Saturday, December 30, 2017

End of the Year Roundup 2017

To begin with, I acknowledge that last year's roundup was WAY too long. One of the hallmarks of this year's roundup will be its brevity.

I'll start by discussing the films that made the deepest impression on me this year. These are not in any particular order after the first one, and should NOT be taken as some kind of ranked or preferential list of any kind. Remember, film reviews are subjective!


My favorite movie of the year by far is Lady Bird. I can hardly believe that this wonderful, confident, superbly written and directed coming of age story marks Greta Gerwig's feature film directing debut. It never hits a false note. It is funny, self-assured, and poignant. It is a must-see.

If Lady Bird possesses any flaw, it is not intrinsic to the film itself (I hope). Instead it lies with claims that it may have plagiarized. Michelle Cruz Gonzales has written a blog post mentioning the eerie similarities between Lady Bird and Real Women Have Curves (2002), another must-see mother-daughter themed movie. Gonzales calls Lady Bird "the white-lady Real Women Have Curves" and outlines the case for plagiarism on Greta Gerwig's part. While I am not sure (and Gonzalez admits in a follow-up article that she cannot prove) Gerwig plagiarized the earlier film, I even noticed striking similarities while watching the newer one: the hard-working, "tough love"-oriented mother figure, the daughter who goes to New York City at the end. So I consider this a valid issue yet I still love Lady Bird very much. 

The other most memorable and affecting films I saw this year include . . .

. . . another feature film-directing debut, Jordan Peele's great thriller Get Out -- see my review here. Also, read Mark Harris' smart commentary about the film and its place in contemporary Hollywood.

Blade Runner 2049 is probably the most visually stunning film of the year, one that I enjoyed very much. Despite some lingering questions about the implications of its gender politics (which could be an interesting provocation or just more of the same Hollywood sexism), the Blade Runner sequel is easily my favorite big-budget film of the year. Read my complete review here.

The Shape of Water is another visual stunner -- though I would expect no less from director Guillermo Del Toro, one of the great masters of lavish mise-en-scene. Water is an offbeat, 1950s-set love story between a mute janitorial employee (Sally Hawkins) at a U.S. government facility and a Black Lagoon-esque amphibious creature who is being held there. The film drags a bit in its second act -- it could use a bit more Octavia Spencer and a bit less government (and Soviet) plotting -- but overall, this is a remarkable film, lovingly crafted, chock full of superb performances (Richard Jenkins is a standout) with about the best ending of any film I've seen this year.


My favorite action film of the year is easily Wonder Woman - read my complete review here.

I just saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi about a week ago, I plan to see it again, and while I really enjoyed it my first time out, I am unsure how it will hold up over time. But whether I like it or not, this one is going to loom large in the pop-cultural conversation for awhile, especially since Disney has recently furthered its plans to take over the entertainment universe. My review is here.

Recent movies I would like to see but haven't include The Disaster Artist; Colossal; The Big Sick; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Thor 3; Beatriz at Dinner; and The Post.

And my favorite TV shows of the year include:

Big Little Lies (HBO) - The best dramatic show of the year.

The Crown (Netflix) - The other best dramatic show of the year.


Poldark (BBC / PBS) - A persistent favorite of mine, an artfully crafted, zippy bodice-ripper featuring the world's greatest villain, Jack Farthing's George Warleggan.

Outlander (Starz) - I've been watching this for three seasons and found it uneven early on but despite one sluggish and unnecessary episode (Ep. 5 "Freedom & Whisky"), season three is a knockout!

The Good Place (NBC) - The funniest, cleverest, and most poignant comedy around. I can't say much without giving stuff away, but Kristen Bell and Ted Danson lead a stellar cast in this whip-smart metaphysical comedy. A must-see, but don't read too much about it ahead of time as there are big twists ahead!


Schitt's Creek (CBC) - The other funniest, cleverest, and most poignant comedy around. Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara drew me in, but younger stars Daniel Levy and Annie Murphy keep me coming back. A warm-hearted, very funny series about a formerly rich family down on its luck.

