Sunday, June 4, 2017

Review: Wonder Woman (2017)

Wonder Woman is a big-budget superhero movie, and despite a couple of clever comments Diana (Gal Gadot) makes near the end about heroes being unable to solve complex problems like war and human corruption, it is fundamentally an earnest one rather than a deconstructive one. That is, it feels like it could have been made ten years ago, and probably it would have felt fresher then, situated among other straightforward origin stories like Iron Man (2008) and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011).

This is not Wonder Woman's fault -- Hollywood has dragged so much goddamned ass finally making an A-grade female-led superhero film that it beggars belief. We have been waiting for a Wonder Woman movie for so many years, even decades, and our having to wait this long for a movie centered on such an iconic character is glaring evidence of Hollywood's deep and pervasive structural sexism.

But the movie is finally here now, and it is a lot of fun. Like all superhero films, Wonder Woman takes its cues from the blockbuster writ large, inheriting its DNA from the 1980s Spielberg-Lucas template. So like any big-budget action-adventure film made in the wake of Star Wars (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Wonder Woman is entirely predictable. There are no surprises or revelations here -- we've seen all this before.

However, that said, Wonder Woman is well-executed and possesses a few key strengths that make it a pleasure to watch:
  • a very likable, positive, and non-brooding protagonist
  • a particularly game and enjoyable supporting cast, especially Chris Pine as Steve Trevor -- Gadot and Pine exhibit delightful onscreen chemistry
  • minimal (though some) running-time bloat and (thank god) minimal crossover exposition -- no distracting Superman or Batman cameos here
That first item is the most important and is what sets this film apart from all the others in the recent DC Universe franchise.* I am sick to death of dark, tortured protagonists in action-adventure blockbusters so when I heard that Wonder Woman was not going that route, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Wonder Woman's Diana is not quite so upbeat and booster-ish as Christopher Reeve's Superman or Melissa Benoist's Supergirl, but she abides in that general area -- grimly determined but not grim, and generally optimistic about human potential and the human spirit. I like superheroes like that.

Teamed up with Gadot as Diana is Chris Pine (a personal favorite) as Steve Trevor. He is a delight and his chemistry with Gadot is spot-on. I agree with AV Club's A.A. Dowd that
Pine, with his square-jawed deadpan, bounces nicely off of Gadot’s tourist curiosity; the two actors have a chemistry of innuendo and hesitant camaraderie—the makings of a screwball romantic comedy, simmering around the edges of the story.
Indeed, I wouldn't have minded if the Diana-Steve duo spent a little more time in London exchanging banter and having fun with Etta (a hilarious Lucy Davis) before slogging into the whole combat mission. But this is a blockbuster, there are action beats to get to, I get it. As Dowd puts it, "One just wishes [director Patty Jenkins] were working outside of a house style not already etched in stone." Hear, hear.

At least Wonder Woman avoids annoying franchise hyperlinks that distract from the story at hand. Recall the marred ending of Winter Soldier, about which I have written:
Captain America: The Winter Soldier was okay but should have ended right when Cap comes ashore at the lakeside after the film's climactic battle. Everything else after that is franchise-connection filler and is superfluous to this movie. 
Sure, Wonder Woman has a brief frame story in which Diana (in the present day) receives a note and photograph from "Wayne Enterprises" and subsequently sends an email message back to "Bruce Wayne." But there is no pointless cameo by any other DC franchise character or some out-of-context teaser for the upcoming Justice League movie, in which Diana will also appear.** So hearty kudos to Wonder Woman for simply being its own movie, an increasing rarity in today's franchise-dominated blockbuster world.

To characterize it in the terms fleshed out in this postWonder Woman is a simple, generic blockbuster.

Wonder Woman hangs out on the top left with blockbusters like The Avengers (2012). 

Simple blockbusters, indicating the simplicity of their plots, "make pretty clear from the get-go what is at stake" and "do not depend upon mystery or surprise." There is only one major "surprise reveal" of a character's true identity near the end of Wonder Woman, and if you don't see that coming from leagues away, then god help you. No, Diana sets off from Themyscira to do a certain thing, and by the end of the movie she does exactly that.

Generic blockbusters, referring to genre and style, are "films that adhere more closely to the established parameters of their genre, with less evident authorial flourishes or deviations in tone or visual aesthetics." In this context we have to see genre in terms of franchise and branding as well. I would describe Wonder Woman as a generic superhero blockbuster in the Warner Brothers / DC post-Nolan, Zack Snyder-ish style.  There's slo-mo combat, there's a big boss villain, there are super-weapons, there are parent / child things being worked out, etc.

If Wonder Woman has noticeable flaws, they are:
  • a too-long running time and a pointless and boring final battle -- the film is emotionally over about twenty minutes before it concludes, around the time Diana confronts Ludendorff and then Steve Trevor on the elevated tower near the airstrip. 
  • some incomprehensible, sloppily choreographed and/or shot action sequences, especially during Diana's early training. This is not unique to Wonder Woman -- pretty much all superhero films and blockbusters follow "Chaos cinema" aesthetics in their action sequences these days -- but it is still unfortunate.
That said, some of the slow motion in the action sequences, used more judiciously by Jenkins than it is in the Zack Snyder-directed movies I've seen, works really well, creating a kind of comic book panel or splash page type effect. Combined with this, Gadot, for me, possesses the physicality, prowess, and aura to really pull off this role. For me, her Diana in Wonder Woman is as visually iconic as Christopher Reeve in Superman (1978) -- I mean that as a supremely positive comment.  

In his review, Entertainment Weekly's Chris Nashawaty compliments Gadot's "undeniable star power" and accurately describes Wonder Woman as "assured and sly." He writes that Gadot's Diana "is both awesomely fierce and surprisingly funny" and "her chemistry with Pine is just as unexpected and electric." I agree with these points and with the overall conclusions of that review.

And importantly, as Dowd and others have noted, despite the shortness of her skirt-thingy and a few gratuitous bare-leg shots, the film mostly resists sexually objectifying Diana, thank christ. It's sad that the bar is so low that we are relieved simply when a mainstream film doesn't objectify or ogle its female characters, but there you have it.

She usually looks more like this. 

In short, definitely see Wonder Woman if you like enjoyable blockbuster action movies. This one won't condescend to you. It will provide "sly and assured" entertainment and action thrills -- Diana's assault on the village of Veld being my favorite instance of the latter. I also really enjoyed the brief alley fight that happens in London. Diana's whip, weapons, and style are cool, and the film's climactic message, while entirely corny, is the sort of popcornish thing I want to hear at this time of year and in these troubled times. That Wonder Woman's message of love comes from the lips of Hollywood blockbuster cinema's first bona fide female stand-alone superhero franchise protagonist is, I think, cause for celebration. Long live Diana, Princess of the Amazons.

UPDATE 6/5/2017: Please read this feminist critique of the film by Nerds of Color's N'jaila Rhee and consider also this more deprecatory feminist analysis by's Christina Cauterucci.

UPDATE 6/9/2017: For even more nuanced discussion of the feminist implications of Wonder Woman, read Noah Berlatsky's incisive rundown of how the film fails to acknowledge -- and even works against -- the "sisterhood" elements of the original comics, and also this smart dialogue between Carolyn Petit and Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency.

* Note that I have not seen Man of Steel (2013) nor Batman v. Superman (2016) and don't plan to see either one. I have no truck with a brooding, "dark" interpretation of Superman and I was tired of the "dark" version of Batman by the time The Dark Knight (2008) rolled its end credits.
** To be fair, I did not stick around to see if Wonder Woman has a clunky, Marvel-esque post-credits sequence pointing toward future franchise entries.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Review: Kong Skull Island (2017)

Bearing in mind that I am the guy who re-watches The Lost World more often than I do the original Jurassic Park, I saw Kong Skull Island over the weekend and got exactly what I expected: a brainless, action-packed good time.

Is the film thin on the ground plot-wise and character development-wise? Yes, quite.

Are the only characters who can be said to have any personality or character arc Samuel L. Jackson's Packard and John C. Reilly's Marlow? Yes.

Indeed, Entertainment Weekly's Chris Nashawaty is correct to note that "there are about a half dozen too many characters to keep track of once the film gets underway." True -- I remember almost none of them except the two already mentioned plus John Goodman's Randa. Most egregiously, superb actors Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson are especially underused here -- they get barely any lines and are mainly around to pose attractively in the foreground of tableaux shots.

As David Palmer writes in his negative review,
If ever there was a blockbuster that was the definition of "studio picture" it’s this. Everything feels been there/done that, and even the scenes where Kong is Gronk-spiking helicopters manage to feel lifeless and almost completely devoid of joy. Slow-mo is overused to the point of eye-rolling and [director Jordan] Vogt-Roberts doesn’t seem to give any character direction to his actors.
I agree with all this and yet, unlike Palmer, I thoroughly enjoyed Kong Skull Island. I knew what I was in for and had no expectation that the film would be anything more than what it is: a big, dumb, action movie in which a giant gorilla beats hell out of a bunch of stuff. Nashawaty calls Skull Island "a big, loud, and kinda silly monster mash that feels like a throwback to the late-‘90s Bruckheimer era of gung-ho, budgets-be-damned macho adventure" and I agree.

Skull Island's soundtrack is riddled with hackneyed, over-used Vietnam-era classic rock tracks: The Chambers Brothers' "Time Has Come Today," Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit," and of course CCR's "Run Through the Jungle." As Nashawaty remarks, the film's song choices evince "lack of care" and "have as much imagination as a Time-Life Songs of the ‘70s set." I found these choices annoying.

