Author Archives: Andy Wilson

Movie Review: Skyscraper

skyscraper_ver2Skyscraper is that type of movie that if you put any thought into it all, it completely falls apart. But if you can somehow manage to prevent your brain cells from firing to notice the numerous high-rise-sized plot holes, you might be entertained by the dazzling spectacle of a ginormous building on fire, people being heroic, and dazzling stunts. It is not high art.

Our protagonist in this story is the building, known as The Pearl, Hong Kong’s newest skyscraper which comes in at approximately three times the size of the Empire State Building. In this movie, the building actually gets more backstory and character development than any of the humans.

Those humans include Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson who is playing a security expert evaluating the safety of the building. But of course some bad guys want some sort of undisclosed MacGuffin held in the most secure part of the building by the buildings eccentric and rich owner, and so they do what any bad guys would do – they set the building on fire. So The Rock has to scale the building, at times aided only by a rope and duct tape — yes, duct tape, who is arguably the true hero of the movie — to save his family, including Neve Campbell and some really adorable kids. Like, seriously, I’d jump into a burning building to save these kids.

To help the exposition along, we have TV news crews shooting the antics from every conceivable angle outside the building and broadcasting it to multiple screens around Hong Kong. In case you, the audience. don’t know how to react, or when to cheer, or when to clap, they’ve provided a handy bad 80s sitcom style laugh track to the movie to tell you when the jokes land. Did I say jokes? I meant stunts.

That being said, those action sequences are harrowing. And if you’re at all agoraphobic, this movie is sure to make you wish you weren’t looking down, over and over and over again as The Rock precipitously dangles by his fingertips off the edge of the building. The movie is cut from the same cloth as the giant spectacle disaster movies of the 70’s and 80’s– swap out ol’ Chuck Heston for The Rock, and we got ourselves a picture!

This films writer and stunt coordinator also seem intent on showing you that all of the skills you were supposed to learn in elementary school gym class were actually the most important ones. Balance beam, climbing a rope, doing a pull-up, and so on. For those of you who got the Presidential Fitness metal, this movie salutes you. You too can save your family from a burning state-of-the-art skyscraper!

(Pulls out imaginary social justice warrior soapbox) Where this film excels, however, is in its depiction of those with physical limitations. The Rock’s character has a prosthetic leg, which if you think about it is actually a really cool idea to break down ableism. The problem is, it treads into that trope of “disability as superpower,” which is very dangerous territory. (Insert “autistic genius who solves everything” cliche here) You can make a drinking game out of the number of times that his prosthetic leg saves him.

However, I mean this in all sincerity and while I know this review has mostly been incredibly snarky, I really do hope that this helps. And it’s important to have someone of The Rock’s celebrity and physical stature show that a prosthetic limb does not preclude you from being a superhero. I only wish it had been done a little more deftly, and in a far better movie. But for those for whom this resonates, this is likely an important representation for them on the big screen, and we shouldn’t just gloss over that.

That being said, this movie is horrifically dumb. It’s not the dumbest movie of the year – that title is still held by Den of Thieves – but even compared to other recent disaster porn movies starring Dwayne The Rock Johnson, this sticks out as being egregiously IQ-challenged. This makes Rampage look like it got a master’s degree, and San Andreas graduated top of its class from Harvard Law.

That’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with a movie being just some cheap thrills and spectacular stunts, but when your other choices in the theater right now include The Incredibles 2, Ant-Man and the Wasp, and even the incredibly-smart-looking-by-comparison Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom, let’s just say you have some other options to seek those thrills.

2 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Ant-Man and the Wasp

ant-man-and-the-wasp-posterThis is the palate cleanser we needed after the heaviness of Avengers: Infinity War, and like the first Ant-Man, guaranteed to leave you smiling ear to ear. However, as a film, and grading on the curve of what we expect from recent MCU movies, it falls a bit short of the recent genius of Black Panther or Thor: Ragnarok. 

But is that really fair? Do we judge the sorbet, pickled ginger, or simple fruit compared to the course before it? If you eat some apple slices after a particularly hearty main course, shouldn’t you just compare it to other apples? Ant-Man and the Wasp is a particularly good apple, even if it’s a lesser part of the feast of the MCU.

Our story centers back on Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) who, after the events of Captain America: Civil War, finds himself in the last few days of a two-year house arrest, during which time he has had no contact with Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) or Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). They are reunited after he has a vision of Janet (Michelle Pfieffer) whom Hank and Hope have been trying to rescue from the quantum realm, avoiding detection by the authorities with a truly “mobile” lab they can shrink to a rolling suitcase.

Unfortunately, their activities have also attracted the attention of Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) a former S.H.I.E.L.D. operative, who needs their tech to fix her condition which allows her to phase through solid matter, but is also extremely painful. They’re also being pursued by billionaire Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) and FBI Agent Woo (Randall Park) and aided by Scott’s friends from the previous movie, led by Michael Pena. And we get a glimpse into Hank Pym’s past with the introduction of Dr. Bill Foster (Lawrence Fishburne) who previously used Pym’s technology to grow larger and become “Goliath.”

It’s a lot of characters. And most of the movie ends up being a giant game of keep-away with the lab/suitcase while our stars tell jokes and superhero wackiness ensues. While the first Ant-Man played like a generic heist film, this is more reminiscent of the specific sub-genre of a 60’s caper film which was as much about the romantic chemistry of the two leads as its plot.

Full of sight gags and visuals of little things turning big and vice versa, the film plays with its main conceit of being able to shrink and grow at will, sometimes almost to a fault. It also uses its setting of San Francisco to great effect. The film also depends on the audience being willing to accept a lot of super convenient plot turns to keep everything moving, including the biggest deus ex machina of the entire MCU to resolve its central conflict.

One of the biggest impressions we’re left with from this film is “women do it better.” Hope Van Dyne’s Wasp is infinitely better at her job than Scott is at being Ant-Man, and Ghost as an antagonist is infinitely better than Corey Stoll’s super-weak Yellowjacket in the last Ant-Man film.