GLOW (Netflix) - Easy to take for granted because of how effortlessly this series combines comedy and pathos. This first season is mostly buildup to greater things yet to come, but is worth watching for Alison Brie's and Marc Maron's performances alone.

That's all for now. Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

[MASSIVE SPOILERS FOLLOW]

Despite my mostly positive comments here, I recently tried to re-watch The Force Awakens and could not get past Han Solo's entrance. I find that, like Tony Zhou, I long for a different new-trilogy-kickoff film, one that spends more time on its new characters than its legacy ones. And one that tells a different story than the one that is already told more impactfully and economically in George Lucas's 1977 Star Wars.

However, despite my "blah" feelings about Episode VII, I stand by my concluding sentiment in that review, which says that
I sure look forward to seeing the next couple episodes of Rey's ongoing adventures. She is the single most compelling element of this latest Star Wars viewing product.
Indeed, I went into Episode VII with mediocre expectations overall but some hopes for interesting Rey / Luke developments. I ended up enjoying the film very much, at least on my first viewing. For me, The Last Jedi strikes a good balance between "soulless corporate pablum" and "a film somebody actually wanted to make." I like writer / director Rian Johnson's idiosyncratic touches and  I mostly found the tone of Last Jedi and the whole Luke Skywalker storyline to be spot-on. Kylo Ren continues to be the best-developed new character and Rey is compelling onscreen despite thin, predictable scripting for her this time around. I even enjoyed the Yoda cameo, an aspect I assumed I would hate. Yes, it was obvious fan service but it was handled well for the most part.

Even some of the gratuitous nods to the structure and visuals of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi didn't bother me too much. I am not sure we needed walkers attacking a rebel base on a "snow" (er, salt) planet yet again at the end, and some of the visual homages were heavy handed (e.g., the image of Yoda in the foreground, Luke in the background watching a ship take off copied from Empire). Along the same lines, the whole "gambler betrays the heroes" story element felt shoehorned in, but maybe that's because that whole Finn-Rose subplot, despite those two characters' good interpersonal chemistry and a fun animal chase, was clumsy, thinly plotted, and unnecessary.

All that said, I mainly enjoyed Last Jedi a great deal. Visually, it is a cut above most other Star Wars films (reason enough to see it in a theater) and there were enough new twists and fun ideas, mostly surrounding Luke's renouncing of the Force and his big astral-projection-trick finale, to keep me on the hook. I especially liked Leia's return to the ship after her brush with death -- FINALLY the series does something with HER portion of the Skywalker Force-imbued bloodline. That moment was weird and powerful and unexpected and I liked it very much.

The very best element of this film is its meta-commentary on failure:
In tackling this notion head-on—in being willing to not only challenge Star Wars’ happy ending, but to question whether happy endings actually exist—these new films are giving the saga something that it’s always somewhat lacked, even in all its constant grappling with themes of the spirit versus the machine: humanity.
Indeed, The Last Jedi, especially as it concerns Luke Skywalker, is the most humanly resonant Star Wars film since 1980's Empire. It is, as other reviewers have noted, a bit overlong and messy, but probably not too much the worse for it. I certainly enjoyed this film -- and had elements of it stick with me afterward -- in ways not even remotely achieved by any prequel or recent sequel.

The Last Jedi contains far fewer dead moments and outright imaginative failures than does The Force Awakens (e.g., Leia and Chewie failing to acknowledge each other post-Han's death) and I'm quite glad Johnson at least tried to take some chances (e.g., with Luke's character arc, with our understanding of what the Force can do). But there were some subtle yet palpable misfires, such as:
  • Holdo's big death scene should have been Leia's.
  • Speaking of Holdo, why doesn't she just tell Poe the plan (or at least admit that she's got one) so as to eliminate that largely superfluous subplot he secretly and insubordinately sets in motion?
  • Finn's self-sacrifice should have been allowed to happen, even though he's then a black guy sacrificing himself for the whities.
  • Ren's bullshit talk of letting everything die, of letting go, seemed like a coded message to fans rather than anything he actually believed. He still wanted to indulge his hate and destroy the resistance. I guess we're supposed to just take it as bullshit, as lies he tells Rey to win her to his side, but it still felt weird and too meta-textual to really work.