Yet the movie's weirdest musical choice -- which constitutes my single biggest complaint about Kong: Skull Island overall -- is its use of Vera Lynn's "We'll Meet Again" right near the end. That song forever belongs to the apocalyptic montage at the end of Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964). To use it in any other movie -- especially as used here, as a straight-faced piece of WWII nostalgia -- ends up feeling macabre and off-putting due to that unavoidable intertextual reference. These filmmakers should have known better.*

My other big problem with Skull Island is its bald-faced Orientalism in portraying the native tribe with whom Reilly's Marlow coexists. Between Marlow's Heart of Darkness-evoking surname and the decision to have the natives never speak -- they just silently nod and gesture throughout -- the filmmakers obviously mean to signal that they are "in on the joke," that they are re-hashing these racist, imperialist tropes knowingly, with a nudge and a wink. Yet the tropes are still damaging, and the film's racist, one-dimensional depiction of the 1970s Skull Islanders is distractingly offensive. They could have been done so differently.

In conclusion, I do not know if I will ever watch Kong Skull Island again, but there is a vastly greater chance of that happening than me ever watching Peter Jackson's overlong, draggy, bombastic, and boring King Kong remake again (believe me, I've tried). The difference lies in aspiration, not execution. Both 2005's Kong and 2017's Skull Island are well-executed blockbusters. But the 2005 film is trying too hard to be an "epic," serious homage to the 1933 original, so despite its great casting and better script, it is, for the most part, slow-paced and mind-numbingly boring.

Skull Island, in contrast, wastes no time getting to the island and the Kong fight scenes, so is a much more worthwhile investment of my time and entertainment dollar. I recommend it for what it is: blockbuster thrills held together with a stupid plot and flat characters -- but with the common decency not to pretend to be otherwise. Its honesty in this regard, which reminds me of Pacific Rim (2013), is refreshing.  

King Kong sez: "Eat my shorts, Peter Jackson."

* Unless, of course, they were misguidedly trying to "steal the song back" from Kubrick on purpose, a hubristic and futile attempt which utterly backfires. How can anyone who has ever seen Strangelove forget that sequence and song?

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Three Recent Good Movies

David Brent (Ricky Gervais) explains the various misfortunes that have struck his original "Foregone Conclusion" bandmates.  

I recently got around to watching David Brent: Life on the Road (2016, dir. Ricky Gervais) via Netflix streaming, and was pleasantly surprised by how truly good it is. Surely of greatest interest to those viewers who (like me) are familiar with writer/director Ricky Gervais' seminal BBC series The Office (2001-03), this feature-length sequel does not require such familiarity in order to be thoroughly enjoyed. The film, documenting David Brent's life ten years after the end of The Office, features zero cameos from the original series cast and only one brief reference -- to Pete Gibbons, what else? -- that would constitute an in-joke. Life on the Road stands on its own.

I therefore recommend Life on the Road to any viewer fond of British comedy and/or Spinal Tap-style mockumentaries. Indeed, Life on the Road is a lot like a more downbeat, dry version of Spinal Tap, as the self-involved Brent sets off on an expensive and disastrous vanity tour to attempt to flog life into his non-starter career as a rock musician. Everyone around him, including his hired bandmates and road manager, find him musically silly and interpersonally odious, and say so in their ongoing interview segments.

Meanwhile, Brent's own interviews highlight his socially important lyrics -- he is a clueless, unconsciously racist white man inexplicably fixated on native Americans and disabled folks -- and the big plans he's got for his musical career once he's signed to a record label.

David Brent convinces his long-suffering bandmate Dom (Ben Bailey Smith) to don an ethnically inappropriate costume for a gig. 

In addition to being quite funny -- some of Brent's songs and concert sequences are especially outrageous and squirmy -- Gervais here deploys a climactic device similar to that he used in his brilliant HBO series Extras: he gives Brent a chance at emotional, if not musical, redemption. His tour fails but for the first time since the character's first appearance in 2001, David Brent seems to actually learn something of value from his mistakes. A melodramatic ploy? Yes. Effective and touching? Yes.

As he has shown again and again, Gervais is a master craftsman of character-driven comedies like this, and his return to his best-known character is hilariously funny and surprisingly poignant. Life on the Road is definitely worth a watch.

Daniel Kaluuya's spot-on performance as Chris anchors Jordan Peele's 
must-see horror film Get Out. 

Get Out (2017, dir. Jordan Peele) is a fun, timely, and darkly humorous horror film that is in serious contention to be the best film of the genre released this year. It really is that good. It is also rated PG-13 which means it isn't too gory and should be accessible to thriller fans.

Get Out's most obvious referents are The Stepford Wives (1975) and John Frankenheimer's Seconds (1966), yet Peele borrows concepts from those films (as well as visual ideas from The Shining etc.) and makes them very much his own. There is a strong sense of purpose and authorial voice in Get Out, including many wonderful comedic moments that perfectly break the tension -- just long enough to give the audience a brief respite from the thrills. As I discussed with my companions after the screening, I am most eager to see what Key and Peele and Keanu alum Jordan Peele does next as a director.

[UPDATE: Jordan Peele tells Business Insider that he's got four more planned "social thrillers" in the works.]

Most interesting to me is Get Out's knowing yet subtle riff on the ending of Night of the Living Dead, a film that obviously looms large for any genre fan when watching this movie, since it is one of the few other horror films ever to feature a black protagonist.

Timely due to its racially charged plot and thematics, Get Out lands because it is a well-crafted, thrilling movie, with lots of pathos and humor deftly interwoven with its scares and thrills. As this incisive critical essay by George Shulman notes,
the gift of Get Out is that its humor about the absurdities of race, and its playfulness with Hollywood genres of horror and thriller, displays the possibility of facing - exposing - this horror [of contemporary structural racism] in ways that cross racial lines, and by evoking affects other than self-righteous reproach and guilt. But the question remains whether this movie can - what act, event, or artifact possibly could - undo the knowingness by which Obama-era whites protect themselves from their implication in the horror, the horror.
Indeed. I know I over-use this adjective, but Get Out is truly brilliant -- equal parts thrilling, funny, and thematically poignant without ever being heavy handed. An absolute must-see.

Yet like Shulman, who wonders whether or not liberal white viewers will see themselves included in the film's critique of white obliviousness to racism, I hope Get Out can inspire the right kinds of discussions and reflections in its white viewers. The film's point is that even those of us who attempt not to be complicit in structural racism, are. We should enjoy this film as horror fans but seriously grapple with its implications as potential anti-racists. As Schulman poignantly writes:
did whites in the audience imagine themselves as exceptions, as exempt from the portrait of whiteness in the movie? When we were laughing at the fabulous humor, and when we felt terror at white predation, did we divide ourselves from whiteness by a kind of self-protective knowingness? Is that division exactly how Obama era politics could proceed while leaving the deep structure of white supremacy intact?
These are the right questions to ask and think about.

Amy Adams gives a riveting central performance in Arrival. As with Daniel Kaluuya's work in Get Out, the key concept here is empathy

I have been a fan of Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve since Prisoners (2013), and have been eagerly anticipating my chance to finally see his latest movie, the science-fiction drama Arrival (2016). I just saw it this weekend and I was not disappointed. In fact, I would call Arrival my favorite Villeneuve film and the best science-fiction film I have seen since, say, Moon (2009).

On the basis of the first three Villeneuve films I saw -- Prisoners, Enemy and Sicario -- I would have said that the director suffers from the same "brilliant setup goes off the rails in the third act" malady as does Danny Boyle. Not to the same degree as Boyle -- seriously, look at the climactic sections of 28 Days Later and Sunshine and you'll see what I mean -- but detectable nevertheless. For example, Prisoners seems to start off as a serious meditation on the moral and emotional price of torture, then becomes a Silence of the Lambs-esque serial killer thriller in its third act. Sicario is mainly a story focused on Kate (Emily Blunt) until she basically disappears in act three and the film turns into a revenge thriller centered on a different character.

I have still enjoyed each of these movies, especially Enemy and Sicario, but I have noticed this tendency toward third-act inconsistency each time.

This problem does not exist in Arrival, Villeneuve's best-conceived and most coherent film yet. The third-act payoff is brilliantly set up from the very beginning of the film, in a "show don't tell" manner that is hook-producing and ultimately enormously satisfying. I can't give away specifics but let me just say that this film knows what its purpose is from the outset and it pays it off in an artful and emotionally resonant way.

The terrific cast doesn't hurt either. Amy Adams is especially good, and she is well supported by Forest Whitaker, Jeremy Renner, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Mark O'Brien. The alien vessels and creatures are convincing and interesting, and the sci-fi thrills will remind genre-savvy viewers of analogous situations from James Cameron's The Abyss and The Terminator.

In short, Arrival is thinking-person's sci-fi with enough militaristic thrills and interesting plot twists to satisfy any viewer who does not absolutely require lots of explosions in order to enjoy a film like this (though there is one explosion). Beyond that, the film does what great sci-fi should: suggests an emotionally truthful idea about who we humans are and can be as a species and a society. Arrival may not deliver an especially profound or unique message -- it is something we've heard before for sure -- but in these troubled and divisive times, it is a timely and appropriate idea. As a recent Oscar reviewer wrote of Moonlight's much-deserved best picture win this year, "in choosing Moonlight the Academy went for empathy over escapism." Arrival goes for empathy and escapism, and succeeds at both. An engrossing must-see.

