Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Road

and star in this subtly-scifi drama about a father and a son who are journeying through a freezing apocalyptic wasteland in pursuit of the one thing they have left: survival.

 Directed by , based on the novel by .

Nuclear fallout has killed all the animals and bugs, the plants and trees are dying and literally crumbling down around them, and humanity is all but gone. Sure, there are a few humans left, but most have lost their humanity. Suicide is only slightly more popular than cannibalism. The father is determined to protect his son as best he can, and grapples with the idea that someday the best protection he may be able to provide is to shoot him in the head with one of the two bullets remaining in his pistol.

This film is bleak. It's the epitome of the word. It started, and began explaining all of the above to me in Viggo's soft and dramatic voice-over, and when he was halfway done I thought there was no way in the world I was going to like where this movie goes. The journey might be well-told and beautifully, harrowingly shot, but it would be impossible to conclude and leave me happy. I thought that, but how wrong I was.

 Bleak scifi films love to end further down than they start. This one breaks the tradition for exceptional results.

The Road is a journey through hopelessness toward the impossible goal of hope. Miraculously, it gets there; and impressively, it gets there realistically. Through every turn the movie ponders the natural questions that its extreme setting creates: In the most dour situations, does survival ever become worthless? Can inhumanity or immorality be forced on people by circumstance, or is it always a choice they make? Is it possible to live in a world of pure evil, and not fall into evil?

With every question that is subtly posed, it seems that cynicism and pessimism will win every time, but then truth pushes its way through and the father and son press on, unsoiled. They carry "the fire" inside them, they say, and it seems to drive them past hardships that no one else had the courage or will to overcome. The determination they display in such a bleak world is staggering and inspiring.

There's so much rich content to glean. I feel like I picked up on 60% of what's there.

On the more technical side, the movie is taut -- put together excellently with a strong tone and beautiful imagery. The pacing is slow but steady, and consistently edged with foreboding suspense. Performances are wonderful, particularly Viggo, who carries the movie almost completely alone, and expresses all his questions and worries and thoughts without exposition via dialogue. Kodi is also great; this is the youngest I've ever seen him, so he doesn't get quite as much to do, but is still impressive.

This is a hard-hitting movie in the best possible way, leaving you haunted and pondering its dark themes. It may disturb or depress by its vile setting and the darkness it explores, but is determined to uplift with its themes and character arcs. Every message it gives, and every conclusion it makes, is doggedly, admirably, beautifully hopeful. Against all odds, this bleak little film left me soaring.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Upcoming Movie Roundup - March

February started out with the surprise release of The Cloverfield Paradox on Netflix. I had already dubbed it "The Month of Scifi," so unexpectedly springing one of the year's most anticipated scifi movies at us was perfect beginning. Of course the movie itself wasn't perfect, and divided opinions among fans. Still I enjoyed it very much. Read my review here!

Then I went to the theater to see Black Panther, but still didn't manage to see The Death Cure. Sadness. Black Panther was a Marvel movie, and did basically everything that entails. Didn't hate it, didn't love it. Read my review here!

We started the Netflix TV show Altered Carbon (and are currently two eps from the end) and I was pretty disappointed, because while the world is nice and scifi, and it had a noir-type premise, the feel of it is very normal for TV shows today, and I'm not finding it terribly compelling. Whenever I finish maybe I'll review it and see if I can figure out and express exactly how it fails.

But no matter, because there is Mute. The trailer made this Netflix film look less noir than Altered Carbon, but that was because it didn't reveal any of the plot, but it turns out the plot is noir through and through, and I loved it. Mute is exactly what I mean when I say "I like the scifi-noir genre," and after worrying me with terrible critic reviews, blew me away and is currently my favorite film of the year. Read my spoiler-free review here!

March has five Fridays, so there's lots to get to -- I'll probably keep it brief. There's one movie at least that I absolutely must see no matter what, and lots more that looks interesting in various degrees. Hope y'all had a great February! What did you see that you liked? And what's looking good this month?

Death Wish
Mar 2nd; R
Bruce Willis action movie -- violence and guns and frontier justice! Probably won't be super great since it's a remake, but there's no denying the appeal.

Mar 2nd; R
This one says it's a noir. Is noir making a comeback? Looks like a mystery that is both intense and easy going at the same time. Nice tone and cinematography in the trailer. Neon plus the Australian Outback. Very neat combo. Good reviews too.

The Vanishing of Sidney Hall
Mar 2nd; R
The writing and mystery elements of this one is more interesting to me than the cast, but it stars Logan Lerman and Elle Fanning. Lerman is a writer who disappears without a trace to get away from the unpleasant fame following the publishing of his controversial book. Bad reviews so far, but considering Mute I'll be paying attention anyway...

