Reviews for Normal People

Hi. I review things.

Review: Thunderfuck — November 7, 2017

Review: Thunderfuck

Wonderstruck was destined for success. It had phenomenal source material: an acclaimed book by Brian Selznick, who already proved his works were especially screen-compatible with 2011’s Hugo. It had the directing talents of cult favorite filmmaker Todd Haynes, who directed the groundbreaking Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There and queer classics Poison and Carol. It had a rock-solid cast, Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions backing it, and it even competed for the Palme d’Or.

All this is especially interesting because the movie is not good. Sure, it has charming moments, a great soundtrack, pretty good cast, a real sense of wonder, but Todd Hayne’s melodramatic style combined with Brian Selznick’s, let’s say, inexperienced screenwriting work in tandem to create a film devoid of purpose, thoroughly sappy, and at times insufferable. The very first scene in the film is so laughably poorly-written that I breathed a sigh of relief when the main character went deaf.

One of the major problems with the film is that it delivers exposition like Mike Tyson delivering a punch to your jaw. The aforementioned scene contains lines in a conversation between one of the leads and his mother like “Happy birthday, twelve-year-old” and, completely unprompted, “So, dad was an astronomer?” A character who can only communicate through writing, in a very hectic scene, takes extra time to write “I miss you, mama,” just so that the audience doesn’t have to think too hard. Later on, the same deaf character, now adult, writes entire paragraphs of exposition in a matter of seconds.

The film also does a pretty poor job expressing the main twist of the book, that the girl from the ’20s is the grandmother of the boy from the ’70s. Sure, in the film, the grandmother is played by Julianne Moore, who also plays the girl’s mother, but the audience’s only incentive to put it together is that the movie would be utterly pointless otherwise. The decision to differentiate the two time periods aesthetically by having the earlier one be black-and-white is one of the most uninspired decisions Todd Haynes has ever made, in what is easily his least inspired film. The black-and-white portion of the film is abandoned entirely a little more than halfway through, which is kind of what happens in the book, but it makes much more sense in that case because the perspective shifts to an older Rose (the female protagonist), where in the movie we’re still following Ben (the male protagonist) when we’re introduced to adult Rose.

The characterization in the film is pretty shoddy, too. Ben’s friend Jamie lies to him to keep him from finding out about his father for no reason other than to make the movie about 20 minutes longer. He says it’s because he doesn’t want to lose him, but there’s no reason to believe he would lose him once he found his grandparents at the bookstore. Part of the reason Rose being the grandmother is rendered baffling is because a large chunk of Rose’s life is left out of the story, and the two seem like completely different characters. Ben’s brother is the second character introduced in the entire movie, and we literally never see or hear from him again after the first few seconds.

Now, a few positives. Todd Haynes may be melodramatic, but he’s certainly a good director. He plays with some very clever concepts in the film, and does a lot with very little dialogue. My favorite part of the whole movie is the sequence where Ben and Rose have both just arrived in New York and are just exploring the city. There’s no dialogue, no plot or character development, but it’s a purely magical moment, something I was hoping to see more of in this movie. The kids are phenomenal (Have you noticed how all the child actors got really good all of a sudden in the past couple years?), and some of the adults aren’t really pulling their weight, but the focus is on the kids, and it really works. The potential romance between Ben and Jamie is probably the sweetest aspect of the film. Like I said, I really appreciated much of the soundtrack, especially the jazz-infused ’70s portion. There are parts where it seems to be throwing bells and whistles in to be quirky without purpose, but it’s still mostly captivating.

Still, I couldn’t give Wonderstruck more than a 3.8/10. It suffers from many of the same issues I found with Carol (a film I did generally like, to be fair), coupled with a godawful script and source material that really lends itself much better to one of Selznick’s visual novels than a feature film. I’d like to see these kids go places, and it’s always good to see Todd Haynes working, but this is definitely one you can skip.

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Review: The Weird Bear Movie — August 18, 2017

Review: The Weird Bear Movie

As promotion for Brigsby Bear started to pop up, what struck me about it, in addition to its star-studded cast and crew, was just how different it was. In an age where so many movies lay it all out for us months and sometimes years before they hit theaters, it was refreshing and intriguing to see a movie that no one could really get a read on. Clearly, the film was writer and star Kyle Mooney’s passion project, but what was it exactly? A sci-fi mind bender? A family drama? A flat-out comedy fitting its producers (the Lonely Island and Lord/Miller)? Either way, it quickly set itself apart as a must-see for me, and now that I’ve seen it, I can tell you it’s everything I hoped for and nothing like I expected.

