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Only gifs will suffice.

EDIT: I totally forgot to finish this review. Oh well, better late than never! Sorry if it’s kind of weak, though. This movie is out of my system now that I sit down to finish.

John Wick was a movie that I was pleasantly surprised by. However, I underestimated the pop culture impact it would have. I am super glad that it has also changed peoples’ minds about Keanu Reeves, who I’ve always liked, since this a movie that he’s so inextricable to that you couldn’t have one without the other. There are sly jokes about his career in both movies (including small roles and cameos for actors he has worked with in the past, in his most iconic roles) and it shows a bit of awareness that Reeves has consistently been an actor underestimated and underappreciated. For a long time, the most common grudging compliment was that at least Neo (The Matrix) was a role no one else could have played quite the same way, but I think that may be even more true of John Wick. When I talk about how inextricable this character is to Reeves, a good example would be his reputation as an actor that works hard, is incredibly focused, thoughtful, and committed. Who else does that sound like?

Anyway. John Wick was not a movie that demanded a sequel, but I’m glad it got one. One of the most surprising parts of that movie was the way it subtly hinted at its alternate world, lurking just in the shadows. It’s a world of stringent and ritualized codes of behavior governing the top echelons of global crime and the chess pieces that move within their world. The hints of this world, from the gold coins to the “neutral ground” of the Continental Hotel, were tantalizing and gave the movie something special. If anything, it’s the world more than the character that needed its story to continue. Though I’m sure it was tempting to blow the doors off for Chapter 2, writer Derek Kolstad and director Chad Strehelski wisely maintain the now-signature restraint and focus that reflects their anti-hero. Good stories are often fractals and it’s clear now that this is the way these guys are constructing one of the most exciting original cinematic franchises to come along in recent memory.

Chapter 2 doesn’t so much attempt to “top” the first one as refine it. This movie had a bigger budget, more locations, and a wider scope on the shadowy world Wick walks in and out of. What I think is most interesting about it, though, is that it doesn’t try to repeat the emotional beats of the first movie more than to remind us of Wick’s core motivations. Instead, it focuses on the stark philosophical ethos of Wick’s world and its globalized reach, with ornate parties and larger-than-life tribes, families, agents, and powers. It’s like a fucking vampire movie, really. And that isn’t to say that it’s got any explicitly supernatural elements, just that the tropes involving the power structure of its world are very reminiscent of vampire fiction in which ancient customs govern the affairs of equally ancient clans as they rule the world from the shadows. It seems that Kolstad and Strehelski really know what they are doing in terms of deliberately pacing their exploration of that world, keeping John Wick central at almost all times so that we experience the world as he does, as if we’re not strangers but have catching up to do. This shows that we’re in good hands as Chapter 2 ends with a major shift in their world and more tantalizing hints of what’s to come. Read the rest of this entry »

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One way to get free satellite.

So in anticipation of Diesel returning with another ridiculous but maybe good-hearted action franchise, I watched xXx for the first time since high school and saw xXx 2: State of the Union for the first time ever. I think most people (who give any shit) are surprised that Diesel has been so successful at resuscitating the key roles that made him famous. Maybe it’s because he didn’t wait a score of years to do it, like his action star predecessors have (and thus mostly failed). Maybe it’s because he has some talent as a producer and seems to be able to gather good people. I think a big part of it is that Diesel consistently has a lot of fun and wants to share the fun, both on screen and off, with all his fans. There’s something infectiously charming about the man, even when characters like Dominic Toretto and Richard B. Riddick don’t call for him to use much of it. Xander Cage, however, returning to a defunct franchise after like 15 years… well, that’s a different story.

xXx: The Return of Xander Cage is head and shoulders a better movie than either of the first two. It accomplishes this primarily by bringing in a lot from the Fast and Furious playbook, mostly in terms of building itself around a colorful ensemble of characters. It doesn’t quite work as well as, say, Fast Five did because it hasn’t had five movies to build a weird sort of following for even the most ridiculous and sketchy of its cast. The Return of Xander Cage mostly has the job of introducing a large, diverse, and kick-ass team which might pave the way for many more of these movies the way Fast Five did for that. Can Vin Diesel really be the core of two extremely similar relentless fun and stupid action franchises? Why the fuck not? I mean, his movies might be mostly dumb but they are consistently well made. Fast and Furious has a heart of gold and xXx has been weirdly infused with socio-political commentary in each of its three entries. I think what matters more than that, though, is Diesel seems to consistently be able to work with directors and writers who find the fun kind of stupid, and not the frustrating and insulting kind. I love action movies, and I love when the raise the bar to ridiculous new heights (which this one really does) and I appreciate not being treated like an idiot even though I am watching underwater motocross chases. It may be too subtle a thing for some people, but it’s a big part of the reason why I love most of the Fast and Furious movies and why I think I kinda loved xXx: The Return of Xander Cage. Read the rest of this entry »

8-6

Being a somewhat original historical action movie for people who really like skiing.

