavior on the part of Serkis. After almost ten years on-again, off-again production, the film would eventually be released on December 14, 2005, and would be a finical success, as well as a critical favorite of the year, and would go on to win three Academy Awards in 2006, including Best Visual Effects.

The technological achievements of these two King Kong films are unquestionable, but the question remains: what is so special about them? What sets them apart from the hundreds of effects-driven films that were released after the 1933 original? Is there something beyond sheer spectacle that these films provide? M.C. Cooper maintained that “King Kong was never intended to be anything more than the best damned adventure picture ever made. What it is; and that’s all it is.” Perhaps it is something that simple, that the films are an example of “the right place, at the right time.” Both films certainly work on a purely spectacle level, and their respective directors made sure that their audiences were entertained; however, it is in my opinion that the films’ success all relates back to the character of Kong himself. King Kong is a compelling character. These films demand that their audience relate to a giant ape, and against all odds, both films successful put the viewer firmly on Kong’s side. Most movies monsters exist to frighten their audience, but in Kong, the audience experiences something similar to a kinship. We cheer when Kong triumphantly roars over the slain T-rex at his feet, and we weep when he is gunned down all for the sin of falling in love. When Kong dies, it feels like you’ve lost a friend. I think Dino De Laurentiis, producer of 1976 remake, said it best, albeit crudely, “No one cry when Jaws die, but when the monkey die, people gonna cry.”  This fictional animal became real character to audiences, thanks in large part to a mixture of compelling material, visionary directors, and a teams of incredibly talented visual effects artists working together to make films that stand the test of time. King Kong is an icon because of all of these talented individuals’ work. 

Cinematic Soapbox #3 – Two there must be: The beauty and flexibility of’Lone Wolf and Cub’ as a narrative device and influence

Welcome to “Cinematic Soapbox!” Much like the AV Club’s Scenic Routes, I will discuss a movie, scene, series of movies, series of scenes, genre or some other cinematic element, why I think it works and what it means to me. I am obviously not the level of writer that Mike D’Angelo is so don’t expect the same quality and thoughtfulness he brings to his column.

Last night I caught a screening of Logan, what is expected to be Hugh Jackman’s final turn as the character he helped define for well over a decade. In today’s world of constant reboots and re-castings, that’s a borderline ludicrous notion.

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Wolverine, as a character, is a very Eastern concept presented in a traditional Western fashion. He is often likened to a rōnin, or a samurai without a lord or master would travel the country-side as a sell-sword. This connection only strengthened by the fact that his swords are built into his hands. 

If this is indeed Jackman’s final hurrah so to speak, it’s makes complete and utter sense that this is the sort of story he would want to leave Wolverine behind with as it fits a the type of arc writers have been utilizing the character over the past three or four decades.

Now before I get ahead of myself, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty, that being the reason I’m writing all of this.

While I was watching Logan, it became clear to me that it wore a number of its influences proudly on its sleeve. Shane, Unforgiven, Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s Old Man Logan arc, etc.

But it was the relationship between Logan and Laura that stood out the most to me, as was the intent of the movie once could surmise. That isn’t to say anything in the movie was specifically targeted at me but…you get what I’m saying.

This got me to thinking: where else have I seen this arc used so well before?

The answer?

Tons of places, particular over the past couple of decades or so.

For whatever reason however this particular format doesn’t seem to get mentioned a lot, or at the very least I don’t feel that many people I know seem all that aware that it’s a recurring story at all. And it isn’t a strictly cinematic story either. It’s origins rest in the page after all, and have transcended well beyond into television shows and video games.

For those unfamiliar with Lone Wolf and Cub, a 28-volume manga from the 1970s that has been adopted into everything from movies to stage plays, the gist is as follows:

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Written by Kazuo Koike and illustrated by artist Goseki Kojima, Lone Wolf and Cub begins when Shogunate executioner, Ogami Itto, is framed as a traitor by the agents of a rival clan. With his wife murdered and with an infant son to protect, Ogami opts for the path of a rōnin, with the pair adopting the moniker, “The Lone Wolf and Cub.” The two wander feudal Japan with Ogami’s sword now for hire, but all roads will lead them to a single destination: vengeance.

Now it may or may not be important that I preface with the fact that I have not seen EVERY SINGLE ITERATION of this story. I’ve read a handful of the manga and seen maybe two or three of the films. I am not a scholar. I am but a humble internet voice with a blog that sports 3, possibly 4, recurring readers.