A Wrinkle in Time
Mar 9th; PG
I never read the book, and from the looks of things I should put more priority on that than on going out to see this kids scifi/fantasy adventure. It looks like the sort of thing that I won't be able to resist watching eventually though, even if it isn't anything special.

Mar 9th; R
There's some weird, crazy things going down in this trailer. Dark comedy, so that's great if it's done well, and a great cast too. Joel Edgerton, Charlize Theron, David Oyelowo -- and Sharlto Copley!

The Hurricane Heist
Mar 9th; PG-13
Yes, this movie is going to be stupid. And yes, that's half of why I absolutely must watch it. Even if I didn't my brother would make me because he loves stupid disaster movies. And this one has a heist that the heroes must thwart at the same time! But the other half of why I'll watch it is Toby Kebbell. So yes -- I'm there.

Mar 9th; R
This isn't really the kind of plot I'd usually pay much attention to, but this will be the last film of the late Anton Yelchin's, so it worth mentioning on that alone. Also Olivia Cooke playing a sociopath is weirdly appealing.

Tomb Raider
Mar 16th; PG-13
Chances of this movie being good are... not good. Really very not good. But it'll probably have a decent run anyway, and action flicks can only be so bad -- as long as there's action, ya know? I'll watch it for cheap someday probably, just because of it's mainstream status. Alicia Vikander may elevate it a bit, but the trailer looks like a video game, and I'm not feeling it.

Journey's End
Mar 16th; R
WWI drama starring Sam Claflin, Asa Butterfield and Paul Bettany. Looks like a well made film.

7 Days in Entebbe
Mar 16th; PG-13
A telling of a true story where Israeli Special Forces rescue hostages of a terrorist plane hijacking in the 70's. It ends well, so that's nice, and stars Daniel Brühl and Rosamund Pike -- but as the terrorists. So I guess don't get too attached? Eddie Marsan appears to be the main good guy.

Pacific Rim Uprising
Mar 23rd; PG-13
John Boyega's turn in the seat -- er, turn to share the seat -- with... Scott Eastwood? Okay. Whatever, I think I get how this works, but I haven't actually seen the first one due to a distaste for Charlie Hunnam. But I did survive Legend of the Sword, so maybe now I should bite the bullet and see what this is all about. This trailer is certainly under no delusion about what kind of a movie it is.

Mar 23rd; R
Is Claire Foy crazy? Or is she not? That's the biggest reason to see this right there. The curiosity. Anyway, this looks like a very effective thriller. The wide angle lenses and tall aspect ratio alone make it feel so intense and claustrophobic.

Isle of Dogs
Mar 23rd; PG-13
Stop-motion? I love stop-motion! Wes Anderson? I love Wes Anderson! I haven't seen his other stop-motion endeavor because I'm too cheap to buy the DVD apparently, and it isn't streaming anywhere I use. So I should consider going to the theater for this one I think. Or else I may never get the chance!

Ready Player One
Mar 29th; PG-13
Yes, I'm ready. Heck, I've been ready for TWO YEARS ever since I first finished the book and looked up the cast and director. Tye Sheridan in the lead, Simon Pegg and Mark Rylance supporting. And now there's Ben Mendelsohn as the villain and Olivia Cook as the love-interest. And Steven Spielberg directing a movie from a book that was inspired by the works of Steven Spielberg! Honestly the book wasn't even that great, but it has such great cinematic potential I'm stoked to see what they do with it. Naysay all you like. It might crash and burn, but I'm going to be excited and hopeful anyway! Just don't change the ending...

Lean on Pete
Mar 30th; R
Aw, this looks like such a great film. Coming of age, indie adventure and drama, horses... based on a book too, which puts even more confidence in the story quality. I definitely want to see this.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018


Spoiler free!

Leo () is a lo-fi guy living in a hi-fi scifi world. He was raised Amish, and keeps up the plain and simple lifestyle, but not in an Amish community; in the bustling, grimy, neon-lighted city of near-future Berlin. A childhood accident left him mute, so his quiet life is literal too. He has one friend, Naadirah () his girlfriend. And she has been keeping secrets from him. When those secrets cause her to suddenly disappear, he goes looking for her, but he has no idea of where to start, or what he's getting into.

Directed by the wonderfully incorrigible Duncan Jones. Never, ever change.