Yes. This. I am bringing back Friday Night Netflix, a very sporadic feature I used to do around the time I first started this blog. Back then I wrote these as a way to review movies I’d seen a bunch of times that I figured were underseen but easily available on Netflix. Now I’m expanding that to include movies I’ve never seen before, also easily available on Netflix, whether I like them or not. And no, Netflix doesn’t pay me to write these, but they certainly could and I wouldn’t mind.

Anyways.

For The Last King, a Norwegian and Irish co-production about an interesting period in Norway’s (very interesting) history… I guess I kind of liked it? It’s more like an 80’s buddy movie with delusions of historical epic than it is like a Kingdom of Heaven or even the show Vikings. The production is detailed and the action is coherent, but the story is about as straightforward and characters as archetypal and broadly sketched as an 80’s or early 90’s Schwarzenegger vehicle. None of this is bad, but wrapped in a package that lacks any particularly standout performances or “holy shit” moments, it might not be propulsive enough to hold the interests of people who can see a better version of basically the same stuff elsewhere on Netflix (The Last Kingdom for instance).

That said, this movie has some novel action (skiing fights!) and takes place in an unfamiliar setting. Norway and Scandinavia are usually explored in terms of the Viking era and rarely any other era. This movie takes place in the 13th century during a civil war period. You don’t really need to know much background, but this movie sent me down a wikipedia rabbit hole of Norwegian history so hey, interesting stuff. Read the rest of this entry »

I was really tempted to do a Top 16. But no. I have a pretty large Honorable Mentions list (as per usual) and a lot of hard cuts were made so I’m going to maintain the tradition of just 15 movies.

Here’s the 2015 list, by the way. And this year’s Worst list too.

2016 was a year of collision. Not only in the broader culture, but in the stories we’re telling and how we’re telling them. The two most consistently good subsets of films were diametrically opposed genres: horror and adventure films ostensibly aimed at kids. There were a lot of horror all-timers this year and they make up a third of my list. There were also a lot of kids’ movies that just worked for people, even when they didn’t work for me (The BFG or The Little Prince). The ones that I loved, again making up a third of this list, are also all-timers.

This is also the year where the WB wrongly doubled down on the grimdark of their comic book movies, while Disney showed us all how to actually be dark without being stupid with, of all things, a Star Wars movie. For a lot of people, 2016 is characterized not only by a measurable uptick in conflict but also a lot of  darkness. But I think one of the reasons why I responded so much to both horror and lighter fare is because the contrast reminds me that the collision between horror and hope is kind of what it’s all about.

I think the movies I loved most were about finding yourself (from Pete’s Dragon to The Handmaiden), which seems trite, but each one meditated on that struggle and showed, in different and equally powerful ways, how who we are and what we do comes from finding and loving and being true to ourselves. I’ve been thinking about my life a lot this year, mostly because I’m on the cusp of the elusive “career” that most people hope will give their lives some definition and structure (working toward this is why there are so few reviews on this blog now). As a result, I’m thinking about the balance and trying to find it — maybe more than ever. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I like to think that we all are, as a civilization and as individuals, especially now.

The usual disclaimer:

I acknowledge that this is a subjective list. Trying to objectively compare the quality of any of these movies, one to the next, is impossible. It’s apples and oranges. You can like one movie more than another easily enough, but it’s far more difficult to make a case for why one is better whether you like it more or not. For me, writing film criticism has most often been about trying to get at those qualitative things that exist in spite of personal preferences, it’s about trying to be objective in an arena that is usually assumed to be subjective. It’s about not conflating what I like with what is good, to the fullest extent possible. My Top 15 lists are not about these things. They are about ranking my favorite movies, about summarizing the year, and about taking stock.


Read the rest of this entry »

It’s that time of year again, friends. Check here for the 2015 list.

As always, my list is half a “most disappointing” list and half a “these movies are truly awful shit” list. I didn’t see that many bad movies in 2016, the first half of which was overloaded with small good movies and big bad movies. I struggled to make ten which either means I am getting softer as I age or I’m just not seeing enough movies anymore.

