Category Archives: Film

Annihilation

Thanks, random invite to a sneak preview from Alamo Drafthouse! The last one of these I got was for Mother!, which I liked quite a lot. This time, Annihilation. Which, like the last one, is pretty hard to describe, but unlike the last one, doesn’t hold together quite as well on reflection. That’s not a big criticism, mind you. I really liked Mother! a lot. Just not in a rewatch it kind of way, whereas this one I think I could.

See, Natalie Portman, because reasons, is going on a mission into a weird area of land called the Shimmer, in which (per the sentence long description on IMDB) the laws of nature don’t apply; and also previous missions have not ever returned. From there, a movie length mind trip[1][2] ensues, in which Natalie is accompanied by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jane the Virgin, and the Valkyrie on a quest to solve the mystery of the Shimmer.

That’s quite enough to say, I suppose. It’s nice to see a movie with very few men just a few days after seeing a movie with only one white person. It would be I guess nicer if it didn’t also have the feeling of being bread and circuses while I ignore the shitshow outside.

[1] As you can tell from the poster’s color palette alone
[2] One reason for a rewatch, besides that I’m not afflicted with underlying disturbed feelings from this movie, is that I know I missed a lot of things and would find the second time rewarding towards deciding if I think they stuck the landing or not.

Black Panther

It took me until Monday night to see Black Panther, which was in a way annoying but in another way heartening. Tickets all Sunday afternoon and evening were sold out down to the front couple of rows, you see. This pleases me, both for the studio and the character. And not having seen it on Thursday night, it’s not like my review was going to factor into much of anything at all, so.

The thing is, T’Challa is a compelling character and Wakanda is a compelling nation. There is a book that I have not read called Guns, Germs, and Steel that lays out an (as I understand it) compelling case for the idea that European dominance of the colonial and modern world has a lot more to do with geography and resources than with any innate superiority of its peoples. Enter Wakanda, a small African nation whose technology is far ahead of any part of the world not personally owned by Tony Stark, because that happens to be where a huge chunk of vibranium[1] landed lo these thousands or millions of years ago, and the Wakandans happened to get there first. And you can say that this is so much wish fulfillment. Probably that’s true? But it’s awfully comfortable saying that if you happen to be the person whose wish was fulfilled by reality instead of the person whose wish was not.

And to a large extent, that’s where my review ends, because as cool as the Black Panther is, and as fun as it was to see him rushing around the world fighting some of his biggest name enemies from the comics, and as well realized as his fellow Wakandans each were, and as socially and historically relevant as Killmonger’s origin story is, the real star of this movie was Wakanda. And they did that country up right, every bit as well as Asgard or Ego have been presented in previous MCU flicks.

[1] It’s what Captain America’s shield is made out of. More to the point, it’s virtually indestructible and has a number of rather intriguing properties in addition to this that make it a boon to scientific and military advancements over time. It’s, y’know, handwavium.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Did you know that they are still making Harry Potter movies? It’s true! But I got distracted and never actually saw Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them until now. (Not Black Panther like you’d think. I tried, but all the theaters with assigned seating were sold out down to the front rows today, so I still don’t get to go until Monday. That’s like five days of avoiding spoilers, you guys. Then again, I managed to go more than a year with functionally no spoilers on this Harry Potter thing I’m nominally reviewing, and that includes steadfastly ignoring the newest third of the Harry Potter exhibit on the Warner Bros. studio tour.)

So, a thing worth mentioning is that this technically was not a Harry Potter movie, seeing as how it was set in 1927, some 50 odd years before the boy who lived was even born. There’s this guy Newt Scamander, who wrote a book called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and this is a story of him hanging out in America with a suitcase full of fantastic beasts, back when nobody really liked them (the beasts, not suitcases) and they were illegal to have instead of worthy of being studied and written about, and also there was a pre-Voldemort wizard bad guy that everyone is nervous about.