The heptopod sez: "You humans have got to get your shit together!"

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

My Star Wars Fandom Explained

This post functions as a prequel (hee hee) to my forthcoming review of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. The present post will deal with the following two facts:

(1) I am of the generation who grew up with the original Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983) and therefore may not be the target audience for the Star Wars prequels (1999-2005).


(2) The Star Wars prequels are objectively shitty on every level except their deployment of digital effects and sound design, plus a few individually well-executed scenes here and there.

Not this one. 

I am a Star Wars fan from way back. I was just the right age to go see the original trilogy films as a kid with my family. I saw Star Wars (1977) multiple times in the theater because that was simply a thing one did for a year or so after its original release. I'm guessing I saw it five times in the theater.

Similarly, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were also family events, and big cultural events as well -- I got pulled out of school by my folks to go see Return of the Jedi with friends. Star Wars was the most significant cultural phenomenon of my early lifetime, and like it or not, my destiny is still somewhat chained to it.

Nowadays I categorically prefer Steven Spielberg's films over his geeky buddy George's,  As I have increased my appreciation for the art and technique of cinema, I see that Spielberg is an all-around great director, a true master of the form. Lucas is a good ideas man and executive producer, and a marvel at deploying special effects of all kinds, but he is lousy with scripts and actors -- this is a real Achilles' heel for him.

That said, that original Star Wars trilogy will always be with me.

What this also means is that I was one of those folks likely to have trouble with the Star Wars prequels.

I have already explained one reason why the prequels are total failures, which is because Lucas tried to take on too many tasks that he's frankly never shown he's very good at:
If Lucas would have brought on additional writers, surrogate directors, etc. and just focused on the one thing he knows how to do well, i.e., deploying special effects, those [prequels] might have been at least watchable and maybe even enjoyable. As it is, they are some of the worst movies ever made -- incoherently scripted, boringly shot, and abysmally directed -- and it is confounding to think that they could have been, with just the slightest bit more thought and effort, something more.
Ultimately, these films are mostly worthless because, as Mr. Plinkett has pointed out, they are structured like character-driven narrative films, yet they feature flatly written "characters" and insufficiently thought-out stories. At the scene level, they are too often directed badly, unimaginatively, and flatly. They are boring.

All that said, this apologia for the prequels is well-articulated and mostly fairly convincing. I will return to this piece in my forthcoming Episode II review.

As for recent, Disney-era Star Wars developments, you can read my Force Awakens review here. I haven't been able to motivate myself to get out and see Rogue One yet, but I have taken great pleasure from watching this long review, this short review, this follow-up review, and this amazing review parody instead.

Mike Stoklasa sez: "Me personally, I also loved this film"

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Review: The Shallows (2016)

Blake Lively and Sully the seagull star in The Shallows

I finally got around to seeing The Shallows, which I mostly really enjoyed. The movie sometimes "jumps the shark" in a couple different senses. A few key events, shark behaviors, and moments of bad CGI stretch viewer credulity to the breaking point. Yet I had a fun time watching the movie and would -- will -- watch it again.

Blake Lively stars as surfer Nancy Adams, a Texan medical school dropout who goes to a remote, locals-only surfing beach in Mexico to make peace with her mother's recent death. Once there, she faces death herself when a huge, hungry great white shark attacks and terrorizes her. 

I appreciate The Shallows' well-executed homages to Jaws like the presence of the buoy and Nancy as the film's solo protagonist. Nancy's no-bullshit attitude and high degree of narrative agency makes The Shallows feel like a critical referendum on Jaws' brilliant yet rape-y opening sequence -- that is, The Shallows explores what it would be like if Jaws' Chrissie had been given a chance to fight back.

And sure, the Jaws buoy homage has been done before -- there are clanging buoys in Deep Blue Sea and Open Water -- but rarely as well. The Shallows makes its buoy a much more important screen element, distantly haunting the film's early scenes then serving as the third act's main set piece.

Nancy strikes back, astride her mighty buoy. Her use of the buoy to defeat the shark is surely a critique of Chrissie's fate in Jaws

That said, as I have similarly argued of Mad Max: Fury Road, The Shallows embraces the sexist cinematic convention of visually objectifying Nancy's body. Although she does not spend the entire running time clad in bikini only, Nancy's body is frequently put on display for the viewer's pleasure, in accordance with the pervasive Hollywood practice documented by feminist film scholar Laura Mulvey.*

The film's scenery is beautiful, and its central performances (by Lively and a seagull companion) are quite good. However, there is some over-use of slow motion in the first act. The slo-mo works well when the film shoots from a low angle at looming waves, suggesting imminent danger. But it grows tiresome during some of the surfing sequences, which would actually be more impressive if depicted in real time. As Peter DeBruge puts it in his generally negative review,
It’s a beautiful cove, and Collet-Serra and his camera crew (including surf d.p. Dwayne Fetch) lavish us with a gorgeous (if somewhat abstractly cut together) hang-10 montage featuring nice moves by Nancy and two unnamed Mexican surfers.**
Abstractly cut together indeed -- especially egregious is one shot which starts in slo-mo then suddenly switches to fast-motion mid-take. This feels needlessly corny and cheap-snowboarder-videoish to me, at odds with the suspense the film seems to want to build here. Nevertheless, despite its distractingly cheesedick surfing cinematography, The Shallows' "reality" remains fairly intact for its first half-hour. It breaks for me when Nancy does some home surgery on herself, stitching her extensive leg wounds together with a couple of earrings.    

This is PG-13?!

Then the film mostly gets back on track, though it deploys blatant ethnic stereotyping when a fat, drunk Mexican turns out to be unscrupulous and untrustworthy. Of course, this being a genre film with fairly well-established rules, the greedy, evil, corpulent Mexican swiftly meets a terribly gruesome death by shark attack. Voila!

The third-act underwater jellyfish sequence is brilliant, both in concept and in execution. It is the film's most visually interesting sequence. It may not be strictly realistic -- does a great white shark really have much sensitivity to jellyfish stings? -- but it feels close enough to plausible and it is a visually stunning and suspenseful scene.

I cannot say the same for a couple ridiculous things that happen near the film's climax. The Shallows obviously goes for a Jaws-like crescendo when the obviously CGI shark starts attacking the buoy, but given some of the grittier earlier aspects (e.g., the surgery, the quiet moments with the seagull), I think a more subdued ending a la The Reef would have better suited this film. I buy Nancy escaping from this surprisingly persistent shark, but killing it in the over-the top, action-heroine fashion in which she does? Not quite credible, though of course I applaud the intention.

I still don't understand how the fuck THIS happened. Spontaneous saltwater combustion?

I'm not sure the brief "One Year Later" epilogue is necessary either. Just end it with her and Steven exchanging looks as she lies on the beach -- we already know the rest.

All that said, The Shallows is an exciting, thoughtfully made thrill ride and it deserves a place of honor among shark attack films. It is way above such pleasurable dreck as Shark Lake and Sharktopus, yet doesn't quite reach the high benchmark set by The Reef. It sits below The Reef, somewhat near Open Water, in my shark movie rankings.

Sully the seagull sez: "Check out my Oscar-worthy performance in The Shallows -- I'm more believable than the shark!"

* See Mulvey's influential essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," originally published in Screen 16.3 (Autumn 1975) pp. 6-18.
** Much as I enjoy The Shallows, I cannot really defend it against DeBruge's critiques, and I especially agree with him that the film's score is clunky and weak. Debruge describes it as "the relatively suspense-less, all-digital stylings of composer Marco Beltrami, whose background music sounds like broken sonar equipment."

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Top Five Blog Posts (times two)

I began last year's blogging in a slightly unusual way, with a book review. I want to start 2017 by doing something completely new: offering a brief retrospective about some of my favorite and most popular posts of the past.

In addition to functioning as a kind of "greatest hits" retrospective, I hope this post draws attention to some of the earlier entries in this blog's three-plus year archive more generally. In the process of compiling these two top five lists I've realized that there are some enjoyable gems among my earlier posts.*

First I will share a list of the blog's top five most popular posts, ranked by how many total pageviews each one has received as of 12/30/2016. That list, with comments, will be followed by a list of my personal top five favorite posts, also with comments.

Top Five Blog Posts by Pageviews

1. Why Manhunter Kicks Red Dragon's Stupid Ass. One always hopes that a post's high pageview count corresponds in some way with the quality of the writing and interest of the content of the post. However, I don't kid myself. Much as I wish that the number-one clicked-on post, "Why Manhunter Kicks Red Dragon's Stupid Ass," was well-viewed due to strong interest in Michael Mann and his great thriller Manhunter, I strongly suspect that its draw has more to do with the words "Kicks Stupid Ass" appearing in the title.

Nevertheless, "Why Manhunter Kicks Red Dragon's Stupid Ass" stands as one of the blog's finest examples of using close attention to cinematic aesthetics to defend a taste preference. I do genuinely think Manhunter is a vastly better film than Red Dragon in almost every way, but what I like best about this post is the deliberate way in which I make my case clear to the reader. It's a good example of close visual analysis (via the scene comparisons) used to support an argument, as well as a chance for me to champion the great Michael Mann.

(Due to its sharp visual analysis and overall written flow, I would have chosen "Why Manhunter Kicks Red Dragon's Stupid Ass" as a personal favorite post in any case. Yet I was spared having to use up one of my five picks since it was the top winner by number of pageviews -- a total of 1,438 on 12/30/2016.)