This is the most pure scifi-noir film I've seen since Blade Runner, and it's about time. Science fiction and film-noir go together wonderfully, and often get paired up, but the tech-noir phase pretty much always puts the scifi first -- the noir is for tone and mood. I love that of course, but I also enjoy a noir-plot, and to get those you still have to go back to the 1940's. Until now. Mute follows a classic noir plot structure faithfully, and makes sure to include traditional elements of the genre. Then it uses scifi on the side to put cool twists on it all.

At its core, it's a mystery thriller, plain and simple. No time travel, no body swapping, no aliens, no distant galaxies, no extended action sequences. In fact the way the bits of action and violence is done is extraordinarily good -- brief, and shocking, and often shown passively, which only enhances the effect. And the intensity build throughout the plot is a thing to behold. That last turn was completely unexpected. But Leo spends most of his time following clues, and the truth is revealed to us slowly. The only thing that breaks the noir protocol is a parallel, bad guy plot involving American surgeon buddies Cactus Bill () and Duck (). Clearly they're involved in the mystery, but we never find out how until Leo does.

He wears the best Hawaiian shirts.

Cactus, with his magnificent mustaches, has that Paul Rudd charm, and a daughter he cares about, but is not a nice guy. But Duck, complete with perfectly horrendous floppy hair, and an annoying penchant for the word "babe" is far worse; and as we learn this, it was interesting to watch him slowly surpass Cactus on the evil scale. He's a creep times a thousand. Rudd has never been this good in a role, and I've not seen him give one bad performance. It's like the character was written for him, yet he still gave it a steady stream of unexpected twists. And Theroux -- my goodness. He made me feel sick, and my skin crawl, and I might have hated it if it wasn't so incredibly impressive.

I did wonder why they were so heavily featured, especially as their plot goes down a dark and seemingly unnecessary path. But when the two plots merge, it all makes sense and ties importantly into the theme. Also, Leo doesn't talk, so his scenes get to the point fast. They have to. But Cactus and Duck get to banter and chit-chat, and take their time. Then their side of things actually serves Leo too. Their being fully developed characters whenever they meet him helps things make sense, and allows the movie to focus on developing Leo in those scenes, instead of being distracted with villain motive. Whenever Leo is present in a scene, that scene serves him; doggedly. It refuses to become distracted, and I love that.

He certainly has a presence. And if looks could kill, his sad faces would be as deadly as his angry ones.

My dad suggested that Leo could have done noir-style narration via inner dialogue, and I half expected him to constantly use sign language which would then be captioned for us, but no; narration and captions are both cop-out solutions to a challenging character. Jones took the hard route, and the result is worth the trouble in spades. Alexander Skarsgård portrays Leo's every emotion, thought, and intention physically; expressions, body language, and actions. He signs and writes down a handful of things -- all minimally. Like the tagline says, he doesn't need words. They made sure that was true, and it works beautifully; he is heartbreakingly raw and open, and absolutely mesmerizing.

And he's not only an exceptionally interesting, different, well acted and written character; he really does lead the film. Even with the significant handicap of never speaking; the story revolves around him, and it's him that we care for. We get to see -- not only hear -- that he's kind and gentle, innocent bordering on naive, but will literally fight to protect the people (person) he loves. Naadirah, a blue-haired beauty instead of a blue-eyed beauty, at work seems just a part of the neon bustle, but then she washes off her garish makeup and treats him with equal love and respect a she does her. Their relationship is so unexpected, yet makes so much sense.

They're so sweet together.

This is another great example of a film where the darkness makes the light brighter -- the goodness of their relationship and his character, poised against the movie's many deplorable beings; some of whom accept the grime and depravity of the city's dark neon underbelly; others who create it. I ran the movie through VidAngel to remove the sex and nudity, but the film still deals with mature and dark things; all the better to explore a character who is defined by innocence and morality. The conflict was as contrasted as the neon and black visuals.

Besides the basic plot structure, Mute's atmosphere is decidedly noir, with a Blade Runner-like city of casually-used run-down technology. The best way to describe it is "neon-noir" as it often takes place at night, lit exclusively with neon lights. And that femme fatale character... all I can say is that it was unexpected, and worked perfectly. I also liked that it was set in Germany, and featured a few German characters. Maybe because I like German, maybe because of the tone it helped create too. It remembers to be depressing and pessimistic, but doesn't leave us hanging heartlessly. Like I said, there's light here, and hope, and it looks fondly on the purity of innocence.

Too bad none of the characters smoke. Watching people smoke in dramatic lighting is one of the finer things in life. And super noir.

All the elements I love in modern films are here -- a compelling lead with meaningful arc, moral exploration without preachiness, plot complexity that requires attention, and attention to detail and visual beauty. That is all paired with noir film tone, tropes, and structure; violence that isn't glorified or stylized; and emotion that isn't heavy-handed or exploiting. I have literally wished for a movie like this. I can hardly believe it exists as a real thing now, let alone works as well as it does. Striking on every level; compelling from its first moment to its last.