You’re welcome to chalk it up to personal preference, but let’s walk through some of the most recognizable instances of this formula and just how successful they’ve been.

It’s a model that traditionally sports two arcs for our main characters:

  1. Wolf, or the old master, is typically in search for some form of redemption or peace. Their lives have been defined by blood shed, with their only goal now to not only keep themselves alive but also the lives of their respective wards. They are often emotionally closed off when we meet them, having been through hell. As the story progresses, we peel back the layers as their young ward reminds him or her of the good person at their core. This character is typically male. Maybe as we attend to automatically assign a masculine connotation to qualities such as “gruffness” and “world-weariness.” It’s by no means a rule. It’s just something that happens to recur a lot in these stories.
  2. Cub, or the young accomplice, represents the new generation or a break from all the violence his or her master attempted to flee from. By the end of the story, this character must make a choice: continue down the path of violence or break the chain altogether. There’s often the recurring narrative choice to have this character be female. Once again, it’s not universal. Just a commonality.

These two characters also typically find themselves in a similar predicament: the younger individual is stuck in a hostile and unfamiliar world in which they are (often) highly unprepared to tackle solo and a world the older individual is all too familiar with. This can mean a path ravaged by the effects of some form of apocalypse or one simply laden with real-world dangers.

The appeal of such an arc is that it really allows for close examination to its two main characters. One (typically) carries the emotional baggage of a violent past whereas the other may provide for levity and in doing so open up the former for development.

Now I’m not going to touch on every example I think of that fits this narrative. To do so would lead to an overly long post that would touch on the same things over and over and over and over and over again. Think of this is as the Lone Wolf and Cub breakfast sampler, where I try to hit on how wide-ranging and re-occurring this story as well as how it continues to remain fresh and narratively engaging in spite of how many times creators dust off the cobwebs on it. I mean, just look at all the quality examples I don’t get to on this thing such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

And I don’t do this to point out something to the effect of “No new stories,” or “Originality dead?” I feel as if I come off as some sort of pretentious grouch that repeats those sentiments over and over again so fear not. I’m not

I do it to highlight a tried and true formula that works and works well when viewed through different prisms. Least you forget, this is story that came to us from Japan but has transcended beyond borders. Not only that but it’s a story steeped in centuries worth of Eastern mythology and pop culture.  If anything, it speaks to the power of story-telling which if you know a single thing about me it’s how lame and uncynical I get about just how goddamn essential story-telling is to the human condition.

Also SPOILERS for all discussed, Nick.

Road to Perdition

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Let’s start off with a cheat just to get it out-of-the-way, shall we? Road to Perdition is also based on a comic. You know what that comic is based on? You guessed it. Lone Wolf and Cub. I guess “homage” would be a more appropriate term, but you get the point.

In this instance, the story is transplanted from feudal Japan to 1930s American Midwest. Simply switch out samurai with gangsters and you’re there. Moving on….

All kidding aside, Road to Perdition may sport a similar structure to its predecessor but its themes couldn’t be more different for the most part. Tonally, this movie is much more subdued and goes out of its way to not canonize its violence, with most of the violent and bloody acts occurring off-screen and those that do appear as quickly as they would in the real-world. Whereas Lone Wolf, in adaptations such as Shogun Assassin, is so cartoonishly violent that you can’t help but laugh and cheer.

Perdition is a statement on violence and its consequences; a journey to hell and back again.

 Michael Sullivan, Sr.chose a path of violence in his youth and now considers himself to be irredeemable. He fears the same path for his son, Michael Jr., who seems enamored by his father’s exploits. However, as he attempts to shield his son from his past, the more harm he does. It’s why he  It’s only when the two are forced on the run does a bridge of communication open between them. Their shared tragedy bringing them closer together.

Adventure Time 

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Speaking of shared tragedy it’s not as if this show needed any more adult themes, amiright?

Now there are a lot of episodes of Adventure Show, and multiple that feature these two characters so let’s limit our scope to just two: “I Remember You” and “Simon and Marcie.”

At the core of this arc (which is also on-going) we have Simon Petrikov, or the man who would be Ice King, and Marcy, who will one day become the Marceline we all know and love. Before that though, we had a simple man losing his mind and a little girl with no home or family just trying to make it through a world torn asunder by “The Great Mushroom War.”