So if you care about cool magical creatures (you should) or how American wizardry differs from British wizardry in time as well as space (maybe you should?) or about characters who all share a sense of wonder about this whole magic thing even though they were born to it instead of being thrust into it as a cipher stand-in for the reader, and also they all care about each other and have genuine undeniable chemistry, both as actors and as characters (you definitely should, as this kind of thing honestly doesn’t happen that often), this is the movie for you. In a way, it’s better than its source material.

Not that I don’t like Harry Potter, but chosen ones who learn about the universe as the reader or watcher does with constantly ratcheting stakes are kind of a dime a dozen these days, whereas successful post facto world-building is a rare gem indeed.

Hush (2016)

I’m excited by the Olympics, because it apparently means nobody is airing any opposing television, which means I have time to watch movies! Hence Hush, the random horror movie on Netflix I picked to watch a few nights ago when Mary had already fallen asleep but it was very early.

Premise: deaf-mute lady author in the woods. Later, a guy in a creepy mask shows up and stalks her, because sometimes shitty dudes with crossbows gonna be shitty. Then, seventy minutes of ratcheting cat and mouse tension. Tiny cast, ironically great sound editing, and otherwise, either you like this kind of thing or you don’t, y’know? Obviously I do, and this was an excellent example of the genre with basically nothing to disrecommend it.

 

Bright

When I was in LA in mid-December, I saw posters everywhere for a Netflix movie called Bright, starring Will Smith. It was to be released in like a week, but I had never heard of it before that weekend. No idea why, really. I mean, I suppose the fact that 90% of LA billboards are advertising for the screen instead of like 20% here in Dallas could account for part of the reason?

Anyway, it looked interesting. See, it’s the modern world as we know it, except orcs are the stand-in for the downtrodden classes, elves are the stand-in for the wealthy and powerful classes who don’t want to be bothered with having to acknowledge that there even is an underclass who got a raw deal, and humans are the stand-in for, y’know, whoever fits in between the two extremes I just detailed. Oh, also, there was a Dark Lord a long time ago, and people hate orcs because they were on his side then. Institutionalized racism at its finest, folks!

And, frankly, that’s the problem with the movie in a nutshell. Someone decided that, oh, cool, we can highlight the massive race and class problems in America by using fantasy race stand-ins! …and then they didn’t really do anything else with the idea except point at it over and over again. For example: at one point, cop Will Smith and his orc partner (who is the first ever orc policeman, and if you guessed that both every orc and every cop hates him, then you already see my point here) are interviewing some hispanic folks in a house, and they’re speaking Spanish, which Will Smith knows and the orc does not. But it’s okay, because Will Smith doesn’t speak orcish when they’re in the orc gang hideout, and, oh, wait, why do elves speak elvish and orcs speak orcish, but humans have all the same languages we’re already used to since it’s regular earth? It’s possible this shouldn’t bother me as much as it does, but it’s just so damned shoddy!

Anyway, yeah. Buddy cop movie with high tension between the nominal buddies, and there’s a lot of magic floating around via all-powerful wands that most people can’t touch without just exploding to death, and of the people who can, mostly they’re only elves, but also the world is so shitty that people would go ahead and grab a wand anyway if they were just laying around because hey, if you don’t explode, cosmic power is yours for the wishing. And I’m pretty okay with that as a setting, but man, the clumsily (and, worse) lazily-handled race stuff ruins the whole thing for me.

But I hear it did well and there’s a sequel, so maybe they can focus on Dark Lords and magic next time, or at least have someone set them straight on how to not build ridiculous caricatures that we’ve all seen before. (I should say: the opening credits of the movie highlight the tensions and problems of both their world and ours extremely well, so much better than the plot or dialogue ever came close to.)

Minty: The Assassin

While at my folks’ for the weekend, I ended up diving into the free streaming service Dish Network has to offer, in search of the Maze Runner movies. Unsuccessfully, as it happened, but while plumbing the depths of the “action movies from 2010s” section (since they don’t seem to have a search function), I stumbled across Minty: The Assassin, which probably was a mistake.

