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

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

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

The plot:

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

The review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or not.

Who really cares?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The plot:

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

The review: 

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

Much can be said about the cast of Free Fire. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)

HER

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:

‘John Wick: Chapter 2’ is a more than worthy, albeit kind of bloated, follow-up to its predecessor

It’s been a year since Deadpool came out.

….

….

That doesn’t tie into the review proper at all.

More like a statement on the general passage of time, and how something something you don’t look around you might miss something something.

…..

…..

ANYWAY.

I’m still feel as if I’m reeling from the concussive wave of shock that assaulted my body with overwhelming quality in the form of John Wick back in 2014.

Show me someone they went into that first movie “knowing” it would be a new action classic and I’ll show you a liar. On the surface, that movie had a lot going against it. Mid-September release date, Keanu Reeves as the lead and a somewhat stupid on paper premise did not bode well. But low-and-behold, we have arrived at a sequel and it is one of the most anticipated releases of the year.

I didn’t do a full-review for the first film, but I think a lot of its strength is that initial shock I just mentioned. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great movie and I daresay about as perfect an action movie you’re likely to find in this day and age. But no one knew it would be AS good let alone outstanding.

And I loved, loved, LOVED being proved wrong because that next to never happens with movies any more. Surprise is a cinematic currency of increasing value in the Age of the Franchise and John Wick just might represent a renewed hope for new, fresh Western action cinema. The fact that it’s joining the big leagues with a sequel is all-at-once exciting and worrying. You can only make one first impression after all and diminishing returns are something each series faces at one point or another.

Keanu doesn’t age!

The joke?

Remember the joke that Keanu Reeves  doesn’t…um…age?

You’ve heard that one right?

Like you’ve seen the pictures?

keanu-reeves-is-he-immortal

See?

I’m doing the bit.

From the beginning….about the…the passage of…um…time.

It’s like a gag.

Fuck it, start the review!

john-wick-chapter-2-poster

The plot:

“After returning to the criminal underworld to repay a debt, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) discovers that a large bounty has been put on his life.” -IMDb.com

The review:

I’d be quick to compare John Wick: Chapter 2 to The Raid 2. It’s quasi-startling at how many pros and con (singular) the two share. Both are sequels to surprise action films released relatively close to their predecessors. Both are longer than their predecessors due to more world-building. Both up the ante by noticeable margins both in scope and action. Both are ultimately really, really, REALLY great but ultimately come just a hair short to their respective predecessors due in part to said world-building.

Where John Wick kept things relatively simple with its “gang kills man’s dog, man goes on rampage” premise with bigger assassin-centric universe playing a more supportive role, Chapter 2 covers a substantial amount of ground in its somewhat bloated runtime by bringing its world-building to the forefront.

If the worst thing I can say about a movie is, “It was just a bit too long,” you’ve got yourself a pretty, damn good movie. You’re ridin’ high, fine as wine, havin’ yerself a Big N’ Rich time.

Wait, what?

Sorry, I’m just getting distracted all over the place here.

Like I said, my only real “issue” with the film comes right down to preference in pacing. Whereas the earlier film built momentum through domino effect, its sequel prefers to stack its cards all at the top and letting them fall to pieces by the second act for the 40 or 50 minute equivalent to cinematic jenga. Nothing wrong with that at all. I just felt winded by the time John reaches the kingdom of panhandlers, led by Laurence Fishburne (Matrix reunion!!!!!!!), and could have either used a more substantial break rather than MORE information to access right before getting back to business. It was too much of a good thing for me in some respects.

It’s almost frustrating in a way. The film does just about everything I could ask for in a sequel. World-building, interesting new characters, etc. It’s a buffet of riches, and yet I still feel it could have been scaled back to some degree. I don’t know. Simply put: the film was just a bit too long for me personally.

That was the negative, so lets focus on the positives (PLURAL) because there are a ton.

Once again, the action (the main attraction) is utterly sublime and entertainingly surreal.

Gunman take suppressed shots at one another unnoticed in a crowded subway station.

Blood splatters the blank walls of an art gallery like Pollock painting.

We also finally get to see what kind of damage John can really do with a pencil.

I was a little worried that since only one of the two directors from the first film (Chad Stahelski to be specific) would be returning for the second outing. Like maybe the other guy (David Leitch) saw something wrong with this film and jumped ship. The two former stuntman only have Wick as their directing credits so it’s not like the Cohen Brothers splitting up but I feel its fair to say there could be concern that the magic might have been lost without the full band getting back together. Consider any worries I (or maybe you) had dead and buried. Stahelski is as apt at every in presenting action in way that is at once exciting and comprehensible. Believe it or not, you can in fact have your cake and eat it too in this instance.

