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It’s all resting on his shoulders now!

It’s late, I know. I’m sorry. I didn’t a chance to see The Fast and the Furious 8 or otherwise known as The Fate of the Furious (I’ll refer to it as Fast 8 as we go) when it first came out. Weird time of year for me, what can I say? I’m seeing more movies now, though, and I finally got around to the latest entry in one of my absolute favorite franchises. This is a key entry, too. When Paul Walker died, everybody asked “how the fuck is this thing gonna work from now on?”. Many critics wondered whether the series would focus more centrally on Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) with the beloved ensemble taking a back seat. The central relationship of the series was always Dom and Brian (Paul Walker) and it seemed like there were two possible directions for this to go: try and replace Brian, or center it on Dom alone (at least for now). It looks like they decided to focus on Dom after all, and the results are just fine though that central relationship is certainly missed.

In many ways, Fast 8 feels more thematically grounded and focused than the last few. This was a bit of a surprise, and worked better than I think a lot of people might have expected given the general attitude about Diesel’s ability to shoulder a movie. I think he’s pretty good, though, and while he isn’t stretching the emotional range of Dom much here, there are a few nice subtler moments and we’re definitely seeing Dom in a new situation. With the key relationship of the series missing, Fast 8 decides to trouble the very thing that has kept the characters and the audience along for this very bizarre and now very lengthy ride: fambly.

Is Fast 8 better than the last few movies? Not really. As always, the highs are pretty high but I think this is maybe the least light-hearted of all of them and offers less of the jokes, camaraderie, and goofy warm heart the series is known for. Of course, all this stuff is still here, but this is also the entry where Fast 8 goes darker. That’s not going to work as well for some people, but I think this movie is less uneven than Fast 7 was (particularly the action). The important question isn’t even really if this movie lives up to the rest of the franchise, because of course it does, it’s more about whether it leaves you with a sense that this franchise can keep going without Paul Walker. I think it can, but I think Fast 8 is unable (and probably this is intentional) to fully get to a new stable dynamic on its own. There are seeds of it, but it’ll probably take the next movie before we see where they’re going with certain elements, which this review will explore in detail.

DOING SPOILERS A QUARTER-MILE AT A TIME Read the rest of this entry »

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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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Pick it up. You know you want to.

So if we take a really loose version of the Arthurian mythology, marry it to a cockney London (er… Londinium) gangster story, sprinkle in a bunch of references, some in tribute and some mocking, to other fantasy movies… this is what we get? This is what we get. The result is ridiculous and will offend the sensibilities of just about every type of nerd out there. Your history nerds will scratch their heads about everything from wardrobe to chronology to props, your mythology and literary nerds will want to know why King Arthur is suddenly Robin Hood, and your fantasy nerds might be placated by the most awesome magic sword in the history of magic swords, but their literalist tendencies will be set alight and pissed on by this movie’s utter disregard for consistent or coherent world-building. And we already know what the movie nerds think. Spoiler: they are not happy.

For my money, King Arthur is a more enjoyable movie than either of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock films mostly because it dares to be far more bonkers and far more often at that. But it also has the same issues, including an overly dour colour scheme which mars some otherwise beautiful compositions and sequences. It also has an overly smug lead, which I’ll talk about more later. The visual issues are compounded by a really bad (in my theater anyway) use of 3D. Like, 2005 bad. This movie is so dark that many of the aesthetic details especially in CG-heavy scenes are lost. I would bet that this is not a theater issue but one with the quality of the post-processing, since many people are complaining about the uninspiring visuals of the movie. They aren’t totally correct, there’s a lot to love visually here, but the movie consistently holds itself back by being 3D for absolutely no fucking reason. When I get to see it again, it will not be in 3D and I’m hoping the visual elements register more clearly more often. On the other hand, the music in this movie is brilliant. Even the non-score anachronistic songs. Forget the term for those, but they are well-used here.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is overall a baffling movie. I don’t want to ruin anybody’s fun here, because this movie actually is plenty fun, it’s just that the whole thing doesn’t really come together the way you want it to. There are many elements that work well, especially when the movie isn’t taking itself seriously, but many more that do not. It’s a huge boys’ club, with almost no female characters and the few present get very little to do besides support the male hero or die trying, but it also wins some diversity points by not pretending the medieval world was lily white the way the racists like to. Some will accuse King Arthur, kind of wrong-headedly, of casting it like it’s taking place in Modern London rather than ~500CE Londinium. It’s a fascinating exercise, really, because here we have this remix, this mash-up, and who better to do that with Arthurian myth, especially with the music video sensibility that King Arthur displays, than Guy Ritchie? But honestly, did they ever stop to think if they should do it? No, they did not. They were planning like five of these. I doubt we’ll even get two.

MY KINGDOM FOR A SPOILER WARNING.

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Is there a more instantly iconic cast in Hollywood?

I am pleased to report that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (I’ll refer to it simply as Vol. 2) is, as many of you have found out for yourselves over the past week, every bit as good and in some ways much better than even the first one. Vol. 1 was a great surprise and still the boldest movie Marvel has yet made. Vol. 2 doubles down on the world it created and the characters that inhabit it, losing the freshness a little (which is being overstated as a complaint) but managing to improve on those few significant weak spots the first one did have.

One of those is the way certain characters were shorted much of an arc as the plot took over the movie. In Vol. 2 this never happens and no character, and there are so fucking many of them, gets shorted. They all have satisfying arcs, even Kraglin (Sean Gunn), wisely depending on interactions with each other. For people who like Marvel movies and fans of The Fast and the Furious franchise, this will feel familiar. It’s in pairings, parallels and polar opposites, that juggling so many characters and arcs becomes possible. Vol. 2 pulls this off with aplomb and manages to weave through tonal shifts, some of which are pretty shocking and risky. A stronger commitment to the sadness and loss hinted at in Vol. 1 is also demonstrated here, giving this goofy space movie an emotional core that is hard to find even in serious dramas. If I could compare that to something, it’d be a Pixar movie, where they definitely understand that the juxtaposition of light heartedness, humour, and fun against deeper, darker, and unresolved feelings provides a strong base for engaging drama and characterization. Not only this, but James Gunn managed to infuse this one with some pretty heavy existential and philosophical weight, which I’ll get to later on. I didn’t expect that.

All the way back when testing revealed that Vol. 2 was the MCU’s first movie that scored 100s (whatever that means), the hype has been real. There’s already a pretty misguided mini-backlash against this movie, fixated on gags that don’t quite land or the way the second act dismisses the overarching plot in favor of briefly becoming a shaggy hangout movie, but this stuff seems nitpicky to me. At the same time, I totally understand just how hard it is to deal with a movie as anticipated and hyped up as this one was. Your mind always wants to find that one thing wrong with it, so I take these nitpicks as a great sign personally. If the worst someone can say is that the space fruit ripeness joke feels a little forced then this is one helluva movie, right? It so is. Read the rest of this entry »

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No one will accuse this movie of not looking great.

Ghost in the Shell as a 20 years removed live action adaptation of a seminal anime film is at once completely unnecessary and completely inevitable. We live in a weird period where the tropes and signifiers of the cyberpunk genre are everywhere we look. It makes a sort of sense that the most influential pieces of that history are being reclaimed and re-positioned for modern audiences. Not only is Ghost in the Shell a thing that happened, but Blade Runner is getting a sequel, shows like Incorporated also pay direct homage to and update the William Gibson and Margaret Atwood cyberpunk vision for the 2010s. But when you watch Marvel movies or the CW superhero shows, the technological gimmicks as well as many of the technological themes stories address (artificial intelligence, human enhancement, etc) are also present.

This is because we kind of live cyberpunk now, we’ve got all the big elements: sketchy corporations accruing more and more power, poorly understood technological progress unevenly distributed and always dovetailing between transcendence and frivolity, and a world where high-tech gadgets and cybernetic crime, warfare, and identity are taken for granted.