2. In Defense of the Jaws Sequels. I am so glad this post is statistically popular because I am quite fond of it. I genuinely love the Jaws sequels (especially Jaws 2 and Jaws: The Revenge) so am happy to think I might have persuaded other film lovers to take a chance on one or more of these hidden gems.

3. Five Directors to Watch Out For. This is an important post and the earliest-composed one (November 2013) to appear on either list here. It discusses the work of Nicole Holofcener, Steve McQueen, Lars von Trier, Steven Soderbergh, and Nicolas Winding Refn, all of whom I still revere. It also reveals this interesting truth about me:
at the end of the day, I would rather see a "noble failure" by filmmakers with something interesting or unique to show me rather than something formulaic and cliched that simply "plays it safe."
That is a key to understanding my cinematic tastes and aesthetic preferences.

Sidney Lumet, director of 12 Angry Men (1957) and several other truly great films. 

4. Alternate Top 100: 12 Angry Men (1957). An incisive piece about a truly great film in which I claim that 12 Angry Men is "the greatest fiction film about the American legal system of which I am aware" and "one of my favorite movies in any genre." I stand by those statements, and that is why I include 12 Angry Men in my "Alternative Top 100," a list of films meant to be added to or swapped into the Entertainment Weekly Top 100 Films list to correct its "oversights and errors." As I write of this project,
I am simply naming some films that I think should be on any legitimate list of this kind. See my second footnote here if you want an idea about which titles I would cut from EW's list to make room for my alternative selections.
I am proud and pleased to note that Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men, an essential watch for anyone, is the first film I selected for this distinction.

5. The Reef vs. Open Water. I love this post because it expresses my enduring love for fictional shark attack movies and because it contains this line:
Broadly speaking, Open Water is about how modern bureaucracy, white peoples' need for cheap tourism, and lack of personal connections between married people lead to mistakes that destroy us, then we get eaten by sharks, whereas The Reef is about bonding with friends and relatives, mending past relationships and discovering rekindled love, then we get eaten by sharks.
My Top Five Favorite Blog Posts

In making these selections I went with my gut instincts at first -- by which process I came up with eight or nine posts. In winnowing the list down I tried to choose for content but also for good writing and a satisfying overall unity to each piece. I hope I succeeded and that you'll check out some of these ones if you haven't before.

1. Review: Prometheus (2012). This post constitutes an excellent defense of an under-appreciated movie. It includes a well-balanced discussion of the film, including its weaknesses, and the piece as a whole flows well.

2. I Am A Feminist. A key manifesto and as much autobiography as I'm ever likely to write, this post acknowledges many key influences on my worldview and thinking, including my maternal grandmother, pop-cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian, and most importantly, my intellectual mentor Kathleen Rowe Karlyn. Without Karlyn's guidance I would have neither my astute critical perspective on popular culture nor my beloved day job as a film studies professor. "I Am A Feminist" is must-read if you want to understand where I'm coming from as a person and movie critic.

3. Review: Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014).  Eviscerating reviews (like this one and this one) are the funniest. This is such a review and is therefore quite funny. Yet it also gives credit where credit is due (no shaky cam!) and marks a pivotal entry in my increased highlighting of racism and Orientalism in popular films.

4. EW #11: King Kong (1933). It is huge fun to write about films you love well, and I love the 1933 version of King Kong. I also despise Peter Jackson's bombastic 2005 remake, and this review both extols the virtues of a deserving classic and briefly runs down why the CGI remake is a colossal waste of time. Plus it includes a reference to mule piss, a sure sign of an excellent piece of film criticism.

5. Film Reviews Are Subjective. This is the famed "Fuck the Tomatometer" post with the picture of the kid flipping the bird -- an image that almost singlehandedly guarantees this post a spot among my favorites. Despite its seemingly confrontational stance, "Film Reviews Are Subjective" is a thoughtful, metadiscursive piece about the nature of film criticism. Like "I Am A Feminist," this post is a manifesto about one of my core stances as a person, a writer, and a cinephile.

I actually see "Film Reviews Are Subjective" as one of my better pieces of writing -- I like its discussion of film fandom and subjectivity as inextricable components of honest film criticism. I like the contrast that Sal's Marvel fandom allows me to create with my own eclectic tastes. Plus I get in a few great jabs at that useless, annoying tomatometer.

* At one point I tried to install one of those "featured post" widgets to help promote older blog entries, but the widget screwed up the look of the sidebar so I deleted it.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

End of the Year Roundup 2016

Torin Thatcher as devious wizard Sokurah in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad

I spent the afternoon of New Year's Day 2016 at the Dryden Theater, seeing a 16mm Technicolor print of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958, dir. Nathan Juran), a great, Harryhausen-ish way to kick off my moviegoing year. I love the creatures in this film, especially the Cyclopes. and Sokurah (Torin Thatcher) is simply one of the finest villains ever cast in any action-adventure film. Don't believe me? Then watch this delightful fantasy romp -- if you can forgive its rampant sexism and Orientalism -- and you decide.

The most memorable and enjoyable new films I saw this year include Room, The Witch, Moonlight, Love & Friendship, Doctor Strange, DeadpoolBridget Jones's Baby, and The Handmaiden. The ones I've already reviewed (see links) I won't say too much more about, but here's my rundown of the others.

Love & Friendship is one of the best films I saw all year. This sensual costume comedy is the latest effort -- and most "period" effort -- by witty, offbeat filmmaker Whit Stillman. Those who haven't seen his earlier work are missing out on some of the most delightful, well-observed, warm-heartedly funny low-budget American cinema you can hope to see. Stillman's much-loved debut, Metropolitan (1990), is still the most essential of his films, and if you watch that plus the next two, the underrated Barcelona (1994) and the much-lauded The Last Days of Disco (1998), as an informal trilogy, then Disco really has a beautiful cumulative impact, particularly in its wonderful final scene.

Love & Friendship is Stillman's most accessible film due to its high production values, lush mise-en-scene, and crackling central performance by star Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan Vernon. Though each of his earlier films was set in an earlier time (the 1980s) than its moment of production, Love & Friendship is even more "period" than Stillman's previous work, being set in the 18th century. The film takes advantage of Stillman's well-known affinity for the works and style of Jane Austen: "I identify entirely with Jane Austen’s point of view, on everything" the filmmaker confesses in a recent interview. The film's screenplay is adapted by Stillman from Austen's Lady Susan (written 1790s, published 1871), and Stillman also wrote his own accompanying novel, Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen's Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated (2016). I love that the movie ends with an unethical and rakish character -- Lady Susan -- getting away with so much and going unpunished for her shady deeds. It's a delightfully wicked, dare I say feminist ending. What a treat! Most highly recommended.

Barry Jenkins' Moonlight is another of the flat-out best films I saw in 2016. It succeeds as gripping entertainment, as well-crafted cinematic art, and as an ideologically progressive and sensitive depiction of black masculine queer identity.

Like Richard Linklater's Boyhood (2014)Moonlight depicts the experiences of its protagonist as he moves through multiple phases of life. But unlike Boyhood, which waited several years between filming segments to allow its principal actor to age, Moonlight casts three different actors to portray Chiron over its three different periods: childhood, high school, and adulthood.

Moonlight is incredibly technically assured -- check out, for example, its virtuosic, handheld opening long take, which fully encircles two key characters two or three times. Yet that shot aside, the movie eschews flashy camera work and never allows its visuals to distract from the emotional story it tells -- though its Miami mise-en-scene is hauntingly lit and the shots are well-framed throughout. No, Moonlight's main virtue is that it is well-observed, humanistic, and incredibly moving. Its performances are uniformly superb. I like it so much -- I feel so deeply for the plight of its main character -- that I plan to see it again (and again). Perhaps repeat viewings will give me a chance to decode the deeper meaning of the film's memorable last shot.

As Entertainment Weekly's Leah Greenblatt accurately puts it,
The movie could easily be dismissed as a panopticon of hot-button intersectional issues -- addiction, poverty, single parenthood, black male sexuality. Instead, it’s something much richer: an achingly personal portrait of lives lived on the margins, and a filmmaking ­triumph of transcendent, heartbreaking beauty. 
Well said. Similarly, City Newspaper's Adam Lubitow calls Moonlight an "impressionistic" film, rightfully praising its "heightened, almost dreamlike aesthetic" and concluding that
Moonlight is exhilarating filmmaking. Immediate and achingly emotional, it offers what, at their very best, movies can provide better than any other art form: a deeply felt sense of empathy. We might not necessarily share Chiron's experiences, but we understand them. Above all, the film is a beautiful and heartfelt plea for compassion, and that feels exactly like what the world could use more of right now.
Hear, hear. I strongly urge all my readers to see Moonlight.

On a different note, despite my deep misgivings about its whitewashed casting and Orientalist ideologies, I find I really enjoyed Marvel Studios' Doctor Strange as a viewing experience. Much time as I spend on this blog slagging off the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I'll single out some things I like about Doctor Strange.

For one, it adheres to a "classic Hollywood" aesthetic. No shaky-cam, no promiscuously fast editing, no Chaos cinema, etc. One always knows where one is in the cinematic space. I like that.

I also love the casting. Admittedly, I am really sick of Hollywood whitewashing -- see this case, this case, this case, and/or this visual overview -- and originally considered boycotting Doctor Strange due to Tilda Swinton's whitewashed casting as a character traditionally conceived as Tibetan. Yet while watching the actual movie, I enjoyed seeing Swinton, Ejiofor, McAdams, and Mikkelsen onscreen -- all are world-class talents. So this is one of those cases where my immediate viewing pleasure and my deeper ideological commitments are at odds yet again. It seems there are certain inherent contradictions built into being an American "popcorn cinema" moviegoer -- at least for me.