I don’t want to go too in-depth about everything that goes on in the movie, because I think everyone should see it with fresh eyes. What I will tell you is that it’s not particularly funny. It has plenty of funny moments, sure, and it takes place in a world that’s rife with comedic potential, but it’s actually very grounded and emotional. If you’re expecting a gut-busting romp (which you probably shouldn’t be if you’ve seen the trailers), you’ll be disappointed. If you’re looking for a weird, beautiful, thoughtful movie, you’ve come to the right place.

The gist of the film, in the least spoilery way I can explain it, is that it follows Kyle Mooney’s character, James. He’s a young adult who was kidnapped as a baby and raised in a cultish environment by faux parents (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) who had him convinced that an apocalyptic event had rendered the outside world unlivable. Growing up, his only interest was Brigsby Bear Adventures, a propaganda series made exclusively by Hamill’s character for James. Obviously, once James is rescued and taken to his real family, he struggles to process his new reality, but becomes closer to reality and his new family as he produces a feature film adaptation of Brigsby Bear. 

All told, the movie is a celebration of creativity and fandom, as well as a thought-provoking commentary on how media shapes our understanding of self and the world around us. As the movie goes on, we start to see James as a conduit for Brigsby, and vice versa. He can’t become a complete individual until Brigsby’s story is complete, so he spends the movie running around putting the different pieces of Brigsby together, like an emotional treasure hunt. And in a very literal sense, each part of Brigsby brings out more humanity in James. A lost eyepiece brings him closer to his sister, tracking down an actress from the show helps him discover love and attraction, and recording the characters’ voices allows him to achieve closure with his kidnappers. The idea of a “spiritual quest” is as hackneyed and meaningless as they come, but the phrase describes this movie to a T.

And technically speaking, everything about the movie works. The sci-fi influenced score is captivating, as are most of the performances. Mooney’s work isn’t too much of a departure from what we’ve seen him do on SNL, but it fits his character perfectly. Mark Hamill is amazing as always. In terms of cast, this movie’s only crime is that it underuses some of its strongest names. Claire Danes is pinned as the perpetrator of James’ kidnapping, but her character is never explored. Beck Bennett gets about five minutes played completely straight. Andy Samberg’s character certainly feels necessary for the movie’s progression, but feels more like Samberg stepping out of the producer’s chair to push the plot forward than an actual character in the same world as everyone else.

Speaking of which, the movie’s world is on a bit of a peculiar wavelength. Like I said, there’s Lonely Island and Good Neighbor-esque comedy to the world, and the characters would easily fit in in a straightforward comedy, but everything’s played completely straight. You sort of need to be a fan of Mooney’s previous work, or at least in tune with it, in order to appreciate Brigsby Bear. If that describes you, make this movie a priority.

Brigsby Bear is a film that surprised and touched me, though it feels like a movie that’ll require some more deep thought before I can truly offer my opinion. It’s not the kind of movie I’d appreciate from most people, but Mooney, the Lonely Island, and Lord/Miller’s unique sensibilities and worldview make it stand out as one of the most mature, thoughtful movies of the year. For that, I give it a 96/100.

Review: Ape Escape — July 17, 2017

Review: Ape Escape

Who would’ve thunk that, in the age of adaptation, the best film reboot franchise of all time would be Planet of the Apes? The classic series has always had a compelling story behind it, and the original 1968 film made waves, but before screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver got their stinkin’ paws on it, the idea never really got the in-depth examination it deserved. Nowadays, the franchise is a critical and commercial juggernaut, consistently offering fascinating commentary, memorable characters, and phenomenal special effects.

The third film in this reboot series, War for the Planet of the Apes, is no exception. This is the first of the three to not be written by Jaffa and Silver, and admittedly, their loss is palpable at certain times, but the movie is just as riveting as the rest of them. The series’ star, Andy Serkis, delivers his finest performance to date, marking himself as a serious contender for the first actor in a CGI role to be nominated for, and perhaps win, an Academy Award. His human foil in the movie, Woody Harrelson, is just as phenomenal; his performance led me to ponder if Harrelson is one of the greatest actors alive. Of course, no one does comic relief better than Steve Zahn, who shows up in the film as an escaped zoo ape who speaks limited English and leads Caesar’s merry apes to Harrelson’s military compound.

The plot of the movie goes something like this: humans raid Caesar’s compound. The apes are victorious, but send the humans back alive as a peace offering. The humans don’t take kindly to this, and launch another raid on the base, killing Caesar’s wife and son. Now Caesar’s out for revenge, taking along three other apes and a mute human girl. After being captured by the humans, he seeks to kill Harrelson, but is haunted by the spirit of Koba and relents, seeking a route that won’t result in the death of his fellow apes. Among the human troops, Harrelson is a sort of god-king, and he believes that the apes will come to rise up and turn the humans into cattle if they aren’t neutralized. We’re entering into spoiler territory up ahead, so skip to the end if you don’t want to know what happens.

