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Space dragons? Space cannons!

The lingering question of Kin is how they got all these name actors to do the movie. It had a modest budget, to the tune of $30mil, yet features some surprising performers. Let alone a score from Mogwai. The question isn’t raised by it being a terrible movie. In spite of the dismal reviews and it not doing so well at the box office, Kin is surprisingly good if you don’t expect too much ambition from it.

The two things to know about it going in are that it is basically a love letter to James Cameron, especially the Terminator films, and that it can sometimes feel like the two stories its trying to tell are too far apart. I think it’s a fair criticism to say that the science fiction elements of Kin can sometimes feel like an afterthought. That said, it feels true to the kinds of movies that it most resembles. Movies from the 80’s that told fairly humble stories with other-wordly fun at the margins. Mileage will vary big time on whether you still care by the time the movie lets the cat fully out of the bag. Honestly, Kin is the kind of movie I would have grown up watching and loving, even if I realized later that good is the best it ever gets. It’s a story about brothers made by a couple of brothers so if that’s your cup of tea, this movie might not feel as under-cooked as it will to those primarily here for the gizmos and doodads.

I AIN’T NO KIN TO SPOILERS

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A movie about wearing power armor and fighting space dragons. No, I am not kidding you.

Beyond White Space is part of the recent wave of low-budget science fiction films that seem to pop up out of the earth like beautiful mutant plants. They are often only passably written and acted, but usually feature some pretty cool concepts, effects, and specific scenes. Beyond White Space is typical in those regards, with the kind of hook that is plenty for huge nerds but probably not all that enticing for everyone else.

At its best, it’s a cool take on Moby Dick (and not even the weirdest I’ve seen) that features the 80’s retro-futuristic aesthetic of 70’s and 80’s space movies (particularly Alien or Silent Running). At worst it’s a half-baked collision of ideas and situations that don’t quite work or come to a particularly cohesive whole. It’s got a lot of chaff, in other words, but the effects and concepts are impressive enough to help a viewer like me get over the jank. It frequently looks and feels like director Ken Locsmandi and his crew get stuff about cool science fiction technology that most Hollywood movies ignore. “Power Armor” is a classic slice of tropes and iconography that isn’t featured often in movies. Same with giant semi-mystical space fauna! Read the rest of this entry »

In 2017 my Top 15 list was a little lackluster because WordPress ate it. Gone were the colorful commentaries and pictures I like to include with my rankings. Instead, I left a boring straight list and a recording on soundcloud of me saying the things I had written.

More or less.

This year, no such issues. Knock on wood. But I am writing this in 2019 so let’s call it the first test to see if this year will be way less shitty off the hop. I wrote and published last year’s list on January 2nd and the incredible frustration of losing my work should have been an augury written in the guts of an indifferent internet. For much of 2018, I wasn’t really going to the theater or seeing movies as they came out. I was broke, a bit listless, and focusing a lot on other hobbies and interests (for example, I wrote half a dozen short stories last year). But I did miss writing this stuff and I wound up becoming a regular contributor at sirrwaka.com a couple of months ago on the strength of the reviews I have been writing for over ten years. My new stuff is available over there, where I contribute one review per week. It’s a different style so I encourage you to check them out especially if you’re not big on spoilers or don’t have the time to read thousands of words of analysis about superhero movies or whatever. That said, I will also keep writing longer form reviews on this blog, though I won’t be reviewing the same movie twice. If you find me on twitter @evantoddmccoy, you can see links to new entries here and links to reviews and other articles on sirrwaka.com.

Oh, and there’s also the podcast! Sirr’s Movies is a new podcast where I’m the co-host with Sterling Woods, owner and editor of sirrwaka.com. We’re still figuring out our flow and format, but there are a few episodes out including an end of the year wrap up. That episode has my usual lists cut down to 5 Worst and a Top 10 instead of the usual 15. You can listen to it here. The podcast is available on itunes, spotify, and many other platforms so please follow that if you’re interested in more in-depth discussion of movies I’m seeing.

Without further ado, let me offer 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.

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Good movies, bad movies, endless movies from the endless year. 2017 was a shorter year, wasn’t it?  Here is the list from that long ago time.

Another new thing this year is that I’ve joined a podcast recently and since the timing worked out, we just posted a year-end wrap up episode that will include me talking about the bottom five in this list. If you don’t like reading or just want to check if I am consistent between mediums, give that a listen here.