The other important thing here [possible spoiler alert?] is the idea that this film exists without a singular villain, continuing Marvel’s recent spate of complex villains with an actual beef and moral weight to their arguments. While Ghost is certainly the antagonist, she is a person acting out of severe pain from her “powers” and more akin to a terminal patient looking to do anything to get palliative medical care. And Goggins, while always fun to watch in a villain role, really doesn’t do enough to qualify as a “villain” in the true sense– other than just being a greedy capitalist.

So this movie has a lot of heart, spectacular visuals, great jokes and performances from its supporting cast, and some nice character moments, but falls short of some of the spectacle, fun, and other recent MCU films.  But as a palate cleanser? It works really well.

Until [again, possible spoiler alert, but this is predictable] in the post credit scenes we see what happens in this corner of the universe when Thanos snaps his fingers. Then it leaves that ashy, sad taste in our mouth again. If you want to preserve the fun and good feelings this movie gives us, you may want to leave at the credits, just this one time.

This is a fun movie which should keep you smiling for almost the entirety of its runtime. While not as good as, say, Incredibles 2, it’s worthwhile just as some fun escapism from the heat and the stresses of summer 2018.

3.5 out of 5

Movie Review: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

jurassic-world-posterYou can never go home again. But apparently you can keep mining the same basic premise — crazy scientists reinvent dinosaurs, put them in a park, park breaks down, dinos eat people — until you hit bedrock. Or, in the case of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, until you hit magma.

This is perhaps the laziest and most paint-by-numbers of the franchise, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. It is, however, pretty dumb– at least as dumb as its giant rampaging beasts, with plot holes equally as large. Perhaps, like the stegosaurus, it has a brain the size of a walnut and a secondary “brain” in its tail?

But that doesn’t make it not enjoyable. There’s two ways to enjoy this movie– you’re either a 10 year old, or an adult.

For a kid, or someone who can tap into their inner child easily, it’s like a eating a giant bowl of jelly beans doused in Mountain Dew and shoveling it in your mouth like a kid eating cereal watching Saturday morning cartoons. There’s no layers here, no nuance, no deeper meaning. As much as I would like to salute the stinging indictment of the 1% and global military-industrial complex in this film, that’s even more of a reach than I’ll normally make. This is sugar on top of sugar on top of sugar with a dollop of high fructose corn syrup. And that’s it.

For cynical adults, however, this film is more along the lines of going to see a concert of one of your favorite bands from 90’s. Yeah, they’re going to play the hits– all of your favorites– but you notice they don’t quite sound the same any more. They’ve lost a little bit of that verve. And then when they tell you, “And here’s a song off our new album,” you know you can check out for a moment or go grab another drink. This is like that.  (Apologies if you feel I’ve maligned your favorite 90’s band.) But this movie is like the lyrics from 90’s band Gin Blossoms, “If you don’t expect too much from me, you might not be let down.”

Our story– if it matters? and yet it’s also needlessly complicated– is our beloved dinosaurs are in danger. This time the abandoned park on Isla Nublar is in danger from a (very convenient) volcano which threatens to destroy the island. While the world debates whether to let the animals become re-extinct, a fate which returning champ (and drastically underused) Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) explains in what is essentially an extended exposition cameo. Former park manager Claire (Dallas Bryce Howard) is now an animal rights activist working to save the dinos. She is enlisted to help save them and take them to a sanctuary on another private island by eccentric dying billionaire Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) former partner of John Hammond in the dinosaur-making business. To rescue the dinos, they will also need velociraptor wrangler Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), as they seem very interested in his raptor buddy Blue.

owen and blue

And this movie spends a lot — a lot — of time with Owen and Blue. It is almost a boy-and-his-dinosaur movie. While this is likely designed to be a selling point, one of the biggest tragedies of this movie is the best character arc of the film is reserved for a dinosaur. That’s ok. We love Blue. He’s great. But this is too much of a good thing. The human characters, however? They’re basically set dressing to move the action scenes along and provide snack-shaped macguffins for the thunder lizards to chase.

And where do they chase them? Well, towards the setup of another obligatory sequel, of course. Sure, there’s bad guys who get chomped, and a few twists and turns about what’s actually going on, but it’s really predictable the same way you’ll never be surprised by a meal at Applebees. They’re also joined on this quest by paleo-veterinarian Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda), computer guy Franklin Webb (Justice Smith), and army guy Ken Wheatley (Ted Levine). And, because it’s a Jurassic Park movie, Dr. Wu (BD Wong) is back, as is obligatory-child-in-peril Lockwood’s granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon).

The action setpieces are dazzling if a bit unharmonious. The first half of the film is a slow build to the rescue from Isla Nublar against the backdrop of an apocalyptic volcano. It’s big dumb action fun that would make Michael Bay blush. Have you ever said, “Hey, what Jurassic Park needs is to have is the dinosaurs attack while lava threatens everyone!” Well, this is your movie. As is The Land Before Time as well as that scene from Fantasia with the dinosaurs set to The Rite of Spring. Enjoy! as an incapacitated Chris Pratt slowly rolls away from molasses-paced lava! (Seriously) Actually, it’s kind of fun. But it is really dumb.

Are you sensing a theme?

You also get a lot of sense of “been there, done that” as you get “characters” who seem to only be there to fit a stereotype or move the story along. Ted Levine (remember when he was the grumpy police captain on Monk? Or Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs?) seems determined to copy bits and pieces of Sean Pertwee and Pete Postlethwaite, but never really becomes anything more than “Army guy who is hunting dinosaurs.” Ditto with Justice Smith, whose only purpose is to be scared and fix the computers.

And then there’s Daniella Pineda, whose character seemed like she might break the mold and actually be interesting. . . and then no. Unsurprising reports have surfaced that a scene was cut “for time” where she reveals she’s a lesbian. This is only unsurprising because major studios seem so unwilling to put anyone who isn’t heterosexual in their major tentpole releases. However, this goes to the broader point– the fact that she’s gay was cut “for time” as opposed to any of the filler “action sequences,” some of which get ridiculous. The film approaches character and development as purely secondary to more overt explosions and dinosaur attacks.