Minty (and the other characters) are comic book characters who exist in real life in the world that writes comics about them. This is not really a new idea; it pretty much lines up exactly with how Marvel has always run its comics division, for example. Anyway, after a series of really inexplicable vignettes in which we are introduced to Minty (her power is like Popeye, except she eats chocolate), her vampire potential girlfriend, and her mentor Big Boss, the meat of the movie begins when Big Boss is kidnapped by a psychic surgeon and used as bait to lure Minty to his tower. She fights her way up the tower past various colorful level bosses, losing bits of clothing as she goes, only to discover (okay, spoiler alert I guess, but seriously, don’t watch this) that it was all a set-up. The point of the kidnapping was to get her naked to the top of the tower, because Dr. Brain Bender is actually a creepazoid fan of her comic, and he wanted to see her with her clothes off.

Leaving aside the inherent contradiction of stripping her down in pursuit of an anti-sexism plot, the movie nevertheless had the germ of a good idea there. He’s clearly a bad guy, and he’s clearly a crazy loser, and you can at least imagine someone taking the message to heart. ….except that the final 15 minutes is exploitative in the extreme, of the characters and the audience alike. The fact that the bad guy gets assassined in the end really doesn’t make up for how sleazy the path to his death was.

Avoid.

Get Out

A year late, right? Summary, in case you’re as far behind the curve as I am: A mixed race 20-somethings couple visits the lady’s white family’s estate out in the boondocks (or, as you call it when you’re rich, “by the lake”), and the dude feels less comfortable / more out of place with every passing hour.  Especially once the annual reunion gathering thingy kicks into gear. I wish I could say that the year of knowledge that Get Out existed and of the largely untouched niche it occupied was the reason I found it so predictable, but that’s not it. The truth is, the plot developments I guessed as the movie progressed, I would have been able to guess last February if I’d seen it then at the drive-in, as God intended.

The good news is, that’s not really a flaw of the movie. When you are writing a horror movie[1] as social commentary, it is understood that you amplify the fear you are exploring. And (he said, without meaning to appropriate anyone’s experience so much as simply to agree with the portrayal here) the black man’s fear of being the outsider / his fear of the white man broadly in general is not a genre that has been explored particularly thoroughly. Anger, displacement, revenge fantasies? Sure, since the heady blaxploitation days of the 1970s. But actual fear? Not so much.

What makes me sad is that the kind of people who see nothing wrong with being afraid of walking through the so-called ‘hood will probably not ever have seen this, and would probably roll their eyes at how over the top ridiculous the movie is, if they did see it. Like I said: over the top is the point, and it doesn’t detract from very real fear. It just casts a light upon it, to make it easier to see.

Also, though, the scene with the flashing cop car lights was by far the most frightening-to-me thing that happened, and there’s nothing exaggerative in that scene at all.

[1] I’m not sure this properly is a horror movie, and my tag reflects this, but it’s certainly close enough to go on with.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I’ve seen The Last Jedi twice now. There’s been a lot of hoopla, you know?[1] People complaining about things that are debatable matters of taste[2], people complaining about the politics of the movie that are not really debatable[3]: to the extent that they are not simply injecting their own politics instead by complaining, their politics are wrong and the movie’s are right, so that’s how I feel about that.

But all of that is stuff I can’t go into, because I presume that people care about spoilers, not only now even though it’s nearly two weeks past release, but even for posterity. I will say that I liked it quite a lot, have virtually no complaints[4], and have a lot of praise. Was it the best Star Wars movie? Man, how can I even judge something like that after watching it twice, when the first three are so fundamentally entwined into my childhood. But seriously, it might be[5]. It was absolutely the most emotional, emotion-driven of the films, and I do not say that due to foreknowledge of Carrie Fisher’s recent death. Although that knowledge certainly adds an extra gut punch beyond what the movie had already accomplished.