Real-life ex-CIA agent Tony Mendez sez: "Hey, Mr. Affleck, why did you whitewash my Mexican-American heritage out of your movie?"

As Owen Gleiberman writes in reference to Star Wars Rogue One,
The conventional wisdom has it that popcorn cinema has taken over the culture, and in one way it has. But in another way it’s never been held in less high regard. What kind of a movie culture do we have that reflexively turns its back on taking what could well be the most important popcorn movie of the year seriously? That treats its absence from the potential awards pool as an afterthought? We have a movie culture that’s become too complacent about its categories of achievement, and maybe too calculated about what it adores.
I take Gleiberman's point and own that I too can be a bit film-snobbish at times (or at least my rather eclectic tastes can make it seem that way). This in part stems from my inherent resistance to too-popular things -- I am inclined to value pop-cultural works more highly if they are offbeat, lesser-known, cultish, or underdoggish. Furthermore, my intense cinephilia -- I deeply love and care about movies -- combined with my critical film studies training means that I don't forgive or overlook cinematic mediocrity easily.

However, I am not prudish and, as you can see, I include mainstream popcorn movies and artier indie fare together in my roundups' "best and most memorable" category every year. I am simply reporting the stuff that sticks with me the most, and not making any stupid claims to objectivity.

I judge each Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movie as a stand-alone blockbuster action film and I would recommend only five of them to the general moviegoer: Iron Man (2008), The Avengers (2012), Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (both 2014), and Doctor Strange.

Ryan Reynolds' passion project Deadpool is aimed at the superhero movie fan and/or the filmgoer who, like me, is sick of too many superhero blockbusters and enjoys seeing them ridiculed. Deadpool is honest, trashy fun, if damned sexist and in the broad strokes quite predictable. It's not necessarily a movie I'd watch again, but Deadpool succeeds brilliantly at exactly what it aims to be: a genuinely funny, self-deprecating, gleefully raunchy, guyish fun. It feels like a project where everyone involved was having a lot of fun on set. But again, NOT a feminist movie, actually fairly degrading and two-dimensional in its depictions of women -- knowingly so, which might be the only thing that (barely) saves it. But its skewering of superhero tropes is almost as good as Wet Hot American Summer's satirizing of 1980s teen movies.

I agree with Kevin P. Sullivan that Bridget Jones's Baby is a excellent middle-aged romantic comedy, "both surprisingly sweet and sweetly surprising, especially coming from the moralistically narrow world of romantic comedies" as he puts it.  It's a rom-com with something more.

Baby's greatest strength is its willingness to depict fortysomethings acting more like real fortysomethings might act, getting angry and flustered and doing comedic things but ultimately working things out and refusing to descend into total anarchic zaniness (as the earlier Jones films do). Baby actually treats its (improbable) storyline and its characters in refreshingly age-appropriate ways, which lends their development some depth and meets its most likely audience demographic where we live. As Demetrios Matheou writes,
Fielding has finally allowed Bridget to act her age. The shift is subtly done: She dresses better, at times being positively elegant; her public speaking is still eccentric, but with more composure; the same chaos surrounds her, but this time it is as much to do with circumstance as her own dizziness – it’s a relief to be spared the earlier, forced idiocy. And while she still feels lonely, neurosis has been replaced by a certain grace and stoicism.
Yes indeed. While this film may not be for everyone, it is better than you might guess and will hold especial value and interest for the over-thirty crowd.

This year I also saw okay but less memorable films The Jungle Book, Finding Dory, Ghostbusters, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane's Finding Dory was delightful while I was watching it and I really loved Destiny the whale shark and Hank the octopus. But the movie didn't really stick with me afterward except in a mildly negative way. The whole third act (in which -- SPOILER -- an octopus drives a truck) seemed needlessly ridiculous. Furthermore, as an ecocritic it is hard for me to watch animals being so crudely anthropomorphized -- I can handle the Disneyfied version for awhile, but an octopus driving a truck? Come on.

Along similar lines, it isn't a good thing when well-intending movies like Dory cause potential real-world harm to threatened species. I have read that the regal blue tang (the type of fish that Dory is) may be so endangered. This sours the movie for me.

We humans, myself included, love non-human animals and find it easy to empathize with and feel for them. What this means is that we must responsible in how we deploy their images.*

I saw the rebooted Ghostbusters and basically enjoyed it, though I strongly agree with EW's Chris Nashawaty who argues that
with a cast as daring and quick as this one, Ghostbusters is too mild and plays it too safe. Somewhere, I bet, there’s an R-rated director’s cut of the movie where these women really let it rip. I want to see that movie.
Me too! That is my only real complaint. I wish Ghostbusters had been funnier.

Kate McKinnon, as tech nerd Holtzmann, is Ghostbusters' funniest character and a cast standout. As Manohla Dargis observes, "no one performance dominates the new Ghostbusters, which is for the most part democratically comic (a Paul Feig signature), although Kate McKinnon’s magnificent, eccentric turn comes close." Agreed! That said, there has been some rightful criticism of Holtzmann's vague sexuality. If she's gay, just let her be gay.

Anyway, in the funny department, I really enjoyed Chris Hemsworth as the Ghostbusters' dim-bulb receptionist Kevin, but I felt like comedy geniuses Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy were unduly reined in. The PG-13 rating may have been a major source of the problem here. Ghostbusters is an enjoyable movie with fun cameos but ultimately misses opportunities, comedy-wise, by playing it too safe.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a predictable and mostly forgettable film I cannot recommend to anyone except hardcore Harry Potter fans looking for an excuse to return to the Potterverse (i.e., practically everyone in the world but me). As film blogger (and Potterverse fan) David Palmer puts it, "it is a film with purpose outside of a payday; unfortunately there is lots of room for improvement." Its most noteworthy element is Eddie Redmayne's experimental mumblecore performance as protagonist Newt. Between his refusal to properly enunciate his lines and all the bizarre creature names that make up the bulk of what he talks about, I had no idea what was going on with him about 70 percent of the film's running time.

Luckily the movie in general is extremely easy to follow, mainly because it borrows most of its ideas and set pieces from other blockbusters. For example, it takes its point of view shots of flying invisible death creatures from the opening sequence of Harry Potter 7. A giant creature slides playfully on a central park ice pond, just like in Peter Jackson's 2005 King Kong remake. And Beasts' climactic battle with a huge, serpentine, flying thing is straight outta Joss Whedon's Avengers (and most other contemporary action blockbusters for that matter).

I did enjoy Dan Fogler's performance as Kowalski but I was sickened to once again see a schlubby, homely, overweight male "rewarded" with a classically beautiful love interest (Alison Sudol) who's vastly out of his league.

Also ideologically troubling was the film's message about our relationship to "fantastic beasts" -- like Finding Dory, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them implies that many animals need human "protection" and ultimately fare best in captivity. LIE!

Good stuff I saw on home video includes SpotlightThe Big Short (both 2015), Frozen (2013), The Bourne Identity (2002), F.W. Murnau's Faust (1926), Top Five, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Edge of Tomorrow (all three 2014), Christopher Guest's Mascots (2016), a bunch of horror movies, and a bunch of Kristen Wiig movies.

Chris Rock's Top Five is a kind of reimagining of the Cinderella story fused with a "night in the life" of fictional comedian and film star Andre Allen (Rock, who also writes and directs). Rock is funny as always and he shares great chemistry with co-lead Rosario Dawson, who plays a reporter assigned to interview Allen. Top Five is a really well-made movie, funny and ultimately quite heartwarming: Entertainment Weekly's Shirley Li recommends it as "an honest portrait of a man searching for meaning and for love." You should go watch it immediately.

Spotlight is a well-made movie, but I think it suffered for its excessive hype. Even before it won the Best Picture Oscar, some critics were comparing it to truly great journalistic thrillers like All the President's Men (1976). That is surely going too far. All Spotlight's performances are solid and the subject matter important, but there isn't much dramatic conflict in the movie. No one seems in any particular danger. So there's not much tension -- something President's Men is oozing with. So maybe you should see President's Men or any other Alan J. Pakula thriller instead -- I especially like The Parallax View (1974). Or, if you want to see a truly great movie on similar subject matter (i.e., the priesthood sex abuse scandal), see the suspenseful, superbly executed Doubt (2008).

I liked The Big Short better than Spotlight, though again, it did not really linger with me for long afterward. Possibly this is because several years ago I went through a phase of inhaling documentaries about the current economy and the 2007-08 financial meltdown. My binge included stuff like Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), Maxed Out (2006), Frontline: Inside the MeltdownFrontline: The Warning (both 2009), and the like. Therefore none of the information presented in The Big Short was new to me -- but it is entertainingly presented and the movie is well worth seeing. I would recommend that anyone interested in the causes of the meltdown -- and you should be -- ought to see either The Big Short or the less wacky but more informative Frontline double feature Inside the Meltdown and The Warning.

Can I simply say I loved Frozen and leave it at that? I am usually not big on musicals or animated movies, but I thoroughly enjoyed this one. I am fond of Kristen Bell and enjoyed getting to hear her sing. I also like Frozen's focus on sisterhood, despite my agreement with certain critics' misgivings about the film's "feminism." And of course I liked the film's music, especially the catchy, rousing "Let it Go." What's not to like? (This too I suppose.)