The film’s approach that more is more is on full display as the island is filled with lava and overtaken by toxic gases from the volcano’s pyroclastic flow. There is a moment where they escape from the island and a scene with a sauropod that will break your heart. Or, turn your stomach, depending on how cynically you approach the film. Your mileage may vary. My ten year old cried. My inner ten year old did, too. It’s not quite at the level of “I don’t feel so good Mr. Stark. . . ” but almost.

And that’s the first half of the movie.

The second half of the film is so tonally dissimilar from the first half that it feels like two different films. The second is basically a monster movie with a dinosaur villain that has probably been spoiled if you’ve seen the marketing for this movie, but whom I will not spoil here because it is a nice reveal. The dino isn’t the problem, though, and neither are the cold techno-lab setpieces in the basement of this giant Hearst-Castle-esque estate which gets a cool haunted house vibe (although those are also a bit of a tonal shock as well). The real problem, as is the theme of all Jurassic Park movies, are the humans. Especially the human villains are the least interesting and compelling major franchise villains outside of a Transformers movie we’ve had in a long time. Not compelling, not memorable, and their motivations are just stupid. Toby Jones even tries to show up 2/3 of the way through the movie as an ancillary villain to try to save it. Spoiler alert: he can’t.

There are also pieces here that you want to say are “callbacks” to previous films, but really? They feel almost more like cliches and obligatory fanservice. If you had asked me to make a list of everything that is a staple of Jurassic Park movies, I would give you a list of a dozen or so items. Jurassic World was partially so successful because it played with those tropes. This one just leans into them. Some are done well. Some are done less well.

What’s interesting and fun here isn’t necessarily new. And what’s new and unique isn’t necessarily fun.

The fact that Blue is basically the film’s deuteragonist next to Own Grady is somewhat refreshing. Let’s give them an unreliable dinosaur sidekick! Ok. But it only works so long. You really have to buy the premise to buy this bit.

But the film seems to not understand its basic concept. While Jurassic World embraced the idea that “dinosaurs are boring, so we need to make a hybrid dinosaur– bigger, scarier, more teeth!– to make a new monster” as its sort of meta-concept, they try to do that same concept, but to less effect. The Indominus Rex was new. What they gave us in this movie is a literal mishmash of everything before thinking it would work again.

But nature is unpredictable and can’t be controlled by man. And our filmmakers were so preoccupied with whether or not they could make a sequel that they didn’t ask, ahhh. . . if they should.

It sounds like I’m being harsh to this film. Perhaps I am. But basically this is on the level of a Fast and Furious movie. It’s fun and it’s sugary. But it’s not substantive nor near as interesting as previous installments. It does, however, look great. But so do Fast and Furious movies. In fact, director J. A. Bayona (who previously did great work on A Monster Calls and The Orphanage) has a lot in common with Fast and Furious mainstay Justin Lin. They’re both strong directors with great visual style who know how to balance action and comedy, but most importantly know how to keep a franchise movie moving– as long as it’s in the direction of more! more! more! and to put lots of butts in seats buying giant tubs of popcorn. There are much worse things in this world.

But the end of the film also replays some of Ian Malcolm’s words from the beginning, as though he’s Shakespeare at the end of The Tempest: “O brave new world, That has such [dinosaurs] in it!” But perhaps when embarking on the next (super obligatory) sequel (because this film is destined to make T-Rex sized mountains of cash), they should ask themselves, “Should we?” And unless their ideas exceed recycling the greatest hits of the franchise before, maybe they should wait.

Regardless, if you can leave any cynicism or expectations behind at the concession stand, you’ll likely be smiling most of this movie. It is a lot of fun. The bowl of pure sugar. The 90’s band concert. There are much worse things. And a little escapism with dinosaurs isn’t so bad. But compared to some of the sheer genius we’ve seen the last 4 months in movie theaters, this doesn’t quite measure up.

3 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Tag

tag posterIt’s rare for a movie with so simple a premise to be not only uproariously funny but also heartfelt. The based-on-a-true-story of childhood friends who have been playing the same game of tag for 30 years is one of the funniest comedies of the year and pushes the boundaries of good taste in numerous ways.

One key theme here is these middle aged dudes all play a child’s game to try to stay young. This captures that fun and sense of play. It also captures that perfect sense of what it was to be young and have absolutely no filter– an 11-13 year old boy has probably the foulest mouth and mind on the planet, and most of these guys never completely grew up from that. It also features a great throwback soundtrack featuring hip hop and hard rock tracks from the 80’s and 90’s, giving the film a specific sense of nostalgia. Also, stick around during the credits to see/hear the cast sing a rendition of the Crash Test Dummies “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm.” See? Specific. We’re ready to party like it’s 1994, around which time our team of dummies ostensibly would have graduated from high school.

On our team of tag players are successful veterinarian “Hoagie” (Ed Helms) and his overly competitive wife Anna (Isla Fisher). They first recruit health insurance CEO Bob Callahan (Jon Hamm) when they crash an interview he’s doing with a reporter from the Wall St. Journal (Annabelle Wallis) who joins their game as she smells a story. (This is based on the true story that was published here) They track down stoner burnout “Chili” (Jake Johnson) and crash Kevin’s (Hannibal Burress) therapy session. The goal of all of this to to finally tag their one friend Jerry (Jeremy Renner) who has never been tagged –and they have the perfect opportunity to do so at his upcoming wedding.

And hijinks ensue.

The film, while definitely a comedy which tries to pack as many jokes into every minute as possible, plays out almost more like an action movie. This is in itself incredibly funny, as we see these middle-aged men play tag with all the style and staging of The Expendables or the most recent Fast and Furious movie. Every time they think they have Renner’s character cornered, time slows down and we see inside his mind as he anticipates every move, a la Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films with Robert Downey, Jr. It’s a fun device which never gets overused thanks to the comedy always focusing on the characters and these mens’ relationships with each other.

Case in point, in an attempt to sew discord among the group, Jerry invites Cheryl (Rashida Jones) a former flame of both Bob and Chili’s to the wedding. It, of course, works to distract them because “lol these idiot man children playing a game are so predictable.”