At the end of the movie, Caesar’s ape buddies prepare an elaborate escape plan. Harrelson, now suffering from the same ailment that made the girl and the abandoned soldier mute, shoots himself. Just as the apes are leaving, an opposing white-clad human force shows up and destroys the entire camp in a sea of explosions. An avalanche takes out those humans, but the apes survive by taking refuge in tall trees. They make their journey to a desert safe haven, and Caesar dies just outside of it. It’s a really touching and thought-provoking bookend for Caesar’s story, and he’s survived by his son Cornelius, who you may recognize as the lead ape from the 1968 film. How the whole world gets taken over in the lifespan of a single ape, I couldn’t tell you. But it’ll be cool to see where the series goes from here.

War is a thought-provoking movie in a lot of ways, but first and foremost, it’s an Exodus story, the humans being the Egyptians and the apes being the Israelites. The apes are enslaved by the humans and their god-king. The apes’ leader, Caesar (Moses), who is well-known among the humans and can speak their language, leads them out of captivity and to a “promised land,” but dies before he can enter the land himself and is succeeded by a close friend and confidante. Of course, there’s plenty more to think about here. Harrelson’s warlord is a textbook fascist who forces the apes to build a wall (on the California/Oregon border) to keep out his enemies. Caesar, Bad Ape, and the mute human girl bring up a lot of interesting ideas about communication and how people from different cultures understand each other. Practically every decision Caesar makes in this movie, or any of these movies, has a tremendous weight to it. He’s a pragmatic and elegant leader, but still a deeply flawed character.

I give War for the Planet of the Apes a 93%. Despite some minor narrative shortcomings, it’s just as profound and entertaining as Rise and Dawn, and immediately stands out as one of the best movies of the summer.

Hoo Boy: Despicable Me and Marxism — July 10, 2017

Hoo Boy: Despicable Me and Marxism

A couple weeks ago, Despicable M3 came out, and it introduced children to Trey Parker, killer ’80s music, and fundamental flaws in the Rotten Tomatoes rating system. For the rest of us, the movie didn’t offer much. After the monumental success of the last two-and-a-half movies, it got some prime movie real estate and has already made upwards of $450 million on a global scale, but saw a swift drop in revenue as soon as Spider-Man hit theaters. It also suuuuucks. It lacks the humor, compassion, and focus of the other two movies, replacing 95% of its actual humor with clever-isa ’80s references and the crude slapshtick that went over so well in the Minions movie. It also opened my eyes to the troubling politics of this franchise, which seems perfectly content to bait Marxist theorists, but only offers up contemptuous takes that people all over the aisle can be upset with.

Before we get into it, we should first examine other “villain movies” of Despicable Me‘s time. I’m not necessarily referring to movies from the bad guy’s perspective, but specifically films that take a classic villain or archetypal villain and play with our perceptions of good and evil through portraying them on a more personal level, Grendel-style. This seems oddly specific, but it was practically a bona fide trend in the early ’10s. Most notably, there’s the big three: Despicable Me, Megamind, and Wreck-It Ralph, all of which also happened to be animated kids’ movies (it never ceases to baffle me how out of these three, Despicable Me was the most successful by a long shot).

Now, the message of Megamind is a little hard to pin down, because it’s a surprisingly-nuanced film. The general theme is that archetypes of “good” and “evil” can’t exist unless they’re in constant opposition to each other. If you take this to represent the two-party system or class struggle, you’ve got a handy-dandy interpretation right there. There’s certainly ample evidence of the “villainous” Megamind representing the lower class and his foil Metro Man representing the upper. Each born on a dying planet, Metro Man gets a cushy upper-class upbringing, his solid-gold escape pod landing under a wealthy family’s Christmas tree and his powers being celebrated by his peers from a young age. From birth, Megamind is less privileged, given a smaller, shoddier spacecraft and being forced to share it with his friend and confidante, Minion. His craft lands at the Prison for the Criminally Gifted (subtle), raised by criminals, and becomes an outcast for his “dangerous” intellect. Oh shit, is that a critique of the prison-industrial complex as a tool of oppression in goddamn Megamind? Told you this movie was juicy. Later on in the movie, Megamind attempts to create a new hero, the hero becomes a villain, and he becomes a hero, i.e. the very thing that he fought against his entire life. Now that’s Marxist.