2016 has been a dogshit year for most things, but not for cinema. It’s been one of the busiest years of my life, though, which is why these lists are harder than usual. Ever since I went back to school I’ve had less time to commit to hobbies that require a lot of energy… this blog counts, believe it or not! As a result, I’ve written fewer reviews and if writing is memory than there are just way too many gaps in my memory of movies I saw this year.

Oh well. Read the rest of this entry »

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The most beautiful movie of 2016.

I saw Pete’s Dragon and Kubo and the Two Strings within a day of each other and they were wonderful companion pieces. Both films represent the very best in movies for kids, even as they give the adults tons of thematic richness potentially too complex for the kids to fully understand. They’ll feel stuff that stays with them, that they won’t recognize as coherent until long after its taken root. That’s the power of movies like these.

I have been a fan of Laika since Coraline and I would argue that ParaNorman is a masterpiece… but Kubo and the Two Strings blows all their other work out of the water. This is a movie that bleeds ambition, beauty, confidence, and grace. Every frame is a work of art and the kind of spectacle that will leave you scratching your head when you realize just how much of this movie is stop-motion with paper dolls and puppets. In Laika films, CGI is used only to enhance and to give backdrops, but you will have a hard time believing that.

Kubo is one of the best adventure movies since The Lord of the Rings, featuring the same tropes of quest narratives that are so well established but also very much taken for granted. It’s also heavy in a way that might surprise you. More even than Pete’s Dragon, which has an indie movie softness of tone, Kubo presents moments of powerful emotional weight that are punctuated by wonder, happiness, and humor. This movie is so well realized that it’s almost shocking how good it is. 2016 has been kind of a dismal year for films, but kids’ movies have consistently been great and Kubo is the best of them.

SPOILERS WILL NOT MAKE THIS MOVIE BETTER Read the rest of this entry »

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The film is gorgeous. Often jaw-droppingly.

The first indicator that Pete’s Dragon had the potential to be something special was the hiring of David Lowery, whose previous film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a moody, slow, and Malickian drama that was critically acclaimed and underseen. I saw it just prior to seeing this, and the contrast reminded me of Spike Jonze and his masterpiece, Where the Wild Things Are. I don’t know if Pete’s Dragon is as sophisticated and singular as that film, but it’s definitely just as powerful and perhaps more so for its accessibility. Though it never talks down to kids and deals with some very difficult subject matter, Pete’s Dragon maintains a safer overall approach. But I was reminded of the way Where the Wild Things Are, which to me is the gold standard for sophisticated movies about and for kids, weaves wonder and drama together into a relatively daring emotional core.

I dare you to feel nothing in the opening minutes of Pete’s Dragon. This is a movie, like the kids movies I grew up with (Land Before Time and The Neverending Story come to mind), that is unafraid to be as sad as it is happy. Whenever the movie could veer into a bouncy, safe, and condescendingly “kiddie” version of a sequence, it refrains. Lowery keeps the movie grounded even when you’re watching a giant CG dragon splashing in a stream. These scenes definitely owe a debt to How to Train Your Dragon but the association is a positive one, helping the audience to completely buy Elliot and his puppy-like behavior. This is key because where many films of this kind would under-utilize the “fantastic” elements, like big green dragons, and focus instead of human drama and safer, more familiar scenes and characterizations, Pete’s Dragon spends only the amount of time on that stuff as is needed to serve the story and its emotional, thematic beats. If anything, some characters could have used more time, but overall it’s a good thing that the film keeps its focus centered on the dragon and his boy.

SPOILERS WILL FOLLOW. PLEASE SEE THIS MOVIE, THOUGH.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Oh look, a trainwreck.

Let’s just get this out of the way really quick: Suicide Squad is mostly dogshit but there are a few moments where it firmly enters genuine “so bad it’s good” territory and other moments where it’s trying so goddamn hard to manipulate you into feeling something that you just wanna say “good job, little guy” and give it a pat on the head. There’s even a few moments that feel earned, where the glimmer of a better movie is almost visible. But mostly it’s dogshit.