Characters take damage here, and every bit is just so wonderfully kinetic that you find yourself wagging your finger at other filmmakers that seem to think we like spazz attacks rather than steady, competent camera work. The filmmakers want you to gawk at the stunt-work and revel in the back-breaking work they put into their set pieces. Wick fights a gun-totting Harry Potter, his various firearms proving far more effective than any wand or staff. (I’d say let there be a drinking game in which shots are downed with every headshot Wick fires off, but those are supposed to be fun; not death sentences.)

Reeves cements Wick as an anti-hero for the ages. Much has been said about Reeves acting abilities, or arguably lack-there-of, but I argue, and have argued for years, he’s fucking phenomenal in the right roles. I guess you could really say the same for any actor or actress, but Reeves is an absolute testament to this simple fact: CASTING MATTERS.

He bounces off so well against a much livelier cast of characters because this is a man who’s, at his core, dead inside. This second film really represents more of a descent for John whereas the first film really was just about revenge. He’s forced back into the game as it were by Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), a member of the Neapolitan Camorra, an old frenemy who will not accept “No,” as an answer. Soon, John is off to perform yet another seemingly impossible task and wouldn’t you know it? There’s a double cross and old John Wick finds the candle burning on both ends….on both ends…..the candle is burning on….John Wick? Candle. Guys?

The movie can’t really sustain the emotional heft of “man’s dog is killed, said dog was also last connection to dead wife” so it makes the wise decision to pretty much forgo that all together. Instead it just doubles down on everything else that made the first one work so well, namely that aforementioned action and fantastical assassin-filled world-building.

And instead of devolving into some sort of gritty, brooding slodgefest revenge films seem to be defined by, this weirdo franchise opts to shed blood in the light and fully embrace the wackiness of LITERALLY anyone being an assassin.

Speaking of blood, let’s talk about the new blood. I’d say this is probably something this film aces over the last. Sure, there are less women (only one speaks substantially as I recall and the other is a mute) but I’m not sure this movie is setting out to say some sort of larger statement on feminism. In fact, I don’t really think there are many topical sentiments to be had at all here….other than assassins seems to be everywhere.

Fuck, we’re getting a little too social conscious here.

Back on course.

I really felt a better sense of presence from the supporting cast this time around. I don’t want to go beat-for-beat with each one, but we can break down one. Um….Common!

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Now Cassian is not  THAT developed per say but neither is our title character. The film does a lot with a little in this regard. There’s clearly a history between he and John and you get that with like next to no dialogue on the subject. I love how these movies go about characterization. There’s not an ocean of depth to them, but there really doesn’t need to be. Unlike…oh let’s say Rogue One…the movie isn’t all that dependent on a super strong cast of characters. They really just need to be memorable TO AN EXTENT. And the film and its cast achieves that largely. Ruby Rose’s silent Ares may even be a shining star in this regard as I remember a hell of a lot more about her than I do about…give me one second I’ve got to look it up….Jyn Erso. Ares says LITERALLY nothing, communicating via sign language, but it’s yet another “mountains out of molehills” situation.

Now hopefully we can file “Tyler overly cares about digestible yet interesting characterization” away for the foreseeable future. We’ll put it next to “Did you know mainstream horror largely sucks” or “Action heroes need to get beat up more.”

I also loved where this film leaves Wick. No spoilers but needless to say: he’s not probably not going to be having a great time if and when we catch up with him in Chapter 3.

So…there you have it.

John Wick 2 is great. I’d even go so far as to say it’s amazing. Sure, it could use some trimming around the edges but how I can really chalk that up to anything more than personal preference. I’m old and I have a hard time with most movies over an hour and a half.

It’s like the first film is a hearty appetizer. Yeah, you’re hungry for more but once you get halfway through the main course you’re ready to explode. However, if you’re a fan of the first outing, you’re going to love this one. Not a doubt in my mind on that.

‘Split’ paves the way for the long awaited M. Night Shyamalan “return to form” once thought to be a pipe-dream

I’ve said some…less than kind things about the canon of M. Night Shyamalan. I’ll admit it. I stand by them. To clarify, I have nothing against the man personally. But let’s be clear:

Signs – Watchable but not a good movie.

The Village – A promising start, all undone by uneven pacing and a weak twist.

The Lady in the Water – Misguided and completely forgettable.

The Happening – Utter garbage on almost every front.

The Last Airbender – Possibly the worst adaptation of ANYTHING I have ever seen, and the drop off point in terms of my Shyamalan viewing. (The more I read about the production however the less Shyamalan seems to be at fault in this instance.)

