Author Archives: Andy Wilson

Movie Review: Den of Thieves

Den-of-Thieves-movie-posterA paint-by-numbers cops and robbers movies explores the depths of just how little you can care about its characters. By the end, you don’t care who lives, dies, or gets away with the cash– you just want it to be over.

Filled with almost as many tired tropes (honorable thieves, dirty cops) as bullets in the finale, its plot is full of almost as many holes as its cast is by the end of the film. Seriously, any Star Wars “fan” who complained about plot holes in The Last Jedi, just go watch Den of Thieves. You deserve this movie. To remind you what an actual bad movie is.

This film, which feels every second of its bloated 2 hour and 20 minute runtime and somehow inexplicably even longer, feels like it was written an assembled by 10 teams of people each given part of a script outline and told to go write and film it, and then run together as part of an experimental film festival. Oh, but no, this apparently came from the mind of one person, writer and director Christian Gudegast, “best” known for having “written” the ridiculous London Has Fallen.

Here’s the rundown: Gerard Butler (who also served as producer) plays the head of the LA Sheriff’s Department Major Crimes unit. As they tell O’Shea Jackson, Jr. when shaking him down for information, they’re more “regulators” than cops, and they’d rather put a bullet in you than arrest you– less paperwork. (If only that were cogent enough to be social commentary, it might be something, but it’s so ham-fisted it completely misses the mark.) Yeah, get it? They’re baaaaad cops.

And they’re on the trail of an elite team of bank robbers– ex-Marines who have pulled several daring heists in the past and gotten away with it. Their target is the incredibly secure and never-been-robbed-before Federal Reserve of Los Angeles. And so the first two-thirds of the film plays out like many a heist movie before: putting the pieces of the plan together to lead up to a break-neck finale.

Most great heist films lead us to identify with the thieves, but this inexplicably spends huge amounts of time with Butler, whom the film can’t decide if we should love or hate. His department colleagues, meanwhile, get zero character development and are just there as bodies to be collateral damage in a final, inevitable shootout. They really want Butler to be Serpico or Bad Lieutenant, but he just isn’t. We don’t love to hate him. We don’t love the heart of gold inside the broken, complicated man. We sort of just write him off as a giant douche and don’t care if he lives or dies.

Ditto for the team of thieves. It would be something if we knew why they were trying to pull this. Somebody’s baby needs a surgery. They have a beef with “The Man” and are going to take him down. But they seem intent on robbing the Federal Reserve, like George Mallory and Everest, “because it’s there.”

Lacking any motivation other than to just be wheels and cogs in a machine, the film plays out predictably and boringly. Even the inevitable reveal at the end feels forced, and really wasn’t that unexpected, assuming you were paying attention. It’s about the farthest thing from a Keyser Soze moment.

And then there’s the hanging plot threads. It’s just awful. Minor Spoiler Alert: Jackson’s character, supposedly recruited for his skills as a getaway driver, never even gets to drive a getaway vehicle. Why build up his skills early in the movie when there’s no payoff? And then the thieves get caught up by the most mundane of all reasons: LA traffic.

It’s just terrible. By the end, you don’t care who lives and who dies, and you kind of don’t want either side to win because they’re both just awful. In an attempt to give both sides layers, all they succeeded in doing was making you sort of hate everyone.

And while Butler really needs to tone down his scenery chewing (and start picking better projects– between this, Geostorm, and Gods of Egypt, this is three strikes in a row. Anything more and you end up in Adam Sandler territory), O’Shea Jackson, Jr. is somehow extremely watchable. He’s wildly charismatic, even in this shitshow of a film. But rather than subject yourself to an above-average performance in a terrible movie, treat yourself by watching him instead in a good movie, like last year’s overlooked Ingrid Goes West, where he portrays a struggling Batman-obsessed screenwriter. Otherwise, we’ll have to wait two years to see him next in the highly-anticipated sequel Godzilla: King of Monsters or the Seth Rogan comedy Flarsky, both in 2019.

Despite looking like a disaster of a crime scene, this is one where you can take the advice of the beat cop saying, “Nothing to see here, folks– move along.” The only thing this movie steals is two and a half hours of your life.

1.5 out of 5

The Post: Movie Review

the-post-posterGovernment power run amok. Journalistic ethics facing overwhelming odds. Corporate interests and politics fighting to hold back the truth. Meryl Streep. Steven Spielberg. Tom HanksThe Post seems like it was grown in a lab designed to win awards.

And it’s a really good movie. The story of how The Washington Post fought to publish The Pentagon Papers, thousands of pages of secret government documents about US involvement in Vietnam, is incredibly important, especially where we are in 2018.