I saw Doug Liman's The Bourne Identity (2002) as part of a Bourne double-feature including The Bourne Supremacy (2004) aired on AMC in the spring. While I generally agree with commentators like AV Club's Scott Tobias when he says that Identity "skillfully retreads better work such as The Day Of The Jackal and a host of John Frankenheimer thrillers," I still like it much better than its punched-up follow-up. In Supremacy, director Paul Greengrass uses too much promiscuous shaky-cam and overblown action -- I prefer the more subdued tone and grittier realism of the excellent original.

In fairness, I do enjoy The Bourne Supremacy's opening sequence and car chase very much. With that exception, though, I would go so far as to say that Tobias' comment about Identity -- that it "discards any shred of character detail in favor of martial arts, sharp-shooting, and cross-traffic car chases" -- actually applies more accurately to the glossier, less probable Supremacy.

More engaging than any Bourne film is Edge of Tomorrow (a.k.a. Live Die Repeat, 2014) also directed by Doug Liman. Edge of Tomorrow is absolutely essential viewing for anyone who likes action-oriented science-fiction films. It has a relatively simple yet catchy premise, and, unlike so many other time-loop type movies, it doesn't waste time getting too heady or trying to over-explain anything. It just rides its premise straight through until the end, buoyed by high-voltage performances by Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt, possible quasi-feminist precursors to 2015's Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron pairing. Edge of Tomorrow is a great action film with a compelling hook and a surprising amount of heart. Though a couple years old, it is one of the best movies I saw this year.  

In contrast, Captain America: The Winter Soldier was okay but should have ended right when Cap comes ashore at the lakeside after the film's climactic battle. Everything else after that is franchise-connection filler and is superfluous to this movie. That said, I appreciate that at least there were a small enough quantity of characters in this Marvel movie (about five) so that I could track who everybody was. Indeed, like Owen Gleiberman, I would say Winter Soldier is one of the best Marvel movies. But that still places it in the middle of the pack as far as my tastes go.

F.W. Murnau's Faust is, like all Murnau's films, masterful and compelling. I saw it for the first time this spring and I might even rate it as my second-favorite Murnau, after Nosferatu (1922). Simply a must-see for anyone interested in great silent cinema, German Expressionism, and/or the origins of the modern horror film.

The Descent, an amazing, must-see horror movie.

Late summer, The Blob (1958) kicked off a mini-marathon of monster movies (most of them re-watches) for me including Cat People (1942), The Descent (2005), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Shark Lake (2015), and Sharktopus (2010). I discuss most of these on my Horror Film Syllabus Movie List post.

Sara Malakul Lane as Deputy Hernandez, the protagonist of Shark Lake. I'd show you a shot of the shark but it might deter you from wanting to see the film.

Shark Lake is a low-budget B-movie which features top-billed Dolph Lundgren in about four short scenes. The rest of the movie is carried by Sara Malakul Lane as sheriff's deputy Meredith Hernandez. She is compelling and some of the film's attack sequences -- especially an early one involving an old man -- are pretty amusing. But the special effects are pure shit, and therefore, despite its promising title, the shark is the least goddamned interesting thing in this shark movie. The best stuff is the pub scene when Hernandez tells her adoptive daughter Carly that one of her nine-year old schoolmates is sexist, and the witty banter that subsequently ensues between Hernandez and oceanography nerd Peter (Michael Aaron Milligan). It's also fun to watch Lundgren growl his way through a few incomprehensible scenes late in the movie.

Shark Lake is definitely one of those "so bad it's good" entries, though actually the acting is pretty good -- the badness mostly comes from the bargain-basement special effects and some very odd plot turns near the end. Nonetheless I would call Shark Lake a very enjoyable low-budget shark attack film. Bear in mind that I am both a low-budget shark movie junkie and an ardent fan of The Room.

You guessed it: Sharktopus. Yes, they're on dry land.

Sadly, Malakul Lane, who does such a noble job propping up Shark Lake, goes underused in the otherwise delightful Sharktopus. Eric Roberts basically steals the movie from its ostensible leads, and the sharktopus creature's visual appearance and attack scenes are much more satisfying than similar ones in the generally less overblown Shark Lake. Indeed, Sharktopus as a whole is great fun, but tragically, in this movie Lane is relegated to being an especially drab embodiment of the "babe scientist" stereotype I discuss in my review of Doctor Strange. This is disappointing given that she is given much more to do -- and therefore more character depth -- as the protagonist of Shark Lake.

Shark Lake vs. Sharktopus: despite plot confusion and rock-bottom shitty monster effects, Shark Lake has much better dramatic sequences than does Sharktopus. The strengths of Sharktopus are its awesome attack sequences, especially since the creature can climb up on land and remain there for several minutes at a time. And again, Eric Roberts.

Both films are exploitative and crass, but Sharktopus is more so. Take, for example, an early dark-comic scene in which Roger Corman himself cameos as an elderly beachcomber who watches a woman get brutally killed by the sharktopus. He looks on impassively, watches her die, shrugs, steals the now-dead woman's prized coin off the beach, and walks away. Despite some gratuitous ass shots in a couple beach party scenes, there is no comparable scene of death being treated so lightly in Shark Lake.

Laci and Cindi Babineaux (Susan Yeagley and Parker Posey) steal the show in Mascots. 

Mascots (2016) is Christopher Guest's latest wacky mockumentary, and nobody does this genre better than Guest and company. Longtime ensemble member Jim Piddock co-wrote the screenplay with Guest, which means that they outlined the scenes and situations in which themselves and their collaborators would improvise specific dialogue.

Stealing the show this time around are two groups of characters, The first is the family unit that gathers around Owen Golly Jr. (Tom Bennett) a.k.a. Sid the Hedgehog. Especially noteworthy is Piddock's portrayal of Owen's father Owen Sr.

Then there are inseparable sisters Laci and Cindi Babineaux (Susan Yeagley and Parker Posey), my favorite characters in Mascots. Posey really gets to shine here, in a zany yet relatable way we haven't seen this well realized in a Guest film since her brilliant turn as Waiting for Guffman's Libby Mae Brown. (In Best in Show she was hilarious but too weird to really empathize with and in A Mighty Wind her role was too small.) Additionally, Posey has found the perfect scene partner in Yeagley. Their chemistry is about the best I've seen in any of these largely improvised movies.   

Chris O'Dowd, Jane Lynch, Ed Begley Jr., and other returning players are great too, but their roles are small and to me the main through-line of the movie is carried by the two groups already discussed. 

The climactic mascot routines are hilarious and the film features the usual Christopher Guest mix of parodic nonsense, mild naughtiness, and wacky physical hijinks blended with well-observed character moments and a dose of human warmth. Mascots is a delightful, well-crafted, funny treat not to be missed. It may not hit the very high heights of Guest's earlier, more anarchic masterpieces Waiting For Guffman (1996) or Best In Show (2000), but it easily stands alongside the later-career films A Mighty Wind (2003) and For Your Consideration (2006), which have a lived-in feel and narrative cohesion that is rare to see in ensemble comedies of this kind.

This fall I re-watched Robert Altman's The Player (1992), which I probably haven't seen since the 1990s. It's no Short Cuts -- probably Altman's best film -- but it's pretty goddamned amazing. If you enjoy Hollywood film industry satires like State and Main, Living In Oblivion, For Your Consideration, and Bowfinger, you should like The Player.

I have written before about how much I love Altman's movies -- you should too. McCabe and Mrs. Miller, here I come!

Conversely, Freddy Vs. Jason (2003) is barely worth mentioning, though I did enjoy it more than I expected to (which was not much). Freddy Vs. Jason is not precisely a horror film nor a parody of one but is instead a heavily processed horror-film product. It's like an exceptionally well-produced fanfilm where the filmmakers -- whose only idea going in is fully described by the movie's title -- somehow talked Robert Englund into playing his signature role of Freddy Kreuger.

The film has one or two cool ideas (e.g., Freddy reviving Jason) and delightful scenes (e.g., Jason's attack on the cornfield party), but without Englund this movie wouldn't work at all. The presence of Englund-as-Kreuger saves Freddy Vs. Jason from becoming a boring total piece of shit.

Obviously, I am a Robert Englund loyalist -- I have not seen (nor do I plan to see) the 2010 Englund-free Elm Street remake, about which A. O. Scott writes:
This movie is an acceptable specimen of a currently popular genre, carefully trying to balance the sly humor and low-budget resourcefulness of earlier horror films with the bloodiness and digital showing-off currently in fashion. It’s moderately entertaining and instantly forgettable.
No thanks. For me, without Englund there is no Freddy.

In fact, I recently realized that the Nightmare on Elm Street series' Robert Englund is possibly the only modern horror film star to be as important to the character he plays as the character is to him. That is, he's one of the few star "monster" players of the current era whose name anybody but the most fanatical know. Most slasher killers (e.g., Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, Leatherface) switch actors all the time, and because most are masked, we don't even really know who the star is unless we look into it. But Freddy is Englund, Englund is Freddy.

Anyway, I watched Freddy Vs. Jason mainly because this reviewer's take intrigued me. I generally agree with his conclusion:
Surprisingly, Freddy Vs. Jason brings the Nightmare On Elm Street series full circle, rehashing its major ideas and themes in genuinely fresh and clever ways that honor this imaginative horror franchise.
My take: Freddy Vs. Jason is for slasher loyalists only, but it's worth the ride, at least once. It's campily pleasurable schlock cinema.