"Hey guys, director Rian Johnson here. Be sure to let go of the past 
before you watch The Last Jedi!" 

Was Yoda a bit jokey? Yes, but this worked for me -- he and Luke are colleagues now, not master and student. When Yoda blows up the tree and Jedi library, it fits the theme of the film and Yoda's approach to the Force. I like it.

But the smash cut from the end of that scene, Luke and Yoda sitting together watching the fire, to a ship hurtling through hyperspace comes a few seconds too soon and is emblematic of the film's most pervasive weakness: it is trying to pack so much in that it slightly rushes things. It doesn't fuck up character moments as badly as J.J. Abrams does in the prior film but it still rushes them. I get that the casino planet sequence is ultimately a lesson about failure, a meta-theme of the movie, yet couldn't some of that material be eliminated or trimmed to give us a few more grounded character moments with Rey and Kylo, or even Luke and Yoda?

Also, as the Red Letter Media guys note, there is a real sense of finality at the end of this installment. The Last Jedi, even in its title, has the feel of a final chapter, not a penultimate one. So while it vastly improves on the lackluster Force Awakens, it doesn't really leave us with anywhere interesting to go. With Luke dead in the film and Leia dead in real life, two of the best characters are gone, leaving us with Ren and Rey. But what can they do next except battle it out some more?

I guess we'll find out.








JAY: See you again in two years for the next one . . . 
RICH: . . . when they just have to blow up a super-weapon and she has to get into a light-saber fight with Kylo Ren again. 'Cause they can't do anything new or interesting with Star Wars, they just can't, it's not there. I'm sorry -- you've wasted your life and your fandom.


UPDATE 1/2/2018: I saw The Last Jedi again yesterday and overall, I enjoyed it as much as, if not more than, I did the first time. It honors (most of) its characters and really keeps the viewer on the hook. I still think it is TOO fast-paced and overfull at times (that cut away from Luke and Yoda at the burning tree is quite wrenching -- it does not even wait for the last note on the musical score to resolve), yet overall the movie jells very well and is a real pleasure to watch.

That said, my main critique of it -- that the subplot involving Benicio del Toro's codebreaker character is especially weak -- still stands, and in fact was even more glaring to me on a second watch. As much as I love del Toro -- and I really do, I have sat through the shitty James Bond film Licence to Kill many times largely for his great performance in it -- his character in Star Wars is woefully underdeveloped and the whole plot involving him is, as I said, unnecessary. The "failure" theme is more than adequately covered by the Luke storyline, and the only part of the casino planet sequence that really comes alive is the stuff with the racing herd animals and the stable-cleaning kids. THAT part of that subplot IS narratively relevant, as it continues the theme of empathy for non-human animals that begins with Chewie and the porgs and concludes with the "crystal critters" on the salt planet.

But as for the "finding the codebreaker" stuff, it is weakly scripted (how and why do they meet Benicio in that prison cell?) and should probably have been cut. It would make far more sense to just have Rose be the codebreaker (or know someone who is) and have the side quest forego the casino planet altogether and head straight for Snoke's ship.

In fact, this time through I noticed what I think is The Last Jedi's one and only plot hole, and of course it involves the Benicio del Toro plot. (And let me preamble this by saying that I almost NEVER notice plot holes or continuity errors unless they are especially glaring. I did not catch this one until the second viewing.) It is this: when Finn, Rose and Benicio are in Snoke's ship at the end, and our two heroes learn that he has betrayed them, how does he know the information that he uses to buy his freedom? That is, how does Benicio know that the rebels are escaping in shuttlecraft when the film has already established that NOBODY except Holdo and possibly Leia know about that plan? Finn and Rose surely don't. So how does Benicio learn about it?

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Review: Blade Runner 2049 (2017)


I fucking love Blade Runner. I first saw the original 1982 theatrical cut on VHS in the mid-1980s. That version intrigued me a lot, and haunted me, even though I didn't like the clumsy Harrison Ford voice-overs and weirdly upbeat ending. To be fair, I first came at Blade Runner with little understanding of film noir. Instead, I'd recently seen other fast-paced Ford vehicles like Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back. In contrast to these, Blade Runner felt slow and weird, but I still liked it. Its three principal characters -- Deckard, Roy, and Rachel -- stuck with me.

