Friday, December 31, 2021

2021 Retrospective

2021 broke me. I mean, I think this year broke all of us, but I'm not talking existential quandaries, psychological breakdowns, or emotional issues. It probably left a mark in those areas, as well, but for now I'm talking about how I categorize media. In past years, I tried to differentiate between TV movies and "real" movies. This of course has become more and more difficult over time, as movies intended for theaters have been redirected to streaming and movies made for streaming have gotten bigger. I sort of went by instinct for the last few years, and I probably could have again this time, but...

Ultimately, I decided I didn't care enough about being fair. So this time, the list includes everything - every single movie I saw in 2021 that was released domestically this year. All of them.

Yes, that includes all the crappy Christmas movies I sat through for Mainlining Christmas.

As always, these are ranked from my least to most favorite, which won't always perfectly match my opinion as to which are better or worse. I know we're talking gradations of subjectivity, but I do genuinely believe there's a difference.

There are a lot of movies I didn't get to, either, particularly recent theatrical releases. I want to see Eternals and Far From Home, but between having a young kid and there being - you know - a goddamn pandemic, it's just not worth it. Everything below was streamed or watched on Blu-ray. There are a few places it probably made a difference, but who knows?

Before I get started with the list, there's one "movie" I need to revisit that - try as I might - I just can't rank. It's simply too unique an artifact, for both better and worse, to compare against anything that came out this year.

NOT RANKED: Zack Snyder's Justice League

I wrestled with whether to include this. It's somewhat unique among modern movies, to the point I hesitate to use the word at all. It almost feels more like a miniseries stitched together, which makes sense, since at one point it was literally going to be released as a miniseries.

There are aspects to this that are absolutely worthy of praise. Some of the effects are jaw-dropping: for all his faults, Zack Snyder knows how to deliver on spectacle. And some of the character beats are fantastic. But the pacing here was just awful, and the tonal shifts were in some ways worse than the theatrical version.

My main takeaway was that we got two versions of Justice League, and both were completely wrong. The 2017 movie was a studio-mandated mess devoid of vision, while the Snyder Cut was... well, it was entirely the vision of a guy who probably shouldn't have had full control of something like this. He's a good director who needs someone competent holding the reins, but the executives producing Justice League in 2017 were about as far from competent as you can get. 

What Warner Bros should have made in the first place is a version that looked like this but was cut to around 2.5 hours. I still don't think that would have been a great film, but it could have been fun, impressive, and had an impact. Neither version we got really worked, and yet both have merits.

The Snyder Cut is just too self-serious and bloated to be good. At the same time, there are too many great moments and incredible images for it to be bad. I really can't fairly rank this against conventional movies - it's an entirely different creature.

29. Love Hard

Usually, the subjective approach is mainly a factor on the other end of this list, where the top spot is won by something great that appeals to me personally and beats out other great movies. Love Hard, however, exists on the opposite side of the spectrum: it's being punished because I hate it. And while this isn't great or really even all that good (I think "fine" is a fair assessment), my hatred comes a few directions.

Put simply, this movie succeeds in doing things I hate and fails in areas I love. The former primarily refers to the style of awkward, uncomfortable humor it employs competently. The latter references its subject matter and choice of pop-culture references, none of which it displays a shred of comprehension about.

On top of that, the movie is (with apologies to those of you sick of the word) problematic. It comes disturbingly close to embracing a regressive misogynistic ideology that is all too real. If you can overlook that, you might find this enjoyable - again, it's not badly made. But all that was a deal breaker for me. I couldn't stand this thing.

28. Father Christmas is Back

Almost certainly the worst movie on this list, Father Christmas is Back is saved from the last spot by virtue of being forgettable. This thing just kind of landed with a thud, like a turd hitting a floor, an image I assure you is in this movie. The experience of watching is an empty experience I took virtually nothing away with. But in this case, that also means I didn't finish the movie with any real animosity. If ever there was damning with faint praise, that would be it: I didn't care about this enough to hate it, so it beats out a better movie. Take from that what you will.

27. A Castle for Christmas

Lacking even a basic understanding of cinematic language, A Castle for Christmas makes me reconsider both my ranking and my assertion that Father Christmas is Back is the worst movie on this list. But while Father Christmas was empty, this is a cinematic vacuum sucking in all feeling. It is, I think, less than empty, offering little indication a script was written before, during, or after production. It was a romance that couldn't manage to put its leads on screen together long enough to provide any sort of justification for a relationship, instead filling its runtime with numerous musical montages that did nothing to move the nonexistent story forward.

But, hey, some of the music was all right, and Cary Elwes played one of the leads (they even did his hair up like Westley when they wanted him to come off as likeable). So, I guess that's enough to edge out Father Christmas is Back on this ranking. Close call, though.

26. Home Sweet Home Alone

This was, of course, bad, but so were Home Alones 2 through 5. Hell, the original isn't all that good, either.

This iteration complicates the situation by fixing the underlying problems with the first movie (and all subsequent films), at the expense of everything that made any of them at all appealing to anyone. That sacrifice probably would have bothered me more if I'd actually found any of those appealing.

Even so, the improvements are entirely cerebral - I respect what the script sets out to do on a structural level. Unfortunately, it doesn't manage to be funny or endearing in the process, so I can't say I particularly enjoyed the experience beyond taking a little bit of pleasure out of deconstructing how the franchise was deconstructing itself.

25. Mortal Kombat

I liked this more than a lot of critics - probably more than half, honestly - but the best I can do is "mediocre." To be fair, there's some really good stuff in the movie. Most of that was also in the trailer, but it still counts. In addition, the first half flirts with crossing into "so bad it's good" territory, which isn't a bad goal for this type of movie. But it becomes less fun as it goes, which is unfortunate.

To its credit, it never takes itself too seriously, I like the opening, and a lot of the Sub-Zero sequences are great... but that just isn't enough.

24. Those Who Wish Me Dead

A lot of people have pointed out Those Who Wish Me Dead is basically Cliffhanger in a forest fire, which is accurate but oddly forgets Cliffhanger was Die Hard on a mountain, making this at minimum a second gen knock-off.

Rating the movie's quality is unusually tricky, because the question I keep running into is "compared to what?" It doesn't really hold its own against, well, the two movies I just mentioned, but... is it supposed to? This was clearly made on a lower budget and was aiming for less excitement and more of an emotional connection. And, in that regard, it sort of kind of works. Maybe?

In some ways, it's caught in a catch-22: Jolie is great in the lead role, but her very presence keeps raising expectations for both quality and spectacle. Fair or not, the movie can't keep up with its lead.

That said, there are a handful of impressive choices here. I like that the movie subverts your expectations regarding heroes and action clichés by having Medina Senghore basically come out of left field and turn out to be the actual badass. Sure, Angelina gets her moment, but everyone who underestimated the pregnant lady lived to regret it (albeit briefly).

But despite some decent swerves, the movie still feels a little too much like a generic '90s action/disaster mashup. Yes, it innovates a bit here and there, but the same can be said for basically any movie from that decade it's emulating. And it doesn't help that the effects frankly fall short of most memorable movies from that era.

This is certainly fine if it's what you're in the mood for - it's decent enough for what it is - but that's certainly not a ringing endorsement.

23. Reminiscence

Here's the thing: I'm honestly a sucker for this stuff. I mean, I like science fiction, and I like noir, and when you put them together, I almost always like the result.

And yet... I did not like this movie.

Okay, to be fair, I liked the setting. The post-apocalyptic coastal cities were fascinating; at once eerie and beautiful. I found that aspect compelling.

Unfortunately, the stuff going on in that setting was boring. There were some interesting ideas, but the dialogue was clunky and the voiceover distracting. On top of all that, the editing felt like it was drawing everything out to an agonizing degree. This was hard to sit through. And, again, I generally really like this stuff. Hell, I gave Mute a pass.

22. Flora & Ulysses

I feel like Disney has a long tradition of making movies that feel like they'd be better imagined as pilots to TV shows, and this falls firmly in that camp. The content comprising this was enjoyable - very enjoyable, in fact - but the overall movie lacked substance. I liked the characters and the jokes, but it felt like whatever story or theme drove the book was lost in adaptation. Every scene feels inspired and entertaining, but it didn't really add up to anything meaningful. You can get away with that in a television series, but movies need more payoff than this delivered.

Still, the cast and dialogue alone make this worth seeing. It was fun - shame it wasn't good.