As always, my list is half a “most disappointing” list and half a “these movies are truly awful” list. I could have included stuff like Netflix’s The Open House or teen horror bullshit like Truth or Dare but nah, wouldn’t even really be fun to talk about those. I also would have included the abysmal A Wrinkle in Time if I’d seen it in time, but so it goes. This was a year with some surprises, though, including that this is the first year in a great many where there was a Transformers movie but I didn’t include it on the list. Not only was 2018 an obnoxiously long year, it was also pretty weird. There were a lot of great films, but also a lot of terrible ones. I think this is the first year in a while where I made cuts to my Worst list. That doesn’t usually happen and as much as I enjoy tearing into a bad movie, I’m usually relieved about not having to consider extending the Worsts to a 15 list. There have even been years where I’ve considered dropping this list altogether, but I think it’s still too fun.

It’s also worth noting that several of the movies on this list are Netflix releases. I don’t really subscribe to the notion that Netflix has a lot of editorial concern about the kinds of movies it releases. I don’t think there’s any such thing as a “Netflix” movie. They’re just a platform that, due to the simplification of attribution in critical responses, people treat like a conventional studio or publisher. They’re more like a venue, so adding their role in the context of a release’s evaluation is like basing a review partially on seeing something at a Cineplex vs. a Landmark. Most critics don’t bother talking about venue for good reason. So while I’m noting that there are a lot of Netflix releases on this list, I don’t think it means a whole lot. I had twice as many in the running for my Top 15.

 

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This is a movie where magical colorful stones… well, we’ve come a long way.

I’m not going to waste your or my time talking about the achievement of the MCU after ten years and eighteen movies. That’s been well documented elsewhere. The Avengers: Infinity War is like the first of a two-part season finale for the biggest TV show on the planet and that does make it hard to review without cataloging all the previous seasons and episodes. A retrospective on the MCU might be in the cards for me sometime (this summer maybe?) but I’m not going to do it now when there’s so much to say about this movie.

The most important thing is whether Infinity War brings the goods, but at the same time this is peak MCU and you probably already know what to expect on that level. That baseline level of quality, which the MCU redefines every few installments, makes it even more appealing to focus on minutiae like who we think is gonna die and which character got exactly what amount of screen time and why that might be. So yeah, the quality level is high overall and you’re going to be pleased unless you fixate too much on that kind of ancillary stuff which drives so much of the 24/7/365 hype cycle we too quickly indulge. This results in a lot of nitpicking and wrong-headed “analysis” masquerading as legitimate takes or criticism. I’m not saying “turn your brain off”, because I never say that. I am saying that people should make sure they understand what dramatic stakes are before they cite that as a critique.

Interestingly, especially for the MCU haters, Infinity War is also the epitome of the MCU’s willingness to set up and then subvert expectations. This is a delicate game to play with fans who will spend hours gobbling up even the most minute details, debating theories and betting on likelihoods, and just basically obsessing about a movie like this one. That game is delicate because some of the backlash comes from that very subversion. People often fixate on what they think they want, leaving them disappointed or even offended (which I think is ridiculous) when things don’t go “their” way. The people behind the MCU understand the intersection of media and instant gratification they are grappling with, so they seem to occasionally pull a trick. The Mandarin of Iron Man 3 or even the tone and pace of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 show a willingness to misdirect and subvert expectations. Infinity War has been utilizing misdirection practically since Day 1 of the marketing push. The movie itself is full of clever and occasionally subtle subversions. I appreciate this kind of thing, because it shows that the Russos and the rest of the team are wise enough to be aware of how certain things are going to come across, especially with a movie that we’ve been looking forward to this long. In the end, it’s that willingness to surprise that makes Infinity War worth the wait.

INFINITY SPOILERS Read the rest of this entry »

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In case anyone forgot what this means.

A Quiet Place is probably going to be one of the more overrated movies of the year. It’s getting rave reviews, lots of positive word of mouth, etc. But it doesn’t really deserve all that. It’s not terrible by any means, but it’s no slam dunk and is not at all an “instant horror classic”. They said the same shit about It Comes at Night and as trite as that one turned out to be, it was still better than this (owing mostly to Chris Abbot). Hell, Signs was better than this and if it was going to take three writers to basically rewrite Signs, they really should have made sure their movie was a step up.

