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One way to get free satellite.

So in anticipation of Diesel returning with another ridiculous but maybe good-hearted action franchise, I watched xXx for the first time since high school and saw xXx 2: State of the Union for the first time ever. I think most people (who give any shit) are surprised that Diesel has been so successful at resuscitating the key roles that made him famous. Maybe it’s because he didn’t wait a score of years to do it, like his action star predecessors have (and thus mostly failed). Maybe it’s because he has some talent as a producer and seems to be able to gather good people. I think a big part of it is that Diesel consistently has a lot of fun and wants to share the fun, both on screen and off, with all his fans. There’s something infectiously charming about the man, even when characters like Dominic Toretto and Richard B. Riddick don’t call for him to use much of it. Xander Cage, however, returning to a defunct franchise after like 15 years… well, that’s a different story.

xXx: The Return of Xander Cage is head and shoulders a better movie than either of the first two. It accomplishes this primarily by bringing in a lot from the Fast and Furious playbook, mostly in terms of building itself around a colorful ensemble of characters. It doesn’t quite work as well as, say, Fast Five did because it hasn’t had five movies to build a weird sort of following for even the most ridiculous and sketchy of its cast. The Return of Xander Cage mostly has the job of introducing a large, diverse, and kick-ass team which might pave the way for many more of these movies the way Fast Five did for that. Can Vin Diesel really be the core of two extremely similar relentless fun and stupid action franchises? Why the fuck not? I mean, his movies might be mostly dumb but they are consistently well made. Fast and Furious has a heart of gold and xXx has been weirdly infused with socio-political commentary in each of its three entries. I think what matters more than that, though, is Diesel seems to consistently be able to work with directors and writers who find the fun kind of stupid, and not the frustrating and insulting kind. I love action movies, and I love when the raise the bar to ridiculous new heights (which this one really does) and I appreciate not being treated like an idiot even though I am watching underwater motocross chases. It may be too subtle a thing for some people, but it’s a big part of the reason why I love most of the Fast and Furious movies and why I think I kinda loved xXx: The Return of Xander Cage. Read the rest of this entry »

I was really tempted to do a Top 16. But no. I have a pretty large Honorable Mentions list (as per usual) and a lot of hard cuts were made so I’m going to maintain the tradition of just 15 movies.

Here’s the 2015 list, by the way. And this year’s Worst list too.

2016 was a year of collision. Not only in the broader culture, but in the stories we’re telling and how we’re telling them. The two most consistently good subsets of films were diametrically opposed genres: horror and adventure films ostensibly aimed at kids. There were a lot of horror all-timers this year and they make up a third of my list. There were also a lot of kids’ movies that just worked for people, even when they didn’t work for me (The BFG or The Little Prince). The ones that I loved, again making up a third of this list, are also all-timers.

This is also the year where the WB wrongly doubled down on the grimdark of their comic book movies, while Disney showed us all how to actually be dark without being stupid with, of all things, a Star Wars movie. For a lot of people, 2016 is characterized not only by a measurable uptick in conflict but also a lot of  darkness. But I think one of the reasons why I responded so much to both horror and lighter fare is because the contrast reminds me that the collision between horror and hope is kind of what it’s all about.

I think the movies I loved most were about finding yourself (from Pete’s Dragon to The Handmaiden), which seems trite, but each one meditated on that struggle and showed, in different and equally powerful ways, how who we are and what we do comes from finding and loving and being true to ourselves. I’ve been thinking about my life a lot this year, mostly because I’m on the cusp of the elusive “career” that most people hope will give their lives some definition and structure (working toward this is why there are so few reviews on this blog now). As a result, I’m thinking about the balance and trying to find it — maybe more than ever. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I like to think that we all are, as a civilization and as individuals, especially now.

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.


Read the rest of this entry »

It’s that time of year again, friends. Check here for the 2015 list.

As always, my list is half a “most disappointing” list and half a “these movies are truly awful shit” list. I didn’t see that many bad movies in 2016, the first half of which was overloaded with small good movies and big bad movies. I struggled to make ten which either means I am getting softer as I age or I’m just not seeing enough movies anymore.

2016 has been a dogshit year for most things, but not for cinema. It’s been one of the busiest years of my life, though, which is why these lists are harder than usual. Ever since I went back to school I’ve had less time to commit to hobbies that require a lot of energy… this blog counts, believe it or not! As a result, I’ve written fewer reviews and if writing is memory than there are just way too many gaps in my memory of movies I saw this year.

Oh well. Read the rest of this entry »

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Ohai Fran Kranz!

Netflix is kicking ass and taking names, quickly becoming one of the biggest names in entertainment and probably one of the more trustworthy in terms of content and accessibility. Lately, they’ve been on another run of amazing original content including the masterpiece Stranger Things and are preparing to shower us with even more riches in the back half of 2016. As you can see, I’m a big fan of what they’re doing as a business and the content they are putting out there. But mostly, it’s their TV shows that I tend to be most interested in. I rarely watch their original movies, but that’s more down to missing the marketing. I did manage to catch the trailer for Rebirth, from writer-director Karl Mueller (who wrote the vicious apocalyptic movie The Divide).

