Monday, May 14, 2018

The abridged history of us


Andrew Niccol returns, and you will probably not be very surprised by what he's about or even how he's about it, in general—though if you're a geek, you might get a kick out of some of the specific ways he's about it.

Written and directed by Andrew Niccol
With Clive Owen (Det. Sal Frieland), Colm Feore (Det. Charles Gattis), and Amanda Seyfried (The Girl)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

2017: Movies on the Hell Planet

Though it's obviously unacceptably late in the publication—one's self- and society-imposed deadline for the thing being, at the latest, the day of the Oscars, which passed by, let's see, over two damn months ago—I nevertheless did still have a top ten for last year.  The irony is that I didn't really need the extra time I gave myself!  It hasn't changed since that day, even though I've caught up on over a dozen movies that should (allow me to emphasize the modal language there, should) have been contenders, but usually didn't even really come all that close.  2017 was not a tremendously lousy film year, but it was more solid than good, and it was also one of those years where practically everything great arrived early, leaving you with little but disappointment in the winter.  This is true of life, generally.  I suppose it's also true of many Oscar seasons, though 2017's was remarkably wide-open, rather few of our Best Picture nominees appearing to actually belong there even on the Academy's own narrow terms (indeed, the winner arguably belonged there least of all, so at least 2017's Academy-sanctioned best film was a weird one).  In any event, I can't complain too hard: this is a top ten list that doesn't have any eight-out-of-tens on it, even if the number of ten-out-of-tens seems light, and even if I have some cause to question at least three of my nine-out-of-tens (surprise, surprise, they're the Marvel movies, as well as the artsiest-fartiest movie on the list, which I respected more before I knew how thoroughly it was indebted to Don Hertzfeldt's Such a Beautiful Day, a gen-u-ine masterpiece.).  I even question one of my ten-out-of-tens, a little, but I cannot deny the power of that third-placed ten's theatrical presentation; I hate theaters, a lot, and am ready for them to die; but damned if they're not still good for something, after all.

Well, anyway, here's ten movies that are certainly noteworthy, if only occasionally of gemstone-quality.  But first some honorable mentions: for Albert Serra's The Death of Louis XIV, which if I were more of a snob would definitely be on here, because I truly did love it despite it doing very little that movies "ought" to do; and David Leitch's Atomic Blonde, which has one of the best-choregraphed action sequences in history, maybe the best ever in an American film, and isn't ever boring otherwise (though it is almost always befuddling); and for Darren Aronofsky's mother! and Terrence Malick's Song to Song, which, if the list had been even slightly less good (or if I were less of an easy lay for superheroics), might have shared the no. 10 spot as two very different (but each very pompous) allegorical takes on the same basic Bible story; and Matt Reeves's War For the Planet of the Apes, the third best Planet of Apes film (which sounds backhanded, but absolutely isn't); and Steven Spielberg's The Post, yet another Spielberg Chronicle that has no business whatsoever being as good in the telling as it is, and which I wonder now, on rewatch, if I rated too low rather than too high; and Andy Muschietti's It, a picture with fundamental, insuperable flaws as a horror film, but which is remarkable nonetheless as such a great triumph of aesthetic and narrative nostalgia; and, finally, Ken Branagh's Murder On the Orient Express, about which I have recently gushed long enough.

Oh well, no turning back now, even if this was the year I realized I'm probably overrating Marvel movies generally.  (It was the year, after all, of Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2, a movie that goes tediously out of its way to set up its most memorable scene with one the franchise's endless diegetic soundtrack choices, then... plays a remix of Jay and the Americans' "Come a Little Bit Closer"?  I mean, I even like the remix more, but... Mr. Gunn.  James.  Jim.  Jimmy.  We figured out that audiences will accept background music that the characters can't hear, like, ninety years ago.  It would honestly be okay if you did that more often.  This message also applies to David Leitch.)

"Best Peter Parker" equals "best Spider-Man movie," and since "Tom Holland" equals "best Peter Parker"... well, I'll let you do the math.  Everything else is just gilding the lily (Michael Keaton's Vulture; the great supporting cast; some of this particular franchise's best action sequences; superhero cinema's best super-chores montage since Superman, period), or more-or-less pleasant noise (Iron Dad).  I don't care if I am overrating them.  Good job, Jon Watts.  Good job, Marvel.