As we know, the roles eventually reverse with Marceline becoming Simon’s caretaker. (She’s not all that hands-on, but Ice King really isn’t all that much of a threat is he?) It’s a relationship unique to the others on here as we essentially learn about it in reverse. When we first meet Ice King and Marceline, they are already in the form they’ll carry for a majority of the series. There’ll be room for growth, (something not particularly easy to do with two characters that are for all intents and purposes are immortal), but they stay relatively the same in regards basic traits, strengths and vices.

With her vampirism serving as an oh so subtle allusion to clinical depression and his crown being a flat-out stand-in for a neurotic disease such as Alzheimer’s or dementia,  the two have their fair share of vices between them. So the reveal that the two have a shared past, while somewhat a shock at first, made sense.

The beauty of it all however is how this arc (as modeled on Lone Wolf) adds complexity to pre-established characters, information we didn’t even know we needed.

The tragedy at its core being two-fold: the tool giving Simon more time is slowly but surely driving him crazy, providing a very gut-punchy view of the lunacy that comes to define him later. That, in turn, leads him to all but forget just about all the memory of his former life, including his time with Marceline.

But in that there is hope.

Marceline may miss the way Simon used to be, but she’s still going to love the person that he is. She knows more than his name; she knows his true soul, and she’ll never forget that, even if he does.

And that hope grows brighter with each episode. The two even reunited (briefly) in a later season.

It’s an ongoing story and I’m interested to see where it goes, and hope for a satisfactory conclusion to their shared arc. Speaking of…

The Last of Us

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Here’s another obvious example.

The beauty and uniqueness of this relationship is how quickly Ellie becomes a necessary part of Joel’s journey. Unlike many of her colleagues on this list, she is far from helpless having had her own bought with fighting to survive well before having met Joel. This is the only world she knows after all, having been born before the Cordyceps epidemic that nearly wiped out all of humanity.

And she’s by no means a master at her craft either. That’s what separates her from characters like Hit-Girl for example. She’s sloppy in more ways than one, and she hasn’t been completely indoctrinated into the uncaring world around her due in part to her having nothing else to compare it to. The Apocalypse is her normal.

The same can’t be said for Joel, a man clearly still in mourning over the loss of his daughter twenty years before the game’s plot kicks in. He’s been operating at half-capacity ever since, simply survive as it is all he really has left.

The two become surrogates for one another. For Ellie, Joel represents a family she hasn’t experienced yet or at the very least some form of normalcy. For Joel, Ellie represents a second chance and could quite literally (and cynically) be considered a replacement kid.

It’s also an interesting relationship because, as with the original Lone Wolf and Adventure Time, it’s one we will get to see evolve. A sequel was announced a few months back, and it was initially news that filled me with a mix of both excitement and hesitancy.

I feel as if we left Joel and Ellie at such a narratively fulfilling place; a place so satisfying I wasn’t all that interested in seeing where it went beyond, “The End.” Sure, in retrospect, the door was left wide open for future stories, but lighting only strikes ever so often and rarely does it strike twice.

But I’ll admit, there is an overwhelming interest in seeing how these two advance particularly the Joel fibbing JUST A TAD about the fate of the Fireflies at the end of the first game.

Leon: The Professional

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The detriment in this one is that there is a hinted romance between our two characters, something I can’t really get around in terms of its ickiness. To be fair, those romantic feels come from the younger side and there are not (to my interpretation) reciprocated by the older.

This is also the only example I’ve included that doesn’t take place in an automatically hostile environment. I mean it is fair to say that Matilda didn’t really have a choice in the matter in terms of the shitty family she was saddled with. That’s the thing with families. A lot of time, people just have deal with the cards they’re dealt.

The lesson to be learned here is finding roots, not letting yourself be dictated by the wind…or in this case crazy, violent mobsters. Leon takes charge at the end, seeing the path laid before Matilda should she keep falling further and further into his world and sends her away, providing a chance for a (somewhat) normal adolescence.

Game of Thrones

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Now for a young girl that probably has NO CHANCE for an even somewhat normalized adulthood…

For my money, this is the best character pairing this series has glued together to date, both in the books and on the television show.

Ser Sandor Clegane, aka the Hound, is hardly the first character to get saddled with “baby-sitting” Arya Stark, but he is buy-and-large the character to produce the best story-telling results from her narrative thus far, which is no small statement.