The theory behind Wreck-It Ralph is a bit simpler. In attempting to research it, I was delighted by monarchists decrying Vanellope’s throwaway line about democracy as an unnecessary, single instance of political commentary in an otherwise… pure movie? I mean, sure, it was unexpected (which is sort of the idea behind, y’know, jokes), but it’s not like it’s uncharacteristic for Vanellope and Ralph to embody democratic principles. Ralph is a marginalized minority who teams up with a disabled young woman to take down a tyrannical king and save the video game world from King Candy’s imperialism. It’s a pretty clear-cut liberal message that one ought to expect from Disney.

Looking at Despicable Me, if we want to consider villains a marginalized group as they are in the other two, it seems to fall left of Ralph, but not as far into Marxist territory as Megamind. Gru and his fellow villains are shown to exercise a sort of direct action, snatching goods and symbols of power from the upper class in an attempt to break down the corrupt society that keeps them in the shadows. Gru joins the Anti-Villain League in Despicable? Me Too!, ratting out his fellow villains and working on behalf of the status quo, but after being unjustly dropped by the organization at the start of D3spicabl3 M3, he and his upper-class wife become free agents pursuing justice regardless of who it favors. It doesn’t perfectly add up, but it seems like an okay answer, right?

Well, there’s one hole in this interpretation: the Minions. You can’t look a foot into the Despicable Me franchise without recognizing the Minions as a hateful, mocking portrayal of the working class. Where Megamind’s Minion is portrayed as the protagonist’s equal, the Minions are Gru’s fat, lazy, dependent, thoroughly incompetent and morally bankrupt underlings. Once you look at it from this angle, it becomes clear that the villains aren’t minorities; they’re governments. They exploit their disposable workforce for the purpose of petty one-upmanship and showy displays of strength, they borrow money and advice from Lehman Brothers to put their unpaid populace to work destroying the planet and building weapons of ever-increasing scale, and they do all this with reckless abandon right under the noses of watchdogs and civilians with no repercussions. And Gru’s not just the protagonist, he’s the hero. We’re constantly reminded that he’s a good guy and he’s a softie at his core and he helps get rid of the villains that are even worse than him so we should unequivocally support him. Meanwhile, the Minions are shown to be a primitive, lesser species, constantly seeking out a new master to oppress and exploit them, and speak an exaggerated pidgin language mixing elements of Spanish and English. Oh, in the third movie they do stage a strike… and it takes all of 20 minutes in a correctional facility for them to all realize they’re dependent on Gru and run back to him, perfectly content to work for no pay doing the exact opposite of what they were striking for.

It becomes clear that the message of these films isn’t anti-communist. It isn’t just right-wing. It seems like the Despicable Me franchise is specifically anti-poor people, which seems like a position we can all agree is pretty fucked up, right? It’s as baffling as it is unavoidable. The Minions are even the villains in their own movie, and Illumination Entertainment brings this message into reality by perpetually exploiting them for profit. They speak a wacky language, they all look the same, they defy gender norms, and make no mistake; you’re supposed to hate them. Sure, kids are supposed to giggle at their goofy antics, but adults are meant to find them detestable, vile, hard to even look at, let alone tolerate. And it worked, didn’t it? Of course, the likely truth is that Chris Meledandri, the multi-millionaire producer behind this franchise, only intended to be funny little yellow dudes the kids could appreciate while adults enjoyed the more mature humor littered throughout the film. He may have worked out some anti-working-class aggression in how he built the characters, which is still something that ought to be criticized regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, but it’d be unfair to go as far as to call the movies a deliberate piece of anti-Marxist propaganda. At best, they’re an accidental one.

Review: Wonder Woman v. Captain Underpants: Dawn of Summer ’17 — June 6, 2017

Review: Wonder Woman v. Captain Underpants: Dawn of Summer ’17

Technically speaking, the summer movie season kicked off in earnest in late May, following the consecutive releases of Alien: Covenant, Diary of a Wimpy Kid 4, Pirates of the Caribbean 5, and Baywatch. However, since all those movies flopped, we’re gonna go ahead and pretend that didn’t happen. So, the summer movie season kicked off last weekend with the release of two long-anticipated superhero flicks: Warner Bros.’ Wonder Woman and DreamWorks’ Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie. True, these two don’t have much in common, but they both star iconic heroes making their big-screen debut. How do they both hold up, against each other and on their own?