21. Raya and the Last Dragon

There was a period in the late '90s/early '00s when Disney animation seemed intent on constantly sabotaging its own attempts to move in new and interesting directions. Remember Treasure Planet and Atlantis: The Lost Empire? Those were clearly the product of creators eagerly trying to push Disney out of its comfort zone, only to have their efforts watered down by executives demanding anything and everything be crammed into their movies. At least that's my impression based on the finished product - I'm not researching any of this. 

Nor am I interested in researching the behind-the-scenes situation with Raya and the Last Dragon, a similarly beautiful setting and intriguing premise undercut with... well... everything. And I do mean just about everything.

The core is really neat. There's some wonderful fantasy, along with some exhilarating action. But then there's also a bunch of fandom-referencing anachronistic dialogue. And some comic relief. And the dragons are basically designed to look like the main characters of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (also, the story and theme appear to be lifted from an episode of that show, but let's ignore that for now). And then there's a quartet of side characters who are basically imported from Looney Tunes.

None of these ideas are inherently bad. The fandom stuff is jarring, but had it been sustained or gone somewhere, it could have potentially made an interesting statement on our assumptions around fantasy tropes and clichés. But they don't sustain it: most of the dialogue is stylized to mimic standard fantasy conventions, so when they start chatting like teens chatting online, it's just confusing. Likewise, the ridiculous comic relief gang consisting of three magic monkeys and a super-powered baby are actually kind of funny if you look at them in isolation, but in the midst of an already overcrowded movie, they're mostly just confusing.

Like I said before, I haven't taken the time to research whether there's evidence this movie was the result of studio interference, but that's certainly the impression I got watching it. It's a mess of random ideas, conflicting tones, and mismatched styles that has enough genuinely good moments to somewhat redeem itself, but not enough to be more than - or even equal to - the sum of its parts.

20. 8-Bit Christmas

This is one of those movies that manages to be "good enough." It's funny and engaging enough, but it doesn't leave much of an impression. That's not entirely a bad thing - this was made in an attempt to duplicate the inexplicable and unearned success A Christmas Story has enjoyed, so it shouldn't be too surprising it sticks with a similar formula. The goal is to make a movie that's always amusing but never compelling, something you can leave on in the background to entertain the kids.

19. Jungle Cruise

I'm not really sure what to say about Jungle Cruise, a movie that was much better than it probably should have been but still was basically just fine. Conceptually, it was clearly an attempt to mashup The Mummy and the first Pirates of the Caribbean film - rarely have movies been more upfront as to their influences. To a degree, it was successful, or rather successful enough: it manages to repackage more of the magic from those than I'd have expected. But at the same time, there's a sense of artificiality about the whole thing, like it's being assembled competently, but there's barely an ounce of inspiration in the whole ordeal. It's not just that the movie lacks any real originality, but that's certainly a factor.

And yet the characters are fun, the world is interesting, and the adventure distracting enough. The movie never really feels good, but it manages to stay entertaining enough not to outstay its welcome. Hardly high praise, but - again - I'm honestly shocked it didn't turn out significantly worse. "Fine" is probably more than we should have hoped for. 

18. Black Widow

In some ways, Black Widow reminded me of Thor: The Dark World, and I don't entirely mean that in a bad way. A lot of people remember The Dark World as the worst entry in the MCU, and... okay, there's a case to be made. But for all its faults, it's also got a lot of great stuff. Hero Loki basically got his start there, and the third act was delightfully absurd.

Like The Dark World, Black Widow is a tonal mess with an underdeveloped villain, but it also gave us some fantastic new characters, with David Harbour's Red Guardian being the prime example. The opening was a great spy story, and that middle section with the "family" together was an absolute joy.

But for everything it got right, it stumbled in its attempt to maintain a tone or bring its themes together. I had fun - this is still Marvel, after all - but it's one of the series weaker entries.

17. Retfærdighedens Ryttere [Riders of Justice]

More an exercise in existentialism than an action flick, Riders of Justice is thoughtful and surprisingly poignant. It takes an archetype who'd be worshipped in a conventional genre flick and instead makes him genuinely uncomfortable to be around. It's a smart, compelling movie that challenges how we look at action heroes.

That said, the ending feels off to me. Like, really off. It's not exactly that I dislike it, it just that it doesn't quite align with what came before. And I can't help but think that may be because it was a last-minute addition. 

16. My Little Pony: A New Generation

The smartest thing A New Generation does is not compete with Friendship is Magic. Tonally, it settles for "conventional CG animated movie", as opposed to "epic fantasy/comedy/superhero cartoon." While this is - in my opinion, at least - less interesting a target, I don't think there was any chance it could instantly match (or even approach) Friendship is Magic on its own turf.

As a fairly conventional animated movie, this is pretty good. And it retains enough of the whimsy, humor, and fun of its predecessor to be worth watching. On top of all that, the villains are basically Trump supporters, so bonus points for that.

Also, having Ken Jeong reprise his role as Chang (using virtually the same arc as season 3, no less) was a nice surprise. Not bad for a non-Pixar CG movie.

15. In the Heights

I mean, it's great. Quite a bit better than its placement on this list would imply, but even if I were aiming for objectivity rather than personal preference, I'd still be at a loss how to rate something like this. Do you consider the musical on its own merits, or just try and judge how well it was adapted for the screen? Do you penalize your rating for areas the two mediums can't possibly bridge?

I'd be at a disadvantage, anyway, since I never actually saw In the Heights performed. But I can still make out some of the spots where decisions were made to transform the show into a movie. It's always a tough call - which conventions stay, which go, which are treated diegetically, which are imaginary, what should be treated seriously, what's a joke... Err too much towards realism, and you lose the spirit of the material (looking at you, Sweeney Todd); too far the other way, and you're left with something that feels cartoonish (I don't hate Disney's Into the Woods, but I think it falls into this trap).

In the Heights walks that tightrope, and it makes it look easy. It delivers a world that feels larger than life but still somehow grounded and believable. It's not my favorite movie musical by a longshot, but honestly I think it's one of the best, particularly as an example for how you actually make these work.

That said, I think there's a limit to what it can do with the material. That's not a slight against the material, mind you - I think this material is great as a stage musical. But stage musicals don't need a strong, central protagonist, while movies do. There's a bit of awkwardness around the show's desire to be about a community and the movie's desire to be about a character. I don't think they made a mistake here - more that they got caught in a catch-22 that came with adapting the play.

Regardless, the movie's great. Amazing cast, amazing design, amazing direction from [checks notes] the guy who made GI Joe: Retaliation (Jon M. Chu honestly has had one of the weirdest career paths in Hollywood). This one really, really works.

14. A Boy Called Christmas

Despite numerous flaws, this won me over with a core that was impressively sweet and honest. On top of that, this featured some genuinely beautiful images and effects (the shadow story in particular stuck with me). I really enjoyed this, despite a weak narrative and some major tonal issues.

13. Godzilla vs. Kong

Compared to most showdowns of this kind, Godzilla vs. Kong is fairly streamlined. It's less interested in why the title monsters are fighting than in the sheer spectacle of the showdown. This is neither a good nor bad strategy on its own: it just means the movie will sink or swim on the quality of that spectacle. And fortunately this one delivers. It looks awesome, so it doesn't really matter that Godzilla blasting a hole to the center of the Earth makes, for countless reasons, absolutely no goddamn sense. Nor does it matter that the villains are able to upload an energy signature that instantly grants them unlimited power.

You can nitpick this to your heart's content, but it won't change the fact the experience of watching this was a ton of fun.

12. Encanto

There's a lot to love here, but I really want to highlight just how not Disney this Disney animated flick is. First, it's a fantasy where the stakes are essentially limited to one family. Not even their lives: this is really about whether or not they lose their home. I mean, really the stakes have more to do with their emotional health and relationships, but still: no kingdoms hinged on the outcome, the fate of the world isn't being decided, the balance of nature isn't at risk... just a family drama. How refreshing.

Likewise, I think this was the first Disney animated movie with a female protagonist in decades which wasn't about the fact it wasn't about her being a princess who falls in love. This wasn't following the Disney formula, but it wasn't subverting it, either. It was its own thing. What an incredible concept.

And its own thing was pretty damn good. It's sweet, with a great soundtrack and lovely animation. So. Why isn't this higher?

Well, first of all, this is pretty high on the list as it is. But what I feel is missing is a bit more surprise. The movie establishes its premise pretty fast, and the rest of the film plays out more or less as expected. The themes, in particular, are pretty clear in the first fifteen minutes, and the movie doesn't throw many curveballs at us.

Still, a really good movie, just not as memorable as I'd have liked.