She doesn’t become a better fighter with the Hound. We aren’t treated to any hokey training montage in which

She doesn’t particularly learn how to play the game either.

So what does Arya gain from a season’s worth of travels exactly with such a brute?

By the end, she is armed with something arguably a lot more useful tool than a new technique or insight into warfare and that is the utter unjust and uncaring nature of the universe.

Your oh-so-great sword teacher, the purported “First Sword of Braavos?”

He was (allegedly) killed by a shit fighter who happened to have armor and a better sword.

This kindly farmer who gave us food and shelter, and offered us honest work?

His farm is in the middle of an active war zone, and will probably be killed before the end of the week so might as well steal his money as it’s as good as stolen anyway.

No, I would say this is a particularly GOOD lesson per se but it is a necessary one; particularly for Arya, a girl from a house that put honor above all else. And where did that get them? Two dead parents, two dead siblings and a house in ruin.

Now the Starks are well on their way to a comeback, but in Season 4 (the season this interaction took place) they were all but kicked out of the game, on the run or held hostage.

So who better to give Arya a much-needed reality check on the way things work. She’d definitely seen some shit in the previous three season, no doubt about it, but she still held on to the antiquated “good and honor prevails” mumbo jumbo instilled in her from birth.

It’s also worth noting where these two leave each other, their roles essentially revered. Arya is now cold, looking to escape and leaves the Hound to suffer and die from his wounds in a fight he fought specifically for her. It’d be a stretch to say the Hound is all that different from where he started but he is more hopeful. Having survived, we later learn, he is more open to the kindness of others.

Logan

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I guess it’s kind of important I touch base on the inspiration on this article, huh?

I mentioned before Wolverine, as a character, is very East-meets-West kind of package, and no where has that been more evident than in Logan, an iteration of the character that could have easily been played by Clint Eastwood if the film came out 20 years ago. There are multiple gunslinger references peppered throughout, with Shane actually viewed by the characters and then quoted later. The plot also mirrors Unforgiven  in more ways than one.

He’s the most desperate we’ve ever seen him with his healing ability on its last legs and the adamantium grafted to his skin slowly killing him. He’s also paired with a dementia-ridden Charles Xavier, who tags a long for a good portion of this film. The film is at its most engaging however when it gets down to its central relationship between a man and his clone.

Laura (also known as X-23 in the comics and animated series) is somewhat comparable to Ellie in that she comes with her own baggage, with the difference being that she mirrors Logan’s powers. She even has two extra claws located in her feet. It may be derivative, but she is in essence Logan’s Mini-Me.

The interesting aspect in this instance is that Laura is a clean slate. She has baggage but its like a purse compared to the unending luggage of her clone daddy. She represents Wolverine’s literal second chance. It is in her that the Lone Wolf comparisons become evident.

Near the end of the film, Logan tells Lauren, “Don’t be what they made you.” It’s simple statement, but speaks volumes.

Both are weapons; designed to kill, kill more, sleep and then kill again. Whereas Logan nears the end of his life, Laura is right at the beginning of hers, and in her lie a crossroads. Does she follow the path of the bitter warrior defined by violence, hallow and full of regret, or something closer to a path of peace? Can there truly be “peace” for someone who’s committed such violent deeds.

This is where the R-rating really aided the story-telling, something I don’t want to come off as shallow for endorsing. It’s really, really, REALLY satisfying to see a Wolverine film in which the character is allowed to fulfill every inch of his violent potential. But it’s even more satisfying that it was allowed to happen in a story that actually called for it.

Just like Perdition, that violence wears on the soul; something I don’t think would have been nearly as effecting in a neutered-for-mass-appeal PG-13 cut.

We need to see the path of a VIOLENT man, the consequences made evident in severed limbs and heads, and the potential for what could happen to Laura should she allow it to define her life as well. The world of Wolverine, Xavier and the X-Men is fading away. The choice is up to Laura and her generation to decide what becomes of mutants, and by extension, humanity.

As Whitney Huston once sang…

All that glitters: 5 (RECENT) Egregious Oscar Acting Snubs

egregious

adjective

Definition: outstandingly bad, shocking

Ex: The fact that Nick does not know what this means is egregious.

Sorry about that folks. Context is everything I suppose. Suffice to say, I know my audience. And that is typically an audience of one. He knows who he is.