I guess I’m saying these things: 1) if you’ve ever gone to see a star war, and you somehow haven’t gone to see this one yet, you really ought to. 2) It rewards multiple viewings.

[1] Spoiler footnotes below the cut

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Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Monday was random movie night, and the random movie I ended up seeing was Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, which is about, well, honestly the title is not wrong, you know? You see, some amount of time has passed since Frances McDormand’s daughter was killed, and she is unhappy with the speed of justice, so she takes matters into her own hands via the powers of advertising!

It is my understanding that this movie is not being well received in the liberal community because it is making heroes out of really terrible people. I don’t think that’s right at all, though. It is a movie about people who either are outright terrible, or are deeply flawed but recognizably trying to do right, or are too consumed with their own problems to remember to care about anyone else. (Or, at best, they are the people being hurt by the three people I just described.) So, right, it is a movie about those people, and their attempts to do the right thing.

I’m assuming that’s what is disliked, that they are clearly trying to do the right thing. That is a little too shades of grey in a political climate where we would prefer everything be as cartoonish as it is in the news right now. I have two reactions to that: 1) People in real life mostly are not cartoonish, despite the implausible reality of the current news cycle. 2) If someone is trying to do the right thing, that does not mean they’ve been given a redemption arc. Even if you accomplish doing the right thing, which is not guaranteed, one right does not make up for years of wrongs. Sometimes years of right don’t.

Anyway, I’ve gotten very far afield of what this review should have been, which is why I hate so much that I’ve gotten bad at writing reviews before I see other responses to a movie (or really anything else I review) before I’ve formed my own. I don’t like responding to responses instead of to the thing itself, because it always ends up dumb, like this did.

I would mostly not recommend the movie, although it is at times extremely funny, because it’s also extremely dark, and mostly people know better than I do if they would like that. But if you would, you probably will.

Thor: Ragnarok

The problem with reviewing a new Marvel movie is the same as the problem with reviewing a new Dresden Files or Vlad Taltos book: too much accumulated past knowledge is required.That is, the only way to come close to getting a coherent thought out of me is if I assume you are aware of everything that has come before. Otherwise, I’m bound to spoil for previous movies.

For example, Thor: Ragnarok, which is not only the third Thor movie, it’s in the high teens for total Marvel Cinematic Universe movies overall. And okay, they don’t all of them interweave so tightly that you would need all the movies under your belt, but it’s still something like five or six, just to cover all the returning characters.

So, screw it, I’m doing that spoil for previous movies thing. See, the first Thor movie was about learning how to be worthy. Thor starts off as a bro, and needs to be a hero instead. Cool. The second one was about family (and also a little bit about the eventual Infinity War that we’re not quite to, yet, but that’s plot, and I’m talking theme here). Like, Loki is still a bad guy, or at least a mischief guy, but the brothers are brothers again and don’t have to spend so much energy on hating each other. It was nice!

This third movie is about becoming an adult. Training wheels are off, the end of the world Asgard is at hand, and Thor (and whoever else is willing to side with him; telling you in advance would be, well, telling) has to figure everything out for himself. Which, not bad for a dude who was a bro like six years ago. I mean, assuming he succeeds. But trying is also pretty cool. Bro Thor from 2011 would not have even tried to do anything except maybe tug on Odin’s arm, unless it was to charge forward blindly and get himself killed in the first thirty seconds.

So, that’s what the movie is. Remaining things to know are that it was almost more comedy  than action movie; that it has my personal favorite use of a Led Zeppelin song; that of course it was good, although at the same time it’s hard to know how to trust my opinion here anymore[1]; and that… no, I take it back, anything else I could possibly say would definitely be spoilers. Go see it!

[1] I mean, I didn’t like the Inhumans series, so at least I know there’s a bottom to this well of good faith.