Hateship Loveship (2013) reminds me of Terri or Chuck&Buck, only with a somewhat smoother ride and a (seemingly) happier ending. It portrays the rich as morally clean and the less privileged, i.e., Sabitha's friend Edith (Sami Gayle), as devious and evil -- still, it is deftly directed, filled with strong, memorable performances (particularly by Wiig and Pearce) there are some nice productive ambiguities by the end. That said, its offbeat tone and hard-to-like characters may place this film outside some viewers' tastes. In between her big projects, Wiig has certainly been exploring some strange territory in her smaller-budget film performances (see also her role in The Skeleton Twins).

One of the strangest yet most powerful shots in Hateship, Loveship

After Hateship Loveship I saw Wiig vehicle Welcome to Me (2014), which is way weirder than Hateship but I may enjoy it even more precisely because of its eccentricities. Welcome to Me unfolds from the point of view of a protagonist -- Wiig's Alice Klieg -- who has Borderline Personality Disorder.** The film's premise is that Alice wins the lottery then uses her winnings to finance a cable-access television show of her own creation.

As a fictional movie, Welcome to Me delivers on its whacko premise and deploys Wiig's particular comic talents to particularly good effect. It is hard to imagine anyone but Wiig playing Alice, and I love watching her bizarro, squirmily self-revealing show come to life.

Where Welcome to Me may commit a dangerous faux pas is in giving Alice too much of a Hollywood ending. A real BPD person would not likely learn her lesson so neatly nor make such a beautiful gesture of reconciliation as Alice does for her best friend Gina (Linda Cardellini) in the film's climax. Welcome opts for the generically appropriate comedy ending, in which the community is renewed, but in reality this is a pretty utopic denouement for someone with as severe BPD as Alice has. In this respect, the more ambiguously concluded Margot at the Wedding (2007) is more truthful about the challenges BPD's face in getting outside their own perspective.

Like Welcome to Me, Haifaa Al Mansour's Wadjda (2012), offers an ultimately optimistic outlook on a potentially grim subject: a rebellious young woman coming of age in rigidly patriarchal Saudi Arabian culture.  

As Wadjda's director has said,
Art is something you enjoy. It makes people happier. It has taste and music and all that is sensory about it, so it is cool. It is not like “a lecture.” It is provocative in a way that you feel it. It touches you, and you start talking about things from a new perspective. Not because you are angry. For me, it is a gentle way to catalyze a change.
This artistic approach surely explains Wadjda's generally upbeat tone. Truthfully, I originally resisted seeing the film despite its positive reviews because I feared it would be too "feel-goodish." Then I saw it and really enjoyed it a great deal. It is a well-observed movie, visually entrancing if for no other reason than, as Sophia Stein writes,
While most of us have heard about life in the Kingdom, Wadjda allows us a cinematic experience of the everyday realities of that world. Al Mansour grants us an insider’s perspective on an otherwise impenetrable society.
Then there are the performances of the two leads, Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) and her mother (Reem Abdullah). Wadjda does a phenomenal job revealing the emotional nuances of its protagonist's struggles, aspirations, and frustrations -- which she shares with her mother. A couple of its scenes (I'm thinking the bit with the family tree) may feel heavy handed, but that is because we are in the realm of melodrama here.

Wadjda is a maternal melodrama -- a film focused on womens' lives and mother-daughter relations in the tradition of Stella Dallas (1937). While fundamentally about Wadjda's experiences growing up in Muslim Saudi Arabia, it's her mother who emotionally centers the film -- in many ways, it is she who suffers for Wadjda. It is the mother's noble sacrifice in the face of impossible odds that provides the film's resolution, enabling its triumphant last moment to take place. The film's final scene is both delightful to experience and chilling in its deeper implications -- is it a too-optimistic denial of the tightly circumscribed life that most likely lies ahead for its young heroine?

One of my favorite scenes from Halloween II (1981).

Halloween weekend I caught a few entries in AMC's "Fear Fest," i.e., a bunch of slasher movie franchises they ran constantly all weekend. I saw Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985), Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981), and John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) plus most of the Rick Rosenthal sequel Halloween II (1981). The two things that most struck me were:

(1) Even though I have occasionally gently slagged it off, the original Halloween is insanely good in terms of pacing, gauging moments, drawing out suspense, etc. It is a horror film masterpiece, and a pleasure to watch every time.

(2) Despite its low-rent look and relatively cookie-cutter approach, I continue to enjoy Steve Miner's Friday the 13th Part 2 quite a bit. There's just something about it -- it isn't a flat-out masterpiece like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) or even an imperfect but fearsome wail of nihilistic rage like The Hills Have Eyes (1977) yet I get a kick out of its mood and tone. I like Jason's weird little hideout in the woods, and the puddle everyone runs through to get there. And the slow-motion ending when Jason comes through the window, maskless -- it's pitch-perfect.

Two intriguing cyborgs: Robocop's Murphy and Sleep Dealer's Memo.

Lastly, I saw two great movies about cyborgs: Paul Verhoeven's classic Robocop (1987) and Alex Rivera's low-budget Sleep Dealer (2008). Both are masterpieces.

Robocop is, as all Verhoeven's films are, "unique and peculiar" as Eric Walkuski puts it. Indeed, I find it difficult to precisely describe Verhoeven's work and style. Maybe "European, satirical, hypercharged genre filmmaker" comes close. Certainly there is a lot of energy, life, and (dark) comedy to be found in his work. But there is also an unflinching quality to his satire that may come off to some as cynical. As Verhoeven himself says, "I’ve always had it, that sense that a heavy and black [subject] needs to be balanced by humor."

Robocop perfectly embodies Verhoeven's humorously bleak sensibility. The movie is a seemingly lighthearted, one-liner-packed, sci-fi action romp . . .

. . . that nevertheless features brutal violence (Murphy's death scene is especially dark and graphic), a bleak moral outlook (the corporations win) and, as Leilani Nishime points out, almost no treacly sentimentality over Murphy's fate or his human past:
Once Murphy removes his helmet, he never dons it again, preventing the soothing illusion of wholeness. Murphy is barred from passing as human and refuses to pass as machine, and with that refusal he takes his first steps away from nostalgia and melancholy.†
In this way, Nishime argues, Robocop explores true human-machine hybridity in a way that more human-centered cyborg movies like Blade Runner, Terminator 2, and A.I. cannot. Hey, it's no secret that I love the first Terminator film and Blade Runner, but I cannot deny that Robocop brings something edgier and more provocative to the table than those movies do, thematically if not visually. The Terminator is essentially a bare-bones sci-fi thriller, with little on its mind besides keeping the viewer on the hook, which it does brilliantly. And Blade Runner is a nostalgic film noir centered on the idea that a replicant can be more human than a human. Its visual beauty is stunning and its hauntingly elegiac tone is perfect, but its values are a bit retrograde.  

The 1987 Robocop has aged well precisely due to its over-the-top violence, dated yet visceral stop-motion special effects, and hypercharged critique of 1980s corporatism, perhaps best embodied by the Bob Morton assassination scene, a big favorite of mine.

In any case, I strongly recommend you give the original Robocop a serious look -- perhaps as a double feature with Sleep Dealer, Alex Rivera's sharp-eyed sci-fi meditation on illegal labor, globalization, and drone warfare.  If Robocop is a testament to its times -- the go-go American 1980s -- then Sleep Dealer is equally a testament to the post-9/11 world. Set more or less entirely in Mexico, Sleep Dealer depicts the adventures of Memo (Luis Fernando Peña), a young man from rural Oaxaca who moves north to Tijuana after a violent incident forces him to leave home. He finds work as a cyborg in a sleep dealer, the film's word for the vast, technologically advanced maquiladoras of the future.

Memo, in between gruelling 23-hour shifts at the sleep dealer, quickly falls in with Luz (Leonor Varela), a self-proclaimed "writer" who sells her memories for profit on the web. I can't say much more without giving away spoilers, but my description so far should convince you to see this mind-blowing, up-to-the-minute think piece on a future that is basically already here. And like Robocop before it, Sleep Dealer dares to end bleakly and ambiguously (my favorite). As Christopher T. Gonzalez writes,
Rivera resists a neat ending. The nodal technology that enabled many of the problems introduced in the film still exists by its close, and there is no indication that Memo will do anything but continue his work as a sleep dealer. Rudy, traitor to the US fight against aqua-terrorism, must continue south, moving ever father away from the family he has left behind.††
Like Robocop's Murphy, Memo and Rudy must spend their remaining lives as outcast figures, unable to return "home" to anything connected to their pasts. These are uncompromising, complex cyborg movies.

Due to the age of Robocop's effects and the low-budgetness of Sleep Dealer's, these two films make an ideal double feature on the aesthetic level. And both films are fast-paced and great fun to watch yet have a little more on their minds than you might initially expect.

The best documentaries I saw this year include O.J.: Made in America, 13th (both 2016), The Central Park Five (2012), and The Hunting Ground (2015).

If you have the time to invest in it (7+ hours), the best documentary of the year is Ezra Edelman's O.J.: Made in America. Made for ESPN films in the tradition of 30 for 30 -- the very best episode of which, "June 17th, 1994" offers another fascinating take on Simpson's case -- Made in America covers O.J.'s spectacular rise as a college and professional running back, celebrity pitch man, movie star, and ultimately, domestic abuser and murder suspect.