The….(looks to see what number we’re at)…89th Academy Awards are this weekend and I’m here to capitalize…I mean…shoot….um….coincide. Yeah, I just happened to think of writing this AND the Oscars just happened to fall on the same weekend in which I finally put it out.

So yeah as with any competition there are going to be varied opinions on who should win and why…this post is one of those opinions. It’s by no means more educated or valid. It’s just mine.

So…

That means it’s objectively the best one.

Why only 5, you may ask? Well I’m lazy.

You caught me.

(I almost get TOO much milage out of that clip.)

I’ve limited myself to acting because well that’s seems to be really be the only awards of the night many seem to pay credence to. I mean I’m sure I could bore you with how we often take for granted the less glamorous screenwriting and technical categories, but….shit, I already lost some of you.

Before you leave, I’m also excluding what could have been candidates for this year’s race as I can only be somewhat relevant, you know? I want this to be an exercise in healing, a means of airing long-held bitterness for awards I was never personally up for or had a say in who won what exactly.

So that means Amy Adams’ work in Arrival will not be getting a mention, no matter how deserving it may be. Also important to note, these are not the MOST egregious snubs of the past few years. Just five egregious ones. Also it’s just my opinion and what do I know? I kind of liked Green Lantern.

Performances (off the top of my head) I would have added had I had more time:

Albert Brooks, Drive (2011)

Tom Hardy, Locke (2014)

Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin (2014)

Benicio del Toro, Sicario (2015)

Jake Gyllenhall, Nightcrawler (2014)

Hugh Jackman, Prisoners (2013)

Liam Neeson, The Grey (2011)

Géza Röhrig, Son of Saul (2015)

Andy Serkis, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

James Franco, Pineapple Express (2008)

Essie Davis, The Babadook (2014)

Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Simon Pegg, The World’s End (2013)

Mads Mikkelsen, The Hunt (2012)

Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina (2015)

Nina Hoss, Phoenix (2014)

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Let’s get some “snobbery” out of the way first, shall we?

Phoenix is a little German movie from a few years back that certainly got recognition in some pretty prestigious circles. However it was basically passed over in every regard by the Academy; perhaps most tragically shunned was the performance of one Miss Nina Hoss.

Nelly is a woman who reflects her surroundings. A Jewish cabaret singer who (barely) survived the horrors of the Holocaust who finds herself in the rumble that was once Berlin, her shattered face mirroring the utter destruction surrounding her. She’s on the search for her husband who may or may not have betrayed her to the Nazis as to save his own skin. Suffice to say, she eventually finds the guy but he does not recognize her as her face is a dented shell of what it once was. However she does look JUST enough like her old self to fit into a scheme he has formulated to get ahold of her inheritance. Noir-ish adventures ensue with twists and turns to be had by all, all culminating in the final scene in which the truth is finally revealed.

Basically the final scene is as perfect as any ending in any movie ever made, (Hyperbole, much?) and at its center is Hoss. She leaves us with almost nothing yet everything that we need. Much like her mother country, Nelly is a little roughed up but she will shoulder on. The subtle yet triumphant rebirth harkens back to the legendary bird from whom the movie receives its title.  This isn’t to say Hoss’ output in the rest of the film isn’t up to par. If it weren’t, this scene would not be one iota of as strong as it is.

Suffice to say, I think Hoss gives one of the best performances of the past few years here and the fact she didn’t even get a nomination (in a year that was kind of lacking looking back) is a shame.

What would have been her Oscar clip (SPOILERS):

Sharlto Copley, District 9 (2009) 

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Another thing I harp on is the gross under-representation of genre films each and every year in the acting categories. I’m not exactly sure where the hesitancy stems from either. Take District 9 for example. It got a Best Picture nod, and a handful of nods for elements such as visual effects. Deservedly so, I might add. However Copley got no Best Actor attention. I don’t even remember him being in the conversation.

It’s a real talent to all at once take an unlikeable character and make us emphasize with him or her as well as sell body horror without coming off as hokey. Copley seems to do it effortlessly with his turn as Wikus van de Merwe.

It’s kind of standard to have the arc of an unlikeable guy, make him see the light and ultimately join the side of the angels. van de Merwe doesn’t exactly fit that mold to a tee however. Copley ensures he remains the still, basically selfish, unwilling participant he was throughout but we get more shades of him along the way. He is capable of empthy for these, as he puts it, “fookin’ creatures.”