11. Luca

Luca is lovely, both visually and as a story. It isn't a grand epic or even a small story told with the weight of a grand epic (Pixar loves those). Instead, it's a simple coming of age story with hints of romance. It's funny, sweet, and effective. I liked this one a lot. 

10. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

The family drama stuff was fine but kind of by-the-numbers. The epic fantasy sequences are solid - I enjoyed them quite a bit, largely thanks to how weird they were allowed to get - but they always felt a bit CG heavy. The action in general was really good.

In short, no major complaints, but nothing to justify placing this anywhere near this high on  the list. Until, that is...

It's the stuff with Shang-Chi and Katy. Particularly them at the end. It was just an absolute joy seeing how little becoming superheroes really changes them. Give me a damn Disney+ show that's just Simu Liu and Awkwafina hanging out at karaoke bars when they should be preparing for battles where the fate of the multiverse hangs in the balance. I'd watch the hell out of that.

9. The Green Knight

There's a lot that I could say about The Green Knight (hell, there's a lot I've already said), but the truth is it's less the thematic complexity than the visual style that appeals to me most. This movie is just gorgeous to look at.

And on top of that, yeah, it's Arthurian. God I love those legends. And despite countless tries, it's been four decades since the last good adaptation came out. Bonus points there, as well.

The reason it's not higher is mainly because I find aspects frustrating. To be fair, I'm pretty certain those aspects are intended to be frustrating. I get the ending, appreciate why it's clever, and I respect the choice. It works for me intellectually but not emotionally, if that makes sense.

Well, honestly, it still works for me emotionally, just not enough to bump it into the top tier. I have a feeling I might find myself regretting that in the future. This feels like one of those movies I might wind up revisiting a lot, particularly because it's a Christmas story.

8. The Matrix Resurrections

Easily my favorite installment in the franchise, Resurrections approaches its subject and world with a playful sense of glee missing from the originals. It's weird, funny, and experimental in ways you'd never expect from a film of this scale. It's not at all unusual for nostalgic reboots to be about the relationship between the originals and the fans (the Disney Star Wars, for example, goes this route), but I don't think I've ever seen a movie be this honest about where it comes from and where it wants to go.

More than that, this movie is wish fulfillment. It's the cinematic equivalent of its creator playing with her toys and daring audiences to whine about it. I know that's upsetting some people, but I found the experience refreshing and genuinely joyful.

7. Cruella

Yeah. I think it is this high.

Some of this might be expectations - I really didn't expect much out of this - and some it is that this particular blend of stylized, self-aware quirky character study just works for me. The movie definitely has problems, starting with the much-maligned death of Cruella's mother and continuing through to the unwelcome post-credit sequence.

But for all its faults, this was also an unapologetic supervillain period story. In short, this is a Disnified spin on Joker, which it turns out would have been a lot better that way. What Cruella understands that Joker doesn't is that supervillains should be, well, fun. And this is ridiculously fun. A lot of the credit goes to Stone, who sells the lead and carries the movie. But it's also worth noting the dialogue is actually solid for its genre.

The real surprise, though, is that the movie isn't interested in moralizing. Sure, it's got lines it won't cross, but despite ostensibly being a kid's movie, it never tries to tell the audience it's wrong to steal or seek revenge or torment one's enemies. Cruella is a criminal, and the movie celebrates that, freeing the movie up to have fun with her schemes. I could have done without the obligatory "learn the true meaning of family and friendship" stuff, but why quibble?

This is easily my second favorite Disney live-action remake after Jungle Book. I'm glad I gave it a chance.

6. The Mitchells Vs. The Machines

I'd say this one caught me off guard, but the truth is by the time I got around to watching it, I'd heard it was pretty damn awesome. Fortunately, knowing it was going to be great spoiled absolutely nothing, and I still had a blast. The jokes were hilarious, the drama was touching, and the animation was delightfully bonkers. This was great.

In fact, it was so great, it almost made a run for the top of my list. What holds it back a bit are a few sequences (mainly action beats) where the movie went for slapstick when I wanted something else. This is, of course, a minor quibble, and a subjective one at that. But as I keep pointing out, this is a subjective list.

Overall, I loved this movie. The characters were completely ridiculous and utterly absurd, and I still cared about them and - in a weird way - they felt real to me. That's a hell of an accomplishment.

5. The Suicide Squad

This was a weird, convoluted movie. Structurally, it was far more similar to the first Suicide Squad movie than I was expecting, between the flashbacks, cutaways, and use of music. Obviously, though, it was far superior. The humor, emotion, and thematic core were among the best we've seen in the genre.

I rewatched this several times, and the characters keep growing on me. The movie is a lot of fun, and also surprisingly thoughtful. At times, it can become downright poetic: the flashback with Ratcatcher almost feels like a fairytale.

I really like this one.

4. Hilda and the Mountain King

Okay, this one is cheating. I don't I'm cheating by putting it here - I mean the movie is cheating by using unfair tactics to climb its way this high, despite being significantly less expensive. Hilda and the Mountain King is a Netflix movie that concludes a storyline running through the animated series, Hilda. The movie is done in the same animation style with the same voice cast.

Which... okay, first of all, none of that's a bad thing. The animation in the series, while simplistic compared to big budget movies, is gorgeous and evocative. The cast is great, and the writing is on par with the best in the medium. The show is just amazing.

The "cheating" part comes from the fact the movie requires the series to work. It's a direct continuation to a cliffhanger at the end of season 2, and the character arcs all build on established storylines. This isn't a standalone movie in any sense - it's the next chapter. Possibly the final chapter: I'm a little unclear on whether they're making more or not.

Basically, this movie is standing on the shoulders of the series, and I'm effectively reacting to it as if it's all one emotional journey. Is that fair? Who gives a crap? Hilda is amazing, and this movie is a satisfying finale. Go watch it all immediately. 

3. The Harder They Fall

This is probably the closest thing to a flawless film I saw this year. Every element, every choice, every shot, and every edit just felt perfect, resulting in one of the most fun pieces of entertainment I've encountered in a long time.

The only reason this isn't higher is that - by necessity - the movie's intellectual themes and emotional themes don't entirely work together. As I said in my review, I don't consider this a flaw: on the contrary, it's a major part of the reason I think this movie is brilliant. But it does hold back my enjoyment a hair. If this were a less impressive year, I don't think that would be enough, but honestly 2021 was about as close to a 4 or 5 way tie as this gets.

2. Dune, Part 1

Should this be a spot higher? Maybe. It was so close. I loved every minute of this movie. It was one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen, and I don't doubt for a second it would be my #1 pick for the year if I'd seen it in an IMAX theater, as it was intended.

But I didn't see it that way, and - honestly - I kind of resent the implication that I should have to. Even without the pandemic, I'm busy. I've got a young kid, and free time is a rare luxury. I'd have loved to see this on a big screen, but it wasn't going to happen this year.

If I was rating this on a best to worst scale... honestly, I think that would have been harder, because I'd have to consider whether cutting a narrative in half at a fairly arbitrary point is an objective flaw. I didn't mind that - I just wanted so see some sandworms and space ships in a movie where the dialogue and direction didn't distract from the beauty. And damn did this overdeliver on that promise. It was just a joy to watch.

But was it my favorite movie of the year? Not quite. It might have been my favorite cinematic experience, but it's not the one I look back on with the widest grin. Close call, though. Really damn close. 

1. Shadow in the Cloud

This movie shouldn't work.

It doesn't have the budget to pull of its effects, the premise is significantly more complex than it has to be, there are multiple major tonal shifts... I have no idea how this got made.

But I'm so glad it did. The sheer audacity of Roseanne Liang's directing, coupled with some phenomenal acting from Chloë Grace Moretz, just sell the hell out of its outlandish, gonzo ideas and set-pieces. The movie's main action sequence looks completely unrealistic - they clearly didn't have the money to match their ambitions - and I almost think that helps it. Modern big-budget productions would have relied on visual effects instead of acting and editing. Because this couldn't trust its effects to wow audiences, it had to find other solutions. Or maybe Liang and Moretz are just that good.

Shadow in the Cloud isn't afraid to be weird. It's audacious and bizarre on a level you don't see often enough. I've seen the whole thing at least four times already, and I've lost track of the number of times I've rewatched the last act. It's a movie with something to say - something important to say, no less - but honestly what keeps pulling me back is how much fun the ending is. The energy is just off the charts, and I find the resolution about as satisfying as any I've ever encountered in this genre. I know a lot of more hardcore horror fans disagree, but I just love it.


I honestly think this was a pretty good year for movies and TV shows. Also, literally nothing else. Entertainment was good, the world has just been abysmal. Between the seemingly endless line of nightmare variants consistently popping up the minute it feels like things might be improving, the barrage of environmental disasters, and the ongoing concern for the stability of US democracy, things kind of suck.