Duncan Jones obviously had a specific vision for this film, and it clearly was the last thing anyone expected. It's non-conforming, and non-traditional for these modern times. I know it's not something that everyone should be able to enjoy. It's niche -- but not that niche. People aren't saying it's just not for them, they're saying it's badly made. But it was made purposefully to mimic an old film noir, and that it undeniably does, so I say it's undeniably successful. That's why the plot is hard to follow, and "strangely" structured. There certainly aren't any glaring holes. It doesn't exposition us to death; character is revealed naturally; and it stays focused on what's important -- on what it wants to say.

And it's beautiful, but doesn't get hung up on being beautiful.

Appropriately, everything it says is said without words. It's all conveyed through subtext, imagery, even symbolism; and of course, expressions. With a title and a hero like it has, why in the world should it be expected to outright declare what it is? It gives us enough clues, if only we could shut up and listen. A throwback to the filmmaking past, a neat speculation into a realistic future, and a thoughtful and hard examination of good, evil, innocence and corruption; Mute is a scifi-noir film for the ages.

Perhaps age will see it gather the understanding it deserves.

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Greatest Showman obviously . P.T. Who? Just kidding, but seriously, there's no way this movie would have existed without Hugh Jackman. He is the first and last exceptional thing about this snappy, peppy, and colorful period musical.

The man puts his all into everything he does. A true entertainer.

Jackman is P.T. Barnum, the guy who invented freak shows and curiosity hoaxes. This movie puts him in a much kinder light, presenting him as a dreamer who just wants to put a smile on everyone's face. What they're smiling at might be fake, but the smiles are real! His more greedy side comes through whether it was meant to or not when he calls the "freaks" who work for him his friends in private, but shoos them away in public; and when he goes on tour with a beautiful opera star for no apparent reason. The movie makes out that he's innocent in the situation, but it makes me wonder.

How much is true? How must isn't? I don't know, so I'll set that aside, and review this as if it were all fiction. I imagine that's the accurate assumption to make. It all has a very fantastic feel anyway, as its set vaguely in the 1800's and all the music is super modern, which translates to the dancing styles, and then even seeps into the plot bit. It's a natural thing for a musical to do, but I would have felt more at home watching it on stage. It was like it was set in the period only because it had to be, but it certainly did make for some grand and lovely (however inaccurate) costuming.

Who'd've ever thought that Zac would return to his roots someday and sing manly duets with Hugh Jackman?

The songs are musical pop, and every single one is incredibly catchy and toe-tapping-inducing. They don't much vary in style or general structure, so the easiest way to define them is the scene and dance each accompanied. My favorite was the bar duet between Jackman and -- a society man who joins Barnum's business to the detriment of his societal respect. The dancing on tables and swapping shots between verses was like something out of a classic musical of ye olden days.

That's what surprised me the most. I've never hated Efron or anything, but I've never respected him all that much either. But he was great in this, and strangely seems to have both grown up, and embraced his debatably embarrassing origins of cheesy song and dance and melodramatic romance. This movie has all three of those things for him, but now he just owns it, and it's not cringy or overdone, but just a lot of fun. I enjoyed what they had of romance with him and 's character, who's a trapeze artist in Barnum's circus. They spend a lot of time focusing on how this was a time when interracial couples were frowned on, and I wished they'd gone a bit deeper than that, but it was a sweet side plot. Their duet that used ropes and acrobatic choreography was one of the movie's best.

About as basic a romance as they come, but classic.

I appreciated that scene a lot because it was the one time the showcased dancing felt truly circus-y. Whenever the circus performances were going on, it was a whole lot of very fun and entertaining dancing, but not much of the freaky or requiring unusual talent. Not that it bored me, but I did wonder why we never saw a significant amount of trapeze performance. Or contortionists. Or a guy who bites head off of chickens. You know -- circus stuff. (Ok, I can see the reasoning behind the chicken thing.) The talent they had was singers and dancers that looked different. There was a tall guy, there was a fat guy, there was a bearded lady; and they were dancers so that's what they did.

So I missed the expected performance moments of "Wow, how in the world did that person DO that?" And don't get me wrong, I was thoroughly entertained, but there was an expectation there, and they failed to meet it. Same with 's character, the opera star. As she was about to sing the first time, I was thinking, "Wow, Rebecca Ferguson is going to sing opera?" But then she didn't. It was belted musical pop just like everything else. I don't remember if the song was good; my main impression was that the style was a let-down. It's just mismanaged expectations.

