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Is she with you?

Wonder Woman is good. Like, Marvel Phase 1 good. In fact, it owes such a massive debt to both Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor that the weird and often toxic fandom around DCEU and their obsession with being “better than the MCU” is even more ironic than usual. However, forgetting about those kinds of people as they so richly deserve leaves the question as to whether it should count against this movie that its creative team bothered to finally learn something from their wildly more consistent and successful counterparts at Marvel. I don’t think so. I think good superhero movies with actual shit to say is a tide that raises all the ships. I have given this current generation of DC superhero movies a lot of shit, we all have, but most of us still want them to be good.

And with Wonder Woman, there’s a glimmer of hope that they can be. People are looking for a fluke reason why Wonder Woman is good, like this success couldn’t be replicated without secret handshakes and spinning around in place an arbitrary number of times before sitting down to write the script or pick up a camera or whatever. It’s nonsense. This movie is good because it gives a shit and the people who made it give a shit. They aren’t embarrassed or cynical about this being a sincere story about heroism. They lean into it. On top of that, it’s probably one of the most if not the most culturally significant superhero movies there is. It’s embarrassing at this point, 10 years into the era of shared superhero universes, that we’re only now getting Wonder Woman. I will talk about Wonder Woman‘s feminism and its impact (including some similar ideas), but I also want to point my readers to a great piece by BMD’s Meredith Borders, who offers a nerdy woman’s perspective on the significance of this movie.

That all said, there are definite imbalances and flaws in the movie. I’ll talk about them below, but by and large this movie stands up well against the MCU, or I should probably say alongside it? Honestly, I don’t think many people would be able to make a meaningful distinction between MCU and DCEU properties using Wonder Woman as a basis. And I think that’s okay, but it may disappoint DCEU fans who are looking for something more distinguishing besides just beating Marvel to the punch on having a movie focused on a woman. Wonder Woman focuses on what works best for these kinds of movies: character, humor, symbolism, and heroism.

SPOILERS AHEAD Read the rest of this entry »

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A richly symbolic film.

The Neon Demon carries on the tradition of weird, confrontational Nicholas Winding Refn movies. After the success of Drive, which I think bothered and bemused him, he has made sure his next two movies are more like Valhalla Rising in that they are textured, visually arresting, and precisely constructed films that hold their audiences at arm’s length while tantalizing them with symbols, colors, clues, and scenes that feel like moving tapestries. If you didn’t like Only God Forgives it’s safe to say you probably won’t like this, but it’s that movie’s companion piece. As much as that one was about masculinity, The Neon Demon is about femininity. It has a lot in common with Black Swan at first glance, and probably would play as a great companion piece to The Witch (brilliant film) from earlier this year.

Even if you did like all his prior work, there’s still a chance you won’t like this one. It’s as ambivalent about plot and ambiguous about theme as it is disturbing, violent, and deliberately paced (in other words: episodic and potentially slow). This movie feels like an exploration, but also like a puckish practical joke which consistently sets up red herrings, expectations, and plot points only to veer hard in the other direction, often leaving elements resonating in symbolism and dying on the vine in terms of narrative. All the while, there’s a dark humor and awareness of genre conventions which plays out under the (perfect) skin of this film. Right up to the end, it feels like something(s) it probably isn’t. It feels like a movie made in the wrong decade, like something your parents had on VHS tucked away in the very back of the cabinet. If this sounds like something you’ll enjoy, NWR has a treat for you. Read the rest of this entry »

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Uh oh… ladies!

I’m probably risking a lot of bullshit by endeavoring to post a (mostly) positive review of Ghostbusters 2016, but what the hell. Let’s lean into it.

First, some context: For those who don’t know, this has probably been the most hilariously and disproportionately controversial movie release in recent memory. Hate has poured onto this project before even the first trailer, and the common denominator always seems to be the fact that it’s a reimagining where the titular ‘busters are women instead of men. Look, I get it. People like to see themselves represented in things, and men (especially white men) now have to share space with people of color, women, and even men who prefer to have sex with other men. Gasp! Ultimately, this is a good thing for society but try telling that to some people. In the end, though, I’d never go so far as to say that someone who saw the trailers for Ghostbusters and wasn’t excited, or gave the movie a chance and left disappointed, is necessarily some kind of closet misogynist. You are allowed to dislike this movie, but you’re also responsible for the reasons why you dislike it. If it’s on any level down to the fact that the Ghostbusters are now women, you need to have yourself a think.