What isn’t predictable are exactly the lengths Jerry has gone to in order to plan quick escapes from various situations and the theatricality with which he pulls them off. This includes a showdown in the woods where he literally pulls out a boombox and starts playing Ozzy’s “Crazy Train” to play with their minds.

What also is not predictable was just how sweet this movie is at its heart. Amidst reports like this article from The Boston Globe saying “The Biggest Threat to Middle-Aged Men Isn’t Smoking or Obesity – It’s Loneliness” it is truly great to find an inspiring story of how friends have managed to stay together. And watching the actual friends who the story is based on and their antics in the credits makes this even more worthwhile. While the end of the film gets a little bit tropey and sappy and you realize what’s actually going on, you might feel a little manipulated and tricked, but it’s mostly forgivable due to how fun the rest of the film is.

The cast really makes this film work. Hannibal Buress once again proves he is one of the funniest people on the planet, and his understated delivery and perfect timing are elegantly used here. Whether in a comedy special taking center stage, as the co-host of The Eric Andre Show, or as Peter Parker’s gym teacher, he is comedy’s secret weapon. Oh, and speaking of Spider-Man, it’s worth noting that Jake Johnson, who you may have only recognized from New Girl or Jurassic World is playing Peter Parker in this fall’s animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-VerseIsla Fisher is also hilarious and pitch perfect– mirroring in a lot of ways her breakout performance in Wedding Crashers. She also plays up the angle that, as a girl, she’s not allowed to play– and that the rest of the group are completely terrified of her because of how competitive she is. It begs the question why Buress and Fisher aren’t in more films.

This sounds silly, but this movie will make you want to play tag with your friends. In this day and age, that is not such a bad thing. It’s simple, wacky, filthy, irreverent, and utterly fun — just like playing with your friends in elementary and middle school.

3.5 out of 5 stars

On Chris Hardwick, Comic Conventions, and the Presumption of Innocence

(Trigger Warning for discussions of rape, abuse, sexual assault,etc)

In this article I’m going to attempt to deconstruct what’s happening around allegations of sexual harassment and abuse in various areas of nerddom. Rather than try to prosecute the facts of each individual case, I want to talk about systems and how we got to this point, and what we can do about it.

“Innocent until proven guilty.”
“There are two sides and we can’t know.”
“Rush to judgment.”
Chris Hardwick. FanX Salt Lake Comic Convention#metoo

It is as predictable as the sun rising in the east that whenever there is an allegation of harassment, rape, abuse, or other predatory behavior that these are the responses we’ll hear first. So let’s talk about these ideas and where they fit in with our current cultural conversation.

First (and this may surprise you I’m starting here) these are good standards. They have served us well in western civilization because they are standards with specific intents.

For instance, it’s ENTIRELY VITAL that in the criminal justice system, a person have a complete presumption of innocence. It is the government’s job to prove beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury of your peers that you committed a crime in order for you to be deprived of your freedom or property by being put in jail or having to pay a fine. In the case of the law, innocent until proven guilty is sacrosanct. Hence, the legal proceedings against Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, etc.

But then there’s the court of public opinion. Who says that in this case a person must be given the presumption of innocence? Does literally anything else get this same standard? Does science? (I wish, right?)

No. Because that’s not how it works. So why should what is appropriate for due process in a criminal case be applied in the case of a victim coming forward? Do we apply other similar legalisms in our daily lives?

And so then a lot of people will say, when all the evidence comes out, it comes down to a “he said / she said” situation (or another variation based on the genders of the people involved– as abuse and harassment occur among all people — but in this case I’ll keep with the colloquial “he said / she said” because we’re talking about specific instances of alleged abuse).

The end point of this, though, is that a person is supposed to throw up their hands and just say “Well, I guess we can’t know. There’s two sides to this story and the only people who know are the two of them.” It’s the societal equivalent of a hung jury– we just don’t know — OR an acquittal where we say the victim never proved their claim beyond some standard of reasonable doubt.

So, what happens? The net effect of “innocent until proven guilty” and “two sides” is that the accused is always advantaged. There is a seriously high bar to overcome to be able to prove an allegation– and the more prominent and powerful a person is, the higher that bar gets.

And so we wonder why victims are afraid to come forward? BECAUSE OF THIS. Because prima facie we are conditioned to not believe them. Because it’s important to understand that “innocent until proven guilty” and “two sides” are systems created by western patriarchal order specifically for the judicial system — which have served us well in terms of balancing government tyranny vs law and order — but which do NOT protect victims and were never created for society at large. Using legal standards in place of a broader sense of morality and justice is not only foolhardy– it’s why Jesus hated lawyers. (Apologies to my friends in the legal profession. Jesus loves you very much.)

We face an epidemic of rape and sexual assault– 1 in 4 women will be assaulted. That is sickening and MUST change. But rape cases are unlikely to be prosecuted because we have to convince a jury of 12 individuals a rapist is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Get ONE person on that jury who holds sexist attitudes about “She was leading him on.” “She was wearing the wrong clothing.” etc, etc, etc and the accused will not be punished. Get a judge who believes we shouldn’t ruin a person’s life over one mistake, and the person will not be punished. Innocent until proven guilty is a high bar. And is it intentionally so, because the basis of our law is “It is better for 1,000 guilty men to go free than one innocent man be punished.” Emphasis on “men.”

It is the systems of presumption of innocence and hearing both sides that have created the situation we are in. They were tools of a patriarchal western culture which, intentionally or not, have always advantaged men over women. They are the petri dish in which rape culture flourished and grew. And we will not, to paraphrase Audre Lorde, be able to tear down the master’s house using the master’s tools. And so “presumed innocent” and “both sides” will never get us the justice we need.

JFK wrote “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” We have made solving these cases nearly impossible through our criminal justice system. And so instead we have to turn to the callout, the public shaming– the vague article on Medium that doesn’t directly name your accuser but we all know who you’re talking about. These are also imperfect systems, but they’re basically all we have.