And to be fair, it's likely that my idea of Barnum's circus is every bit as different from the truth as this movie's is.

Something I should have expected was that the plot was very skimpy and I was dying for more. One moment would be great for a character, and get my hopes up, but then go no further. And that's the traditional way of the musical, but in my defense, they did try to associate themselves with La La Land (they boast the same lyricists) and La La Land explored character through and around the music to a satisfying depth -- but that aspect didn't cross over. Instead they did a normal amount of character for the genre, and it often veered towards being too modernly "relevant" for my taste. Still, I'll take the blame for my dissatisfaction on that one.

An eventual second viewing (which may happen for that one bar scene duet) would likely improve enjoyment, with accurate expectations. Where my expectations were met, all was excellent as advertised. Mainly in two points: First, Hugh Jackman, who from the first beat to the very last, oozes entertaining and immaculately sharp showmanship. The guy is a performer, and a charmer, and he does his job WELL. And secondly, the visual dazzle, which was equally as on point as Jackman. There's always something to see that is pleasing to the eye, even in the stiller talking scenes, and the visual brilliancy of the dance scenes often left me smiling.

The pep is contagious.

Watching this movie for me was like an exercise in the art of smiling at awesome things while simultaneously rolling eyes as silly things. There was about an equal amount of both, and little in between. It's a spectacle worth the sight, if only to be lightly entertained by Hugh and a bunch of other performers who are clearly having a grand time. And though many of the tricks are cheap and fake, I suppose it's true: the smiles are for real.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Black Panther


After a stellar introduction in Civil War, gets his time in the spotlight as T'Challa, the king of the secretive country of Wakanda, and the legendary Black Panther. But his solo outing is a character downgrade from his brief but compelling turn in the Captain America movie.

Maybe I'm just tired of Marvel movies. I mean, I am tired of Marvel movies. But I don't think that's the only problem here.

I guess the Russo Brothers are to blame. They did too good a job giving T'Challa an outstanding arc, and developing him into a king worthy of his throne. And where do you go from there? Well the movie backtracks a bit, deciding that he's not officially king yet, and the way Wakanda works is basically any Wakandan can challenge his kingship. They do battle, and the winner gets to be king. (Yes, Wakanda is meant to be an advanced civilization hundreds of years ahead of the rest of the world, and yes, whoever is physically strongest gets to be king.)

So T'Challa is challenged, and he wins. Alright, he's king. Then suddenly it's a James Bond movie and T'Challa's upbeat and charming sister Shuri () is Q, the tech girl. She outfits the confirmed Black Panther, and he goes out with his love interest Nakia (the incredibly gorgeous ) and his bodyguard Okoye () to capture Klaue () who just popped up on their radar. But Agent Ross () is also there and also wants Klaue. After a pretty cool chase scene T'Challa gets him, but instead of blowing the joint with the prize, he hands Klaue over to Ross, and inevitably, he escapes.

Obviously this is from the 007 portion of the film.

Then the real bad guy Erik Killmonger () starts his play, and the movie transitions into the plot of The Lion King. Erik is a citizen of Wakanda, the son of T'Challa's uncle, who was killed by T'Challa's father when he turned bad and tried to kill . They left Erik behind to grow up American, so now he wants revenge and to be king to prevent other children from having to grow up as he did. He's also stronger than T'Challa. So he challenges, T'Challa accepts because that's what's done -- though he knows who he is and what his intentions are -- and he loses the fight, and gets thrown over a cliff to his apparent death.

Everyone's devastated but they can't do anything about it -- Killmonger is now king fair and square, and no one does anything about it because this is an advanced civilization, and the tradition of kingship revered and respected. Nah, forget that. The Queen Mother (), Nakia, Shuri, and Ross steal a magic flower that gives the Black Panther powers, and take it to the guy who challenged T'Challa at the beginning of the movie, hoping that he will use the power to overthrow their rightful king. But surprise! T'Challa is there! Some fishermen pulled him out of the river, and he's in a coma but alive. They give him the flower, he gets his power back, they go do battle, he defeats Erik, the end.

Thus Erik is decidedly more compelling than T'Challa. So good for him, but I kinda wanted the film's hero to be compelling too, or else why would we care if he wins?

Cool, so -- what's the problem with this? Look at all the choices T'Challa makes. He accepts all challenges to his throne; to save face he doesn't keep Klaue for himself; he's unconscious for the entire portion of his "exile," and then he's saved by other characters. His character isn't changed when he fights Killmonger the second time, but somehow he still beats him. Basically, he's a doormat, and spends the whole movie being upstaged by more interesting characters. He does skirt round the issue of whether Wakanda should share their technology with the rest of the world, and finally decides that they should, but I was never convinced of his belief in the argument against it. So that message comes across, but it doesn't do much for the character.