Rebirth starts out as a tense thriller that deals with cults. Eventually, it becomes something much more than that but it’s the kind of thing that is kept so far back in reserve that I think there’s bound to be some misgivings over expectations not being met with the movie. Warning a potential viewer that it’s not exactly what it seems is probably a good thing. It’s definitely not a horror movie, for example.

Because it’s readily available, you should check out Rebirth if you have a Netflix subscription. It’s a movie that I don’t want to spoil for people before they watch it, so I don’t think you should read my review unless you’ve seen it or just don’t care about spoilers. Read the rest of this entry »

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A richly symbolic film.

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

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

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The few shots that actually take place in space are nice.

I follow a few rules when I set out to review a movie. One of them is that I try to review the movie I’ve seen and not the movie I wish I’d seen. The big difference is that, when you go into something with expectations (sometimes very clear ones), you wind up missing the forest for the trees. On this hook can be hung a lot of unfair reactions and reviews for movies, either positive or negative. It’s a kind of easily avoidable bias and avoiding it raises the caliber of a review. Or at least that’s what I think. Feel free to disagree.

Anyway, that notion is why I’m going to get something out of the way before I dive into this review. I was hoping for a Star Trek movie that finally did something different than the plethora of action-adventure movies we already have, especially in the scifi genre. Star Wars is back, so why does Star Trek need to be so similar to it? Maybe because studios like to make money. I didn’t like this movie very much, and at least a little of that is because it consistently felt like wasted potential. But if you take away my expectation for a more wonder-driven, thoughtful third entry to this reboot franchise, what is left? Hopefully something more fair to the movie. You’ll have to let me know.

My argument is that the movie I saw (as opposed to the one I wished I’d seen) is as fundamentally flawed, shallow, and messy as the previous two. My disinterest in Wrath of Khan helped me appreciate Into Darkness more than the majority of the audience, but this time around I feel like if I were a fan of the Original Series, I’d have appreciated this movie more. It certainly panders to Original Series fans yet again, but asks way less of them (unlike Into Darkness and the ’09 movie). Because I don’t have much feel for what is meant by “it was like a movie length version of an OS episode”, I don’t have to consciously avoid the nostalgia-based bias that comes with that. For what it’s worth, I do think I’ll like this movie more as time goes on (much like ’09) where I like Into Darkness much less.  Read the rest of this entry »

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Don’t let this fun pic fool you.

Green Room is a nasty, gut-punch of a movie that made me, a guy who doesn’t think of himself as squeamish or easily shocked, squirm in my fucking seat. The knot in the stomach is real, folks. If this description makes the movie sound like a cup of tea that isn’t yours, you’re probably right. Though it’s an impeccable film, one of the best of the year easily, it is also not for everyone.

Green Room isn’t a stirring tale of heroism set against an elemental evil, but rather an intimate portrait of savage, everyday violence. The realness of it is what gets under your skin, rather than the body count or the diabolical nature of the bad guys’ plans. This as far from a superhero movie version of violence as you can get. This is violence right up in your face, of the kind you can very easily imagine happening to you should you ever be in as wrong a place at as wrong a time as the protagonists of this movie.

That’s basically a long way of saying that Green Room is incredibly effective. Atmosphere and tension blaze through this movie, punctuated by violence that you may never be able to fully get out of your head. Read the rest of this entry »

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Uh oh… ladies!

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

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

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

It’s that time of year again, friends. Check here for the 2014 list.

As always, my list is half a “most disappointing” list and half a “these movies are truly awful shit” list. Read the rest of this entry »

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Fitz!? Izzat you!?

So Ryan Gosling wrote and directed a surrealist horror-fantasy movie (light on the fantasy, really) called Lost River. Because Gosling has sort of this profile of decent guy but artsy and aloof, so too follows the general reception of his first film. Is Lost River artsy? Yes. But is it aloof? Fuck no. And besides, it’s artsy in the dangerous, slick, sexy custom of Nicholas Winding Refn films, of which this one will immediately remind you. Is this a bad thing, the kind of association that makes this movie feel derivative or something? Again, fuck no.

Lost River is a moody, textural fairy tale that closely follows the Campbellian Hero’s Journey but wrapped in such an effective and alluring presentation that the minimalist story and dialogue become secondary to atmosphere. People who don’t dig atmospheric films probably won’t like this much. At the same time, I hope that the visuals (amazing) and music (doubly so) are enough to keep people interested. Plus, there’s enough weird shit going on here that the movie is automatically compelling in spite of itself. This is my kind of movie though, and it feels a lot like stuff like Beyond the Black Rainbow or Under the Skin in terms of its cinematic priorities and approach. Is it as good as those films? Maybe not, I’m not sure, but it definitely deserves to be spoken of in the same breath. Likewise with Winding-Refn’s films, where Lost River most closely resembles Only God Forgives and Valhalla Rising.  Read the rest of this entry »

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