As I sit here in my hotel room in Washington DC, watching cable news listening to the President of the United States saying he wants to make it easier to sue for libel, a chill runs up my spine. A similar chill happens each and every time President Nixon appears on screen in the film.

Spielberg smartly uses Nixon’s own words, taken directly from the infamous tapes, showing a silhouette in the Oval Office as we hear the president in his own voice talking about how they need to shut down the New York Times and Washington Post. It’s similar to how Good Night and Good Luck used actual footage of Joe McCarthy, and the effect is equally as good.

Hanks and Streep are also at the top of their games. It’s unfortunate that any Streep performance feels like an obligatory Oscar-nomination, because in this case it’s deserved. However, in trying to give trailblazing Post publisher Katharine Graham a cinematic character arc, they sort of gut her. She begins the film as a sort of wilting flower, a socialite running the paper but maybe over her head when butting heads with lawyers and bankers. She overcomes sexism and self-doubt to make these historic decisions. . . and it’s just simply unbelievable (and not really based in reality). But as a film and a performance, it works incredibly well.

Hanks is also great, though perhaps not as good as his last collaboration with Spielberg in Bridge of Spies. In that film, Hanks played the relatively anonymous James Donovan. But as The Post‘s legendary editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee, you can’t help compare him to other on screen depictions of him. Specifically, you draw an immediate comparison to Jason Robards in All the President’s Men. 

ben bradlee kay graham

The real Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee, from the Smithsonian’s Portrait Gallery

Perhaps the biggest complaint I have with the film is that as much as I enjoyed it, I spent more than half of my time wishing I was watching Errol Morris’s The Fog of War or All the President’s Men. I also felt like I was watching a sort of strange prequel to All the President’s Men, as this film ends [Spoiler Alert?] the same way that film begins– a security guard at the Watergate noticing duct tape on a door and a break-in at Democratic Party Headquarters. Perhaps because this particular moment in history has been so well covered already, it adds to the feeling that we’ve sort of “been there, done that” with this subject matter. However, because we seem to have failed to learn from the mistakes if forty years ago, we are doomed to repeat them now.

What is different and refreshing, though, is how this particular story is told. Spielberg’s choice of casting here is fascinating, filling the supporting cast with actors best known for their comedic backgrounds: Bob Odenkirk and David Cross (wha?!?) along with Zach Woods never get to be funny, but they also show off their dramatic side. In another strange bit of casting coincidence, Jesse Plemons also shows up as the Washington Post‘s chief counsel. This again just feels odd and takes me out of the movie, as I keep thinking about Breaking Bad and Mr. Show crossovers rather than what’s happening on screen.

But perhaps the best piece of casting is Bradley Whitford, who should probably be remembered as this last year’s greatest on-screen villain for his performances here and in Get Out. As a smarmy banker, complete with bow tie and slick hair, Whitford is the on-screen personification of mansplaining and the evil face of capitalism. It is exquisite and he and Streep play off one another so well that they enhance each others’ performances.

But the most important piece of this film is its message. While it perhaps over-romanticizes the press (one loving montage of the paper being printed and going to press was enough, but sure, we’ll take more?), the message of how important a free press is could not be more important. While this isn’t the best movie currently in theaters, it is perhaps the most important.

3.75 out of 5

 

The Best Movies of 2017

No getting around it: 2017 was a slog. But, to get us through the stress of life, at least we could escape for an hour or two into some of the most amazing worlds.

It’s also been an amazing year for the comic book movie and, indeed, all blockbusters. This year the genre really grew up, with complex and challenging fare that deconstructed some of our favorite characters and took them to the next level.

I had a hard time paring it down to just a top 10, so I’m presenting a somewhat more expanded list of things worth seeing and celebrating in 2017. Never before have I had a hair’s breadth separating my top 5, and my top 20 are all worth checking out.

So I’m going to give you the best and then the rest– my top 10 and then the rest of the movies that made my list. Where I reviewed the movie for Graphic Policy, I have also provided a link. To those from before I joined the site or didn’t get a chance to do a full review, oh well. You’ll just have to take my word for it. Oh, and if you care about such things, my bottom 10 list is here.

10. Coco — This is one of Pixar’s best and one of the movies most likely to make me cry. While it has some second act problems, its universal themes of family and remembering are as beautiful as the animation and music here. This is also the first movie in my top 10 with an amazing soundtrack — a common theme among 2017’s best movies.

9. Baby Driver — A musical with car chases. The only problem with this movie is its opening fifteen minutes are so perfect it rarely meets that same level again. This is the movie Edgar Wright did after breaking with Marvel over creative differences about Ant-Man. We are so much the richer for having both of these movies, especially Baby Driver. With career-best performances by some of its cast, it’s a perfect blend of editing, directing, acting, and sound. And it’s just a load of fun.