Government is supposed to have a monopoly on the use of violence in society. And shunning, isolation, shaming– those are acts of violence. It’s why we should react so viscerally to The Scarlet Letter, The Handmaid’s Tale, to women being beheaded for adultery or acid thrown in their faces– BECAUSE extra-governmental forces (in these cases, religion masquerading as law or individuals acting under a faux religious mandate) are enacting violence. Also, government is not acting as it should with the necessary due process. And the violence is horrific. But even in the more subtle violence of these– the shame circles, the public labeling — we see what we don’t like about callout culture. Because it is a form of mob justice, and one which does not have norms or rules around it.

hmt_101_gk_0916_0017_f-e1492090786905

And because they can be misused, people are skeptical, and begin trying to rationalize against it. And we retreat back to “innocent until proven guilty” and “he said / she said”– all of which serve to protect the accused and indict the victim. And, it should be noted, the closer you are to a person who is accused, the more you might depend on them for something, the less likely you are to believe they are capable of this. And so we say, “we don’t want to harm someone over unfounded allegations.”

Some have even called this “the internet lynch mob.” Let’s unpack that for one second. Thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) of people, mostly African Americans, were lynched in the US. People were murdered. It was done to incite terror and uphold white supremacy. For me, it rings just as hollow to talk about women working to stop sexual violence — especially when it is women of color (and queer women of color) who are the largest victims of sexual violence and harassment in the US — as a “lynch mob” as it does for Richard Paul Evans to talk about being a white male being like a Jew during Nazi Germany. It rings hollow because it destroys the historical paradigm of oppressor and victim and flips it on its head– now the historical victims of oppression are suddenly the bad guys? And to talk about someone being called out for bad behavior as being morally equivalent to taking someone’s life? Spare me.

Because it harms literally no one to believe a victim when they come forward. What will the consequences be for Chris Hardwick? At most, it will be a loss of reputation which will almost certainly be temporary.

Chris Brown is still making albums. So is Dr. Luke. It’s unlikely that even if they lose their civil suits they will be living on the streets, having lost everything. Devin Faraci, who was accused of assault, got a job with Alamo Drafthouse/ Fantastic Fest less than a year after the allegations came out against him — and he would have continued in that role if it had not been exposed. Even Bill O’Reilly is mounting a comeback tour. So let’s not pretend that people are going to be ruined.

For those not following the controversy around sexual assault and harassment at Salt Lake FanX (previously Salt Lake Comic Con– the third largest con in the country by attendance after San Diego and New York) here is a primer. But it’s bad. If the con’s owners, Dan Farr and Bryan Brandenberg, were to sell Salt Lake FanX or convert it into a non-profit (as many of their critics are calling for, pointing to toxic behavior on their part as well), they stand to gain more than can be imagined– and more than they stand to lose if they continue to let this drip drip drip continue about the harassment and abuse they have covered up. If we choose too believe the victims who have stepped forward, they will still be millionaires no matter what. Same with Hardwick.

So, again, it DOES NOTHING to simply believe victims when they come forward. In fact, every argument of “innocent until proven guilty” and “hear both sides” insulates abusers and harassers. It prevents victims from coming forward because they know the people around the accused will rally around them and prosecute the victim– call her unreliable, question her motives, ask why she didn’t just leave the situation in the first place (obviously you have no idea how abusers operate and can’t see the pathological ways they all work).

In the case of gaslightng or calling into question the accuracy or motives of victims, above all others, there is actual harm perpetrated against people who have already been victimized when we choose to hide behind “we can’t know” or “innocent until proven guilty” or “the internet lynch mob.”

There is a massive change trying to happen in our culture right now. There are people who have been oppressed in order for us to make the progress we’ve made. There are people who are still disadvantaged by the status quo. Our choice is whether we decide to side with the status quo as “good enough” or whether we want to break down systems of oppression and side with the disadvantaged. And if you’ve decided to stay neutral in this fight, or ignore it and pretend it isn’t happening, you’ve already chosen a side.

Believe victims. It doesn’t harm anyone, except the patriarchy.

Movie Review: Ocean’s 8

oceans 8 posterUsually in a movie like this, one actor will break out and steal every scene they’re in. Somehow, Ocean’s 8 manages to assemble a crew of master thieves who steal every scene from each other and more. Every performance is delightful and fun and a cure for any summertime blues or blockbuster fatigue you may be feeling.

The film completely understands its pedigree and apes the best of the previous Ocean’s caper films with its emphasis on style, fun and personal stakes beyond just whether the thieves pull off their crime.

Sandra Bullock plays the eponymous Debbie Ocean (sister of Danny Ocean from the other films). The film’s opening plays an explicit homage to the opening of Ocean’s 11, with a parole hearing and Debbie being released to the outside world. And then we begin to see exactly how different from (and probably better than) her brother she is.

Yes, she assembles a crew to pull off an impossible heist — in this case to steal a $150 million dollar diamond necklace at the Met Gala in New York — but she runs things differently and has personal reasons for what she’s doing.

Her right-hand woman is Lou (Cate Blanchett) who helps her assemble the team. Remember the scene stealing problem? Here are the main culprits:

Helena Bonham Carter plays a somewhat batty washed-up fashion designer. She is having so much fun with the role and is one of her best performances is years.
Anne Hathaway is playing Hollywood starlet Daphne Kluger, the mark from around whose neck the crew will have to steal the diamonds. Her performance is pure magic as a crippling indictment of the shallow, vapid personas of the Hollywood elite. And then in the final act it becomes something more, as you realize the actress is acting, too, and she’s only pretending to be that stupid, because that’s what society demands of her. It’s one of those classic “not just a pretty face” moments sets up a beautiful confrontation in the third act that completely flips the movie on its head. She is the Rosetta Stone of the film. More on this in a moment.
Awkwafina plays a pickpocket who can’t help but lift every single frame of the movie she’s in. She’s so delightful and compelling.
Rihanna is a master hacker who also is just a good thief. Rather than play up the “socially awkward nerd” trope, she’s just a normal human being who happens to be good with computers.
Sarah Paulson is a seemingly bored housewife who is secretly a criminal mastermind, selling stolen goods from her garage covering as having an EBay business.
Mindy Kaling is a jeweler henpecked by her mother who wants her to get married.