Let’s start with Underpants, the one I saw first. Based on the popular (and phenomenal) children’s novel series by Dav Pilkey, it follows two enterprising school-age funnymen who wind up hypnotizing their mean principal into thinking he’s a superhero from the comics they wrote, and then accidentally giving him actual superpowers. Also, he wears underpants.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Captain Underpants, even more than I was expecting. It distinguishes itself from much of the DreamWorks crop with really unique character design and animation. Of course, the animation is very tight, fluid, and fun, but it also isn’t afraid to look thoroughly cartoony where mainstream CG animation has recently tended towards realism. The comedy of the movie is a relatively even mix of potty humor and wittier stuff, but they cram as many jokes into this thing as possible, and a good amount of them hit. It also has a surprising amount of heart, and some truly emotional moments.

Next, there’s Wonder Woman. Directed by Patty Jenkins, it was interpreted by many as a last-ditch effort to save the DC Extended Universe, which has been marred by unpopular and underperforming releases thus far. Jenkins is said to have had much more creative control than DC directors Zack Snyder and David Ayer before her, and the film was screened for critics months in advance, although official reviews weren’t allowed to be released until several days before the film’s release.

I went into this one with a critical eye, knowing that the general consensus was that it was good and wanting to bring something new to the conversation. But it hooked me, and fast. I came out of it feeling that it was an unambiguously very good movie. It had the style and action I loved in Zack Snyder’s DC movies, but was scores better by virtue of not having its head up its own ass. The characters feel real, the structure is even, and it’s possibly the most cohesive superhero movie of all time. One could argue the romantic subplot was unnecessary (in this rare instance, I disagree), but it just fits into the rest of the movie so seamlessly. It feels like a complete, unilateral vision. It has a few flaws, of course. The origin story is rushed (I know we say we’re tired of origin stories, but we’ve never seen Wonder Woman’s before), Gal Gadot’s performance is a step above Batman v Superman but still at times one-dimensional, and there are serious inconsistencies with the Amazons’ knowledge of the outside world: Wonder Woman reads Socrates and speaks modern English, but has no concept of a gun or a penis or ice cream or fashion. It’s also less philosophical than previous entries in the DCEU, and while this can be seen as a positive (see: Granny’s peach tea), I was annoyed by the extent to which all characters in the movie, regardless of what species they were or what side they were on, was stuck on the idea that fighting and things that fight are inherently bad. And that mentality never changes. Sure, Wonder Woman comes to understand that humans are never simply good or bad, but she’s still laboring under the idea that fighting is some kind of mortal sin, an attitude seemingly shared by the rest of the Amazons, the entire Greek pantheon, and even the humans. Still, none of these took away from the overall experience of the film for me, which I felt was dazzling.

Now, pretty much every action movie in the present day is expected to, on some level, be a parody of itself, so a superhero comedy like Captain Underpants going up against a legitimate, even historically-significant film like Wonder Woman isn’t as much of a disparity as it once was, but it needs to be said that Wonder Woman is not a comedy. It’s more lighthearted than its predecessors, and has a lot of fantastical and heartfelt moments, but if you’re going into this looking for humor, you won’t find much. In fact, the closest classical classification for the film’s genre is actually that it’s a war movie. It takes place during World War I, and portrays some of the horrors of war with stark realism. Where Wonder Woman subverts tropes and roles of the superhero genre, Captain Underpants is an outright parody of it. The titular hero is a delusional man with no powers who’s made to believe he’s a character cooked up in the minds of two immature young artists. Captain Underpants needed to be faithful to the spirit of its source material, and did so beautifully. Wonder Woman needed to take the DC cinematic universe in a bold, strong new direction, and it also did so beautifully.

Both films get high marks across the board from me, though neither is without flaw. I’d give Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie an 86/100 and Wonder Woman a 90. I highly recommend both of them, but definitely see Wonder Woman first (which seems to be what most people did anyway, according to box office numbers). They signal a really solid start to what’ll hopefully be a great summer movie season, and ideally, a new dawn for both DC and DreamWorks.

Review: Who Will Watch the Baywatch? — May 28, 2017

Review: Who Will Watch the Baywatch?

I think it’s safe to say Dwayne Johnson is the biggest star in the world. He hasn’t had a movie flop since 2014’s Hercules, and that thing was impossible to sell. He’s graced the cover of just about any magazine you could name, he’s scientifically the most likable man alive, he’s the highest-paid actor, one of the most influential people, and Muscle and Fitness‘ “Man of the Century” (a bit early on that one, guys). So, if you wanted to make an over-the-top, grotesquely indulgent, action/comedy reboot of Baywatch, who else put Johnson to take the reins?