By far the most idiosyncratic film on this list, or perhaps of all 2017, Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman's long-time-in-the-coming Loving Vincent tells a story that does not necessarily recommend itself to be told, but it tells it in a revolutionary way, with literal moving paintings, and I really doubt any film made last year was more immediately arresting in the strangeness of its beauty.  Plus I got to put a movie on my top ten that features, as one half of its directing team, a woman.  And that probably shouldn't have taken five years, but I blame Hollywood sexism, rather than myself.

8. THOR: RAGNAROK (9/10)
Possibly the funniest Marvel movie, its second-best-looking, and its first-best-sounding, this is another hit to add to Taika Waititi's list, one of the few directors who've been able to actually cross that line between their independent and obviously-more-passionate work (Hunt for the fuckin' Wilderpeople, guys) and their blockbuster aspirations and make it work without losing themselves in the process.  Still, for some reason, the movie Ragnarok reminds me the most of is Big Trouble In Little China, another shaggy story about a blonde braggart going on a magic quest and finding himself way out of his depth.  Except Ragnarok is way, way bigger, for better and for worse: there've been movies that have wasted Cate Blanchett more thoroughly than this one does, but I can't name even one that's been this blithe about it.

7. A GHOST STORY (9/10)
As noted, David Lowery's look at grief and life and all is basically an expanded (yet far more fettered) version of the last act of It's Such a Beautiful Day... but that doesn't mean it's not excellent on its own terms, and A Ghost Story sees Lowery taking on a far less whimsical and batshit tone, in service of his severe and slow and silent art film, than Hertzfeld does in his wacky one-man animation projects.  So it is melancholy, and punishing in its vision of the depths of time, and it is great.  You know what else was great?  Pete's Dragon, 2016's best E.T.  (Even better than Spielberg's 2016 E.T., The BFG, in fact.)  This Lowery guy turns out to be pretty flexible, even if I'm not sure he can do anything but remake other people's movies, though maybe I should actually see Ain't Them Bodies Saints before I call it Badlands 2: The Quickening.  But that's what I heard!

A slice-of-life period drama that could only be better than it is if it were more; and, guess what?  That's exactly what Sunao Katabuchi's doing, adding new scenes for a new edition of his film.  Combining great, sometimes-even-frivolous artistry with high-test historical horror, Corner is almost as good as animation got last year.

5. JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 (9/10)
Chad Stahleski returns to the character he helped create with an even more intense exploration of the emptiness at the heart of grief than the first time, and John Wick: Chapter 2 is one of film's best takes on the trials of Orpheus.  That it is also 2017's best pure action film... well, that's why it's on this list, anyway.

Jordan Vogt-Roberts' Kong: Skull Island (another example of an indy darling crossing over into the popcorn-littered arena) should not be on a top ten list, I hear you say.  But why?  It was the most efferevescently, stupidly pleasurable first watch I had all last year, full of great monster designs and even more full of crazed, playful nonsense.  It's like Joe Dante willed himself out of the director's graveyard and made Warner Bros. give him a mountain of money, just one more time, to see what would happen, and this time it really, really worked.

3. DUNKIRK (10/10)
A strikingly collectivist (almost to the point of inhuman) take on the war machine called Great Britain, Dunkirk is an experience more than a film as such, but it is a shattering, exhausting one... but not so shattering or exhausting that you cannot feel the pangs of awe at the grandeur of a Spitfire, or the heroism of the little captains of the thousand little boats that saved the Expeditionary Force at Dunkerque.  Truly breathtaking cinema, and Chris Nolan is to be commended, once again.

2. BLADE RUNNER 2049 (10/10)
This film is the 21st century as we know it, reflecting our own uselessness, replaceability, and reproducibility right back at us.  It knows we're fake, and it knows we prefer it this way.  It knows we can't do a damn thing to change the world, and barely do anything that so much as affects anyone else.  It is blockbuster filmmaking as cold, sad, and clammy, and it's explicitly about dying alone.  (Did you know "Joi" is an acronym for a genre of pornography?  It stands for "jerk off instructions," and its signal quality is a simulation of intimacy that acknowledges that you've little choice but to take matters into your own hands.)  It is endlessly gorgeous, even so, and it finally got Roger Deakins his Oscar.  That's important.  It's also important that Denis Villeneuve finally made a movie worthy of his innate talents.  I had lost hope on that, too.  So maybe there is a little hope, after all.  And you know, I just might like it more than the original.  Fuck you; I might.