On top of this, you also have some incredibly fun other members of the cast including Richard Armitage as a dashing art dealer and a fun third act turn by a cast-against-type James Corden as an insurance inspector hot on the trail of our protagonists.

Each of them is so perfect and has specific things to do and a character arc. Of all of them, I would complain that Kaling’s character is a little bit underwritten, but her natural charisma more than compensates for any script deficiencies, as does a fun little bit about her learning how to use Tinder.

Speaking of the script, this was written and directed by Gary Ross, who has written some of my personal favorite movies like Big and Dave as well as writing and directing the first Hunger Games. Ross is good here and especially adept at writing and directing this cast of luminaries, but if there’s one complaint it’s that he’s not quite Steven Soderbergh, who just directed the hell out of Ocean’s 11. He’s also not quite Ted Griffin, who wrote the 2001 screenplay as well as other caper projects like Matchstick Men and the-yes-I’m-still-mad-this-got-cancelled-yes-as-mad-as-people-are-about-Firefly tv show Terriers. Ross apes the style and feel very well, but it’s missing a little bit of that je ne sais cuoi. One might argue that a female writer and director could’ve better brought this to the screen, but you have to give Ross a lot of credit for doing this so well, and it’s hard to judge against a hypothetical. Regardless, this isn’t a failing. This is still a strong script and strong direction.

One of the best pieces of the film is understanding its deepest meaning. In 2018, it should no longer be remarkable to have a female-forward cast. It’s almost trite and simple now to simply say, “Yeah! Girl power! Women can lead movies, too!” or “Diverse casts are awesome!” because, ya-doy, look at the box office.

Whenever some Status Quo Warrior (SQW, nee SJW) defender of the white male hedgemony gets his snowflake knickers in a twist and decides to start a tiki torch parade, all you have to do is look at the box office and what’s making money. All of our top-grossing films now have diverse casts and most have strong female leads.

What is most remarkable about Ocean’s 8 is that, yes, on the surface, you could gender swap every role and it would work the same. The same that Kaling, Rihanna, and Awkwafina’s characters could all be played by white people. But the point is that they’re not and they bring specifically bits of what it is to be, for example, the daughter of Indian parents who expect you to be married already, or how being a black woman allows for such erasure that you can easily sneak into a secure office building by posing as a janitor.

This leads to another of the film’s Rosetta Stone moments. When discussing their plans, Blanchett and Bullock are discussing bringing on another crew member who might be a man. Bullock stops her and points out that men get noticed. Women get ignored. And in this case, they want to get ignored. That’s part of the con.

If that doesn’t stop and make you think for a second, you missed the heart of this movie. Mix this with our Hollywood starlet intentionally playing dumb and vapid to meet everyone’s expectations, and it really skewers the soft bigotry of low expectations. Yes, there is an equality in terms of “women can do anything that men can do.” But in this case, it’s how society still treats women, and especially women of color, differently and ignores them that is the main point. Ultimately the caper that gets pulled here is on us.

But even if that social message breezes right by you (it’s quite subtle, like all good heist movies) you’re just left with so much fun. Every single one of these performances will bring a smile to your face just out of sheer enjoyment. Even with my most favorite films of the year so far, I didn’t get as much pure joy and fun out of them– often because they were more serious or dour.

But this is that time of year when blockbuster fatigue really starts to set in. Alongside this week’s release of Hereditary, these two films provide a beautiful counterprogramming to everything not clad in spandex and full of CGI and explosions. And if you’re not in the mood to have the bejeezus scared out of you, then this is your movie. Ocean’s 8 is that perfect summer poolside cocktail meant to be sipped and enjoyed over and over.

3.75 out of 5 stars

 

Movie Review: Hereditary

HEREDITARY posterMovies don’t normally scare me. Real life scares me enough. There have been some great films with horror elements this year: Annihilation still has some of the scariest moments of the year and A Quiet Place was magic.

Hereditary makes them look like church. Literally, I had too sleep with the lights on the night after seeing it. I’m still disturbed thinking about it.

One of the best things about it is how it blends so many different scary elements into a single narrative. It’s what makes the film hard to explain in terms of its plot and basic premise without spoiling things because you’re really not quite sure what’s going on, what’s real and what isn’t real, until almost the very end.

It also depends on things that are truly scary rather than just cheap jump scares. The scares are earned and come from character and building on the breadcrumbs that the script leaves ever so subtly on its way. In fact, most of the movie you’re just wondering if maybe this poor family just has bad mental health issues and that’s what’s causing all of these problems.

Central to this concern are the family’s parents played by Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne. Her mother has just died, and the family is all dealing with their grief in different ways. Youngest daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) is not only the only one who seemed too have a positive relationship with the matriarch, but is also exhibiting strange, disturbing behavior of her own.

Collette also befriends a woman named Joan (Ann Dowd) at a grief support group. When Joan teaches her how to contact spirits from the other side, then things really start going haywire.

But aside from the supernatural elements, this is also just a portrait of a family in crisis and how they deal with death and grief. Oldest son Peter (Alex Wolff) is mostly in denial, turning to drugs to numb the pain and also just because he’s a normal teenager who gets high with his friends.

As the family increasingly is at each others’ throats, with mother and son blaming each other, the father is caught in the middle trying to keep it all together. And this is where Collette and Byrne shine.

Believe the hype when it comes to Toni Collette. She is the heart of this movie and we follow her mostly. We’re also left with the same impression her husband is. . . maybe she’s just cracking under the stress of what this family is going through, and these supernatural things are just imaginary? Is everyone just going crazy?

Since so much of the horror is therefore based in reality, it makes the film layered and scary on so many more layers than most other scary movies. And as the final pieces come together in the end, you’re left with a chilling choice: go back and watch it again to pick up what you may have missed, or say “Nope!” because no way are you watching something that scary and disturbing ever again.

Hereditary is that perfect summer counter-programming movie. An antidote to blockbuster fatigue, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. Make sure you have friends to talk about this movie with afterwards and a well-lit place to sleep the night after. Seriously, this may be a movie to check out in the middle of the day. It is just that scary.

4 out of 5 stars

About that [Spoiler] at the end of Solo: A Star Wars Story

solo-official-poster

NOTE: This article contains spoilers. Don’t read unless you have already seen the movie! 