I love that. Also his ability to sell the whole “I’m becoming a bug man!” thing flawlessly and empathetically don’t hurt neither.

What would have been his Oscar clip:

Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

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Let’s keep this “South African actors/actresses snubbery” train going by doing away with the pretense that anything I’m saying is at all snobby particularly in comparison to the body of voters we’re talking about.

Mad Max: Fury Road was one of those rare instances of a big budget action movie’s quality being so apparent and loud, I can only assume the Academy was begrudgingly forced into including it in the Best Picture race.

There was one category it was woefully overlooked for. You guessed it. Acting. I know that was pretty tough but we got there in the end.

Now both Tom Hardy and Theron would have been strong candidates for their respective roles in the film, but Hardy got his due that year with a nomination for The Revenant.  And to be fully fair, Theron received her’s back in 2003 with Monster. That was a well-deserved win. So it’s certainly not as sad as it would have been otherwise, but Furiosa is the first truly iconic role Theron has ever gotten to sink her teeth into.

What would have been her Oscar clip:

Lee Byung-hun, I Saw the Devil (2010)

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Oh no! More foreign cinema!

One could argue that Choi Min-sik had the flashier role of the two leads in Kim Jee-woon’s 2010 slasher. After all, he is the titular devil and the man is deserving of at least a little Oscar attention for his snub of basically the performance upon which he will be most remembered in Oldboy. Of the two however, in this particular film, I favor Lee.

It should really come as no surprise that this film was overlooked. It’s pretty exploitative at parts and not in like a fun, Grindhouse way. More like a borderline torture-porn way. And for a lot of the runtime, Lee plays Agent Kim as steely as one would expect from a man seeking revenge. It’s the film’s final act however where consequences begin to take shape in a way that I did not expect.

It’s the final, haunting shot I think should have at least brought Lee into the conversation. Gone is the badass we thought we knew, replaced by the weeping shell of a man whose life has been utterly decimated by quest for revenge. It’s appropriately harrowing and I think it’s a performance that all at once grounds and elevates a movie that could have been exploitive trash if handled by less skilled hands. Luckily I Saw the Devil features some of the best talent South Korea has to offer, Lee being one of them. Now if only Hollywood would follow suit and start putting him in more interesting roles!

What would have been his Oscar clip:

Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips (2013)

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File this one under the “No duh” category, if you please.

Much like our previous contender, Hanks’ snub is basically equates to the utter power of the performance he gives in the film’s final scene. Like Lee, Hanks doesn’t give you a hero triumphant. He presents our main character made broken, the trauma of the film’s event’s enveloping him in a tidal wave of grief and emotion as the the film cuts to black. We aren’t provided the comfort of knowing everything is going to be fine.

What would have been his Oscar clip (obviously):

Scarlet Johansson, Her (2013)

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This is one I’ve been on the fence for for quite a while, and have been in at least two or three debates on the topic believe it or not. Hard to believe I was able to fit it between my hectic schedule of staring at nothing and slipping slowly into narcissistic madness.

The funny thing is though, I was initially AGAINST the idea of the inclusion of a voice over performance. That should be it’s entirely separate category. But if her nomination brought more attention to voice over acting as whole? Well, I can get 100% behind that wholesale.

It’s important to note that Johansson was not even the first person cast in the role. Samantha Morton had recorded all her dialogue (and was even on set for all of the scenes between Theo and Samantha) before director Spike Jonze opted to recast her. Jonze said, “It was only in post production, when we started editing, that we realized that what the character/movie needed was different from what Samantha and I had created together. So we recast and since then Scarlett has taken over that role.”

That speaks to both the power of casting (another role that should get some form of Academy recognition) as well as Johansson’s ability to effortlessly slip into the role.

There’s this annoying notion that voice over acting is “easier” than traditional acting as one simply goes to a booth to record. They can wear pajamas to work, you guys.

The thing some don’t seem to acknowledge is how alienating the process can be. I mean typically it’s just you can the voice director and various behind the scenes folks in a booth with a few hour sessions for a week or so. You don’t typically even meet the other actors until after the process is over. (Johansson’s case takes this a step further as she wasn’t brought in until the main production had already finished.) This leads to many actors simply phoning in their roles for an easy paycheck. It’s really easy to spot lazy voice work. (Looking at you, Chris Rock.)

Johansson’s output here is anything but lazy.

What would have been her Oscar clip:

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.

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.