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The sense of scale in this movie is just masterful.

I really, really didn’t like 2005’s King Kong and it was really the beginning of my reappraisal of Peter Jackson as a filmmaker (George Lucas 2.0). I only saw it the one time and while people have reassured me that it’s got redeeming qualities, and I’m sure it does, I have never had the desire to revisit it again.

Kong: Skull Island on the other hand? I think I’ll be rewatching this one a ton. For one thing, it’s fucking gorgeous. So well designed and beautifully shot. It’s an obvious course-correction after Godzilla 2014’s very mixed bag, and this might not sit well for fans of that movie, but I loved it. Mostly what this means is that Kong has a diverse cast of human characters that are fleshed out to varying degrees and have charisma and meaningful arcs (for the most part). Godzilla had one dude who just kept being inexplicably there for everything. Kong simply does it one better by paying a little more attention to the humans and also by making sure Kong is around early and often. It maintains the somewhat distant perspective on Kong that Godzilla had with its titular beast, but I actually kind of like that. It’s better if humans are sort of watching this big ape-god and arguing among themselves about its true motives and traits. It gives it a slight tinge of cosmic horror, where even with all the jawing about it we’re pretty sure no one really ever understands these great monsters fully.

In most ways, Kong plays like a very old fashioned adventure movie. It has a playful sensibility with tons of visual gags and a critical attention to small details that helps it pull off that swashbuckling tone. It feels like the cover of a 60’s Hollow Earth novel come to life, right down to the action figure hero and heroine. I was not expecting something with this much scale and confidence from Jordan Vogt-Roberts, whose previous movie Kings of Summer is one I really liked but is almost laughably smaller in every conceivable way. Still, Vogt-Roberts might owe a debt to Gareth Edwards but he very much makes his own mark in the Kaijuverse that they are trying to build. I think he’s the best bet for bringing together that inevitable movie where Kong and Godzilla throw down. Read the rest of this entry »

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This movie is totally hollow.

Over time, an unofficial rule of this blog developed and it is that I don’t typically go back and review movies from a previous year. There are always way too many and not enough time in the current year so I usually concentrate on what I’m seeing in theaters. For Assassin’s Creed, I am going to make an exception. Because I’m mad at it. It is so, so bad and the worst part is that it’s kind of regular type bad (it’s a lazy, shallow mess) rather than interesting or ambitious type bad. If all a video game movie can hope for is to be some shade of bad, I’d prefer the ambitious and bizarre bad of Warcraft to this any fucking day.

About the nicest thing you can say about this movie is that it’s occasionally gorgeous and very occasionally has some interesting ideas or revisions of the Assassin’s Creed “lore” as we might know it from the games. I played those games in the halcyon days before Ubisoft decided to make it an annual release and drive anything good about it to the merry land of tedious repetition and stagnant innovation. Still, I was cautiously optimistic about this movie because the trailer was stylish and there’s some solid talent both behind and in front of the camera. I was one of the people who liked Justin Kurzel and Michael Fassbender’s previous collaboration, 2015’s Macbeth adaptation. If Kurzel could bring his grit and eye for imagery to a video game movie, all the better. And he did, sort of, which is why there are shots in Assassin’s Creed that are great and might even trick some viewers into believing it’s ever more than some pretty packaging for a completely boring, by the numbers plot-driven vanity project. And it does feel like a vanity project for Fassbender.

All that being said, Assassin’s Creed is what I called “regular type bad” so at the end of the day, its many sins will be glossed and forgiven by people with an investment in what it offers: the elusive and fleeting thrill of seeing moments from a video game brought to life in a movie. There’s also that people probably genuinely want this movie to be way better than it is, that will fill in the yawning gaps it leaves everywhere (but especially with characterization, of which there is almost none) with dismissive “they explained that” statements. And yes, this movie explains itself a lot, right from the half-assed opening text, but it rarely if ever does anything else. Read the rest of this entry »

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Yeah.

I’m not super up on Key and Peele so I don’t really know the work of Jordan Peele but I have a feeling now that I should get acquainted. I saw Keanu and thought it was a bit similar to Pineapple Express but otherwise pretty good, and I’m aware of some of the most famous sketches Key and Peele have done. Mostly, though, I entered into Get Out without a lot of preconceived notions about Peele as a filmmaker. After Get Out, I’ve gotta say that I hope the rumors he has several more thematically similar movies planned are true.

Get Out plays like an homage to classic low-key horror from the 70’s and 80’s, movies that were big on atmosphere and low on flashy effects or obvious scares. I didn’t find Get Out to be particularly “scary” but that hardly matters. I think a horror movie doesn’t have to be scary in a visceral “looking over your shoulder at on the walk home” kind of way to be effective, and besides it is possible that non-white viewers will find it much more viscerally scary than I did as a viewer who passes for white and has not had to deal with the kind of shit that happens. That said, Get Out is incredibly unsettling and creepy, especially since it is punctuated by expertly placed comedy, like little release valves that tease some of the tension away just so Peele can double down on it a scene or two later. You’d never know this was Peele’s first horror movie, especially since humor in horror is a difficult rope to walk for even veteran filmmakers and it’s walked so very well here. Get Out is already one of the best movies of the year, and will probably go down as a hugely fresh perspective in horror, a genre that is at once welcoming and desperate for them.

Ultimately, Get Out is getting notice less for being a horror movie and more for being a movie that uses horror to discuss race. It’s worth noting that the way it’s a horror movie seems to be a seamless hybrid of horror from an urban black perspective (and urban is not here intended to be code for “street”) and classic atmospheric horror. The racial commentary is well constructed, wryly illustrated in dialogue and the premise/playing out of the story, and is unflinchingly confrontational without being polemic (and therefore much more difficult for assholes to dismiss). Some of its humor and perspective reminded me of the similarly clever Atlanta, so if you dig that but don’t usually like horror, this still might be a movie for you.

SPOILERS ARE POISON FOR HORROR MOVIES, SO QUIT READING NOW. Read the rest of this entry »

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Such a feature would be useful for adults and the internet sometimes.

Finally a Batman movie I can fully get behind. I am well known for having mixed feelings about the Nolan Dark Knight trilogy, especially on the writing level. I’m particularly mocking of the cultural impact, where you can’t get through a comment thread anywhere without someone doing the “____needs/___deserves” line, and the weird legions of maladjusted young men who rose up in the wake of criticisms about the Nolan movies to literally threaten the lives of film critics and people who disagreed with them.  Entirely the wrong lessons were drawn by fandom of those movies. I really feel for the long-time and holistic fans of Batman as a character and part of the larger DC mythos. To me, they are constantly abused by Hollywood. DC fans in general. There are those super serious fans out there who are probably predisposed toward hating and dismissing this movie, but I would really urge them to give this a chance. Because it’s not just a parody of Batman and his fandom and legacy, it’s also a huge fucking love letter to fans of the character, of comic books, and of nerds in general.

Except something weird happened when The Lego Movie arrived. Batman was a major character and he was not only a series of jokes about the silliest elements of the character, he was also really funny.That’s got a lot to do with Will Arnett who doubles down in this movie to deliver maybe the best cinematic Batman to date, but it also owes a lot to the way the writers and directors are also huge Batman fans and able to draw on almost a hundred years of cool shit, silly shit, and flat out weird shit for this version of the character. It seemed weird to set a movie around him, like we were all surprised that The Lego Movie wasn’t just a toy commercial, but a Lego Batman movie? That had to exist just to sell more overpriced licensed Lego, right?

Wrong. Lego Batman is legit. I wasn’t sure that the absence of Chris Lord and Phil Miller would be a good thing for this movie, but Chris McKay seriously knocks it out of the park. It takes more out of The Fast and the Furious and Deadpool than it does out of any existing Batman property. It’s full of humor that threatens the fourth wall, including numerous references to the other Batman movies and the age of the character. There’s a great vocal cast having a ball here. Biggest surprise? This movie has a strong emotional core about a lonely Batman who needs to let people in so he can relearn the value of family. If there are any missteps it’s that some parts are a tad underwritten (there were something like 6 writers on this) and it maybe relies too much on flat, bombastic superhero action. But for the most part, it re-appropriates the pseudo-stop-motion aesthetics of The Lego Movie, riffs on 78 years of Batman lore, and makes fun of the silly aspects of the character while also reminding us that Batman was always silly and that this is perfectly okay.

Also, this movie both makes fun of Suicide Squad and manages to be better at the core concept. That is just a win all the way down. Read the rest of this entry »

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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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