I happened to be living in Los Angeles in 1992 when the so-called "Director's Cut" of Blade Runner was discovered in a vault and screened at the Nuart Theater. That's when my true Blade Runner fandom began. That new version appeared just at the right time for me as a developing cinephile. I had started watching independent cinema, stuff like Do the Right ThingSlacker, Reservoir Dogs, and sex, lies and videotape, so I was ready for a visually arty, downbeat, science-fictional neo-noir to sweep me away. Indeed, that cut of Blade Runner (and the essentially identical 2007 "Final Cut") remains one of my all-time favorite movies, even though I am made uncomfortable by the coercive nature of Deckard and Rachel's sex scene. I realize the dynamics of the scene are complicated by their both being replicants -- or maybe only Rachel being a replicant -- but it disturbs me. Nevertheless, I love Blade Runner. (I also love the Alien universe, so Ridley Scott has pulled me in twice.)

So I looked forward to seeing Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049. I went last weekend assuming I would like it and I did, very much. In my recent review of It I state that film is about 80% what I would want to see in an It movie. I mean that as high praise. I would say that Blade Runner 2049 is about 94% what I would want to see in a Blade Runner sequel.

The film often -- but not always -- touches on the mesmerizing quality that makes Ridley Scott's original so special. As with the noir-inspired original, Blade Runner 2049's main strengths are its beautifully lit visuals of grimy, lived-in settings and its overall melancholic tone.

Sure, Alex Garland's Ex Machina (2014) is a more compelling thematic follow-up to Blade Runner and is its true "spiritual sequel" ideas-wise. But Villeneuve's 2049 gets the tone and visuals dead right and introduces the reproducing replicant motif, a logical next step for the franchise that takes the story in an interesting, Pinocchio-like direction. And 2049 ends really well -- both its blade runners get superb final scenes and shots.

Although it ends with a haunting close-up of Deckard, 2049 features minimal -- just enough -- Harrison Ford. It's the new characters' show. Ryan Gosling is pitch-perfect as protagonist "K" aka Joe -- a strong silent type who is nevertheless more emotionally vulnerable than Deckard ever was (or is). Supporting cast members Sylvia Hoeks as Luv, Ana de Armas as Joi, and Robin Wright as Lieutenant Joshi (who I really thought was going to pull one more trick out of her hat before getting brutally murdered -- alas) are also especially good.

2049 does right to stay focused on Joe's present-day story, only bringing in Deckard when he becomes relevant to the mystery Joe is trying to solve. Indeed, too much emphasis on legacy characters weakens Star Wars and accounts for  2049's most awkward and least necessary scene: Niander Wallace's unsuccessful tempting of Deckard with Rachel 2.0.

There is no point to the Rachel 2.0 scene -- we know Deckard would never go for this ruse, and the use of computer generated imagery (CGI) to re-create a circa-1982 Sean Young looks, as CGI Peter Cushing in Star Wars Rogue One looks, uncanny, cheap, and (therefore) jarring.

Rachel sez: "Sorry folks, I should never have been in this sequel." 

2049's other main weak point is its almost comically underdeveloped depiction of an underground replicant revolutionary force. That scene only takes place to "explain" how Joe escapes Las Vegas, and there's a million other ways to do that -- he could just hijack some other vehicle from around Deckard's lair. Or the Wallace mercenaries could haul Joe back to L.A. along with Deckard, and Joe could escape at that point. Or he could be taken in the very same airport transport as Deckard, and would end up at the same climactic fight. The thing the rebellion leader tells Joe about his origin is something he could realize on his own -- he already suspects it before that dumb scene.

Deckard being tempted and Joe being rescued by an anonymous replicant resistance movement are stupid and unnecessary scenes. 2049 should just cut from Deckard being taken away in Vegas to "K" commandeering a new vehicle and pursuing him. No Ford / Leto meeting needed. The CGI Sean Young reveal is hackneyed in the film world and the real one.