1. YOUR NAME. (10/10)
It's two sci-fi movies smashed together, but what Makoto Shinkai's movie really is, is the best romance of 2017.  If you said it was the best ever, I'd believe you believed it, and you might even be right.  I don't need to take your word for it.  I could ask one of the theatergoers in Japan who watched this five, ten, twenty times, so many times Shinkai had to tell them to stop.  I get it, now: there is something addictive about it.  Maybe it's just that it's 2017's most outright beautiful animated film, and it's most beautiful film, generally.  Maybe it's that it captures love and loss and longing better than anything I can think of offhand.  Maybe it's that if you keep watching it, all the enormous plot holes get filled in with your affection for everything the movie gets so incredibly right about doomed young love and the glimmers of hope it engenders surviving even a world designed to destroy them.  Maybe it's because it makes me cry like flipping a switch.  And it's not even Shinkai's best film ever?  Get out of town.  Well, it's his best feature, anyway.  His only genuinely good feature, also, yes; but, hey, a masterpiece is a masterpiece, dude.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Once a man... I was onccce a man!


Not all feature-length films about Hasbro toys are created equal, though Joe: The Movie certainly manages to have its moments.

Directed by Don Jurwich
Written by Buzz Dixon and Ron Friedman and Hasbro
With Don Johnson (Lt. Falcon), Shuko Akune (Jinx), Michael Bell (Duke), Kene Holliday (Roadblock), William Callaway (Beach Head), Sgt. Slaughter (Sgt. Slaughter), Chris Latta (Cobra Commander), Arthur Burghardt (Destro), Morgan Lofting (The Baroness), Zack Hoffman (Zartan), Richard Gautier (Serpentor), Jennifer Darling (Pythona), and Burgess Meredith (Golobulus)

Spoiler alert: high

Sunday, May 6, 2018

God and Hercule Poirot


2017's premier mustache ride.

Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Written by Michael Green (based on the novel by Agatha Christie)
With Kenneth Branagh (Hercule Poirot), and a number of other actors, great and small, all of them smaller than Sir Ken

Spoiler alert: mild as I can make it

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

And, it's fair to say, it was assembled


Comics, nerd.  Also, there was a movie that came out this weekend, and we can talk about that too.

Directed by Joe Russo and Anthony Russo
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
With many! including Josh Brolin (Thanos), as well as Terry Notary (Cull Obsidian), Carrie Coon (Proxima Midnight), Michael James Shaw (Corvus Glaive), and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor (Ebony Maw), none of whom are, perhaps thankfully, named as such in the film itself

Spoiler alert: moderate

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Elliot Stabler: The Later Years


The raves go too far, as they usually do; but You Were Never Really Here remains a compelling piece of filmmaking, even as it only occasionally grasps that it is a narrative work, whether it actually wants to be one or not.

Written and directed by Lynne Ramsay (based on the novel by Jonathan Ames)
With Jaoquin Phoenix (Joe), Nina Votto (Ekaterina Samsonov), and Judith Roberts (Joe's mom)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Reviews from gulag: But Batman and Robin will never die!

And now, the rest: The Big Sick, Lady Bird, Power Rangers, The Greatest Showman, The Book of Henry, and Good Time.

It is not correct to call it "Michael Showalter's The Big Sick," and if you've seen it, you know why, inasmuch as it was barely directed in the first place, and it really does show: practically the only thing I remember at all about the look of thing (beyond "extreme bland semi-competence," anyway) is a match-cut montage of its protagonist driving an Uber, which, you know, is fine, I guess, and the whole movie looks exactly like what a TV show on the same subject might have looked like in 2004.  We don't expect much from our comedies these days, and with that bigotry of low expectations firmly in place, Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani's The Big Sick made a few waves back in the summer of 2017, when it was finally given its wide release, hot off the campaign of well-intentioned (and at least partly-deserved) hype that came out of its showings at Sundance in the January of that year.