Of course, Baywatch suffers from a number of flaws straight out the gate. It’s an obvious cash-in, a blatant attempt to ride the wave of Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s 2012 masterpiece 21 Jump Street. The thing is, Baywatch isn’t really a premise that lends itself to a reboot as well as Jump Street does. Also, Seth Gordon’s a fine director, his documentaries are amazing, but he’s no Lord/Miller. Also, and this is the one that’s tough to swallow: Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill are much funnier than Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron. Sure, Johnson and Efron are hot. They’re really solid character actors. They’ve been in some great comedies. But they can’t carry a comedy themselves, and the film chose to really make them do the heavy lifting by filling out the rest of the cast with unknown and unmemorable actors.

One of the main problems with Baywatch is that it’s over-the-top, but it’s based on a property that was already over-the-top, and doesn’t necessarily go the extra mile. As a result, it’s always hard to tell whether or not it’s being serious. Is the dialogue meant to be this corny? Was that misogyny genuine or ironic? It doesn’t help that there are a handful of jokes in the movie so corny and cringeworthy that they wouldn’t have been out of place in the original show. With Jump Street, it was clear from the very beginning to the very end that the entire film was not meant to be taken seriously, and they stuffed it to the brim with some of the best comedic moments in film history.

So Baywatch is no Jump Street, but does it fly on its own? Eh. There were definitely a handful of genuinely funny moments, the plot was engaging enough, and I’ll say this: Seth Gordon’s strongest suit has always been cinematography. Some of the shots in this movie are incredible. Also, I don’t know who curated the soundtrack, but I want to go to their house party. There are so many great songs in this movie, and most of them fit with their scenes really well (“Everyday” by A$AP Rocky is a hard one to pull off, so I don’t blame them for floundering a little). Other than that, yeah, it’s not very good. They couldn’t even squeeze any good material out of Hannibal Buress.

For all it’s hit-or-miss attempts at humor, suffocating product placement, and tone-deaf delivery, I’m giving Baywatch a 34/100. It’s not hard to sit through, but when you really break it down it reveals itself as a real shit-show. If you were planning on seeing it and you’ve seen everything else, go ahead. But definitely don’t go out of your way for it.

Review: Tarantino Theater with Brie Larson — April 23, 2017

Review: Tarantino Theater with Brie Larson

Free Fire is a film that asks the question “Remember the climax of Reservoir Dogs? What if just that?” It came out of nowhere with eye-popping promotional material, boasts a number of upper-B-list stars, and has the hottest indie production company on the block behind it, A24 (Moonlight, Green Room, The Lobster, every other movie your film buff friends busted a nut over last year). So, how’d it turn out?

Well, I definitely appreciate its premise. As I said earlier, it’s essentially one big climax: Shots are fired in the first half hour and the gunfight continues until the last minute of the film. It’s a great premise for a bottle film, dropping you into a scene and letting you explore the characters and their stories as you find them stuck in a high-intensity situation in an enclosed space. It also works really well as a general Quentin Tarantino send-up, borrowing elements from Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, and even Hateful Eight.

There’s just one problem: Ben Wheatley is not Quentin Tarantino. A big reason of why those films are all so iconic is because Tarantino is A) a brilliant writer and B) a master of suspense. There are a lot of great laughs in this movie, but the dialogue is just not as captivating as it needs to be to carry a 90-minute film that takes place in a single room. The gunfight too soon becomes a dull hum of gunfire when you don’t even know the characters yet.

Luckily, it gets better from there. This is one of the few action movies I’ve seen where the action wears thin at the beginning and then, very suddenly, becomes captivating. You start to get invested. You root for people. You’re excited by new developments. You laugh, harder and harder each time. One of the bigger surprises of this film is Armie Hammer, who plays by far his most endearing role to date. Brie Larson doesn’t get as much time as she needs, but you still find yourself rooting for her. Sharlto Copley is hilarious as always. It’s really a film that starts out disappointing and only gets better and better. It has perhaps the best ending in film so far this year.

It’s a very mathematical crime movie that also manages to emotionally invest its audience. It’s not perfect, but I still appreciate it a lot. I’ll give it an 87/100. I’m sorry I haven’t been doing as many reviews as I’d like. I have some rather potent thoughts on Power Rangers and Fate of the Furious (they’re both excellent films) but I couldn’t punch them out at the time. Hopefully I’ll be in a more prolific mood some time soon.

Review: No Country For Old Mutants — March 5, 2017

Review: No Country For Old Mutants

The X-Men franchise is going through an interesting phase. On the one hand, their classic, monolithic main-series franchise is taking a morning dive into Shit Lagoon, with X-Men: Apocalypse performing underwhelmingly among critics, fans, and at the box office, along with no clear trajectory for the future. On the other hand, their solo films are all the rage, with Deadpool and now Logan making Disney-level money bins and already being considered among the best superhero films of all time. Deadpool has aged well so far, but is Logan up to snuff?