Made in America is totally riveting and the film's thesis -- that O.J. longed to be non-black and post-racial, and that that led to (or was the source of) all his troubles and rage against a white woman -- is quite compelling. His odd relationship to the white and black communities is also key to the film's exploration of O.J. as an icon and of his various tanglings with the U.S. legal system. Be sure to watch the film all the way though to the end -- there are surprising twists and insightful bits of cultural context to be found at every stage of this stranger-than-fiction story.

But don't just take my word for it: the most penetrating rundown of the importance of the O.J. Simpson trial and this superb documentary's take on it is Ta-Nehisi Coates' piece for The Atlantic.

13th is Ava DuVernay's scathing indictment of institutionalized racism in America. Its most impressive feat, beyond its high production value, is the way it synthesizes so many varying strands of U.S. institutionalized racism. It covers Jim Crow-era prison labor rental practices like PBS' Slavery By Another Name. It covers the Emmett Till case I previously learned about from the American Experience episode The Murder of Emmett Till. And it sheds new insight on the current New Jim Crow era documented in Michelle Alexander's book of that name.

The Central Park Five makes an appropriate companion piece to DuVernay's more historically comprehensive film. This one is produced and directed by a team of documentarians including Ken Burns' daughter Sarah Burns. Well-produced and emotionally touching, The Central Park Five goes into great detail about the incidents that took place (and didn't take place) the night of April 19, 1989, when five young men of color were arrested near Central Park for a rape and murder none of them had any hand in committing. It what happens to them at the hands of the police and courts is heartbreaking -- we hear most of the story directly from the wrongly accused participants. The film rightly concludes that this incident reveals pervasive structural racism in the U.S. legal system.

The Hunting Ground is a devastating portrait of the ways in which colleges and universities cover up sexual assault cases on campus.

Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown, a thrilling political melodrama. 

TV shows I got into -- all Netflix-produced series -- include Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp (technically a show, kind of a long-form movie), Stranger Things, The Fall series three, and The Crown. All are quite terrific.

As ars technica's Nathan Mattise writes of Netflix's superb 1980s-set horror series Stranger Things,
what makes Stranger Things stand out after its eight-episode first season is that the show only uses the familiar as a backdrop; it doesn't wallow in it or simply retread known stories. This isn't Ready Player One, a new Ghostbusters, or any of the upcoming Star Wars onslaught. Instead, Netflix's lovely homage to 1980s genre fiction deploys nostalgia only to speed up and deepen world-building. Its story, by contrast, feels fresh by including enough twists and turns to keep even the most capable pop-culture detectives guessing and entertained.
Indeed. I also agree with Mattise's conclusion that the Netflix mode of production and streaming distribution of original content seems to be a success:
Stranger Things is reassurance that the Netflix production model can lead to great, original stories. [Netflix] needs headline-grabbing originals to carry it forward as its other series experience growing pains or wrap up entirely. Hot and new is what will attract subscribers; prestigious (and the continued ability to offer money/creative freedom) is what will attract the next opportunity with a Fincher- or Wachowski-type.
I thoroughly enjoyed Stranger Things as a viewer, and look forward to its season two.

All that said, I acknowledge that Stranger Things centralizes nerds in potentially harmful ways that my colleague Kom and I have delineated in detail. Stranger Things contributes to the "myth of nerd oppression" that dangerously enables "every slightly socially awkward white boy who likes sci-fi [to] explain away his privilege and lay his ressentiment at the feet of the nearest women and people of color" as this author observes. Indeed, the show "looks back wistfully to the ’80s, re-enchanting the image of nerds as winning underdogs" rather than tyrannical, post-Gamergate bigots.

John Lithgow as Winston Churchill in the superb Netflix series The Crown

The Crown is one of the flat-out best shows  I watched all year, up there with The Fall and PBS Masterpiece's recent reboot of Poldark. Again, we are in melodrama territory here -- high emotions, dashed hopes, noble personal sacrifices, and the like. As star Claire Foy says of the series,
That would be the last thing I’d ever want, is for people to not understand the humanity of it. I just felt like if we did those scenes [of the tumultuous domestic life of Elizabeth and Philip] truthfully and honestly, then it would show the difficulty of the situation, and truthful situations are often about [being] uncomfortable.
Indeed. The Crown's juicy mix of interpersonal intrigue and big-time political stakes set in the first years of Elizabeth II's reign -- also the last years of Winston Churchill's political career -- is irresistible to me, this was a real inhale-watcher for me and my girlfriend. I even enjoyed John Lithgow's portrayal of Churchill much more than I expected to -- though the best onscreen Churchill is still Brendan Gleeson's in HBO's Into the Storm (2009).   

In late November I got to see Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice (1986) for the first time as part of the long-running Buffalo Film Seminars film series. The Buffalo Film Seminars are co-hosted by Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson, a delightful pair who riff in a a seemingly anecdotal and off-the-cuff (yet well-informed and interpretively vigorous) way to introduce the night's film and to lead group discussion afterward. The discussion element, and  Diane and Bruce's laid-back demeanor, give the event a more community based feel than the more formal presentations I typically see at the Dryden.

That said, some of my favorite viewing experiences all year took place at The Dryden Theater, pretty much my favorite theater in Rochester. The Dryden put on a Sean Connery and Roger Moore-era James Bond series in April and May. I am a self-confessed old Bond movie fanatic, and I saw Dr. No, From Russia With Love, The Man With the Golden GunMoonraker, and A View to a Kill during the series' two-month run. I had noble plans to see more Bonds, particularly Moore standouts The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only, and my all-time favorite Bond movie Thunderball, but life, in the form of a busy spring semester, intervened.

But I am totally pleased that the Dryden ran such an entertaining series. For me, Moonraker was an especially delightful standout -- silly though its premise may be, and however over-the-top its finale, it is a film that gains a lot of traction seen on the big screen. The g-force test machine sequence alone is much more harrowing in a dark theater on a big screen. And the opening parachute stunt and the Rio de Janiero cable-car gondola fight sequence are both simply breathtaking. I hope (and assume) I will be seeing more James Bond classics at the Eastman Museum in days to come.

Also at the Dryden: The Hunger (much better than I remembered it!), William Wyler's amazingly perfect 1949 melodrama The Heiress, Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight, Akira Kurosawa's King Lear-inspired Ran (one of the best films ever), John Carpenter's The Thing, and Neil Young's surprisingly resonant Greendale (2003).

On election night, I went to the Dryden to see Carl Th. Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) accompanied by pianist Phil Carli.

And to conclude, in mid-November I saw Metropolis accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra. This was an amazing treat on several levels. For one, while I have seen Fritz Lang's Expressionist masterpiece projected before, I have never before seen a version of the quality I saw exhibited at the Dryden. Then add to this intense visual experience the vibrancy of having the Alloy Orchestra in the room with you, and -- well, I am at loss for words. Their Metropolis score is just flat-out awesome. It must be heard to be believed. Seeing Metropolis on the big screen with that group of three stellar musicians playing live is one of the peak experiences of my moviegoing life.  

To wrap up: the recent-vintage films I most highly recommend are Love & Friendship, Moonlight, The Handmaiden, Top Five, Edge of Tomorrow, and The Witch, plus all Christopher Guest fans should see Mascots. The three TV series I most recommend are Stranger ThingsThe Crown, and Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp.

If there's one essential documentary that every American should see this year, it's O.J.: Made in America, followed closely by Ava DuVernay's 13th.

And the films I haven't seen yet but most look forward to include The Lobster, Green Room (both 2015), 99 Homes (2014), The Founder (2017), The Birth of a Nation, Toho Studios' Shin Godzilla, Jim Jarmusch's Paterson, Denis Villeneuve's Arrival, the much-lauded Manchester by the Sea, and Star Wars Rogue One (all 2016).‡

Weird Al sez: "Have a great and mystical year!"

* In fairness, some commentators give Finding Dory high praise for its portrayal of (human) disability culture.
** For more information about BPD, I strongly recommend the following two books: I Hate You -- Don't Leave Me by Jerold J. Kreisman and Hal Straus (Perigee, 2010) and Stop Walking on Eggshells: Taking Your Life Back When Someone You Care About Has Borderline Personality Disorder by Paul Mason and Randi Kreger (New Harbinger Publications, 2010). If you want to see an even more spot-on depiction of a BPD character depicted on film, see Noah Baumbach's brilliant, harrowing Margot at the Wedding (2007).
† Nishime, "The Mulatto Cyborg" in Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (eds.), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings Eighth Edition (Oxford UP, 2016) p. 708.
†† Gonzalez, "Latino Sc-Fi: Cognition and Narrative Design in Alex Rivera's Sleep Dealer" in Frederick Luis Adalma (ed.), Latinos and Narrative Media (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) p. 222
‡ Early reviews of Rogue One have been generally positive (well, except this one and this one and this old man's) and I am on record as a fan of director Gareth Edwards' work. I also look forward to checking out the film's rumored political undercurrents, discussed here and here. So all in all I am pretty excited about seeing the movie. Yet I was talking with a student a few weeks back and he wondered aloud if people wouldn't start getting tired of new Star Wars films now that they're being released at a rate of one per year. My student may be prescient -- after all, it only took me about three years to get sick of superhero movies.

Along related lines, I tried re-watching The Force Awakens recently and couldn't make it past the 50-minute mark, shortly after Han Solo enters the narrative. I really like the early bits of that film when it's setting up its new characters, but it stalls out for me once the legacy characters come in and the "plot" really gets going. Not much re-watch value for me there. I hope Rogue One fares better.