I have been a Blade Runner fan since 1992 and was likely to want to see this sequel in any case. Yet the stellar track records of Denis Villeneuve, 2049's director, and Roger Deakins, its cinematographer, strongly contributed to my anticipation to see it. Villeneuve has made several excellent films over the past several years, including Prisoners (2013), Sicario (2015), and my favorite, his recent science-fiction film Arrival (2016). Deakins has worked with the Coen brothers since 1997, when he shot Fargo. He shot Prisoners and Sicario for Villeneuve. He also lensed the James Bond film Skyfall in 2012. He utterly rocks.

Is Blade Runner 2049 slow paced? Yes, of course it is. Like the original, 2049 is a bleak, moody, science-fiction film noir -- it is NOT an action film. There are basically two fights, two swift stabbings, and one extremely brief flying car chase. That's it -- the rest of 2049's two hour forty minute running time is people talking to each other on amazingly-lit and -designed sets. Don't expect much action, but expect a visually stunning, fully developed world of the future.

And expect me to crush people.  



UPDATE 10/28/2017: After reading my review, one of my friends noted on Facebook that she enjoyed Blade Runner 2049 too but had "some questions about Joi." Indeed, I share her concerns over the sexism of both the original Blade Runner -- the roughness of the Deckard-Rachel love scene has always disturbed me -- and its sequel. Honestly, I agree with everything Lauren Jernigan says in her penetrating article about the pervasive sexism of 2049. She writes: 
Joi has very little, if any, true agency as a character. She’s a programmed hologram that will be whatever K needs her to be, so he has his perfect fantasy woman. She is a literal product designed for the happiness of men.
Agreed. Like Jernigan, I find the sex scene with K, Joi, and her hired body double to be quite unnerving. Is this the film's way of critiquing this situation by making me feel unnerved and uncomfortable with it? Or is the film simply reinforcing the role of women as objects of desire for men? It's hard to tell. 

In defense of my Blade Runner fandom I can only say that film noir presents a strange case: it is so highly stylized and hyperbolic that I think it is possible to read the genre's abysmal treatment of women as a critique of patriarchal violence. But it is an ambivalent, ambiguous case, and there is no doubt that noirs like the Blade Runner films portray women as "only there to help move the story of men forward, rather than act as protagonists in their own right in a story very much about oppression against them," as Jernigan correctly asserts.

UPDATE 11/8/2017: I also found this piece by Joseph Aisenberg to offer an insightful interpretation of Blade Runner 2049. "Morose and morbidly meditative in tone, it gnaws around the edges of the assumptions underlying its plot mechanics, giving viewers time to think through the fakery in its themes about fakery versus authenticity."

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Review: Stephen King's It (2017)


I saw It and I mostly really enjoyed it. I am a fan of Stephen King's original novel -- I think it is his best work -- and feel that despite a couple of sad blunders, the recent film adaptation (which its closing credits make clear constitutes "Chapter 1" of a presumed two-parter) is about 80% what I would want to see out of an adaptation of a horror epic this nuanced and great. I would probably even watch it again someday, and I intend to see the sequel. My review:

The good:
  • The overall tone. As AV Club's Katie Rife astutely notes, the visuals are particularly excellent: "Cinematography from Chung Chung-hoon, Park Chan-wook’s longtime DP, gives the film a richness and texture that’s far beyond that of most Hollywood films, let alone horror films."
  • The casting, especially Finn Wolfhard as Richie -- of whom Andrew Barker writes, "Wolfhard all but steals the show as the gang’s cheerful antagonist Richie" -- and Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise. My biggest concern going in was my deep love of Tim Curry's iconic portrayal of the killer clown in the 1990 TV-miniseries version of It -- the great character actor is basically the best thing in a generally mediocre movie. The new remake is thankfully a better movie and Skarsgard is terrific in the role, not as great as Curry but very scary and amusing if a bit over-exposed: "The more we see of him, the less scary he becomes" Chris Nashawaty correctly deduces.