Now, I don't have anything against a movie plotting itself after The Lion King. I like The Lion King. The problem I have is that the plot plays out in a way that diminishes the lead character instead of highlighting him as it should. I keep thinking that only if we had followed him over that cliff and if he had been forced to survive, empower himself, and return, all on his own volition, then he would have been so much more compelling. Also, other characters blame him for mistakes that are debatably not his fault, but if he ever blames himself for anything, we never get to know. He never has an inner struggle with himself. This method of character development is extremely ineffective and lazy to me.


Practically all the other characters are more compelling than T'Challa, which is as amazing as it is sad, but I'm just going to talk about Erik. See, we feel for him because he was abandoned to a hard life, but he did still murder... well, at least one person. And he wasn't a very nice king. But he's sympathetic, so when he's dying and T'Challa has the technology to save him, he declares that he wants to die, and T'Challa lets him. In order for T'Challa to show strength in that scene he would have saved him no matter what he wanted, but he made an understandable choice because it was compassionate and we feel for Erik. But as a result, the scene -- the movie's most powerfully effective -- serves Erik, not T'Challa. Scene by scene, throughout the film, T'Challa always comes out the least developed, least characterized character.

It seems like the worst criticism you can possibly give this movie is that it's an average Marvel movie, but unfortunately, that's what it is. Wakanda is a visually unusual place with a neat culture, and there are some great design elements, but that's just frosting; something with which every Marvel film differs. The cake underneath is still the same Marvel-flavored production-line vanilla. The CGI is passable if you don't look too close. Action sequences are typical with one or two memorable moments each. Black Panther lacks any distinct fighting style, and doesn't even run fast in the entire movie. Again, Civil War set the bar too high with action sequences that required an amount of effort this film wasn't willing to put in.

Fight scenes in water are automatically cool. Better choreography and filming could have made it amazing.

The dialogue is uninspired. Brought back from the dead, all T'Challa can think to say is "Can I have a blanket?" There are a few solid jokes and I especially liked Shuri's sharp, lighthearted bantering attitude. But, there are at least two dramatic/powerful moments that are ruined by inserting mood-killing dumb jokes. Worst was when a rhino licks Okoye's face. That isn't even funny, and it killed the coolness of that moment for her. Whoever decided that that these moments of bathos should be the Marvel standard of hilarious needs to wake up and smell the audience disengaging from the scene. It works as in-the-moment entertainment every time, but keeps any kind of emotion from having staying power beyond five seconds. 

Black Panther has its entertaining times as it strolls along in a predictable direction. It gets its themes across with admirable subtlety, and boasts a memorable and talented cast. It goes through the motions of ups and downs with fight scenes in the correct places, drama in the correct places, jokes in the "correct" places. It's got cool tech that's convenient to the plot, and world-building that does a fantastic job distracting from a surprisingly lackluster style. There's nothing really wrong with it, except that it's not at all exceptional, as it claims to be. It's average. This is exactly what Marvel is now; well-manufactured, generic entertainment.

I really don't hate this film at all. I'm just bored of Marvel's movie-by-committee shenanigans.

Sometimes I wonder if I'm crazy or heartless, when I don't love well-loved movies like this, but then I watch a film that does engage me, and the quality difference is clear. For whoever this movie does work for, I say good on you; relish it. As for me, I'm not disappointed, and I'm not impressed. I was hoping T'Challa's previously established character of quiet, powerful authority and sleek fighting techniques could be recreated for his solo rein, but the result falls short. Just another competently entertaining superhero blockbuster, Black Panther fits in perfectly with its Marvel peers, exploring another new corner of the broad universe; but has left me about as indifferent as a hunk of Vibranium.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018



I must have watched the requisite hundred crappy movies since the last gem I found, because this one is an absolute and well-hidden whopper.

One of 's early films. And despite no lack of interest, the first of his I've actually seen.

Restless teen Chris (), his sickly brother Tim () and their father John () live on a small pig farm in the rural backwoods of Georgia, where they lead lives of seclusion and hard work. Their estranged uncle Deel () shows up one day, apparently looking to mend bridges with his brother. But when Deel's true intentions are revealed, Chris takes his brother on the run to get away from him, and protect a cursed treasure.

This movie is every bit as earthy and natural as a slow-simmering southern drama should be, and at the exact same time, plays out like it belongs alongside Grimm's fairytales. Nothing happens that doesn't makes sense; that couldn't happen in real life without anyone thinking twice; and everything that happens carries with it the otherworldly air of a fable. The perfect amalgamation of these two seemingly unmixable elements is the root of this movie's greatness and subtle genius.