As for the movie itself, it’s a pretty good time. It’s less brazen, more middle-of-the-road (with some notable exceptions) in its comedy and quirkiness than something like Bridesmaids. It feels more like a Marvel film due to its tonal balancing, which seems intended for mass appeal. It has the same sense of fun, embrace of the colorful and cartoony, and the same tendency to undercut cheese or melodrama with a quick witticism or sight gag. That said, it’s as confrontational as a big budget movie can be about its gender politics. Visually, which was a big concern apparently, there are sequences and moments in this film that are simply gorgeous, and though it never commits enough to its characterization to achieve much depth, it feels like a really solid first entry/origin flick that nicely introduces characters, a world, some ground rules, and room for more down the line. Read the rest of this entry »

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The sense of scale in this movie is often breathtaking, especially having seen the trailers where the immensity of it really is just teased.

Mad Max: Fury Road is a masterpiece, and will go down as an instant classic in a landscape that seems to produce fewer of them every year. This is a singular movie, the product of a revitalized 70 year old director who has seemingly lost no steps in the years between the unfairly maligned Beyond Thunderdome and now. If anything, Miller has raced ahead of pretty much anyone else making large-scale action epics. There’s a sense of the old school that prevails throughout Fury Road, not only in its consistent use of real stunts over CG, but also in the style of its action, performances, and storytelling. In spite of the heavy stakes and cruel acts of the villains, Fury Road never stops being vibrant, fun, and alive. It’s refusal to over-indulge the grim realities of its setting nicely underlines the the theme of hope that runs through the movie. All of this combines to create a mythic epic, the kind of movie that seldom gets made now packaged in what seems like something not even a little bit appropriate for that approach. The Mad Max films have always been back-pocket Westerns, and that still holds, but it’s also somehow an insane travelogue into a post-apocalyptic Wasteland that has loomed large in our imaginations for decades. But that isn’t even what is most astonishing or surprising or unlooked for in this film. It was always gonna be a post-apocalyptic action movie… but I don’t think anyone expected a feminist post-apocalyptic action movie.

And that’s what Fury Road is. And it makes no bones about that. It starts immediately, with the co-lead credit tags, and follows through into its ethos, in which the patriarchy doesn’t hurt just the women, but also the men. It grinds them up, makes them into savages, all at the behest of old white guys who try and hang on to whatever scraps of power and privilege are left even in a world of fire and blood. The women are our focus, because they are the ones most obviously and dramatically misused. The extremism of Mad Max has always been a reflection of stuff in the real world, like all good science fiction is, but my generation were too young to appreciate that when last this franchise graced our screens. But now, even at 70, Miller perfectly evokes the gender politics of today, where we are becoming more and more aware of not only the ways women are oppressed by unchecked patriarchy, but also how men are. Fury Road makes room for that element, rendering all the bullshit Men’s Rights (not even a thing) complaints utterly meaningless and obviously clueless. They’re just mad that Miller hired Eve Ensler, writer of The Vagina Monologues, to help him make sure the movie gave proper weight to the feminist themes and characterizations (what, he was supposed to hire Adam Baldwin?). It works like gangbusters, half because Fury Road is so confident and uncompromising about it. Just when you think it’ll satisfy itself with a badass female lead standing up against oppression and cruelty, the movie introduces the cheekily named “Vuvalini”, a tribe of female motorcycle warriors.

Anyway, that 90% Fresh rating on rottentomatoes.com is no fucking joke. I don’t care much for review aggregating websites, but I want to mention this because the hype is real this time. Fury Road deserves your attention, and it will reward you with one of the grandest visions of action cinema you’ve ever seen, and tons of thematic weight and subtext you might never have expected in a movie like this one. Fury Road embarrasses other action movies so much that I really hope it begins a revolution in how these movies are approached and made, teaching us again the value of verisimilitude, vision, and perhaps a little bit of madness. I think this is the kind of thing that comes along and inspires a whole generation of filmmakers and filmgoers, much the way that the audacity and strangeness of the older Mad Max films did. Read the rest of this entry »

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This could be a sort of emblem for a generation of single men.

Don Jon is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut. People love the guy, for all the right reasons, and this film will probably only make them love him more. Maybe not for all the right reasons. Some people are going to like this movie only by ignoring what it is saying to them.

With Don Jon, he has an agenda that not everybody is going to like. No one really wants to have their perceptions and attitudes held up in a mirror and then stripped away, even subtly as this film does it. That said, Don Jon is subtle enough with its criticisms of contemporary gender assumptions that I think a lot of people will miss the criticism altogether and feel they are watching a comedy about overcoming porn addiction. Of course, Don Jon could be described that way, but it’s got a lot more going on.