There is, of course, plenty of bigotry to go around in The Big Sick, which tells the semi-fictionalized tale of how the sort-of interracial couple of Emily (Zoe Kazan) and would-be stand-up comedian Kumail (himself) hooked up after a bout of cute heckling and eventually got married, and also how, in between those two events, Emily keeled over and almost died after breaking up with Kumail due to his family's disapproval of either her whiteness, her heathenism, or possibly simply her non-Pakistaniness, but Nanjiani wound up dragooned into exercising a power of attorney over Emily anyway, at least for the limited purpose of inducing a medically-necessary coma when she got sick.  The big sick, as it were, and with her illness living up to that grandiose title, Emily Gordon winds up very much a tertiary character in her own romance, albeit one whose presence does continue to loom over the action even while she's doing absolutely nothing (though if you forgot, for example, what Emily's goals in life were before eating her coma sandwich, I think you could be forgiven).  Anyway: calling it a Kumail Nanjiani biopic that happens to co-star Gordon's parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) is probably a little more accurate than "a romantic dramedy about Kumail and Emily."

It isn't true that I have nothing against The Big Sick, but I do like it, because there is, after all, plenty to like about it.  The most obvious points of recommendation, beyond a doubt, are the Gordons, demonstrating for the billionth time that Hunter is an excellent actress, even if the role demands very little of her beyond "be a gruff but still-loveable small woman," and demonstrating for possibly the first time that Romano can invest a role with genuine heart; but that's unfair to Nanjiani, who carries the romantic and dramatic weights of his role reasonably well, perhaps even shockingly well, given that that apparently really is the only voice he has, and it was not well-designed for roles beyond his niche of the weird mostly-a-straight-man on Silicon Valley.  And there are a great many little bits here and there that are fun; if not a romantic comedy as such, the movie is still a comedy-comedy, and easily carves out some small place in the genre.  The best stuff, though, is funny only as a second-order effect: it's how scathing Nanjiani and Gordon's screenplay can be when presenting Kumail's stand-up comedian community, basically by simply showing it as I presume it was—absolutely terrible.  The highlight of the movie as a comedy is arguably Kumail's one-man show about the history of Pakistan, which he thinks is funny; the highlight of the movie as a drama is when he breaks down on stage and just starts monologuing through tears at his situation.  But there are about as many actual laughs in both.  This isn't Don't Think Twice, and The Big Sick doesn't have a lot of illusions about the general quality of Nanjiani's profession.

On the other hand, the whole pursuit feels slightly off, doesn't it?  Though it registers only subliminally, the fact that Nanjiani is playing himself as he was over a decade in the past (while his and Gordon's screenplay unwisely updates their story to the present) never quite stops getting in the way of a series of events that makes the most sense to have happened to a guy who was in his mid-twenties, rather than in his late thirties.  Probably by accident, then, you find yourself having to agree with Kumail's dad (Anupam Kher), that maybe this life just ain't for him.

Not that you find yourself agreeing with him, or his wife (Adeel Akhtar), very often, and this is what I actually do have against The Big Sick, which is how incredibly easy it lets off the Nanjiani clan for their egregious fucking racism.  The Big Sick really, really wants to be a feel-good movie about overcoming your upbringing (as well as the broader racism of American society at large), and it certainly has those elements (though this is another reason why Nanjiani's actual age sticks in the craw, of course: a man of nearly 40 years having to rationalize his way around his parents' bigotry is exponentially more pathetic than a man in his twenties doing so, and it's still laughably pathetic even then).  But it has no coherent critique of the family who spends a third of the movie's screentime trying to ensure a literal purity of blood, whereas Emily just flips like a switch when the movie needs her to (that is, at the last possible second, in a fairly solid romantic scene that really, really emphasizes just how much this screenplay is about Kumail), and while we can impose the real world onto The Big Sick if we want—it seems clear that whatever problems Nanjiani had in 2006, they were resolved to Gordon's satisfaction—Kumail the Character in This Movie simply isn't that convincing when he pleads that his past behavior shall not be repeated, because when he repudiates his family, he does it in the most bizarrely subordinate way possible, it sticks for about five whole minutes, and I sure as hell didn't see them change in the meantime.

Score: 6/10