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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 »

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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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ritual

Horror fan shouldn’t sleep on this one.

Some people are rather wrong-headedly referring to Netflix’s The Ritual as a Blair Witch also-ran or “The Descent with boys”. There’s some aesthetic overlap with the former and some set-up overlap with the latter, but The Ritual‘s story and themes have very little to do with either of those films. Or any other horror film I’ve seen for that matter. Doesn’t mean this is an instant classic, but it’s a pretty confident and robust movie with a ton on its mind –things that may not be immediately apparent if you don’t try and dig in a little and see what it’s saying about masculinity, fear, courage, and what we’re willing to give up to be safe and secure. Directed by David Bruckner and based on the novel by Adam Nevill, I’ll leave it to those who’ve read it to tell me whether it’s pretty close or does its own thing. I do plan to read it now, based on the strength of the movie alone. I saw this before I saw Annihilation (review soon I think) but that movie had the same effect. I immediately went and bought the book(s) and those ones are pretty different.

Anyways, a solid and unusual exploration of an interesting theme isn’t the only thing that makes The Ritual worth checking out. For horror fans, there’s a ton of spooky imagery and a creeping sense of dread that pulses through the movie. On top of that, it seems like the type of horror movie where they hold the monster back because they’re not confident about the effects or what its overall “scare” factor will be. But it turns out that it’s the opposite. This movie is fully confident about its monster and though it waits to show it off, when it does it’s full speed ahead and I’ve got to say that it’s one of the creepiest and most interesting monsters I’ve seen in a movie for a long time. The only thing that’ll top it in 2018, I’d wager, is the creepy fucking bear in Annihilation. That guy is one of the all-time scariest movie creatures though so the bar ain’t low.

SPOILERS AHEAD 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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