It's got action too, but if you watch for action only, you might miss the drama that gives it all meaning.

The buildup of suspense in the first third of the film is immaculate. It does well to take its time. Even though the premise reveals more or less of what will happen, the beginning is used for establishing why we should care about the impending violence. All four characters are developed for us organically, without time-saving inserts of unnatural exposition. We get to see the amnesty between Chris and John play out, and then Deel carefully drive the wedge even further between them, to our increasing worry.

And long before the worry is transferred to Chris, we get to worry about Tim, who has no stomach for eating unless it's something that should never be eaten. Grease, paint, dirt; no one seems to notice that his illness is something he's doing to himself. And the opening sequence tells us practically everything we need to know about Chris. It's like he acts out for the sheer excitement of it, because as soon as he's bailed out of jail, he returns to his chores with diligence. If anything, this story is about him discovering his own goodness.

Kid Jamie Bell is like a different person from Adult Jamie Bell.

I'm a fan of Jamie Bell, but I could have fooled myself watching this, because I completely forgot that he's British. He's so southern American here that he was reminding me of the kids in Mud who were born and bred there. He has that quiet charm that's displayed through physicality instead of being limited to dialogue and facial expressions. It's a quality he usually has, but seems especially on display with this role -- enhanced by contrast with a volatile edge that's ideal for this film. We rarely know exactly what Chris is thinking; and we rarely need to in order to understand.

After years of thinking of him as "The Sweet Home Alabama Guy," I was incredibly impressed with Josh Lucas, and how effortlessly he layered deviousness and malice underneath that rom-com charm to make a truly terrifying character -- but even he elicits sympathy every now and then. I didn't even recognize Dermot Mulroney at all. He and Devon Alan both do flawless jobs with their characters; they only aren't as prominent as the other two. A very young also shows up, and all the supporting actors feel full, real, and unique as they pass by.

The girl at the car shop who swallows her gum was my personal favorite.

At first I didn't like how some shots would freeze while the scene's dialogue continued. At first. And the look of the film was so grimy and run-down, the beauty of it is practically subconscious. But this visual style was intentional, and in the end, as important as anything else. Avoiding specifics, there was one particular moment when this movie rocketed up into that place where quality entertainment suddenly means something powerful and personal. The whole time I felt like I was on the same page as the director, but then he took it all one incredibly important step further, and it got me.

Undertow is a movie for people who are intrigued by story; who watch films to turn their brains on, not off; who don't need every moment and detail to be spelled out in order to understand the meaning it carries for plot and for character. When it came out in 2004 it got zero attention and lots of oblivious criticisms. It was ahead of its time; if released today it would be compared to Mud, and praised on the same level. Both these southern dramas have more at stake, and more hidden in them than immediately meets the eye.

Comedy and romance is all well and good, but there's nothing like coming-of-age stories with grown-up stakes.

On the surface, with the dirt and sweat and contention, there are the basics of a cohesive story, complex characters, and acting so simple and good, you forget they're acting. But this is no haphazard family drama that happens to be well-told; but a tale of myth, rich with meaning, crafted as inconspicuously as it was intentionally. A true treasure, waiting patiently to be discovered.

Monday, February 5, 2018

The Cloverfield Paradox


First, let's get this out of the way: The Cloverfield Paradox is no 10 Cloverfield Lane. They're not even the in same league of films, but they still invite comparison because they are a part of a spiritual franchise of genre scifi films loosely connected by Easter eggs.

Calm down kids, it's not that bad.

But The Cloverfield Paradox is a Netflix film. It was surprised on us after the Super Bowl yesterday, when the last we heard of it, its February release date was getting pushed back. I guess the existence of a release date at all was a deception in order to juke us. Classic J.J. Abrams.

So it's a February release after all, but not a theater one. And that's a good thing; if I'd spent $10 and a few months anticipating this thing, it might've been a letdown. Instead it was a surprise freebee; a gift that I got to go into totally blind, with a short, energizing spurt of hype, that, I'll admit, helped me enjoy the movie more. In my case, the unorthodox marketing strategy worked. But from here on, I'll try to forget all that, and review this movie as a movie.

Written by Oren Uziel and Doug Jung, and directed by Julius Onah.

Earth is dying, and a team of scientists go into space to try and save it. A classic space-survival horror thriller ensues. is Hamilton, the leading lady, a woman who is encouraged by her husband to go and save the world, though she doesn't want to leave him as their marriage has hit a rough patch. She is clearly the main character, as none of the other characters get much more than basic background. They are , , , , , , and . The Cloverfield formula is used for Hamilton, as her past is darker than is first apparent, and she must deal with it in order to survive and save the day.