I really liked Solo: A Star Wars Story. I pretty much word-for-word agree with my colleague Brett in his review here, which you should also go read.

But several of my friends asked me the same question. . .  “What the heck? Darth Maul?”

His inclusion is brilliant. A theme of Solo is that everyone has a boss, everyone answers to someone. And so Han’s motivation almost the entire film is just to get a ship and fly away from it all — to be free. It’s a very interesting parallel to Maul, who continually flees from his would-be Sith masters/oppressors and trying to be his own man. However, Han Solo truly just wants freedom. Maul wants revenge.

It’s a masterful inclusion that not only works as perfect nerd candy, but also goes directly to the heart of the theme of the film.

A word on spoilers (looking sideways at you, Variety, and other mainstream outlets whose headlines scream DARTH MAUL!!!! without a thought of spoiling the movie. Of course, none of my friends are terrible enough to spoil the movie in the open– we’re asking in private messages, spoiler-devoted Facebook groups, and so on. Please be like them. Let people enjoy this, because, for me, it was one of the most beautiful reveals in the film. (The others were cameos by both Warwick Davis and Clint Howard and a mention of Teräs Käsi, a reference to the second worst Star Wars video game of all time.)

But back to Darth Maul. Most fans — even big fans — will go into this and say, “Wait. . .  isn’t he dead?”

I will admit, this was my first thought as well, since Maul met his final end on Tatooine in a beautiful duel with Obi-Wan Kenobi in Season 3 of Star Wars Rebels.

But then you remember, Rebels is taking place only a few years before the events of Star Wars: A New Hope (or, in uber-nerdy in-canon parlance, Before the Battle of Yavin [BBY] or After the Battle of Yavin [ABY]). Maul died approximately 2-3 years BBY, and the events of Solo take place anywhere from 10-13 years BBY.

But, wait, how is Maul still alive after getting chopped in half by Obi-Wan Kenobi at the end of The Phantom Menace? 

To that, we need to go to to the Star Wars comics and The Clone Wars cartoon, which have a bunch of great Maul-centric episodes and arcs. Let me lay some of them out, and then you can use these handy links to watch them on Netflix. (Really, you should just watch all of Clone Wars. The first season is a bit uneven, but it gets REALLY good.)

Backstory:

Season 3, Episodes 12-14: Count Dooku has a secret apprentice, Asaaj Ventress (again, you should really watch the whole show!), and he is ordered to eliminate her and goes to replace her. His replacement is Savage Oppress, who bears a striking resemblance to Darth Maul (except he’s yellow instead of red).

Darth Maul Returns:

Season 4, Episodes 21-22: Brothers / Revenge: Savage Oppress goes on a quest to find his long-lost brother, who he feels is alive. He finds him — insane — on the junk planet of Lotho Minor, where he has built himself crazy spider legs out of junk and has somehow managed to stay alive. The one thing Maul clings to is revenge against Obi-Wan Kenobi, and he and Oppress leave on a mission to take it. They end up fighting Kenobi and Ventress, who only barely escape. This leads to. . .

Season 5, Episode 1: Revival:  Maul and Oppress rampage across the Outer Rim, beginning to put together an underworld gang of pirates. This is the first time Maul refers to himself as a “Crime Lord.” When the face off against notorious pirate Hondo Onaka teamed up with Obi-Wan, they escape again, only barely alive.

Season 5, Episodes 14-16: Maul and Oppress put together a crime syndicate backed by Black Sun, the Hutts, the Pykes (who are also namechecked in Solo as a rival gang to Crimson Dawn), and rogue Mandalore clan Death Watch. (Of note: Pre Vizsla, the leader of Death Watch, is voiced by none other than Jon Favreau, who also voices Rio Durant in Solo)

Together, under the name of  The Shadow Collective, they take over Mandalore, drawing in the Jedi and exacting a personal price on Kenobi. I maintain that the episode “The Lawless” is better than a lot of the prequel trilogy in its stakes, emotions, and cinematic achievement. Worth a watch, for this scene only:

At the end of “The Lawless,” we see Maul and Oppress defeated and in retreat and then facing off against a very angry Darth Sidious / Emperor Palpatine. At the end, he says, “Don’t worry. I’m not going to kill you. I have other uses for you.”

And then The Clone Wars was cancelled.

Luckily, some of the unproduced scripts outlined what Palpatine’s plans were for Maul, which were then published in the comic series Son of DathomirDuring this, we see Maul go to war against General Grevious and Dooku, and his Shadow Collective in ruins.

Apparently, from this, Maul has been working in the intervening years to form Crimson Dawn, the criminal group that Qi’ra and Dryden Vos work for.

Wait, but is all this canon, you might ask?

Yes. 100% it is.

Back when Lucasfilm hit the reset button on their Extended Universe and turned all of that content into “Legends,” they kept all six of the produced films as canon, along with The Clone Wars, and then all comics and books from thereafter would be officially canonized.

So, that’s how Darth Maul makes sense being included in Solo. One of the best things I can say about Solo is it makes me want a sequel. I’d love to see what happens next as the stories of Han Solo, the Hutts, Lando, Qi’ra, and Darth Maul all are destined to intertwine some more.

For more of my thoughts on Solo in podcast form, check out the Bored as Hell Podcast

Movie Review: Deadpool 2

deadpool 2 imax poster

Deadpool 2 is a triumph of the genre of R-rated action comedy whose only peers are its predecessor and a few Shane Black movies. The major problem with this is the very obvious comparison to the first, which it doesn’t quite live up to, despite patented “Maximum Effort.”

The first was such a breath of fresh air and countered so many expectations. This is another bloated summer blockbuster sandwiched between Infinity War and Solo, and maybe we’re having a bit of remorse at eating at the all-you-can-geek-buffet of the Summer of 2018. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad. In fact, after Infinity War’s dour ending, Deadpool 2 is the palate cleanser many of us need.