The bad:
  • The sexist "Beverly used as bait" problem, as well documented by Jackie Perez, who writes that "Beverly is stripped of her power and equality when she’s taken by Pennywise the clown in order to propel the six boys into the sewers to rescue her. The tired and sexist trope of using female weakness to show male strength goes directly against everything Beverly stood for in the book." Indeed, I found the kidnapping subplot to be the movie's absolute low point -- it is both sexist and too narratively boring and overused. Why not just have the Losers including Beverly head down to the sewers to defeat It, for which they already have more than sufficient motivation at that point? Why does Pennywise even choose Beverly? He always seemed most interested in Bill. 

  • The needless backgrounding of Mike Hanlon, the Losers' Club's sole black member. When It downplays Mike's character and role, it omits the complex racial history of Derry and the racism Mike experiences -- he is bullied by villain Henry Bowers but the racial motivations for it are sidestepped. As Kristen Yoonsoo Kim writes, "the racism that Mike faces is so watered down that he loses some of the individual purpose in the kids’ fight against evil." Indeed so. For example, why does Henry never utter the word "nigger" when tormenting Mike? Especially in these troubled (real-life) times, when open racism is a constant front-page issue, the film's choice to avoid that word feels out of place and weird -- an omission that causes more discomfort and dissonance through its absence than it would if the film just went for it and told the truth. 

  • Furthermore, regarding the gratuitous flattening and marginalizing of Mike in this movie, why does Ben Hanscomb need to take over Mike's researcher role? Can't a black kid be a smart kid in American cinema? Besides, likable though he is, Ben doesn't need more to do -- he has his hands full with the film's amplified Bill - Beverly - Ben love triangle.
  • The film's amplified Bill - Beverly - Ben love triangle. This stems from the film too weirdly sexualizing Beverly. For while foregrounding her sexual nature allows for some Carrie-esque moments in the bathroom sequences, it kind of ruins the dynamics of the kid Losers in the film. Instead of fitting in with the guys as a tomboy, Bev becomes a highly sexualized object of desire from the get-go. My memory is that in the novel, Ben's feelings for Bev don't really come out into the open until the adult phase of the action. Am I mis-remembering that?

The strange:

In the theater where I saw It, it opened with video footage of Stephen King in a neutral studio setting introducing the film and saying how blown away he was by director Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of his favorite work. Now I love Stephen King, both as a pulp author and as an irascible left-centrist public figure, but he seemed downright awkward in this introduction video. He was clearly reading from a teleprompter -- I could see his eyes reading and I think I saw the teleprompter screen reflected in his glasses.

King has always had a fraught relationship with film adaptations of his books, famously despising the very best one, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980), even making a TV miniseries version in 1997 as a kind of public "I'm taking it back" gesture. And as A.O. Scott notes, a great many King adaptations are mediocre or worse, so maybe this isn't a very high bar. But it was interesting to me that someone took the time to film this footage of King and place it up front -- King subtly asserting his authorship? A precautionary measure to assure audiences this isn't another Dark Tower (2017) fiasco?

Anyway, horror fans or King fans should go see this film. It is fun and mostly scary, though a couple of the clown attacks are so over-the-top as to be silly rather than convincing (including, IMO, the first one). The final battle is, as Scott correctly states, boring and unaffecting: "The climactic sequence of It sacrifices horror-movie creepiness for action-movie bombast." And obviously, as I've said, big sexism and racism alert. But It is worth your time for the cinematography, a few scares, and Richie's one-liners alone.

Richie sez: "If you don't like this movie you can fuck off!"

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Franchises, Fandom, and Film Criticism

It is hard for me to write about films of which I am not a fan. I can do it, and sometimes I have produced good analytical papers by doing so, but here on the blog I mainly post about films toward which I am positively inclined.

This truism partly explains why I have been so slow to complete my promised review of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. I want to get that piece out there, but it is more an intellectual goal than a passion project. I want to review a Star Wars prequel to show I'm a good sport and to inoculate myself against accusations of bias against them. But the truth is, I am biased: as a movie fan, I loathe and despise all three prequels.

Winchester: "I loathe you, Pierce."
Pierce: "I call your loathe and raise you two despises."