The film is really about indicting both sides of the issue. It’s a bit more interested in objectification, especially from the male perspective, but it makes plenty of room to share out the criticism with the ways women are also taught to categorize, ritualize, and finally objectify their male counterparts. Don Jon is not a preachy film. This is the reason why it is as good as it is. It’s got an easygoing attitude toward the subject, where the protagonist’s journey of self-discovery is subtle and incremental, but no less revelatory.

Gordon-Levitt brings us along for the ride with subtlety, humor, and a deft hand with the social criticism, never crossing over into hostility or judgmental tones. This is key to keeping the film appealing, especially to people who exhibit many of the same behaviors as the characters in the film. Behaviors which hopefully the film will show are worth rethinking.

Read the rest of this entry »

WARM BODIES

If nothing else, this movie will leave you a Nicholas Hoult fan.

Warm Bodies has sort of been marketed to the twee/Twihard crowd. Quirky hipster romance… with zombies! appeals about as much as overwrought, mentally unstable romance with zombies. Thankfully, Warm Bodies is not like that. The first clue that it’s more than just cashing in on the newish preoccupation with love stories about formerly scary monsters and insecure Mary Sues comes from, as usual, who made it. Johnathan Levine is this movie’s first and foremost not-so-secret weapon. You might remember a movie called 50/50 that made you cry. Yeah, he made that.

But really, this is Nicholas Hoult’s movie. After seeing his performance in this, I finally get why they fucking cast him in everything. He’s that good. And since the premise, let alone the conflict and resolution, of this story completely relies on his engaging the audience, it’s even more noticeably a big win for him.

In spite of what ridiculous “purists” are going to say about the idea of a zombie rom-com, Warm Bodies is fucking delightful. It’s tonally sharp, interested in the zombie apocalypse as a grand metaphor (been a while since we saw that shit), and charming like a stuffed penguin that maybe eats brains sometimes. Read the rest of this entry »

A new type of princess.

Pixar has done nothing for me since Up. I’ve never understood why people like the Toy Story movies as much as they do and the less said about Cars 2 the better. Now in what is a landmark moment that should have come a decade ago, Pixar decided to make a movie about women. Not only is Merida (Kelly MacDonald) the first female protagonist in a Pixar movie, this is the first time a Pixar film has focused on an exclusively female relationship: that of mother and daughter. Though destined to be a Disney Princess (another first for Pixar, getting a character into that vaunted club), Merida is a new breed. Gone is the tacit assurance that finding love and getting married is the apex of womanly existence. You have to hand it to Pixar: when they join a club, they aim to change it. Maybe this is because Brenda Chapman, getting credit both as a writer and director on the project, is a woman. She was the first woman to direct a major animated feature for a Hollywood studio (The Prince of Egypt). So there’s a lot of new ground being broken by Brave behind the scenes.

In terms of quality, well, Brave is every bit as good as the typical Pixar movie. It’s got the same beating heart beneath the action and comedy, the same simple but completely human themes running through its somewhat fantastic story. Above all, it’s really about relationships between people and strong emotions expressed through clear, confident storytelling. This is another one of those cases where they make it look easy over there. It’s got a little The Little Mermaid mixed into its DNA and I don’t just say that because half the characters are gingers. There’s the same narrative of the rebellious young woman only this time, it’s her mother and not her father she’s rebelling against. Add in some colorful secondary characters, a magic spell, and some danger and you’ve got a solid formula that, while not groundbreaking, allows everything about Brave that is groundbreaking to breathe. Read the rest of this entry »

The mirror is one of the creepiest elements of a frequently creepy movie.

So let’s talk a bit more about Snow White and the Huntsman. To me it is evident that the movie has feminist themes, if not intentions. There’s been a lot of talk about this and one of my friends has asserted that it undermines those themes. We haven’t had a chance to properly discuss it but so far he’s offered the Huntsman’s line “you look very fetching in mail” and the bits about “fairest blood” as evidence. I used that line for my review precisely because it isn’t undermining any feminist over/undertones and I’ll get to that a bit later.

Because the seed of the arguments for my position has become a mighty tree even in the absence of actually having an argument, I decided to write this as a way of exploring why I think Snow White has so much going on for it in terms of feminism and why it never actually cashes any of that in for cheap sexualization or whatever, like my friend asserts about that catchy line. Read the rest of this entry »

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