But, hey, WandaVision was pretty rad, and I really liked a bunch of those movies. So... I guess we should take the rare win where we can get it. Here's hoping we continue seeing good movies in 2022.

Also, let's hope some of that other shit gets better, because I am really, really tired.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Movie Review: The Matrix Resurrections

In March of 1999, I was just wrapping up my first year at college. I went to a school that didn't have majors, but for all intents and purposes I was studying philosophy. I was also a huge fan of genre, including science-fiction. With all that background, you'd probably assume I loved The Matrix. Well... no, not really.

I saw it at a packed midnight showing, and when the movie ended, I remember thinking, "That's it?" I'd thought the action was good (though it didn't leave me in awe, the way it did so many in my generation). And I thought the characters were fine and all, but the underlying ideas kind of struck me as simplistic. Fair or not, the basic story boils down to a rehash of Plato's Cave Allegory, an idea that struck me as an interesting place to start, but a bit cliché for a central twist.

Basically, The Matrix wasn't weird or imaginative enough for me. It was a solid adventure flick, but - at least as far as my brain could discern - not much more. I honestly couldn't understand at the time why it was considered as groundbreaking as it was.

I'll admit I was a bit snobbish. And if I could go back in time and inform myself that the philosophy 101 stuff wasn't everything going on, I'd do so.

The point is, I never really loved The Matrix, and I thought less of the sequels. The second and third movies actually checked off the boxes I wanted in terms of philosophical depth and a more developed world, but the pacing just didn't work for me. My opinion of those was always that they were really good as a philosophy dissertation and really bad as movies.

In short, I never loved any movie in this series.

Until now.

Resurrections, the fourth installment in the series, is a delight. I know it's divisive as hell, and it's easy to see why (more on that in a moment), but it finally gives me what I've always wanted out of the series: real, honest-to-god weirdness delivered in an intelligent manner.

I feel like I should drop a spoiler warning here. I'm not exactly going to go into the plot of this thing, but I think any discussion about the experience of seeing Resurrections is going to require some details and aspects that aren't apparent from the marketing. There's a real chance you'll be better off learning about these things before watching, though I'm really glad I went in blind.

Last chance if anyone wants to jump ship, pay for a month of HBO Max, and watch it now.

All right then. Let's discuss this batshit crazy ode to joy and love. Because, first and foremost, that's what it is. The original was a sort of dark, modern folktale that ended on an ambiguously hopeful note. The sequels went even darker, trying to show that sacrifice was necessary to enact change. This one...

It's a fairytale. When I say that word, I don't mean it in a dark sense, either. This is literally, unapologetically, completely a fairytale set in the world of the Matrix. It's closer to Jupiter Ascending than to the other Matrix films.

It looks back on the original films honestly, celebrating what made them meaningful to many, while at the same time critiquing elements that inadvertently empowered hate groups. It also rejects the cynicism that lay at the heart of the originals, choosing instead to embrace hope, love, and forgiveness.

To appreciate the degree to which Lana Wachowski has transformed the franchise, I think it helps to look at the number of named characters killed over the course of the movie. I don't mean characters who died between Revolutions and Resurrections (of which there are several) but the number who actually die in this installment.

The number is zero. No one dies. Not one major character - or minor one, for that matter - is killed (unless I'm forgetting something). Some almost die, but the importance of protecting each other is given a higher priority this time around. Meanwhile, vengeance isn't. This is a rejection of grim, bleak storytelling.

This movie has a sense of humor and a love for the bizarre. The fourth wall becomes a running joke, and the movie delights in playing with the audience's relationship and understanding of the franchise. I'm sure some viewers will interpret all this as a joke at the expense of the franchise. And, to be fair, it kind of is - the movie doesn't take itself all that seriously. This is, at its core, a self-referential film exploring the very nature of returning to a franchise decades later. It essentially shrugs off concerns of fan service by refusing to be anything but. Only in this case, the fan being catered to is the co-creator of the franchise.

This is the story Lana wants to tell for the sheer joy of telling it. These are her toys, and she's going to play with them the way she wants to. And it's a genuine pleasure to watch her having so much fun.

The movie is far from perfect, of course. The second act drags a bit, and there really weren't any action beats delivering iconic, awesome moments like we got in the original (though the movie kind of addresses that by poking fun at the assumption there should be).

But those are minor complaints. I had a lot of fun watching this, and - as long as you set aside any expectation this will or even should try and recreate the feel or flavor of the original - I think you might, as well.

Friday, November 5, 2021

Movie Review: The Harder They Fall

The Harder They Fall is an intellectual film that explores and contextualizes the history of its genre, but it's also just fucking fun as all hell to watch. It's like someone made one of the year's best popcorn flicks and fused it at a molecular level with a graduate-level lecture on film history, somehow without sacrificing one iota of either. And that... it's just... I'm kind of speechless.

Let's start with the brainy stuff. The movie is, obviously, a western. Not a parody of westerns: it's wholly operating within the rules of that genre. I think this is key to understanding The Harder They Fall: it's not breaking or bending those rules but rather exploiting loopholes.

Westerns have always prioritized myth over reality, they've never worried about anachronisms, and they've always been maybe a quarter step away from being musicals. These elements are intrinsic to the genre. The Harder They Fall just tweaks some of the conventions to generate something a little more modern.

I don't mean "modern" in a sense of differentiating this from history - again, westerns aren't set in the actual historical west anymore than Disney fairytales are set in the historical middle ages. When I say this movie modernizes the western, I mean it's what the western would (or at least should) have evolved into if the genre had never gone out of fashion. If they'd remained as popular for the past forty years as they'd been in the previous forty and had been able to continue innovating, I think this is what they'd have grown into as the genre matured. 

All of which is interesting but almost besides the point, because - as I said at the start - this thing is just delightful. It's got the dialogue of a Marvel film (the really good ones, I mean), top-notch action, as much style as anything I've seen this year, a hell of a cast, and a great soundtrack tying it all together. The movie is hilarious and engaging. Every character in it is likeable, including the antagonists. It's just a wonderful experience, start to finish.

All of this does come with a bit of a price, however. Not a steep price, but still one I feel I should mention. The experience works as a whole, but I'm not sure it actually works better than the sum of its parts. To be clear, this isn't a complaint. The movie delivers everything it promises and then some. And, at the risk of contradicting myself, it does amount to something larger - that's what the first part of this review was about.

The point of the movie is that history is more than the actions of a handful of straight, white men, and if westerns are mythologized history, said mythology must extend beyond that limited scope. There's nothing intrinsic to the western genre that should limit it to white people - in fact, expanding both the scope of the characters the genre is exploring and the scope of music and culture it incorporates has the potential to revitalize that genre. The movie effectively makes that argument simply by existing and being that good.

It's a hell of an intellectual accomplishment coupled with a hell of an entertaining piece of art, but all that doesn't leave much room for an emotional core. That's not to say the movie lacks emotion altogether; the emotional beats are solid. But they're solid in the way really good blockbusters are solid: this movie is a bit formulaic. It kind of has to be - it's operating within the blueprint of the genre to demonstrate how different the end product feels when the style is updated and the characters aren't photocopies of John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. If they'd changed up the formula too much, they'd risk this being less of a western, which would diminish the point.

That does mean sacrificing a bit of emotional resonance, but the trade-off is more than worth it. This thing is easily one of the most intriguing and enjoyable genre films of the year. If you're paying for a Netflix subscription, you owe it to yourself to watch this.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Movie Review: Dune Part 1

I'm at a bit of a loss for things to say about Dune that aren't evident from a combination of the trailer and the knowledge it's directed by Denis Villeneuve. This is, for all intents and purposes, exactly the movie (or at least the first half of the movie) you'd expect to get if the director of Blade Runner 2049 took a stab at Dune. Personally, that's exactly what I wanted out of this. But, as was the case with 2049, your mileage could easily vary.

Once again, we're left with less a movie than an experience, even more so because it's only a partial adaptation of the source material. There's a story and characters, but all it all feels secondary to the world. That's not to say the characters are at all bad - I think they're well above par for this genre - but they almost don't matter. Same goes for the plot: it all feels like the rail in an amusement park ride. Every character and story beat is an opportunity to explore the setting or hint at the depth of the backstory. It provides direction and momentum, but really we're here for the backdrop.

If that sounds like a chore, it probably will be, but...