I say this because once you get past the uniqueness of the situation in the movie, there’s not much left to chew on. This wouldn’t really be a problem if the remainder wasn’t a series of increasingly stupid contrivances that sap the integrity of the story, which is too simple and sentimental to carry it through that. I think this is a writing and structure problem which becomes readily apparent when the third act kicks in and A Quiet Place becomes a very loud, relentlessly “scary” place. You see the creatures too much, drawing the same uncomfortable comparisons to other stuff (Stranger Things in this case) that many of the plot points do to Signs or even Hidden. There’s also that the movie stops following its own established rules, acts like spinning out a reveal that was contrived from the get-go is cathartic, and so on. It becomes laughable and I found myself chuckling through a lot of the last twenty minutes or so. I’ll remind you that I’m here for horror movies, even dumb ones, and A Quiet Place needed to be especially dumb and inconsistent for me to react this way.

I expect that there’s going to be a lot of big buzz about this early on, and then a quieter reappraisal of the movie as “just okay”. It’s too bad, because I really liked the first half and was able to buy into the simplicity and sentimentality of the story up to a certain point. I was worried about the characters and there were several very effective scenes early on. There’s also a lot of quieter moments in the first half, building up some scraps of intelligent world-building that the movie could have used a lot more of.

A SPOILERS PLACE

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Been a fan for a while, glad to see this kid breaking wide.

Spielberg isn’t a master because he managed to turn a mostly terrible book by Ernest Cline into a mostly good movie. He’s a master because he managed to keep this masturbatory, self-congratulatory and self-referential engine of self-promotion from being a nonstop cringe-fest. I don’t know how he did it. Scholars will study Ready Player One to unlock the mysteries of director’s making movies that are really just nonstop commercials for the 80’s and themselves (at their peak) and this somehow being… fun? Even if this is the only time it ever happens, it’ll be fascinating to look back on Ready Player One a few years from now as a wash of projects try and fail to ape this or that aspect of its success.

I expected Ready Player One to be better than the book by sheer virtue of being a movie. I think it stumbles over some of the more difficult aspects of adapting a book as expository as this one, resulting in an overly-expository movie that doesn’t dot every i or cross every t to quite the extent it could have. But in general, it boils down the trashier and more wheel-spinny aspects of the novel into simpler, essential elements that are at once surprising in their lack of cynicism and cheerfully cheesy in the way that Amblin movies usually have been.

I don’t buy everything Ready Player One is selling, not by a long shot, but it’s hard to deny that Spielberg knew exactly how to give such a broad cartoon enough oomph, crunch, and basic emotional depth to keep it from being just a commercial. It’s no Lego Movie, though, and has a pat, old man’s ethos which I’m sure will turn off the more astute and socially aware audience members. Especially those who aren’t pacified by repetitive inclusions of video game or comic book characters bought and paid for by huge corporations like Activision and DC much like ad-space on a NASCAR track. There’s probably a greater portion of the audience that will respond to the pandering in exactly the way they’re intended to, but I hope this very obvious ploy can be looked past so that Ready Player One is understood as deeply self-contradictory along with all the other ways it revolves around itself. The list could get longer than it already has. It’s a testament to Spielberg’s raw ability as a filmmaker that this doesn’t sink the movie, that the specific scenes and nuts and bolts storytelling are strong enough to rise above the emptiness at the heart of it all.

READY SPOILERS MANY

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I am the fish man what doesn’t fuck.

So I should have had this review up last night (when it was Friday) but I went and saw Ready Player One and missed my window. Still, felt the need to write about The Titan partly because I won’t be writing about two other mostly bad Netflix movies I’ve seen recently: The Cloverfield Paradox and The Outsider. I know there’s been this narrative going lately about how Netflix is way more about quantity than quality, and they’re greenlighting or acquiring a lot of mediocre movies, which is sullying their brand. There’s also the disruptive element of their presence in the marketplace which forces the big film institutions like the studios, theater chains, and even Cannes to react to them in childish, market-driven ways while hiding the reality behind lofty, vague assertions of cinematic purity. I’m still here for Netflix and yes, I do believe they deserve awards consideration at both the Oscars (for whatever little that’s worth) and Cannes.

But none of that makes The Titan a good movie. It certainly won’t change any minds about Netflix’s sketchy standards. The main issue with this one is that it’s pretty interesting for about the first forty minutes only to abandon all sense and credibility for one of the worst third acts I’ve seen recently. Interestingly, the problems in The Cloverfield Paradox and the wet fart The Open House were similarly silly, broken departures from whatever elements were working beforehand. There’s probably room for a great deal of discussion around the prevalence of broken, shitty second acts in major Hollywood genre movies versus the nose-dive third acts of smaller, mid-budget movies of the type Netflix seems to love picking up. This won’t be that, but maybe keep it in mind as we roll. Read the rest of this entry »

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They know what y’all are here for.