With exception of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, I don’t think Shyamalan has a single film to his credit I’d consider good. The vary on the scale of adequate to outright terrible. His first two aforementioned films however are so strong that there was always a tiny, rapidly dying flame I’ve carried that he’d at some point get his mojo back. Unbreakable in particular, an INCREDIBLY underrated superhero flick that was largely overshadowed by The Sixth Sense. 

From the offset, I wanted to write this one off too. To be frank, I probably would not have even given it a shot were the word-of-mouth not been as strong as it has been. 

And in this one, brief instance: that word-of-mouth had some solid validity to it. Having now seen the movie, I can say it’s easily the writer/director’s best in well over a decade and actually provides a glaring light of quality in a January typically designated as a dumping ground for studios.

Just to be clear: I’m going to avoid spoilers here. I’d normally say, fuck it. But we’re talking about an M. Night movie here. The man has built a career on his twists. While I’d argue the one in Split isn’t all that earth-shattering, particularly if you are well-versed in the man’s other films (HINT, HINT), I’ll still keep it an air of mystery as the rest of the internet appears to have done so.

split_2017_film

The plot: 

“After three girls are kidnapped by a man with 24 distinct personalities they must find some of the different personalities that can help them while running away and staying alive from the others.” – IMDb.com

The review: 

The film’s main strength, as is the case with many I find, is its relentless likability achieved by just how bonkers it dares to go. For my money, Split is the campiest, funniest movie Shyamalan has ever gone and the movie is only made better for it. It’s really impressive as the movie walks a very, VERY fine tight-rope between

It’s also the first in well over a decade to play to its writer/director’s main strengths. An oxymoron to be sure. Similar to Sense and Unbreakable, the film operates on a relatively low budget but what it lacks in fund it more than makes up with  with in sheer confidence. I didn’t see The Visit, but from what I gather it is similar in that it represents M. Night getting “back-to-basics.”

It goes a step further by waving away the overly-somber atmosphere of those earlier two films. Don’t get me wrong. There are some heavy things are work here with child abuse only being the tip of the proverbial iceberg, but the movie never really loses sight of how goofy its initial premise is and at the very center is a complex, wacky, layered performance from James McAvoy.

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Without an actor like McAvoy, someone really unafraid to commit while also dedicate the time to making each personality distinct, the movie would have crashed and burned like so many others in  Shyamalan’s canon. Films, by their very nature, are collaborative in nature. One thing goes wrong, it could spell disaster for the entire production. Now, I understand this is incredibly obvious but I only say it to make a point. This movie stands on the shoulders of McAvoy and his success is its success. There’s just no way around that.

Is his performance(s) Oscar-worthy? I don’t think I’d commit to that necessarily, but it is a performance worth commending and dissecting. We don’t see all 24 personalities that make up Kevin, but the 4 or 5 that are showcased are fully-developed, understandable characters. Much more than any that appeared in Rouge One. You get a feel for who these characters are through tiny, at-times exaggerated, non-verbal actions rather than extended, monotonous monologues explaining who they are.

It should also be noted that the movie is gorgeous. Shyamalan recruits It Follows cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, who allows scenes to simply play out in extended, single-take shots. I had forgotten how good Shyamalan is at establishing tension and simply allowing it to play. He’s finally teamed with a cinematographer with a natural gift for it as well with the results being tiny wonders and a testament to the “less is more” approach to horror.

The movie has more than its fair share of issues. For one, I’m not sure all three aspects of the story gelled all that cohesively. We get Kevin’s adventure with his three-kidnapped victims as well as his interactions with his therapist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who is not convinced everything is fine with her most fascinating patient. We also get flashbacks regarding a nightmarish hunting trip taken by one of the three girls Kevin has kidnapped, played by The Witch‘s Anya Taylor-Joy. I don’t know. On the whole, all three narratives are fine but I feel like there could have been some trimming, particularly to the overly gratuitous flashbacks, and the film would not have lost all that much. To speak anymore on it however would be trimming the border of spoiler territory however.

I will say that the flashbacks really hammer home the themes of trauma and mental illness that I think Shyamalan is going for (much as he did in The Sixth Sense), and for that it gets a pass if only for being well-intended. I just feel as if there was a way to convey the information we get from them as subtly as we learn about each of Kevin’s personalities.

Another case could be made that the other two girls in Kevin’s clutches (played by Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula respectively) are largely pointless. I argue however their purpose is supported by their final fate in the film, but once again…

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So, there you have it. Split is by no means a classic, but it represents something that warrants discussion and that is a hopeful return to form for a director that is long in need of one. It’s a movie that unabashed trashy, all while being much smarter than it initially lets on. In other words, my favorite kind of genre-movie.

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.