Enter our anti-hero, Wade Wilson, aka Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), who has become a worldwide assassin. But when he reaps the whirlwind from a hit gone wrong, he takes up with his frenemies the X-Men as a trainee. They begin tracking a troubled teenage mutant, who is also being hunted by time travelling mutant Cable (Josh Brolin). To keep up, Deadpool founds his own team called X-Force, and. . . wackiness ensues.

Anyone who owns a trade of Deadpool and Cable knows where this movie is heading, so there shouldn’t be too many shocking plot twists. However, the movie sure takes its time getting there. It starts with an absolutely gonzo bonkers opening, culminating with a James-Bond-style opening credits scene while Celine Dion sings.

Aside — Can we please make sure this is nominated for Best Song for the Oscars?

And then. . . it sure takes its time before getting going again. The middle half of the film is packed full of jokes and even a few cool action setpieces here and there, but it doesn’t ever get back to that place of greatness until its last half hour or so. And then it’s sheer perfection. It tops it all off with the single greatest post credits sequence of all time—worth the price of admission itself.

This begs the question, why pad the middle so much? One of the best parts of the first Deadpool was its all-killer-no-filler pace and leanness. This film felt like it was waiting for something (its sudden but inevitable twist!) to take that next step.

This is also surprising for director David Leitch, whom the credits refer to as “One of the guys who killed John Wick’s dog.” Leitch’s previous work on the John Wick movies and Atomic Blonde show not only a great sense of pace, but also a visual style and flair that is missing from this film. This film felt workmanlike and studio-approved-as-safe, but never pushed any boundaries. And that’s what Deadpool is great at.

Also what Deadpool is great at is understanding he is in a movie. That has never been more clear until Deadpool 2. That humor is front and center in the movie, as Deadpool kills not only every bad guy he comes across, but also mourns the death of Logan, kills himself (multiple times), kills different versions of hmself, kills Ryan Reynolds, and on and on and on. It’s so self-aware, and pushes home that if a Fox-Disney merger goes through, Deadpool will be the king of franchise-skewering and post credits scene massacres and cameos.

And while the film lies pretty squarely on the shoulders of Reynolds and Brolin, the supporting performances are really what make the film. Julian Dennison (who was also in Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople¸which is quickly becoming a major geek nexus) is Russell, our young mutant in need. Like his counterpart in Wilderpeople, he’s more likely to flip you the bird than say thank you, so he’s perfect for Deadpool.

Also pitch perfect is Zazie Beetz, who plays Domino. While Deadpool derides her mutant power of “luck” as being stupid and “not cinematic enough,” it is, in fact, her performance and powers that give the film what visual brilliance and fun it has. Unfortunately, too much of it comes too late in the film, leaving us wondering why we couldn’t have more Domino earlier.

And finally, a moment to talk about Negasonic Teenage Warhead, who it is revealed in this movie, has a girlfriend named Yukio.

Bravo to Fox, who is the first studio to reveal any sort of LGBTQIA superhero on screen in a major superhero franchise. You’d think it wouldn’t have taken this long, but it somehow did. And? It’s treated with such a non-plussed attitude, it’s refreshing. Yes she has a girlfriend. No, it’s not a big deal. At all. And isn’t that how it should be?

So this is a really fun film. It starts strong, then takes a nap for about 45 minutes while it churns through all of the plot, and then gets really great again. Deadpool fans will get everything they want and more. And it makes you even more amped for sequels featuring Cable, Domino, and everyone else.

4 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Life of the Party

Life of the party posterMelissa McCarthy is one of the funniest people working today. But even a cast full of some of the best comedic talent assembled for any film in 2018 can’t save this movie from wearing a little thin on its premise.

McCarthy is Deanna, who, upon dropping her daughter off for her senior year of college, is hit with an ultimatum from her husband (Matt Walsh) for a divorce. He has fallen for the local realtor with her face on all the bus benches (Julie Bowen) and they’re already in the process of selling the house. With nowhere else to go, Deanna decides to re-enroll in college to finish the last year of her archaeology degree, and not enough wackiness ensues.

Maya Rudolph tries to steal the movie as McCarthy’s best friend, as do Stephen Root, Gillian Jacobs, and Heidi Gardner. But the film’s premise ultimately wears thin — it’s a middle aged mom going back to college!! — and it relies more on uncomfortable, cringe-worthy humor of a mom embarrassing herself in front of her daughter.

What is refreshing, however, is that this is exactly the same type of movie we would’ve seen in decades past with male leads — Back to School with Rodney Dangerfield in the 80’s, Billy Madison with Adam Sandler in the 90’s, 21 Jump Street with Channing Tatutm and Jonah Hill — but this presents a female-centric story with a really sweet heart.  Unfortunately, it also falls into some of the same traps and tropes of these older films, too — if the girl just lets down her hair and stops wearing glasses and frumpy sweaters, then suddenly she’s attractive? Ugh.

In fact, it’s the character-driven, more dramatic moments of growth that really work in this movie, such as Deanna hooking up with a much younger college guy who absolutely worships her. McCarthy shows off her dramatic chops a little, which should be no surprise to anyone who knows her from Gilmore Girls or saw her opposite Bill Murray in St. Vincent. There’s also an ongoing storyline about dealing with the campus mean girls and eventually winning them over that is nice. But the film threatens to lose a lot of that goodwill when, during the third act, the girls get high and then crash and ruin a wedding.

It also feels like the film might be holding back a little bit. Obviously going for a PG-13 rating, they never really get dangerous with their comedy.  With McCarthy and husband Ben Falcone getting writing credits (Falcone also directed and shows up in a brief, but perfect, cameo), it’s fairly obvious they wanted to work with a giant group of actors famed for their improv skills.  If there are R-rated outtakes from this movie, I want to see them.

Because otherwise the film is just sort of bland. While not a failure by any means, it just doesn’t go for the comedy jugular the way some other of McCarthy’s previous comedies have. But, at least it’s not as bad as Tammy, which remains the unequivocal nadir of McCarthy/Falcone’s collaborations.

This film gets a genteleman’s C — nay, make that a gentlewoman’s C. It passes, just barely, but it feels like it just sort of showed up despite amazing talent, it could’ve achieved great things if it had applied itself a bit more.

2.5 out of 5 stars

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