8. Wonder Woman – Patty Jenkins should be put in charge of the entire DC movie universe. She understands her characters, she understands the gravity and importance they hold for people, and managed to deliver THE iconic moment of 2017 in cinema: the “No Man’s Land” scene.

It’s that moment– when she wears the costume, embraces her powers and her purpose — that we see her origin story in a way rarely ever so fully expressed on screen. Sure, the movie had some problems– a weak villain and a somewhat predictable climax — but it was important in a way few other films in this list were. And it showed that the DCEU could be everything that the Marvel Cinematic Universe could. It’s not only one of the best comic movies of 2017, it’s one of the best of all time.

7. Atomic Blonde — Technically, a comic book movie. And the movie with the best soundtrack of the year, during which we see Charlize Theron kick all sorts of butt. It’s heartfelt, funny, and undeniably cool as they try to out-John-Wick John Wick. Give me more of this, please, perhaps in a shared universe where Charlize and Keanu throw down and then invariably team up.

6. The Shape of Water – What a beautiful film about love among outcasts. The entirety of this film is about noticing the silent people, the forgotten ones, and recognizing the humanity in each of us. Also, sex with fish-people! This is a masterpiece by Guillermo del Toro and worthy of all the nominations and buzz it’s been getting.

5. War for the Planet of the Apes – This is true for basically every other film in my top 5, but this film showed us that effects-driven blockbusters could have intense heart and meaning. It’s unfathomable to me that Gary Oldman will be nominated for acting awards for wearing a fatsuit and portraying Winston Churchill, but Andy Serkis will be snubbed yet again for his creation of an amazingly real character in Caesar. It’s unclear where the Apes franchise goes from here — and writer/director Matt Reeves is setting his sights next on righting The Batman (which makes me all sorts of excited) — but whatever happens, they created an amazing trilogy with a phenomenal third act. Perhaps the only downside is that the social commentary that hits so close for 2017 (humans building a wall as well as other not-so-subtle jabs at Trump) may not age particularly well.

4. Logan – “A man has to be what he is, Joey. Can’t break the mold. I tried it and it didn’t work for me. There’s no living with a killing. There’s no going back from one. Right or wrong, it’s a brand. A brand sticks. There’s no going back. Now you run on home to your mother, and tell her… tell her everything’s all right. And there aren’t any more guns in the valley.” James Mangold gave us a perfect western that just happened to have Wolverine and Professor X in it. And Jackman and Stewart are amazing. Ok, I lied about Coco. THIS is the most likely thing to make me cry in any movie in 2017.

3. (tie) Your Name – Normally I won’t give in to a tie, but since there is some doubt whether or not this is even a 2017 release (I go by date of wide US release, so that puts us in April of 2017), I’ll go for it. Already the #1 animated film of all time in Japan (with good reason), I’m not sure why this hasn’t become more popular in the US. But that’s what year-end lists are for, right? A story of (literal) star-crossed teens in Japan who seem to be switching bodies becomes the most interesting story of identity, love, and wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey time travel ever. It made me cry at least three times. It’s an amazing film and one which would’ve been in my top 3 for 2016 if I’d known of it then. If that disqualifies it from this list, then my #3 spot goes to. . .


3. (tie) Star Wars: The Last Jedi – It’s amazing. You know this. I love it for all the ways it blows open the Star Wars universe into something even bigger and more important. Plus, porgs. It, Logan, and Apes all showed that blockbuster filmmaking could be thoughtful and not just deliver a rehash of the expectations of the franchise. Star Wars is my favorite thing of all time, and this delivers in ways I didn’t know were possible. I’m greatly anticipating both Episodes IX and the new trilogy Rian Johnson will deliver to us.

2. Get Out – Usually a movie will come out early in the year and become a high water mark for me for the year. Then every film I see after I’ll just ask, “Was this better than [Get Out]?” Few movies made it close, but it stands strong at the end of the year as the most important movie of 2017 and only a hair’s breadth off of my #1. This was such an amazing effort from Jordan Peele. It was an atmospheric, psychological thriller and the most biting social commentary of the decade– and exactly what we need to hear in 2017. Unfortunately, the people who most need to see and understand this film never will.

1. Blade Runner 2049 – I’m still not sure why this failed to resonate with audiences. It was supremely beautiful, important, thoughtful—in essence, the opposite of the Spirit of 2017, so I guess it makes sense. It’s shameful to see this getting forgotten in so many year-end lists and awards considerations. If Roger Deakins doesn’t win a cinematography Oscar for this, we have failed as a society.