All right so we all know that I fucking loved the first Pacific Rim. I’ve grown to love it even more than I did when I first wrote that review. I think it remains a severely underrated movie. Everybody overstates the dumb Saturday Morning cartoon of it all and understates the, at the time anyway, very refreshing themes and story progression. Heroes who see the world falling apart and don’t “resist the call”. People from all over the world getting together to fix a big problem that’s been insufficiently addressed. The analogies weren’t and aren’t hard to spot. They aren’t hard to spot this time around, either. This is a movie that is even more directly aimed at kids than the first was, and boy was it. Pacific Rim: Uprising ups the ante by having a significant portion of its secondary cast actually being kids, which while waving away the specter of child soldiers also feels more right given the genre origins of this movie. In the anime, cartoons, and video games that Pacific Rim owes so much to, the heroes are always teens rather than washed up 20 or 30-somethings.

But in general, Uprising gets really close to being at least as good as the first while never quite being able to make it stick. The direction is fine, Steven S. DeKnight really showing he can handle something this grandiose. There were four writers on this, though, and I’ve spoken often about what a bad sign that is. This means the movie we get is cobbled together out of several drafts and none of them quite cracked it or managed to make the movie totally cohesive. Instead, it feels like a headlong rush through too many plotpoints and character arcs, many of which are resultingly underserved. I liked the kids and I liked what the movie was trying to say about the fate of the world resting in the hands of a new generation. Too bad the test audiences probably liked John Boyega and Scott Eastwood more. There’s an unfair criticism being made, by the way, about the “focus group” visual nature of this movie. Lots of people have been dismissive of it as looking too much like Transformers or the recent (and decent) Power Rangers movie. Thing is, all of these giant colorful robot properties are echoing the same basic influences. Mostly from anime. It shouldn’t surprise people that they look somewhat alike any more than it surprises people that most first-run superhero movies are origin stories.

Flawed though it may be, Uprising is often delightful. It’s silly, even sillier than the first one, but feels a lot more in on its own fun. This manifests everywhere from Boyega’s loose, charming performance to the color palette and emphasis on daytime fights (night fights being a common criticism of the first movie’s visuals). The story might give you whiplash with its parade of reversals, last minute saves, and contrivances… but ultimately it hangs together in its shaggy way without every really rising above the more stable, but just as functional story from the first Pacific Rim. If this movie needed anything, it was a trimmed down story with more time for the elements to breathe.  That said, if you’re here for giant robots tearing shit up with everything else being somewhat secondary, it sure does deliver. Read the rest of this entry »

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We get you.

Mute is a frustrating film. That much can be gleaned from the reviews, the best of which call it a mixed bag while the rest are too busy with the hyperbole of extremely low review scores, hot takes, and “worst movie ever” braying that can be understood to say more about the reviewer than the movie they’re on about. That’s sort of a downside of writing film criticism, or any kind of criticism: the more passionate you are, the more of yourself is leaking in. Too much and you’re obnoxious or, the favorite watch-word of an internet that could give a fuck about criticism as a form, “biased”. Too little and you’re leaning too heavily on description or plot recaps and wasting everybody’s time.

It’s obvious that creative pursuits also have the kind of relationship to what the author puts into it that a movie like Mute has. If it’s too much of a passion project, maybe it’s a self-indulgent mess that took fifteen years to greenlight for good reason. Too little and it’s just another Blade Runner/90’s hipster crime also-ran, only dated as fuck because we’ve collectively moved on from a lot of what you’re trying to do narratively or aesthetically.

Mute frequently feels like both of these things are happening at the same time. Some background information about how this movie came to be should be required, but at the end of the day, that stuff hardly matters. What really matters is whether it’s good or bad, right? Which side of the dichotomy does it belong on. Most people are going to say bad, and they’re not exactly wrong. But I wouldn’t be writing this if there weren’t more to say, if Mute was only bad. It is, in many ways, Southland Tales all over again. For others, it’s going to feel a bit like a lesser William Gibson novel. Probably the best way to view Mute is as Gibson likely did: a work of aesthetics-over-story which is mainly trying to get us immersed in a near-future Berlin underworld of crime, larceny, and darker deeds. Unsurprisingly, he liked it. I’d say that I liked this aspect of it, but there’s far more going on here and most of it is less successful. Read the rest of this entry »

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