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Just a man and a fish.

Serenity is a movie I liked more for what it tried to do than for the grace with which it accomplished it. I mean, it’s really not a graceful movie at all and that’s a big part of the reason why it got dumped in January and torn up by just about everyone who’s seen it.

But does it really deserve all the dismissive chuckling? Kind of. It’s so committed to its premise and parameters that it isn’t really in on the extent to which it’s hard to take seriously. There is a lot of bonkers in this movie. A boat load. But at the heart of it, there’s something else too.

I like the noir genre a lot and at its best, Serenity is a pretty good (sunny and sweat-soaked) rendition. It’s got a femme fatale, an ego-tripping criminal villain, and a hard-boiled seeker of truth at the center. Writer-Director Steven Knight is no stranger to crime stories with a healthy dose of noir. He’s better known for Peaky Blinders than for writing or directing movies (though he also has the very good Locke and Eastern Promises on his resume). So if that’s all this movie was going to be, I do think reactions would be different. Still, it’s not like what happens later erases this part of the film. It still works, for most of the running time, as a contemporary noir. But then it all gets really, really weird about halfway through. Liking this movie at all pretty much depends on whether you’re willing to take its weirdness for what it is, let alone meeting it on its own terms.

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Dudes, fire your agents.

Sometimes you have a couple of ideas and you want to mash them up and it seems like it’ll be cool. Then it turns out that it was a terrible idea. Just ask George Lucas about the Star Wars prequels, which tried to be space fantasy and an essay on the decay of democracy and rise of fascism (prescient but terrible). It maybe could have worked, I can almost see the movie(s) where it would have. Robin Hood is exactly like that. It wants to be a pseudo-medieval action movie and an essay on vaguely contemporary British politics (including wars abroad, wealth inequality, and anti-immigration sentiment). And again, I can almost see the movie that would have managed to make these ideas work together.

But this isn’t it.

There’s something like two-dozen movies about Robin Hood going back to fucking 1908. I’ve seen my fair share and this one is the worst of them all. Which is a feat considering it hasn’t even been 10 years since the last one and that one was pretty bad too.

Why is this one so bad? Well, for one thing it’s a rip-off of The Dark Knight. To a pretty stunning extent. But people have talked about that. More essential is that it’s functionally a superhero movie, but can’t decide whether it’s grim and gritty (like Nolan’s Batman films) or a more swash-buckling throwback. It kind of tries to be both, sometimes within the same scene, and the result is jarring at best. It’s also very, very stupid. And not in the fun way, where charm is either the result or the thing that gets it over. Robin Hood has no charm, just a bunch of poorly motivated set-pieces where the fairly competent action is too often ruined by over-the-top special effects and sequences over-edited and over-designed to the point where all cohesion is basically lost. The story is fundamentally confused about its own themes and sources of inspiration. Plus, the production design is just a mess. Read the rest of this entry »

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I mean, it’s still kind of miraculous that this movie even happened.

Let’s get something out of the way first: Glass is bad. This isn’t going to be one of those apologia type reviews where I try to justify a poorly-executed, messy movie on behalf of its noble ideas, creative ambition, or whatever. Glass has some really solid moments and I’d even say the first half feels like it’s leading to a satisfying conclusion to what must be one of the most unlikely trilogies in cinematic history. Logistically, this movie is a complete anomaly since two studios had to share IP for it to even happen. Individual moments and scenes work well, and there’s a lot of fascinating junk hidden in the mess of it. Thing is, I don’t think it’s the stuff we are supposed to be interested in. So as usual, Shyamalan has made a fascinatingly bad movie. That’s not the worst thing that can happen. However, he also continues his long streak of not playing to his strengths and refusing to leave well enough alone. And I don’t mean that to say that this movie should never have been made. I mean letting a movie be a story strong enough to stand on its own and deliver themes and subtext by its own lights. Watching Glass is almost like dealing with a backseat driver, Shyamalan is always there over your shoulder or behind the screen to grab at that steering wheel. It’s like the guy can’t help himself.

Some context. I love Unbreakable and I did so from day one. That movie was under-seen when it was released but quickly found appreciation among its (possibly unintentional) target audience, if not mainstream moviegoers. It was a different time. Something as meta, deconstructive, and referential as Unbreakable probably seemed strange in an era before the tropes and textures of comic book superhero movies became commonplace. And like all good deconstruction, Unbreakable was able to make a case for the stuff in comic book superhero movies that is valuable in a more realistic context. Back then, 19 whole fucking years ago, comic books were still pretty fringe. 2000 was the same year that the so-so X-Men arrived as a new attempt to make comic book superhero movies palatable. While that one hasn’t aged well, it did launch an ensuing 19 years worth of X-Men and related movies that have a continuity, series of switch-backs, and retcons that are definitely worthy of their comic book origins on a structural level — if not exactly ever as high quality (with the notable exceptions of Logan and Deadpool) as anyone hoped for.

As for M. Night Shyamalan, it’s pretty much impossible for me to talk about this movie without spending about as much time talking about the dude who made it. It’s too personal a work to do otherwise. I consider myself a fan of his earlier work. That excludes his first two movies, Wide Awake and Praying with Anger as I’ve never seen them. When he broke out into Hollywood and mainstream success with Sixth Sense, I was too young to really see that movie or its maker in the grander context of cinema, but I knew it was special. Everybody did. Nowadays I tend to think it’s a bit overrated but that Unbreakable has definitely stood the test of time. I was a defender of Signs and The Village but really got off the train when Lady in the Water collided with it. Things were never really the same after that. I think a lot of us could relate to David Dunn, bewildered and disoriented like we’d alone survived the derailment that just kept going. For just about ten years now. A lot of people were hoping that Glass would be some kind of return to form. I even know a few people who totally believe it is. I disagree. I think it’s plagued by the same issues that were on display as early as Lady in the Water but in a slightly more cohesive and slightly less narcissistic package. But even that movie can stand alone as a story, I think. Shyamalan has always been overly engaged with his own celebrity, high on his own supply you might say. And starting with Lady in the Water there’s been a reflexive self-consciousness in his work that seems to keep manifesting as a plaintive cry to be taken seriously, to be some kind of game-changer, and for the meanie critics to just leave him alone. At least he had the good sense to make a character he doesn’t play the messiah this time around. Still found a way to stick himself in the movie, though, in a scene that everybody seems to agree is an indulgent waste of time.

This intro is running long but I’ll offer some more summary of my thoughts since that’s what I usually do. I think that Glass is a movie that says what it is all the way through, contriving and hand-holding and info-dumping its way to some semblance of meaning. There’s a long standing idea that art isn’t supposed to tell you how to think and feel about it, that real engagement relies on a less transmissive delivery mechanism. You’ll see people defending Glass from a literal position, with not much subtlety of thought, with direct quotes from it as a text, explaining away its narrative shortcomings by taking it all completely at face value. While this kind of literalism is actually pretty common in nerdy circles, it actively prevents or discourages a more sophisticated critical evaluation of a story. As poorly executed as this story is, it’s still fascinating enough to merit a better class of discourse then the same vapid repetition of its ideas that plague the movie’s dialogue.

At the risk of throwing too much shade on people who earnestly enjoyed Glass, I can’t help but fail to imagine the person who walks away from it satisfied. I’ve heard a few pretty good defenses of the movie by now, but I suspect that for most there’s a sunken cost issue here. Some maybe want to like Glass more than they actually do. Or maybe it’s just the current fixation on callback culture. If Glass is taken as roguish, it becomes a symbolic artifact for people who like just about anything that goes against “the grain”, even if “the grain” is wholly a product of their imagination. If you liked the movie and this doesn’t sound like you, fair enough. Take the above with a grain of salt. Still, I think it’s likely that many will revisit the movie and find themselves bored as they try to plumb its nonexistent depths, just as I think that I’ll revisit it and feel the same but only because the shock value of its twists can only work once and I will already know that the other shoe is about to drop.

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A strange mascot for a strange movie.

Lowlife is a couple years old now, but I missed it when it came out and was getting its share of buzz from some corners of the movie critic sphere. It’s a movie that I think is fairly off-putting at first but eventually becomes something not only interesting, but maybe overdue. See, after Grindhouse, it felt like there’d be a slew of films trying to capture some of that aesthetic and tone. I mean, there were some. Even some good ones, like the feature version of Hobo with a Shotgun. But they were rare and anyone hoping for a kind of revamping or update on the aesthetic has probably been mostly disappointed. Lowlife fulfills some of that exact potential.

One of the ways it does that is by playing against the shallow thrills and over the top cartoonishness that you’d expect from “this type” of movie. Even this movie itself, which invites you to think a lot less of it than it deserves. It pretend to be over the top when it’s really pretty grounded. It pretends its characters are cartoons when really they are well-drawn human beings. It’s pretty convincing about it, too. Like, I would forgive people who couldn’t quite follow the depth it eventually gains because it might seem kind of incongruous with the first third or so. That said, it’s exactly that depth which makes Lowlife a kick-ass movie. Read the rest of this entry »

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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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