So, that’s it. Here’s the rest of my list:

11. A Monster Calls — All the tears for this gorgeous and touching film that somehow never caught on.

12. Detroit — If Blade Runner hadn’t flopped at the box office, this is my vote for most underrated movie of 2017.

13. Spider-Man: Homecoming – This was the Spider-Man movie we needed, with John Hughes meets the MCU. Let’s hope Sony and Marvel’s partnership continue to yield such spectacular results.

14. The Big Sick — The best comedy of the year, Kumail Nanjiani’s true story of clashes of cultures and medically induced comas is amazing and worth everyone’s time.

15. Beatriz at Dinner — This should be renamed “Micro-aggressions the Movie” as massage therapist Beatriz (an impeccable and Oscar-worthy  Salma Hayek) ends up at a dinner party thrown by one of her high end clients facing off against a Donald-Trump type developer (an equally impeccable Jon Lithgow). It’s amazing and the ending will depress the hell out of you.

16. The Greatest Showman — Hugh Jackman took the money he made from Logan and used it to produce this musical ostensibly about PT Barnum but in reality about the strange and wonderful family among society’s outcasts and “freaks” that make up his circus. If I could put the historical revisionism aside, this would end up in my top 10, but Barnum was a monster. But as a story about putting people of all shapes, colors, and abilities up on screen and seeing them as people? This is tops. Keala Settle, who plays the bearded lady, deserves an Oscar nomination. And this will get multiple nominations for best song, from the people who brought you La La Land last year.

17. Brigsby Bear – What if you were kidnapped as a child and the only media your reclusive parents let you watch was a specially-made-for-you childrens’ program? This film from the mind of SNL’s Kyle Mooney then becomes a unique, innocent look at the pure joy of fandom and sharing something you love with new people and the lengths you’d go to do it. Also featuring a supporting role by Mark Hammil, this is another great little film that flew under the radar but is worth your attention.

18. Thor: Ragnarok — This is Thor’s best movie to date and one of the most fun movies ever in the MCU. Some people complained the movie had “too many jokes,” but making a buddy comedy with superheroes is something that was long overdue and sorely needed late in 2017. Whatever writer/director Taika Waititi is doing next, I’m watching it.

19. The Disaster Artist — The movie that launched a thousand terrible reaction gifs finally gets its Ed Wood treatment. The Room is awful, but somehow James and Dave Franco make us fall in love with it and its mysterious director Tommy Wiseau. For that, and their loving shot for shot recreations of some of the film’s most heinous scenes, this was incredibly fun. It’s also the type of movie Hollywood loves– a movie about making movies.

20. Molly’s Game — A superserving of Sorkin will hit all the right notes for his fans.

21. Okja — If The Disaster Artist is to The Room what Ed Wood is to Plan 9 From Outer Space, then this satire from Bong Joon-ho (thanks to Netflix for making it) is the Dr. Strangelove of global agribusiness and capitalism. It took this movie a while to take off, but when it did, it became intensely satisfying. When it wasn’t skewering the corporation that totally wasn’t Monsanto, it was also just a tender story about a girl and her giant genetically modified pet “super pig.”

22. The Post — Steven Spielberg’s latest is perhaps the most important movie for the turn of 2017 to 2018 about the decision to print the Pentagon Papers by The Washington Post. Buried in the Oscarbait is an important story about the freedom of the press and a rogue White House intent on crushing it. I just wish it was told slightly better and that 80% of the time I wasn’t wishing I were watching All the President’s Men or The Fog of War. 

23. The Lego Batman Movie — A movie about family, a movie about feminism, and just the greatest mishmash of toy mayhem ever seen on screen. This was the best Batman we saw on screen all year.

24. Dunkirk — I won’t lie, I had some problems with Dunkirk. Mostly I thought Nolan was spending too much time showing us how clever he was instead of just giving us a good movie. But I can’t deny the artistry and pure filmmaking prowess that went into this. I still think the best way to illuminate my problems is to compare it to Detroit, which I did in my review here. 

25. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 — “I’m Mary Poppins, y’all!” may be one of my favorite moments on screen all year. And then, that ending was just too perfect. This movie had a lot going for it, but the fact that it ended up at #25 is a testament to just how good so many movies were this year.

26. IT — This was everything we needed in the fall of 2017. Funny, smart, and incredibly scary, it also gave us one of the best comedy moments of the year, too, with an SNL skit of Kellyanne Conway as Kellywise the Clown trying to lure Anderson Cooper into the Trump Sewer.

27. John Wick Chapter 2 — Sometimes sequels really deliver, and this was one instance of that. Once again, we get the beautiful ultra-violence of this universe and without all of that boring exposition or deeper meaning. Sometimes you just want to watch the world burn, and for that, there’s always John Wick.

28. