Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017 Movies Revisited

2017 was a hell of a year for genre movies - quite possibly the best we've ever had (and, no, I'm not forgetting 1982). Horror, superheroes, and science fiction all seemed to grow up, for lack of a better term. We've gotten great films in all these genres before, but I don't think we've ever seen a volume of geeky movies this good before. Five of the seven big budget superhero movies released this year had Freshness ratings above ninety percent - a few years ago, that would have been unthinkable. But here we are.

As in past years, this list reflects my preference for the new movies I saw, from least to most favorite, NOT FROM WORST TO BEST. There are a few cases where I think movies are objectively better or worse than their placement on the list dictates - I try to point these out when I think it's important. But overall this whole exercise is so subjective, I find it works better to work from that premise.

There are a few bad apples I saw this year, but the vast number ranged from solid to fantastic. Of the twenty new releases I saw, I'd only call numbers 20 through 18 deeply flawed, and even these had redeeming qualities.

20. Alien: Covenant
Prometheus was a far worse movie, but in some ways it felt like less of a waste. This was just as pretentious, but it lacked the ambition of its predecessor. In the end, it felt like a low-budget horror script that somehow got a massive amount of money and a prestigious director.

It delivered very little of substance - no real scares, no excitement, and certainly nothing thoughtful (no matter what the director claims).

Still, it wasn't a total loss. Parts were fun, and Fassbender gave a great performance (A great performance, mind you - only one out of his two roles was interesting). More than that, the designs of the ship and aliens were solid.

19. Split
The hard part about Split is that it's much better if you don't know about the final twist, but until you know about that twist, I'm not sure why you'd bother watching it (I certainly only watched to see the ending play out). Even now, almost a year after its release, I'm keeping quiet in the off-chance there's anyone alive who hasn't been spoiled yet. If you were a fan of Shyamalan's early work, you should really consider watching this as soon as possible.

Otherwise... don't bother. Honestly, aside from the ending, the movie is essentially a less engrossing version of 10 Cloverfield Lane. Much less engrossing. Also, more offensive.

Yeah, McAvoy and Taylor-Joy were great, but you'll be putting up with some abysmal dialogue and a total dearth of narrative payoff: that's not worth it. The thing is, I'm under no illusion I wouldn't be singing a different tune if I'd seen this unspoiled. I'd have loved this movie and probably put it halfway down this list.

But, again, I did know - it's the only reason I gave Shyamalan another chance. And, for what it's worth, I'm still intrigued by the promise of another installment, despite the fact this one was pretty weak.

18. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Maybe my expectations were too high for this one. It definitely had some fun scenes, but I couldn't get over the blandness of the leads or the awful writing. The visuals were a nice distraction, but I didn't feel like they offered the same richness or depth we've gotten from other offerings in the genre.

I didn't need brilliant film-making from this, but I wanted something more engrossing than what I got. I appreciate that a lot of the elements we've seen in everything from Star Wars to Avatar were inspired (if not outright stolen) from Valerian and Laureline, but the adaptation still needs to outdo its predecessors on a few of those metrics if it wants to compete.

17. The LEGO Batman Movie
It's difficult to deny The LEGO Batman Movie was expertly realized, a fact reflected in both its high Freshness rating and in its box office success. It's not hard to see why - it's fun, the humor works, and it gets a lot of mileage out of its access to the DC Comics roster.

But in another sense, it's hard to ignore just how blatantly commercial this movie is, in every meaning of the word. To be fair, every blockbuster is greenlit in the hopes it will make money, but this one barely tried to disguise the fact. It's a toy advertisement, and unlike its predecessor, it doesn't bother being more.

As a wacky comedy, it's a solid enough way to kill an hour and a half. But at the end of that, I felt a little cheated. Usually I don't have to pay for the privilege of being sold something.

16.Justice League
This was a bad movie - I think everyone should be able to agree on that point. But, by and large, it was also a fun movie. If it hadn't been for the tedious stretch in the middle, I'd have placed this quite a bit further on the list.

Like Suicide Squad before it, Justice League fails as a coherent narrative but delivers some great characters. It's a far better movie than Suicide Squad, incidentally (though I don't think anyone pulled off a performance as inspired as Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn). More importantly, this may have corrected course and pointed us towards a brighter and more interesting DC Universe going forward.

15. My Little Pony: The Movie
This isn't the best story line My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has delivered, but then it doesn't really try to be. Instead, it serves as an almost nonstop barrage of fun new characters and inventive fantasy settings. And, frankly, that's a far better use of the medium.

That said, I'm not entirely convinced this absolutely needed to be done as a movie instead of a multi-episode (or, hell, season-long) arc. That honestly might have been even better. But, if the studio was absolutely going to put this on the big screen, this was a great way to do it.

14. Kong: Skull Island
This is one of funnest giant monster movies I've seen in a while: it might even be the funnest America's ever produced. A case could be made for Pacific Rim, but that was a touch too self-serious, while Skull Island seemed to grasp its limitations from the start. This was never going to be an Oscar contender - wisely, it didn't pretend otherwise.

Yeah, it's kind of dumb. And, yeah, the human characters were two-dimensional caricatures of overused Hollywood tropes. But while there wasn't a lot of thought put into the character development, there seemed to be a great deal invested into every detail of the setting and monsters. Hell, the movie's refreshing spin on Kong's relationship - just friends this time - with Brie Larson's character was probably the most thought out in the film, and it was barely a side note.

In some ways, this was structured closer to a Jurassic Park movie than a King Kong remake. But Kong's been remade too many times as it is, and this was a much better Jurassic Park movie than Jurassic World.

This set achievable, modest goals and met them. It's not "best of year" material, but it was a few hours very well spent in the theater.

13. Baby Driver
I enjoyed Baby Driver much more as an experience than as a movie. Even then, it was a good movie - the story and characters were solid. Well, most of the characters. As I said in my review, Wright would be well advised to take some time and reflect on the female leads in his movies - it's a notable weakness in an otherwise phenomenal director's skill set.

The way the chases are put together is nothing short of stunning, though. Any one of them could serve as the high point in an action film. They're meticulously constructed, exciting, and fun, and they display a rare talent in an industry that's shifted away from this sort of expertise in favor of computer-generated tricks and shoddy editing.

That alone deserves recognition. But this list isn't about recognition: it's about personal preference. And the simple truth is I just didn't find Baby Driver as memorable as many of the other movies I saw this year.

12. Thor: Ragnarok
I assume I'd have liked this better if I hadn't gone in with such ridiculously high expectations. Even so, I enjoyed this pretty thoroughly start to finish. It was fun, the action scenes were great, and it embraced the comic book elements of its source material (I know this doesn't make something objectively better, but damned if I don't appreciate it).

But in a year with so many amazing superhero movies... it just struck me as a little underwhelming. Everything was a little too silly for my tastes. That doesn't mean I wanted it dark and grim, but I'd have liked some weight, particularly behind some of the losses. I'd also have preferred a more artistically satisfying tone or direction.

Again, this was still really, really good. If this had come out a few years earlier, it probably would have been in the running for my favorite movie of the year. But the genre has evolved since then, and this - while good - just didn't win me over like some of 2017's other offerings.

11. Coco
I've rarely been this torn over a movie. I devoted the majority of my review focusing on the film's problematic aspects, which is to say its depiction of women. While that bothered me quite a bit, I still found the movie fascinating and beautiful. The emotional beats were touching and the story worked.

It's just that 2017 was the wrong year to make a movie where women were objects and obstacles, and Pixar was the wrong studio to make it.

10. Colossal
This bizarre and fascinating movie was completely different than what I'd expected. From what I knew going in, I assumed it was a comedy/monster movie, but neither is really accurate. There are funny moments, but it's more drama than comedy and far more magical realism than monster movie. Sure, the genre elements being played with are kaiju, but the way they're approached is closer in spirit to Being John Malkovich.

Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis are both excellent in this movie, and writer/director Nacho Vigalondo does a fantastic job selling some extreme ideas as both believable and emotionally engaging.

I had a small quibble with a few seconds near the end that pushed this back a few spaces on this list, but overall I loved this movie.

9. Logan
Logan was a great superhero movie, but it was somewhat undermined by its lack of focus on the father/daughter relationship between Logan and Laura. This was central to the movie, but the decision to leave Laura silent through the first two thirds gave them little time to build anything believable or moving by the end.

Fortunately, we were left with a wonderful portrait of Logan at the end of his life, a kick-ass introduction of X-23, and some great moments and scenes. But a little more development could have elevated the movie's resolution to something truly meaningful.

8. Get Out
Just a reminder, this list is based on personal preference, not my opinion of the movie's quality. Because if it was based on "best," this would at least need to be in the top three (and quite possibly in #1) - it's a masterful work of genre storytelling. But that genre is horror, which I've just never loved the way I love fantasy, SF, or superheroes.

Even so, this one drew me in. It communicates a sense of alienation and dread as well as any movie I've ever seen. It approaches its themes earnestly and honestly, and as such never once feels heavy handed.

If you haven't seen this yet - even if you're not normally a fan of horror - track down a copy as soon as possible. It's absolutely brilliant.

7. War for the Planet of the Apes
The third installment in the Apes reboot/prequel series was an introspective psychological study of its lead character. The fact that character was a talking ape doesn't detract from the film's impact in the slightest. The movie commits to taking its world seriously and trusts its audience to do the same. As a result, we're given a genre film that plays out like a war drama.

I suppose I shouldn't have expected less. The new series has been great up to this point, with the second movie building and improving on the first. But War exceeded even these expectations: that's a stunning accomplishment.

6. Wonder Woman
Okay, the last act fell apart, but that happens in these movies; the rest of the film was damn near perfect. I loved the comedy, the romance, and action, and how expertly these were woven together. It was the first DCEU film that felt like a superhero movie - that's no small feat.

If the last act of this had maintained the quality of the first two, it really could have been a contender for the best of the year. As it is, it's still an absolutely phenomenal movie.

5. The Shape of Water
I spent the better part of the last hour trying to figure out where to place this bizarre, wonderful movie. At times, I was leaning as high as #2; others, I was thinking 9 or 10.

It would be higher if I was trying to name "best" instead of my favorite, but even preference isn't helping here. The amount I like The Shape of Water varies depending on how I'm thinking about it and how I define the word "like."

At any rate, this was a beautiful meditation on film and history. It deconstructs old movie tropes even as it celebrates them, examining the prejudices of the era that gave birth to those genres. And somehow, out of all that, it manages to assemble a compelling story and gorgeous film.

I enjoyed this immensely.

4. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
God, I love this movie.

To me, this is a comedy, through and through. I laughed more at the jokes in the movie's wake than I do at some comedies. I laughed so much the person sitting beside me got up and moved after a half-hour (sorry!).

There's a innocence in this movie's imagination and humor that makes it work even when it shouldn't. There are extended, juvenile jokes about poop that come off feeling brilliant. That comes down to tone, something Guardians Vol. 2 excels at.

3. Spider-Man: Homecoming
It's hard to overstate how good this movie was. The word I used after walking out of the theater was "perfect," and that may hold up. The movie's eagerness to explore street-level crime in a superhero universe was refreshing, as were its homages to John Hughes.

This wasn't as flashy or exciting as Avengers or Civil War, but then it wasn't supposed to be. This was a masterpiece of big budget film making. I loved every minute of it.

2. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
I don't expect my reasons for placing The Last Jedi this high on the list will surprise anyone. The characters were expertly realized, the story spun off in some fascinating directions, and the writing was the best we've seen from this franchise since Empire.

I almost think the more interesting question is why it's here and not at #1. There are a few reasons for that.

As good as Last Jedi was, it felt a bit disjointed. I was less bothered at the structural level (i.e.: I had no issues with the separate story lines) than visual. The movie waffled between a fun adventure and a dark melodrama. This wasn't necessarily a problem - there's nothing intrinsically wrong with a movie that tries (and succeeds!) in being "everything at once."

But while I enjoy movies like that, I don't love them as deeply as I love films that mesh visual, audio, and characters to create a tone that tells its own story or draws the viewer into a believable world. I'd argue The Force Awakens came closer to delivering that particular experience (though, as I said in my review, there are plenty of aspects The Last Jedi delivers better than its predecessor).

Since this ultimately does all come down to preference, this one - which I love - lands here. Leaving the first spot for...

1. Blade Runner 2049
I think most of us were skeptical when we heard the universe of Blade Runner was getting revisited. The original is so influential, the setting has almost come to feel generic. What's the point of making a movie there, rather than cherry-picking the ideas and visuals and telling a new story, as so many other movies and TV shows have done?

By rights, this should have been an abject failure. Hell, if Ridley Scott had directed it, I'm convinced it would have been. But instead it was handed to Denis Villeneuve, who seems like he could care less about the pitfalls that come with making a sequel to a 35-year-old classic.

And... damn. He pulled it off. The world felt even more vibrant and real than it had the first time around. Sitting in the theater, I felt like I was there, listening to the rain fall, feeling snow land on my skin, looking down at radioactive urban sprawl. It was beautiful and heartbreaking in the best way. I loved every second of this movie.

Closing Thoughts
Considering how crappy reality was in 2017, I'm glad entertainment improved to pick up the slack. As I said at the start, this is one of the best years for movies we've ever seen (well, nerdy movies, at the very least). It's certainly been a good - if bittersweet - year in pop culture.

If I had to pick out themes, I'd point to a general lightening of tone in superhero movies (Wonder Woman was a game changer) and the return of science fiction. Eight of the twenty movies above were either set in space or the future (I'm counting Logan as a dystopia) - that's quite a lot.

And, of course, there's the increased focus on representation. Women and minorities, long relegated to side characters or excluded entirely, have been taking center stage as studios finally realize there's a demand. The top three highest grossing domestic movies of the year had a female lead - that's certainly worth noting.

I'm optimistic we'll see more great movies next year. I'm particularly intrigued by Black Panther, Infinity War, and the long-awaited sequel to The Incredibles. All of these look great, though they've got their work cut out for them if they want to challenge 2017.

Movie Review: The Shape of Water

I almost didn't write a review for The Shape of Water, since the main thing I want to say can be summed up as, "Go see the damned movie."

Sorry - no need for cursing.

But if you drop by Rotten Tomatoes anywhere near as often as I do, you already knew it was good. The movie's been critically embraced and widely celebrated by fans of genre and film. It's not for everyone (I heard confused grumbling sounds from some of the audience), but I think a pretty safe litmus test is if you're reading a review on a site as geeky as this one, it's for you.

While there's actually a great deal more I could say, most of it's in the realm of analysis, not review. This movie begs to be analyzed in depth, poured over by film students, and discussed over bottles of wine. Draw a Venn diagram with circles representing art films and geeky genre movies, and you'll find The Shape of Water dead center in the overlap.

That doesn't even touch on the nature of genres. It's well publicized that this is a mash-up of monster movies in the Universal mold with classic romance flicks, so there's no sense trying to keep that quiet. In the hands of a different director, that might have come across as superficial or gimmicky, but del Toro weaves a story out of these conventions organically. The premise, setting, design, characters, tone, and theme all fit together. This isn't a monster movie or a romance with a twist; it's a complete and unified story constructed from the pieces of multiple genres, as well as all too real history and current events. It's a movie that has something to say.

It's difficult to overstate del Toro's mastery. He's working in a drastically different style and tone than, say, Pan's Labyrinth. This is a movie set in a world of old movies, almost closer in spirit to Wes Anderson than most of what we've seen from del Toro. But it never feels like del Toro's out of his depth - this is as brilliantly realized a film as any he's made.

That's not to say it's perfect. As a storyteller, del Toro's biggest weakness has always been his characters. They tend to be good, but rarely (if ever) great. Sally Hawkins picks up the slack - her Elisa may be the best character to headline a del Toro movie - but some side characters feel underwritten and misused. It's not a major issue, but I think it's the one area the movie doesn't excel.

Still, this is an absolutely fantastic film that will rival Pan's Labyrinth as del Toro's best and (in all probability) most reflected upon work. I suspect movie lovers will devote a great deal of time debating which is his masterpiece. At least until he makes something else.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Why did you click on this? It's Star Wars, you already know it's good from its score on Rotten Tomatoes... just go see it.

Are you still here? Does that mean you've already seen The Last Jedi? I hope so, because I'm about to spoil everything. Seriously. From here on out, it's open season on spoilers - I'm not holding anything back. Plot, twists, revelations: it's all fair game. Let's throw in an official warning to be safe.


What the heck - let's toss in another.


Okay, I lied. I'm not actually going to talk about the plot at all, but I wanted to try and scare away people who haven't seen it yet. Because, while I'm not going into details, The Last Jedi is unusually spoiler-prone.

Hell, I heard the movie was nothing like Empire, and that was enough for me to parse out what was probably the movie's biggest twist. I'm not going to spell it out, but it was that scene where that thing happened (apologies to anyone who read that without having seen the movie, but - in my defense - you were warned).

Ultimately, The Last Jedi is largely built around subverting expectations. From Luke's first action through the closing scene, pretty much everything that happens is the opposite of what you'd think would happen, given the series's trends and patterns. But that means if you go in knowing they're messing with your expectations, you actually can start predicting where it's going. Some of the time. Maybe 25%?

At any rate, it's certainly a welcome change of pace from The Force Awakens, which was far too faithful to A New Hope, but it's worth noting this isn't always a merit. There are a few points where The Last Jedi is too fixated on being surprising and ends up tying itself in knots. The resolution to the last showdown is a good example: there were cleaner (and more satisfying) ways to get to that point. It kind of felt like the script took two immediate U-turns, rather than appear to be driving in a straight line.

But I'll take a handful of awkward scenes in exchange for a genuinely surprising story. And that's just the first improvement made to the writing.

The Last Jedi also represents an improvement in character dialogue (which was already pretty solid). Several characters - particularly Poe, Finn, and Leia - are far more interesting than they were in the prior installment. New characters Vice Admiral Holdo and Rose Tico are also great. Hell, there's an argument that Rose is the main character of The Last Jedi (at the very least, she's definitely the movie's heart).

I also want to applaud the amount of diversity in the casting. Not just major characters, either - the rank and file Resistance personnel and pilots are far more reflective of the real world than we've ever seen in a Star Wars movie. Kudos!

All that said, I felt a little cheated when it came to Rey, the MVP from The Force Awakens. She's still good here, and her scenes with Luke are a joy to watch (as were her interactions with another returning character who won't be named here, in case anyone ignored the previous 17 spoiler warnings), but the focus definitely seemed to drift away from her this time. I'm not sure this was a bad choice - it leaves them open to do more with her in the next movie - but I'd been hoping to see more of her journey than I got.

The other thing worth noting - and again, I'm not entirely sure this was a flaw - is that movie noticeably leans heavier on CG than The Force Awakens did. It looks good most of the time, and there are some nice payoffs, including some wonderful alien creatures and some cool new ship designs, but they lost a bit of the tactile, handmade feel that Episode VII delivered.

Is this better than The Force Awakens? Worse? I tried parsing that out when I left the theater and almost gave myself a headache. The Force Awakens succeeded in resurrecting the Star Wars Universe with a new cast of fascinating characters, but it followed the outline of its predecessors far too closely. The Last Jedi took the characters from Force Awakens and made them even better, then it tossed in story development you actually care about. But, at least in my opinion, it doesn't quite pull off the same visual feat.

I'll let others argue which is better - I love them both. I'm excited to see where these characters go from here and how the franchise develops.

So my recommendation is to get out to the theater and see this. Again, I mean, because obviously you've already watched it at least once.