God, what a world. Very few movies are this successful at pulling you in, and even fewer come close to offering you anything this awe-inspiring. The scale is simply magnificent. Every detail feels right in a way that comes off as organic. Nothing feels artificial or out of place - it's incredible to see and hear.

All of that's true of Blade Runner 2049, as well, though by its nature that story felt smaller and more personal, while this delivers something epic in scope. So far, 2049 edges this out for me, though we'll have to wait for part 2 to see if that holds.

Assuming, of course, part 2 ever materializes. I know Warner Bros has all but promised to make it, but I didn't trust them before they were sold; now there are no doubt more voices in the room. I certainly hope we get the second half of the story, but even if we don't this is still wonderous. A sequel would resolve the plot, but - again - that's a secondary consideration. A conclusion would be icing; we already got the cake.

The cast is fantastic, though it's a bit distracting spotting actor after actor from existing franchises. Almost everyone with any screen time is instantly recognizable from Star Wars, the MCU, the DC Universe, Mission: Impossible, and so on. I almost feel like they need to cast one of the stars from Fast & the Furious to check off the last box.

It's also worth noting the ending feels small, partially because it's not really an ending at all and partly because the last fight in the movie is relatively minor. Again, this isn't an issue for me - I'm more than happy to follow along whatever path they want to take, so long as the scenery is nice enough - but I can't dispute anyone calling it anticlimactic.

Personally, I didn't have any serious issues with any of it - to me, it's virtually perfect (and I've never even read the source material). But exploring alien worlds is my bread and butter, and Dune delivers that as well or better than any movie ever has. I know that's not what everyone's after. If you want a story or a light adventure or a love story or anything other than what feels like a $160 million pilot to a TV show, you might find this alienating in a bad way.

I found it alienating in the best way possible - it brought me to an alien world. It let me touch me the sand and breathe in the spice. Even if there isn't a part 2, I'm grateful for the experience.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Movie Review: My Little Pony: A New Generation

It feels like it's been longer, but My Little Pony: The Movie came out four years ago. It says a lot about the state of the industry that it was the 2D tie-in that made it into theaters, while the more professional-looking CG installment wound up on Netflix. That's not intended as a slight against the 2017 movie - I liked it quite a bit - but I can't imagine anyone comparing the two and concluding that one was "more theatrical."

A little background for those of you who don't follow nerd stuff: the 2017 movie functioned as an extension of the television series, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. That series recently wrapped up its tenth and final season, which is an astonishing run in kid's media. Without going into too much detail, the series' success upended entrenched ideas about the value of animation aimed at a female audience, to say nothing of the impact it had on studios' willingness to gamble on female showrunners. Sadly, it also became a trailblazer in accidentally cultivating a toxic fanbase. The "Brony" thing may have started cute, but it sure as hell didn't stay that way.

Regardless, A New Generation represents a fairly ambitious attempt to reboot the franchise with new characters. There's a brief intro sequence tying this to the last iteration, though it's a tad ambiguous on whether Friendship is Magic should be regarded as a precursor or as myths that survived about that era. Either way, that's all the distant past.

Compared with Friendship is Magic, A New Generation is far more grounded. Part of this is due to the story, which is built around a generic "magic has left the world" premise, but even beyond that everything is significantly smaller in scope. The threats are political, rather than existential, and the power levels are more in line with other animated films, as opposed to the superheroics of Friendship is Magic.

Those "political threats" aren't subtle, either: this is My Little Pony for a divided world. The dangers are fear, xenophobia, and lies, and it's hard not to draw parallels between the villain and the guy we just tossed out of the White House. To be fair, that character's arc also works as a reference to season 3 of Community (they hired Ken Jeong for a reason, after all).

Of course, this is all going to go over the heads of the movie's target demographic. I assume the animation will keep them happy, though. This is more or less on par visually with most other non-Pixar CG films, which is to say it looks good, but isn't a visual masterpiece or anything. Same goes for the musical numbers: they're solid pop numbers that do the trick.

The humor mostly works, too, both for kids and adults. They maintained the tradition of interspersing references grown-ups will pick up on but kids will miss (the Community connection being one example).

Overall, I enjoyed this. It's cute, fun, and entertaining. I do think there was at least one plot point they could have smoothed over towards the end (they repeat a story beat they could probably have streamlined), but that's a minor quibble. Likewise, it's worth noting I found this effective and at times impressive, but not particularly moving. This is pretty good - it's not great or anything.

Lastly, I want to mention one aspect I find a little disheartening. Looking over the team of directors and producers driving this incarnation, it looks like the majority are men. Friendship is Magic was headed by women, and - while the new team did solid work - I think it's a misstep to move backwards on that front.

At any rate, if you've got Netflix, you've already got access to this. If you're a fan of the last show, this is worth a watch. And if you've got a kid the right age, they'll probably love it.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Movie Review: The Suicide Squad

Watching The Suicide Squad feels a lot like reading an issue of a comic entrenched in continuity you know nothing about. For better or worse (mostly better, but not entirely), this comes off as being part of something much, much larger than what's onscreen. Only that "larger thing" doesn't actually exist, so we're left to fend for ourselves. In other words, if there's a problem with The Suicide Squad (and, to be clear, that's a big IF), that problem is the DCEU. Because the movie is framed as a deviation from the norm, it's a bit awkward there's no real "norm" for it to deviate from. The last seven movies in this franchise are Justice League, Aquaman, Shazam, Birds of Prey, Wonder Woman 1984, Justice League again, and now this: if everything is weird, is anything? And more importantly, is that even an issue?

It's certainly a double-edged sword. The DCEU's lack of cohesion makes it more conducive to experimentation than the relatively focused MCU, but it also robs its successes of the contrast that contextualized the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. The Suicide Squad feels like it should also be interesting as part of its franchise, in addition to as its own story.

But since it's got to stand on its own merits, it's fortunate it's got merits to spare. The movie is overflowing with fascinating characters, thoughtful dialogue, and absurd action. It works simultaneously as a war story, a comedy, a satire, and - lest we forget - a superhero flick.

To be clear, there's a lot going on here. This is a movie that revels in gratuitous violence one moment, only to shift to a poignant philosophical or political point the next. When it's not ripping off heads, it's sweet, heartfelt, and at times shockingly beautiful. It cares deeply about its characters, even if the world they inhabit doesn't. The unapologetic fantasy elements in the trailers obscure the fact that this movie has a great deal to say about very real foreign policy.

Depending on your point-of-view, I think you could accurately describe the film as a whole as layered or patchwork. The themes resonate with the characters and their stories, but at the same time there are so many flashbacks, cutaways, and asides, it feels a little like you're being tricked into believing the plot is more complicated than it really is. This is more intended as an observation than a complaint: I think the style adds a great deal to the movie.

The characters are more or less universally wonderful. I felt a little shortchanged by several not getting enough screen time, but if you asked me for something to cut to free up space, I'd be at a loss. This definitely leaves you wanting more, but that's hardly a problem. The movie isn't above killing off minor characters for laughs, but when it wants you to feel a loss, it succeeds. Without giving too much away, I'll say it gave the character I'd least expect to care about a final line that stopped me in my tracks. And, to be clear, I'm the kind of person who expects to care about talking raccoons, tree men, and walking sharks. When I say this movie pulls out a surprise twist on a character's inner life and motives, trust it's something truly unexpected.

This is a great movie. Is it my favorite James Gunn movie? Nah, that's still Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2. It's not quite my favorite DCEU movie, either, though it's somewhere in the top tier alongside Wonder Woman, Birds of Prey, and Shazam. This is worth seeing, assuming you're not easily grossed out. For the record, I'm not big fan of gore, and nothing in this bothered me too much (and almost everything that came close was in the first ten minutes).

One last note I feel needs to be acknowledged: I watched Suicide Squad the only way that made sense to me, given the fact we're in a pandemic, and I've got a young child - on HBO Max. There is a very real possibility that impacted my reaction to the movie, so take that how you will.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Movie Review: Black Widow

By my count, there are at least four distinct movies in Black Widow, two of which I really enjoyed. If you're thinking that's a roundabout way of saying the film as a whole is something of a mess... well, you're not wrong. But I mean what I say about the good stuff: when this works, it really works. Of course I can't really talk about the component parts without at least acknowledging what they are, so consider this an extremely longwinded and needlessly confusing spoiler warning.

My guess is the script for Black Window went through quite a few iterations before reaching this point. It feels like a movie that started with a strong vision that got chipped away by studio notes and rewrites. The first act goes in some dark directions: we get some backstory and insight into Natasha and the world she comes from. Tonally, this clashes a bit with the jokes tossed in to maintain the MCU flavor, but it still worked for me. I thought it did a great job selling this as a darker corner of the same world.