So what time could be better than now for an adaptation of Ghost in the Shell? This movie’s historical and iconographical relevance is only rivaled by its failure to address another cornerstone of our times: the latter days of white supremacy in an increasingly global context. Make no mistake, Ghost in the Shell is a very political film but it accomplishes this accidentally and becomes a “useful fool” in the discourses of identity politics, racial/cultural hegemony, and the gyre of entertainment representation. Now, maybe you’re not interested in all that shit. Read the review anyway, because I’ll be getting into the more technical stuff that works or doesn’t first. If you’re looking for a quick summary of the kind I usually put here, let’s say that Ghost in the Shell is… okay. Too much of the narrative is simplified or compromised, and while the imagery and action is beautiful and memorable it also frequently feels cheap outside of the really great practical effects and props that are sprinkled throughout the movie. It also has pretty rad music, though they should have used the ’95 theme more.

//SPOILERS//follow.review Read the rest of this entry »

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This movie will totally prey on your irrational fear of triangles.

The Void is a movie where it is best to go in without knowing too much. However, to make sure the right people see this I will say up front that if you like cosmic horror (Lovecraft and/or Stephen King) and John Carpenter’s horror classic The Thing you are primed to love this. It was made for you.

Beyond its horror pedigree and fairly game achievement of its ambitions, it is interesting to note that The Void is a partially cowdfunded film. That’s pretty cool to think about since not only are practical-effects driven movies like this one fairly rare nowadays, crowdfunding proves there’s both an appetite for them and the potential for more to be made.

Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski wrote and directed the hell out of this film. It has a fairly simple, straightforward premise that unfolds into truly eerie territory. One of the best things about it is that it gets at ya fast and often, spending only the minimal time on set up before getting into the good stuff. If you’re tired of horror movies that wait too long to show some monsters or tip the hand of weird shit going on, you’ll like the way this one is structured.

THERE ARE SPOILERS… IN THE VOID.

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His body is a roadmap of all the mistakes they’ve made with this character in 17 years. This time, Logan comes correct.

People have been waiting a long time for this, but they maybe didn’t know it would be like this. Cryptic way of saying that people love comic book characters, genuinely love them, and want Hollywood to do right by them. Too often, they get it wrong and the fans think they know what they want. But does anyone really know? I doubt many people would envision Logan as the “right” interpretation of the characters. But it is. I doubt many people would have expected, after so many mixed and outright bad X-Men movies, for Logan to be so much better it’s not even funny… but it is.

The thing is, it got here by not giving a shit about the silly trivial details that the nerdiest fans get so hung up on. Logan’s hair, for example. Or why Professor X suddenly has some. These things aren’t really important, but they are the superficial details that the big fans obsess over all in the name of “getting it right”. It’s why some people are going to be bent out of shape that this isn’t an Old Man Logan adaptation (terrible comic anyway). So what makes Logan “right”, then? I think most simply because it focuses on having a good story that these characters can fit in, rather than the other way around. This movie is light on plot, but dripping with subtext and incredibly strong characterization. We’ve been watching Hugh Jackman play Wolverine and Patrick Stewart play Charles Xavier for almost twenty years and they were always a big part of the reason why people kept coming back in spite of the stupid shit the X-Men movies have gotten up to in that time. That’s an era of performances in movies that didn’t deserve them. So now, for their final go around, James Mangold made a movie that does deserve them.

At the same time, it’s important to realize that this isn’t sudden proof that sadness and violence is what makes a “good” comic book movie. It helps make Logan good, because those elements interact with some mature themes and storytelling. Without that, with only the grim and the violent, you get DCEU movies. Logan is strong alchemy, and I don’t think it can be replicated any more than Deadpool can. There’s contextual stuff happening here and it’s a big part of why this movie is blowing everybody away. But if you skipped to the finish line, we’d have this good movie maybe but we wouldn’t have a movie that makes people grip their chairs or feel like they’ve lost a friend by the end. Context is everything.

SPOILERS, BUB. Read the rest of this entry »

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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 »

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 »

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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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