Conversely, I noticed recently that there are certain film-worlds I simply enjoy inhabiting and will take the opportunity to visit them even via relatively mediocre movies, e.g., the Tron universe or G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009) or anything involving the Fantastic Four. Then there are other cinematic universes, like that of the X-Men, that I don't find too compelling. I enjoyed X-Men: First Class (2011), for example, but I cannot rally the enthusiasm to make it all the way through Days of Future Past (2014). It's a perfectly well-crafted movie, and if I were really into the X-Men I would probably love it, but I am not invested and no X-Men movie, no matter how good, has much re-watch value for me. Maybe I am just Wolverine-fatigued?

Owen Gleiberman wrote a recent piece that gets to the heart of this issue. Ostensibly about his disappointment with Pirates of the Caribbean 5 and Alien Covenant, the article notes that
Franchises are the basic commercial architecture on which the movie business now rests, so the whole culture — audiences, critics, the industry — has a vested interest in viewing this situation without cynicism.
That is, the way the film industry is structured right now encourages viewers to buy into a whole different kind of movie -- the intertextual franchise entry -- than existed in the recent past. According to Gleiberman, our experience of sequels and franchises has shifted since the blockbuster era began in the 1980s:
One of the reasons the word “franchise” passed from industry talk to a colloquial term is that it sounds strong and powerful. You’re not just seeing a movie, you’re glimpsing a part of something larger. You’re not just watching it, you’re joining it. 
This "joining" with something larger can be great fun, and explains my enjoyment of the G.I. Joe films, yet sometimes I just want to see a well-made movie that isn't hyperlinked to a bunch of other stuff. As I said in my review, part of what makes Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman so refreshing is that, whatever its internal flaws, it mostly feels like its own movie, even if you can tell from its overuse of slo-mo combat sequences that it is part of the "DC Universe" and that Zack Snyder vaguely oversaw its production.

I ultimately advocate for both experiences. It can be fun to immerse oneself in a franchise-universe that you enjoy, and this kind of fandom creates a special relationship to (at least certain) films in the franchise, e.g., my love of Prometheus. Yet as Gleiberman suggests, "it can be healthy to return to the mindset of the ’80s and remind yourself that a sequel is often just a sequel: a movie that has no organic reason for being, even if it pretends otherwise." Agreed.

I greatly enjoy hanging out in the Alien universe, and absolutely loved Alien Covenant, but I totally agree with Gleiberman when he says that "the thing that can’t be recaptured, even by director Ridley Scott, is the essence of the original 1979 Alien: the sense of revelation, of seeing a monster that immerses the audience in transcendent horror." I agree. Yet as a committed fan of the Alien franchise, I don't go into Prometheus or Covenant expecting to relive the greatness of the original film. I go in wanting simply to hang out in that world some more.

Still, there are limits and contours to my Alien franchise fandom. For example, I find the abominable Alien Resurrection (1997) all but unwatchable. I re-watch Alien and Prometheus much more often than I do James Cameron's generally excellent Aliens (1986). And I am currently enjoying Ridley Scott's run of Alien prequels quite a bit -- see this EW review for a gloss of what I think of Covenant.

I have written about movie fandom before -- maybe the best thing I came up with (besides the catch phrase "Fuck the Tomatometer") is that "holistic film criticism is always colored by the history, tastes, predilections, hatreds, and fandoms of the individual reviewer." In saying that I am echoing Gamasutra's Katherine Cross, who writes that criticism is "the product of a gut reaction; it is a melange of values, emphasis, and personal judgement. It can never be objective."

To the extent to which that is true, criticism and fandom are somewhat inextricable. Yet it is the critic's job to be as clear as possible about their fandoms and leanings so that the reader can have some kind of barometer to use in evaluating the critic's work.