After a few action sequences (more on these in a minute), the movie transitioned into a sort of Soviet superhero sitcom for a while. I really liked the spy thriller opening, but this... this I absolutely LOVED. It was weird, funny, and surprisingly touching. The characters were emotionally broken people, and it was a joy seeing them interact in almost a parody of 80's situation comedies.

You've probably already done the math, so here comes the stuff that disappointed me. First, the action. It's not so much that it leans heavily on CG and blue screens, or that it doesn't look real: that's true of a lot of the genre. The larger issue is it doesn't feel integrated into the story. The fights feel like distractions, and not particularly interesting ones. It doesn't help that most of the antagonists aren't distinct or interesting enough to be compelling. The only one with a personality stays offscreen most of the movie, and the rest are literally mindless puppets. This becomes a pretty big issue towards the end, when an army of nondescript enemies works against the theme they're supposed to represent.

And speaking of theme...

Here comes that "fourth movie", and I need to be very, very careful, because I have a feeling I'm going to be in bad company here. Black Widow tries to work in some social commentary, and it just didn't work for me. Before I go on, I'll acknowledge I'm a cisgender man, and it's entirely possible this will play better for other audiences.

To be clear, I think what Black Widow tries to say is good, and I like the concept behind how they're trying to say it. But I don't think the idea was given enough room to breathe, particularly because it was competing for screen time against themes of family, and those felt more developed. Themes built around misogyny and control came across as rushed and didn't deliver enough of a punch.

Ultimately, I think this was one of the MCU's weaker entries, though that's a long way from a failure. We still got great characters, including several new additions I'd like to see again. It's enjoyable enough to warrant a viewing or two, but aside from the aforementioned sitcom sequences, it's not all that memorable. It also raises the question why Disney+ is charging an extra $30 bucks for this but giving us far superior Marvel series free with subscription.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Movie Review: Shadow in the Cloud

By rights, this should be in one of those mini-review roundups I've been doing. This movie isn't all that new (its US release was on January 1, and it technically premiered last September). And I was going to just toss it into one of those. I even started typing up some thoughts. The thing is... it's just that...

This movie fucking rules, and I couldn't bring myself to relegate it to a few paragraphs.

More than that, this doesn't just rule in a conventional way. This isn't a situation where someone took a typical premise, produced a typical genre movie, and just managed to get everything right. This thing is weird as hell, its existence feels bizarrely anachronistic, and it delivers an experience that's as unique as it is, once again, fucking awesome.

If that's enough for you, please stop reading, open Hulu, and watch this batshit crazy horror/action/adventure hybrid for yourself. Just take it in. Maybe you'll love it like I do; maybe you'll be more bothered by the obvious seams where the movie's budget falls short. Either way, I promise, it's not what you're expecting.

For those of you still here, as always, I'll try and avoid plot points or twists, but I want to stress this thing isn't really powered by those. Its strength comes from visceral emotion and artistic audacity, and it's hard to talk about a movie like that without spoiling a bit of that experience. So, again, I'm inviting you - begging you even - to go watch Shadow in the Cloud without reading another word.

All right then. Since you're still here, let's talk about realism, or more accurately the absence thereof. This movie is untethered to reality in a way few modern movies are. What's almost more intriguing, however, is how it reveals that. Most movies that embrace truly impossible elements (I'm not just talking monsters - I mean physics and reason) do so upfront. They open with an acknowledgement of the absurd to get you onboard. They ask you to suspend your disbelief from the start, so you're not surprised when reality unravels. Think Tarantino movies or Speed Racer: these movies maintain a consistent tone to ensure they're not too jarring.

This does something a bit more subtle. With the exception of a monstrous creature, the first half of the movie is largely realistic. It uses this time to bring us into the point-of-view and psychology of its protagonist, played by Chloë Grace Moretz. It creates a claustrophobic environment for her and puts pressure on her from all sides. You see that pressure affect her. Scare her. Threaten her. You almost expect it to break her, only...

If she was going to break, she'd have broken a long time ago. The movie doesn't say this outright, but it shows us. It sells us on how tough she is, which matters, because we need to buy into that to accept what comes next.

We've seen heroines in horror movies pivot before - that's not new. I'm not sure I've seen it done this effectively. Everything in the movie builds to a moment when we watch Moretz lose her patience rather than her mind, and just as the first half was expressed by showing her being quite literally bottled up, the second half... well... you couldn't convey her mental state in anything resembling reality, anyway.

The movie's big set piece is, in a word, audacious. It would have been audacious in a movie with ten times the budget this had. Attempting it at all was absurd, and by rights it shouldn't work. We're talking trying to do a big-budget sequence without the budget, so they're left trying to sell an already ridiculous sequence with obvious green screens, silly-looking explosions, and not even a big enough fan to sell the wind in her hair.

And they knock it out of the goddamn park.

None of it looks real or believable. But because of the way the movie's structured, it doesn't have to. Because we're in the head of the protagonist, we only need to believe in her motives and determination. We don't need to believe any of this is real; we need to experience the story on its own terms.

They used to make genre movies this way. They used to sell fantastic ideas with actors and stories rather than trying for flawless effects. I'm not saying that philosophy was always better, but it's refreshing to see it used again, and even more refreshing to see it used that well.

It's also refreshing to hear it. This thing also tosses out the assumption movie music should disappear into the background. Shadow in the Cloud features a delightfully retro soundtrack that makes its presence known, and I love it.

I love a lot of things about this movie. I love that the monster is maybe the third most pressing concern as far as the main character is concerned. I love that the ending goes in a direction I don't think I've ever seen before, and it's glorious. I love that the theme is as unsubtle and unapologetic as the physics. Chloë Grace Moretz nails absolutely every scene she's in, which it turns out is literally every scene in the movie, so that's another point in the movie's favor.

This was directed by Roseanne Liang, who I'm guessing you've never heard of before, either. Well... now I've heard of her, and I want more. Someone airdrop her a pallet of money to make a Marvel flick or two dozen indie productions or something. Anything. Whatever she wants.

It's hard to compare this movie to anything, but if pressed I'd point to Attack the Block or Mandy. It's genre that ignores the rules and actually offers some genuine surprises.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Catch-Up, Part 6: Awards Bait

This is the sixth installment in my ongoing series of mini-reviews of newish movies I missed in the theater, because I literally haven't been to a movie theater in close to two years.

The movies I'm looking at today were all well received and with good reason: to the extent the word "objectively" means anything in this context, they're all objectively great films.

I hadn't meant to do a "movies for grown-ups" installment - I'm a strong believer that "good" and "genre" aren't mutually exclusive labels, and further that most "awards contenders" can be accurately classified under various genre labels. But I basically spent the last five articles siphoning off all the conventional genre movies - good and bad - I've seen, leaving... well... mostly a bunch of high quality films that didn't fit elsewhere. I don't want to sit on these forever - I saw one of the movies below back in January 2020 - so here we are.

Nomadland (2020)
Not a lot to say here aside from the obvious: it's beautifully shot and edited into something that feels closer to a cross between a documentary and poetry than a narrative film. This is already blurring the line between reality, adaptation, and story - it doesn't fit neatly in any bucket. On one hand, it's a moving and simple character study; on another, it probes into some darker aspects of how our nation operates.

It's a fantastic movie, so I feel bad admitting my main takeaway is that Eternals is in great hands.

Jojo Rabbit (2019)
I hate that I don't love more of Taika Waititi's movies. For the record, I did love Hunt for the Wilderpeople. And I've been getting into the series, What We Do in the Shadows, but the movie it was based on didn't really work for me. Same goes for the rest of his filmography - I liked them fine, but I didn't love them.

The weird thing is I should love them. I'm generally a sucker for this kind of humor, and I love absurdist settings and situations. His approach should be right up my alley. And it's not like I think the love he gets is unearned - I can watch these and appreciate how well they're crafted. He's a phenomenal filmmaker.

I think it comes down to a minor stylistic quibble. His movies are made to keep the audience at arm's length. He wants you to be conscious of the fact you're watching a movie, and he uses the fourth wall accordingly. He doesn't want the audience pulled so far into the film they get lost in the story.

Again, this isn't a good or bad thing, just a choice. But it's a choice that clashes with my personal preferences regarding movies (especially these kinds of movies).

I want to stress, this is a great film. The characters are fantastic, the direction is wonderful, the story is timely... it's fantastic. I'm not criticizing any aspect. I honestly wish I could toggle the part of my brain that kept me from enjoying this more.