Well, it’s hard to say. It’s definitely an excellent film– in a filmic sense, it may be the greatest superhero movie of all time– but it also definitely has its flaws. It’s very long, and there are certain moments that could have been made a lot shorter without losing anything. The action, for all its intensity, gets reduced to lame slicing-and-dicing at times, an issue that also plagued the other two Wolverine movies. And even if she figured out how to drive, Laura’s eight years old. How can she reach the pedals?

Like so many great movies, Logan is hard to pin down. Wolverine being a superhero makes it easier, but he does a lot of things throughout the film that aren’t very heroic. He’s more of a Rooster Cogburn figure: ruthless, grizzled, and inscrutable. His Mattie Ross comes in the form of Laura, played brilliantly by newcomer Dafne Keen. So, is Logan a Western? Well, you can’t really say that either. It lifts a whole monologue from the Alan Ladd classic Shane, but it takes place in the future and spends as much time in the woods or the city as it does in the Western deserts. Is it dystopian sci-fi? Well, in a District 9 sense, perhaps. But its dystopian qualities and its sci-fi qualities are very subtle, spending much more times on the characters, their pasts, their futures, and their relationships than anything else. And to top it all off, it’s also a family drama, a road movie, a chase movie, and a neo-noir.

At the end of the day, the most true and poignant thing you can say about Logan is that it’s a film. In an age where so many action movies feel like properties, devoid of a beginning or end, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, the lesson we can learn from Deadpool and Logan and even Lego Batman is that a movie can take place in a grander universe, but it’s still best that they exist as self-contained stories. In this movie, there’s hope. There’s room for things to take place before and after it. But there’s no love interest, no resurrections and reintroductions, no winks or nudges, no reassuring “Spider-Man will return” to let the kids know their precious golden calfs are going to be okay. You never really know where it’s going to go because the next five movies haven’t been laid out for you in an itinerary. That’s what makes it great.

Overall, I’d give Logan a 98/100. It’s brilliantly written, performed, shot, directed, lit, and so many other things. Aside from a few scattered flaws, it’s practically perfect. I highly recommend you see it, even if you don’t like superhero movies.

Review: Every Important Movie Starts with a Black Screen — February 12, 2017

Review: Every Important Movie Starts with a Black Screen

The question has already started to come up: Is The Lego Batman Movie better than The Lego Movie? Obviously, we can’t find an answer until the former has had at least a few months to digest. By the time The Ninjago Movie comes out in September, we should have a pretty clear picture of which is superior (only to have it further complicated by throwing a third one into the fray). If I had to give my opinion right now, I’d say the original Lego Movie still reigns supreme, but I think there’s a more interesting question to start asking: Is The Lego Batman Movie the best Batman movie?

To be perfectly clear, I’m not trying to say Lego Batman is a better film than The Dark Knight or Batman Returns. Those two are among the best movies of all time and Lego Batman literally came out yesterday. But I really do think this movie is the best Batman movie: it handles the character and universe of Batman better than any of his other movies have.

See, superhero movies have a tendency to present their main characters, rather than looking at them. As a result, the heroes are hard to really see as people. They’re not characters, they’re brands. Icons. Silhouettes. What we see on-screen is closer to the Bat-Signal than Batman. And this issue is especially prevalent in Batman films, which is a shame because there’s so much to unpack with him.

Batman has probably been analyzed more than any other character in comics. His character and background make him the perfect candidate for psychoanalysis, feminist theory, queer theory, Marxist theory, you name it. And if you look into it, you’ll find thousands of articles on any of these lenses. So how come, in his films, does his psyche never get more complicated than “he hates crime because his parents are dead?”

The Lego Batman Movie tried to remedy this issue, and it succeeded so hard. Batman becomes so unlikeable in this movie that the computer running the Phantom Zone actually calls him a villain. He’s egotistical, a loner, a beacon of hypermasculinity who relies on the incompetence of the powers-that-be to let him live his heroic fantasy. But he’s still Batman. He still saves Gotham City constantly, he’s still incredibly strong and smart, and the film doesn’t fail to remind us of that. He’s a deeply imperfect character, and despite his arc, really only gets over one of his many obvious flaws by the end of the movie, but he’s still a hero.