Everyone else was made to die. This is a horror film after all. All they needed to be was memorable enough to give us effective deaths and that they did. Except for Brühl who wound up surviving along with Hamilton. From the second I understood what formula the movie was going to use, I knew I wanted those two to survive, so was I invested enough to be happy about it, but he could have used a bit more development considering the outcome. played Hamilton's husband on Earth, who gets his own plot line, but it was useless and could've easily been excluded.

Good job you're not dead!

The movie's greatest commodity was the freaky weirdness surrounding all the one-by-one elimination of the crew. The film doesn't carry a whole lot of weight, but inside those moments, it was thrilling. Maybe I'm a horror/thriller lightweight, but I found those elements to be sublimely freaky, and thoroughly enjoyed them. The subtle build up to Volkov's was great; when he rubs his eye in the scene before and you think nothing of it. And the arm thing turned out being so strange and weirdly humorous. And when they find Jensen in the wall is seriously disturbing. All the moments had the usual suspense buildup, but unusually, the suspense build was of eager anticipation rather than one of dread.

Once the deaths stop being so weird the movie loses a bit of energy. We are asked instead to recommence caring about Hamilton as she's further developed and pushed to the edge. Her arc is well-done, and I appreciated how she had to face her demons in order to win. It was classic. It wasn't super subtle, but neither was the rest of the movie. Say "clichéd" if you like; I love this kind of genre film, and the tropes don't feel tired to me yet. Hamilton's arc is concise and complete and ties into the story -- but it didn't move me probably as much as it was meant to.

Also plot points and twist were all obvious. I didn't care, but it's still true.

Same goes for the plot overall. It doesn't get distracted, but plows through everything like a kind of evenly destructive breeze. Some things "don't make sense" but everything is explained. And all those scifi elements feel exactly how scifi elements should; inspiring awe and terror alike, and stimulating the creative side of the mind to ask questions, and think beyond the realm of reality. Still, I was moved more in a shallow moment-by-moment kind of way rather than an overarching one. That may dampen rewatchability in the future, but in the moment it was all as effective as it needed to be.

This is one of those movies where I loved the direction they took, and only wished for more. If they had just let loose, not held back, and gone deeper and darker and stranger -- as far as I can tell it could have only gotten better. I don't mind the clichés, and wish they'd have committed to them even more. The production is excellent -- judged as it should be, as a Netflix film and not a theatrical release -- with a thoughtful and cool design of the ship and special effects that get the job done without a single misstep. There are some excellent visual moments, but with a lack of exceptional cinematography, it makes sense why this was never meant to be a big-screen experience.

I think it was what it was meant to be. And if it wasn't, and the Netflix release was because they knew it wouldn't be received well, then that was a wise move.

But that's just it -- it wasn't ever meant to be a big-screen experience. And as far as exclusively small-screen experiences go, this one stands out. It's only exceptional in small moments, but I'm a fan of the space-survival scifi-horror genre, and that is what this movie was through and through. I don't care if it's a Cloverfield movie and there are "expectations" to go with that. I don't care about the mythos, the fan-theories, the erroneous idea that every installment needs to be comparable to or compatible with the last one: Isn't this franchise about breaking expectation? The first one was a found footage film, for crying out loud. Then the second was a suspense thriller with such immaculate character-crafting that the only criticism people could think of was that it shouldn't have been a Cloverfield film at all.

Now they're saying the same thing about this one, just because it was released in a smaller medium, and embraced genre clichés. It's still a totally cohesive film; put together to make sense in its senselessness, to have arcs and themes -- and to feel like a Cloverfield film, which it undeniably does. So no, it's no 10 Cloverfield Lane; but it's only in comparison with that film (which apart from the titles couldn't be more different films) that it can be imagined to be significantly lacking.

It's getting a surprising amount of hate. I say it's undue and unjustified, but have I mentioned I'm a fan of the genre?

The Cloverfield Paradox not a perfect film, but its main flaw is that it didn't reach the heights of which it seemed to be capable. How much of that potential is mere projection? Does this movie really need to be any better than it is? Here are four things I know for sure: One: It's a crazy, out-there scifi plot that drives without finesse to its conclusion with thrills, freak-out moments, and thoughtful character drama. Two: It's got a talented cast who put in effort, and elevate a classically clichéd script. Three: It's a got visual style at least five times greater than what is acceptable for TV movies. And four: I really, freaking enjoyed it.