Why? God, where do I even start. It’s a music video of loosely connected moments, an insultingly hackneyed plot, and poorly constructed characterizations which are usually good for a laugh or an incredulous “what the fuck?” but rarely more. There’s also that it’s the most smugly, overtly misogynistic mainstream movie I’ve seen in a long time. May our inner fourteen year olds cheer. I mean, there’s definitely an audience for this. The anti-PC crowd will eat up every utterance of “bitch” or “ho”, every sexed up costume and variation on “women be crazy“. I already know from the audience I saw it with that women getting punched in the face at the drop of a dime is just delightful. Your faith in humanity will not be well served by Suicide Squad audiences, but that’s nothing unusual. More than the overall quality of the movie, I was surprised by the misogyny. I like David Ayer. FuryEnd of Watch, and Training Day are all fantastic films. But his aesthetic is “street” and here it is the kind of street evoked by youtube gangsta rappers who are trying too hard. Likely, this is where the unaddressed misogyny comes from: it’s part of the assumed iconography of “street” culture where there’s men and there’s bitches or hos or bitch-hos. I think the script of Suicide Squad says a lot about what he and the other creatives for the DC movieverse think about the fans of these stories and characters, though. I think instead of whining to critics (or threatening them) or trying to sue because Joker isn’t in the movie enough, these fanboys ought to vote with their dollars (and their attention) and give WB a reason to stop hiring people who think so little of them. Of all of us, really.

Anyway, yeah, Suicide Squad is really bad. Is it worse than Batman vs. Superman? I don’t know. Do you compare dogshit to catshit very often? They’re two of the worst superhero movies in recent memory, I can tell you that much. And yet. And yet, Suicide Squad is also a fascinating watch. I was never bored. Very much like the first viewing of a Michael Bay Transformers movie, I was kind of transfixed (and yes, entertained) by what I was seeing and hearing. Sometimes I could not believe the movie and other times I was almost on the hook for a heroic moment or a badass line. I think it’s fair to say I was never “with” this movie, and my enjoyment was almost always at its expense. This movie might have had something, but it’s like watching Jared Leto play hot potato with himself for almost two hours. Or like an episode of The Venture Brothers that wasn’t trying to be a parody. Read the rest of this entry »

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Ohai Fran Kranz!

Netflix is kicking ass and taking names, quickly becoming one of the biggest names in entertainment and probably one of the more trustworthy in terms of content and accessibility. Lately, they’ve been on another run of amazing original content including the masterpiece Stranger Things and are preparing to shower us with even more riches in the back half of 2016. As you can see, I’m a big fan of what they’re doing as a business and the content they are putting out there. But mostly, it’s their TV shows that I tend to be most interested in. I rarely watch their original movies, but that’s more down to missing the marketing. I did manage to catch the trailer for Rebirth, from writer-director Karl Mueller (who wrote the vicious apocalyptic movie The Divide).

Rebirth starts out as a tense thriller that deals with cults. Eventually, it becomes something much more than that but it’s the kind of thing that is kept so far back in reserve that I think there’s bound to be some misgivings over expectations not being met with the movie. Warning a potential viewer that it’s not exactly what it seems is probably a good thing. It’s definitely not a horror movie, for example.

Because it’s readily available, you should check out Rebirth if you have a Netflix subscription. It’s a movie that I don’t want to spoil for people before they watch it, so I don’t think you should read my review unless you’ve seen it or just don’t care about spoilers. Read the rest of this entry »

jason-bourne

Whoa Matt Damon, you looking grim.

I am a huge fan of the Bourne movies. Never read the books, never cared to, but always liked the energy and aesthetic of the movies. They are muscular, spartan, and relentless. But what happens when an ill-advised pseudo-sequel is poorly received and prompts a “return to form” sequel a few years later, bringing back an aging lead and the series’ best writer-director? You’d think that it would be triumphant. Putting the “Bourne” back in Jason Bourne.

Unfortunately, if that was their goal, they were maybe a little too zealous. The problem with Jason Bourne isn’t that it returns to the titular character. It isn’t even the “shaky-cam” (I fucking hate that term) aesthetics of Paul Greengrass. It’s that the movie is so hell-bent on reconstructing the formula it developed over three great movies that it forgets to really do anything else, other than trotting out some story tropes that really don’t belong as a way to make the drama “more personal”. It doesn’t really work, so we’re left with a Bourne movie that is definitely what it says on the tin, but manages to make the series feel formulaic and kind of tired. It’s missing the special symmetrical magic of Ultimatum which is really where they should have stopped making these movies.

That said, there’s still enough of the old magic in here for the movie to skate by more or less. In other words, if you’re expecting a Bourne movie then you’re going to get one. Every box is checked: car chases, improbable escapes, improvised weapons, and an “Asset” hot on Bourne’s trail. If you’re willing to settle for the formula, Jason Bourne will be just fine for you. However, I wanted a little more than “just fine”. I wanted a movie that maybe expanded its world or gave us a reason to follow Bourne back into the fray. Instead, the world is shrunk down and made insular by focusing too much on Bourne’s backstory and not enough on where he goes from here. Read the rest of this entry »

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