This means being able to talk about fandom -- a kind of gut-level, euphoric, gushy thing -- in concrete terms. I've been thinking that fandom has a few different levels:
  • casual fandom, describing someone who will remain loyal to a franchise or genre or star in a vague way, but doesn't get too wrapped up in the deep mythology or details
  • fandom proper, which exists in a big range but includes a certain loyalty to a brand, studio, star, director, franchise, starring character, etc. Often the true fan tries to protect what they see as the canon of their preferred genres and franchises, and probably has some apocryphal knowledge
  • crazy-assed fandom that is so specific and particular that it destroys the fan's ability to enjoy a thing transposed into another medium or changed in the "wrong" way
I have this last thing with Lord of the Rings. I love the original J.R.R. Tolkien books so much, and they were so deeply influential upon me at an early age, that for me no film version of those works has ever really come close to the version I have in my mind. I find the Ralph Bakshi Lord of the Rings (1978) watchable, and Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) passable, but I guess I will always be swayed by my abiding fandom of those novels. Of course, the Rankin and Bass animated The Hobbit (1977) is an exception to this rule, since it is a brilliant and beautiful work of genius that is utterly enjoyable on its own merits, especially its delightful songs.

This is not to say that Jackson's Rings movies aren't good movies in some more objective sense -- though they do get worse as they go, especially screenplay-wise -- but simply that I will probably never love them the way many fans do. As a critic, I can see their positive qualities (e.g., high production values, great casting and visuals), even though I can also see the concrete reasons (e.g., contrived dialogue, shitty characterizations, numbingly bombastic battle sequences) that make at least the second two entries completely unappealing to me. My loyalty to the books plays a key role in how I respond as a viewer, and I acknowledge this in my criticism, but I also have legitimate critiques of the Lord of the Rings films themselves. I am a fan and a critic.

In "Hollywood Blames Critics for Its Movies Being Unimaginative Pieces of Shit," The Daily Beast's Kevin Fallon observes that
When a film like Get Out or Hidden Figures skyrockets to surprise box office success on the fuel of critics’ raves, it’s a credit to the value of positive reviews. But if a well-reviewed film is a box office bomb, then it’s used to argue that they don’t matter. What’s interesting, though, is how often critics and general audiences’ tastes align.
Indeed. Gleiberman echoes this sentiment in his article on superhero movie fandom, writing that "1) Critics are fans. 2) Fans are critics." As Gleiberman concludes:
Take the all-too-relevant issue of critics and comic-book movies. Do we critics reflexively dislike them? No. Do we sometimes dislike them? Yes. Do fans of comic-book movies agree with us? More often than not, I would say…yes. Four years from now, will people be talking about what a kickass movie Suicide Squad was? Prediction: Not really.
But all of us, critic-fans and fan-critics alike, will continue to passionately debate the films, franchises, and pop cultural loyalties we enjoy, nurture, refuse, and resist. The best thing we can do is to articulate these positions clearly and be as respectful as possible in how we communicate our ideas and passions.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Shark Lake (2015) vs. Sharktopus (2010)

Eric Roberts, one of the best things about Sharktopus. 

This post is an (only very slightly) enhanced take on ideas I first hashed out here. I mainly posted this revised version to set the stage for an upcoming Shark Attack Movie Roundup! and because I had a few more things to say about Shark Lake (2015) and Sharktopus (2010).

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. I don't inherently mind fakey or cheap special effects, but in a film-world that purports to be dealing with "real" sharks, bad effects can really ruin it. (As we'll see, I am much more tolerant of shoddy, obvious CGI when it is used to convey the weird and fantastical as in Sharktopus.)

The best stuff in Shark Lake includes 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. But it is a weakness to make a shark attack movie in which the shark attack scenes are by far the worst part.

Overall, Shark Lake is one of those "so bad it's good" entries. While the acting is pretty good, the film's badness mostly stems from its 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.

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, in part because it is great fun to watch a huge shark / octopus hybrid crawl up onto dry land, roar, and kill people.

Sadly, in Sharktopus, Malakul Lane is relegated to being an especially drab embodiment of the "babe scientist" stereotype I discuss in my review of Doctor Strange. She spends a lot of time sitting in the back of a motorboat, silently typing at a laptop computer. This is disappointing given that she is given much more to do -- and therefore more character depth -- as the protagonist of Shark Lake.

One of the least thrilling aspects of the generally action-packed Sharktopus.

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.

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 Slate.com'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.

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* 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."

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* 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?