Little Women (2019)
I'm a geeky man who generally prefers movies about spaceships and superheroes. If I'd been living in the world of Little Women, I'd have been one of the readers who was sad Jo's violent genre stories disappeared. This movie isn't from a genre I seek out.

A few years ago, someone convinced me to give the 1994 adaptation (that's the one with Winona Ryder) a shot. Their pitch may have involved overselling its holiday credentials (I've got a relatively liberal outlook on what constitutes a Christmas movie, and Little Women doesn't check enough boxes). At any rate, I watched that and was bored to tears. Nothing about the story or characters clicked with me.

So why in the world did I give another adaptation a shot? Simple. Because all the geeky reviewers I listen to who also like spaceships and superheroes swore this was one of the best movies of last year. So I gave it a chance, and...

Yeah, this movie rules. It just totally rules.

I'm not going to sit here and write at length about how amazing the cast was or how beautiful the film was. I'm not going to go in depth about how brilliant the structural changes were or how cleverly the movie explored the book's relationship to the author's life or any of that. I'd just be rehashing what a billion critics already said. And besides, while those aspects are a big part of what I appreciated this adaptation, they're not why I loved it.

What I actually loved about it was the humor and warmth. Moments that bored me in the 1994 version felt fresh and real here. It didn't matter that I knew the story or even that I had negative associations with it - I was riveted. 

That's a hell of an achievement. Check this out if you haven't already.

Spaceship Earth (2020)
Do I include documentaries in these things? Have I ever talked about a documentary on this blog in any context? Damned if I remember. But I want to say a few things about this one, mainly because it was a lot of fun. Also, while it isn't technically science fiction, it's science fiction adjacent to a degree that's absurdly rare.

The subject of the documentary is the 1991 "experiment" where eight people were sealed (well, mostly sealed - there were complications) in an airtight complex for two years. The goal was to create a sustainable environment made up of habitats from all over the planet. The idea was both inspired by science fiction and motivated by a similar drive: if we ever want to set up colonies on other worlds, this is what they'll need to look like.

The first third largely centers on the group behind the project, and they're hard to categorize. Part-hippie, part commune, part corporate think tank... I kept feeling conflicting reactions where part of me wanted to laugh at them while another part wishes I was alive back then and could have joined them. They're a fascinating group.

It's kind of a shame they conducted their experiment when they did. I feel like the concept could be executed much more effectively now using hydroponics and an improved understanding of biology. But good luck getting the funding together - I suspect that was a one-time deal, at least in this country.

At any rate, the documentary is worth a watch, just be prepared for the twist ending, when [spoiler alert] Steve Bannon shows up and takes over. Seriously - Steve Bannon. It feels like the studio interfered and made the director wedge him into the movie to set up a sequel, until you remember you're watching historical footage and all this really happened.

Hustlers (2019)
Hustlers is the kind of movie I'd typically ignore entirely, despite being able to hear every critic in the country hollering its praises at the top of their lungs. At a glance, it just doesn't sound like a genre I'd be interested in.

But, okay, funny story. A few years ago I got bored and watched "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World," a movie that received lukewarm reviews. And once I finished watching it, I vowed to watch basically anything else the mad genius behind it made for the rest of her career. Damn, that movie is good.

I wasn't disappointed in The Meddler, and I sure as hell wasn't disappointed in Hustlers. Lorene Scafaria is a master at juggling genres and balancing tones. Hustlers is more or less a mafia movie spliced with a drama about friendship, all delivered with humor. It's the kind of thing that shouldn't work, but Scafaria makes it look easy.

Track this down if you haven't seen it. And, for the love of God, also watch Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Seriously. It's one of the most underrated genre films of all time.

Dolemite is My Name (2019)
After watching Dolemite is My Name, I tried explaining the premise to my wife and was mostly at a loss. In some ways, it's closest to Ed Wood, but that's not a fair comparison. If anything, this movie seems intent on dismissing just that sort of characterization of Rudy Ray Moore. The film is ultimately a comedy, but it's not an especially funny one. It's more interested in celebrating its subject's unique place in cinema and pop culture than in making jokes.

This is, at the end of the day, a character study. It's a biopic about a man who realized there was a untapped market for a particular type of entertainment producers didn't understand or take seriously. While I don't have a background with this character or the genre he worked in, I'm more than familiar with that theme - it's somewhat universal in film and television. And this movie handles it masterfully.

And that's not even getting into the fantastic character work and the beautiful visuals (this looks more like a movie made in the '70s than most movies made in the '70s).

If you've got a few hours and a Netflix subscription, this one's more than worth the time.

The Farewell (2019)
This is the sort of movie I rarely watch unless it’s set at Christmas, but my sister gave it a strong recommendation. And… yeah, it’s pretty great. It’s a dramedy about cultural differences, family relationships, and difficult moments. There’s not a great deal of story beyond the premise (which I’m not spoiling for a reason), but this winds up feeling like a feature rather than a bug. Characters behave realistically, which means growth and development are more subtle and internal than you’d typically get in this genre. I spent the movie waiting for “the big moment” and was pleasantly surprised when it went in another direction (it kind of had to – the movie’s based on a true story).

Beyond the fantastic character work, amazing acting, and nuanced look at cultural differences, the movie also features some stunning cinematography. It’s beautifully shot, to the point I’d recommend it on that fact alone (or at least I would if everything else wasn’t even better).

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Movie Review: Mortal Kombat

The 2021 Mortal Kombat movie is the movie they should have made in 1995. Swear to God, this movie would have seemed awesome twenty-six years ago. I know we all have fond memories of the campy, cheesy, stupid, bloodless flick that dropped back then, but nostalgia's doing that movie a lot of favors. What the 90's needed was a campy, cheesy, stupid flick with blood, and now... here it is, a few decades late.

Is it too late? Maybe. Probably. Depends how generous you're feeling.

This is... it's fine. Not good, mind you, but fine. The movie does a solid job adapting the core of the game and a passable job assembling that into a format resembling an actual movie. Mostly passable. Sort of passable. It comes a lot closer than most video game adaptations, anyway. But structurally, this is still more like a fighting game than a movie. Was that intentional? Probably. Was it advisable? Probably not.

I'm tempted to say this is likely the best version of this premise we could have hoped for on the big screen, but the truth is a version of this with interesting character dynamics wouldn't have been all that difficult. I'm not saying we needed awards-caliber writing, but the reason, say, Infinity War works without much of a story is that the banter is fun and the relationships are engaging. Here, it's mostly just filler and exposition between fights. Only a few characters have relationships to each other, and those are clichés. When the most compelling character is the video game equivalent of Captain Boomerang, you've got a problem.

That's the larger issue, at least as far as this thing's entertainment value is concerned. There are some pretty big structural and pacing issues, but to be frank, I think issues like those come off as more academic than fatal flaws in movies like these. They're the kinds of things that don't bother you too much unless you stop and think about them, but whether it was wise or not...

...I stopped and thought about them. So, uh, spoilers.

The weirdest - I don't think "flaw" is even the right word - choice, maybe? The weirdest choice the movie makes, in my opinion, is to not actually do the Mortal Kombat tournament. The tournament is supposed to happen, the lore from the games (or at least my limited understanding of that lore) is largely intact, the main characters spend the first few acts getting ready for said tournament, but instead they just kind of fight all the bad guys one-on-one outside of the tournament. Then no one really explains if the tournament is postponed, if the villains forfeit, if it's still going to happen in a couple days with new or resurrected bad guys, or what's going on.

And here's the thing: the one-on-one fights were shot in a way they could have been the tournament, they just weren't. Like, we weren't watching the tournament on a technicality. My running theory is they originally were part of the "official" tournament, then the movie got recut and streamlined into it's current form. Maybe they couldn't swing some reshoots because of COVID, and this was the workaround?

I also have my suspicions about the "big fight" at the end, mainly because it *wasn't* really a big fight, at all. The movie's climax is a fight between one ninja fighting two ninjas, and the two ninjas win, because [checks notes] there are two of them.

Meanwhile, the main character takes out Goro at the end of the second act. Given how much of the Goro fight is CG, I can't help but wonder if maybe the order of those fights got flipped at some point. Because, as it is, there really isn't a "boss fight" at the end of the movie, which feels wrong for a fighting game adaptation.

Again, none of this is necessarily a major problem; just... weird. The movie feels like it doesn't quite click together, but... does it have to? The fights are pretty good, and that's the selling point of this thing, anyway. I wish they'd held back more from the trailers, but the "good parts" are indeed pretty good. Does a Mortal Kombat movie need to be a coherent, well-made film, or is "people fighting" enough? I'll leave that to philosophers to decide.