Batman movies often dance with the question of “Which is really the alter ego?” This film doesn’t ask, but boldly insists that Batman is the real him and Bruce Wayne is 100% an alter ego. See, in this film, Batman represents the character, but also the franchise, and also also the audience. For him and, by extension, us, Batman  is an escape. He allows us to live out our basic, egotistical desires. We can save the day and still be loner shut-ins who take no responsibilities and eat lobster for every meal.

Look at Superman, voiced brilliantly by Channing Tatum. He’s everyone’s friend, always works in public and on behalf of the public, and effectively stops crime. It’s no coincidence that, even though the movie practically shoves in your face that Zod is in the Phantom Zone, when the Joker opens up the Zone during the climax and sets everyone free, there’s no sign of Zod anywhere. It’s to say that Superman, unlike Batman, is an effective crime fighter. And like Batman, we can’t stand that douchebag. We want Batman, the antihero, who revels in extreme, unhealthy, stoic masculinity and shirks all responsibility. Even at the very end of the movie, when he’s supposedly learned his lesson, he lets people change around him so he himself can get all the credit.

Of course, there’s a lot more to love about Lego Batman. It’s absolutely hilarious, the pacing is incredible, the animation is great (sometimes distractingly different from The Lego Movie, but from what I can tell this film is meant to take place in a different kid’s imagination, so I’ll excuse it). In addition to Batman, it brilliantly skewers the superhero movie in general. The other characters besides Batman (Joker, Barbara, Robin, Alfred) are also really in-depth and well-done. It’s probably the best film I’ve seen so far this year. I give it a 97/100.

Review: 20th Century; Women — January 21, 2017

Review: 20th Century; Women

Recently, I’ve come to realize more and more that there’s an entire generation of filmmakers running around inspired by Wes Anderson. Yes, many of Anderson’s tics have become downright synonymous with the indie genre, but as ol’ Wes himself has crept into the mainstream, his flock of followers has grown. Michael Cera and Jesse Eisenberg would not be where they are today without him. It’s hard to look at indie darlings of the past year like Pablo Larraín’s Jackie or Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster without feeling Anderson’s frail, weathered mitts all over them. In a somewhat reductionist sense, 20th Century Women is no different.

The film follows a single mother (Annette Bening) who also rents out parts of her house to two adults (Greta Gerwig and Billy Crudup). After multiple failed attempts at introducing father figures into her son Jamie’s life, Bening’s character Dorothea decides to turn to Abbie (Gerwig) and Julie (the boy’s friend, played by Elle Fanning), asking the two of them to help her raise him. It’s got all the stiffness, awkward dialogue, precocious youngsters, immaculate shots, and unconventional family dynamics that you’d expect from an Anderson picture, but writer/director Mike Mills also offers something a few steps deeper.

As unreal as the film feels at times, it also touches on some very real subjects. It’s interspersed with real moments from history. Abbie is recovering from cervical cancer and told she can’t have children. Julie believes she may be pregnant, but while her behavior through the film could easily be characterized as “sexual irresponsibility,” it’s actually a man’s irresponsibility that leads to this. Yes, the film also has very strong feminist themes. It doesn’t necessarily paint extreme feminism as the absolute right way, but it certainly encourages a feminist upbringing for young boys, especially straight, white boys. Mills has stated that the film is semi-autobiographical, being based on his own feminist upbringing.

In addition to all that, the film’s characters serve as potent metaphors for their respective generations. Dorothea, having been born in the early 1920s and eventually to die in 1999, is a literal 20th century woman. She represents the 1930s-40s, old-fashioned yet forward-thinking, feminist yet conservative. Hers is an era of depression and turmoil, but also discovery of both the self and the world. Abbie is a child of the 1960s, full of radical ideas and creativity, but also vulnerability and hubris. She takes every challenge as it comes, but falls to devastating lows in the process. Julie represents the kids of the 1970s, the same era as young Jamie. Infected with what Jimmy Carter elegantly dubbed a “crisis of confidence,” she goes to great lengths searching for an identity of her own, brought into a world of uncertainty, of unappreciated freedoms and unwelcome repressions. When she and Jamie go up north to find themselves, they lose each other, and need to look backward to Dorothea and Abbie to find their way. Crudup’s character is just sort of there. I think he’s supposed to be comic relief or something? He doesn’t add much.

20th Century Women is a great film. The silent moments of Bening’s incredible performance fill more space than most grand soliloquies, and Gerwig is practically unrecognizable as Abbie, a character I immediately fell in love with. I’d give it an A, but my general positivity has rendered my letter-grading system pretty much meaningless. From now on, I’ll try to grade things out of 100. In this case, 94/100. Also, proceeds from this film go to Planned Parenthood, so it may be worth seeing just for that.

My movie/album of the year lists are coming, so don’t worry.