Let's talk gore. Yes, there's blood and occasionally guts and brains and stuff, but honestly... I thought there'd be a lot more. This isn't a complaint - I'm squeamish, so I didn't miss it - but it's notable the fatalities in the movie are significantly less gruesome than some I've seen in the more recent games. Again, not a complaint: I was just a little surprised.

Along with Detective Pikachu, this is easily one of the best video game movies I've ever seen, but if that's not damning with faint praise, I don't know what is. I can't imagine spending additional money to see this on a big screen, but if you're already paying for HBO Max... hey, it's right there. That's certainly how I watched it. Not sure this qualifies as a recommendation, but I suppose you need to ask yourself how bored you are.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Movie Review: Godzilla vs. Kong

I think I've said some version of this every time I've reviewed an installment in this franchise: when the biggest complaint people have about a monster movie is the human characters or the plot or the logic or literally anything other than the monsters... take a bow - you did your job. I hope this won't be read as being synonymous with "turn off your brain" or some kind of attack against people who aren't satisfied with a big, silly adventure movie about a giant ape and a radioactive dragon punching each other - that's not it at all. It's simply an acknowledgement that these movies first and foremost exist to spotlight the monsters, and if they fail to do so, every review in existence is going to harp on that fact.

And, once again, Legendary knocked this out of the park, at least as far as those monsters are concerned. Kong and Godzilla are awesome, as is the "Hollow Earth" we finally get to see. And that other thing they kept secret (but that was kind of in the trailer, anyway)... yeah, that's awesome, too. The movie is visually inventive, exciting, and - above all - about as fun as they come.

But, yes, if you care, the plot is about as dumb as a rock.

I'm honestly not sure that's fair. A more accurate statement might be the film sacrifices story and logic for pace, and if anything I'd say that's a smart decision in this case. But if you want to pick apart the logic of who manages to go where and when, you'll have an easy time doing so. Even suspending disbelief around things like Hollow Earth leave you scratching your head around geography and geometry. It's pretty obvious when the movie just skips over explanations or causality to get back to fights and destruction. I know that's deal-breaker for some people... and that's fine. By now, you probably know whether spectacle and action are enough for you. If not, this probably isn't a genre you enjoy, and Godzilla vs. Kong won't change your mind.

For the rest of us... my God, this thing is great. It's absurd fantasy/adventure pitted against sci-fi destruction. It's silly and awesome and crazy. Like its predecessors, it's an absolute joy to watch. But you probably figured all that from the trailer. If you want to nitpick, there are some moments (particularly in the third act) where the movie starts looking more like a really expensive cartoon than live-action. Even then, it's still a *good* cartoon, so that's at most a minor criticism.

I don't want to go into too much detail about which visuals work best, because... well... the joy of watching a movie like this is discovering those moments for yourself. But I also don't want to cut the review off this soon, so I guess I have to talk about the human characters.

I'd argue the MonsterVerse is getting better in that department. The least interesting character from King of the Monsters is relegated to a minor role this time, and we're instead largely following kid adventurers who are invested in the outcome. This still doesn't quite gel into anything I'd call compelling, but it's not tedious, either, which is quite a bit better than par.

I feel for the writers of these movies. The stars are the monsters, not the people, but if you tried putting the monsters on camera for two hours straight, there wouldn't be any suspense or anticipation (also, it would almost certainly be cost-prohibitive). You need people in there to take up time, serve as the audience POV, and maybe (just maybe) add more than they detract. I don't think the humans in Godzilla vs. Kong quite get there, but they come close. Essentially, their presence is a wash, neither enhancing nor hurting the experience.

You can see them drawing from Stranger Things (hell, that was evident in King of the Monsters), which is probably the best path forward. Lean into it and have the human stuff just following a group of absurdly competent kids on an adventure in the middle of a kaiju attack. Make the kids likable enough, and you've got an interesting B-story to go along with the A-list monsters tearing up cities.

I want to stress that, in my opinion at least, these movies don't need to fix anything. The MonsterVerse films are great as is, and this one ranks in the top half. I have no idea if this franchise can keep going, but I really hope it will. These are delightful, fun films that deliver everything they promise and maybe a little more.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Movie Review: Justice League (The Snyder Cut)

I know the studio is technically calling this "Zack Snyder's Justice League," but let's not delude ourselves into pretending this will be remembered as anything other than The Snyder Cut. Besides, the prefix "Zack Snyder's" implies the theatrical cut belonged to someone else, and perhaps the largest reveal of this incarnation is that's not really true. Obviously Snyder (no relation) wasn't happy with the original (who was?), but most of the scenes I assumed had been written and shot by Whedon apparently weren't. Likewise, the paper-thin mulligan hunt forming the narrative backbone remained unchanged. In short, this is less a complete reconstruction of the 2017 flop than a conventional extended edition. It's just... really, really, really extended.

I'm something of an anomaly among film fans and critics, in that I have no issue with movies being long, provided that time is well used. If you're telling a complex story, developing a detailed world, building out interesting themes, or even constructing an elaborate tone, I'm happy to invest almost any amount of time in a project.

Here's the thing, though: The Snyder Cut accomplishes none of these things. Other than a couple expanded arcs, the story is the same as it was in the theatrical. The world, while definitely improved, was still underdeveloped. The themes... don't make me laugh: this is still "Justice League: Friendship is Magic," but now it's Friendship is Magic with the occasional decapitation. Theme is not Zack Snyder's forte. 

That brings us to tone, which I suspect is the aspect most of this movie's fans will point to in order to justify its length. Because it's true the movie does, in fact, have a tone. It does not, however, build that tone, subvert it, or use it to meaningfully enhance its story (again, there's barely a story at all). The tone is present at the start, it doesn't evolve or change much, and it sticks around through the unnecessary epilogue. That same tone could have been easily injected into a two-hour movie, a 60-minute TV show, or a music video (and if you've ever seen a Zack Snyder movie before, you won't be surprised to hear most of this feels like a series of music videos, anyway).

In short, this didn't need to be this long, and it doesn't really gain anything from that length. There is, however, some good news. Taken on its own merits (which, again, is tough to do since it's mostly the same as the theatrical cut), this is largely an improvement. More importantly, it's far, far, far better than Batman v Superman. Infinitely better. That movie was trash.

I glossed over the characters above, but this does a better job with most of its leads. Flash, in particular, is delightful - he was a standout in the theatrical, as well, and most of those scenes made it into this installment, as did some fantastic new ones. Flash's powers work perfectly with Zack Snyder's visual style - if there's a reason to sit through this, it's for the Flash scenes.

I wasn't as head-over-heels in love with the new Cyborg material as some reviewers, but the character is definitely better treated here than in the last version. I do like the sequence where he uses his powers in a Robin Hood capacity. The rest of his arc is fine, but mostly I found it boring. Your millage may vary - like I said, this interpretation of the character is definitely picking up some fans.

After Flash, I actually think Batman benefits the most from this cut. It wasn't so much more material than the fact the darker tone means his optimism shines through a little brighter. A smirk here and there means more in contrast.

Wonder Woman and Aquaman didn't get much out of this - there's some new footage, but I don't feel like it adds up to anything more substantial than we got from the previous installment (besides, they both have solo movies that are far better than either version of Justice League).

Superman is notable in that he gets significantly less screen time here than in the theatrical, which was surprising. For what it's worth, we still get a happier, more hopeful Superman than we saw in Man of Steel or BvS, if only briefly. In other words, this is a truncated version of Superman from the theatrical Justice League.

Steppenwolf is more interesting here, though still underwhelming. He's less a generic villain and more a pitiful, desperate monster trying to get home. This doesn't really go anywhere or pay off, but I guess it counts as an improvement.

The action scenes are generally improved, but get ready for some caveats. The movie has some great moments where the concepts and effects come together and deliver some truly awesome visuals. But it also has a bunch of sequences where actors in bulky costumes cut to obvious CG cartoons, breaking the flow. In addition, the movie continues to mistake brutal for cool, which undersells the value of the characters being adapted. It also drives home the fact that this is not, in fact, a movie for grown-ups.

I could go on, both nitpicking and complimenting various sequences or elements, but I don't feel the need to indulge in a Snyder-cut of my own. Ultimately, the nicest thing I can say is if I were advising someone who'd never seen either version of Justice League which to watch, I'd point them towards this one. The meanest thing I can say is if I were talking to someone who'd already seen the theatrical, I'd tell them they could skip this. It's not awful, but it really just doesn't add that much of value, especially weighed against its runtime.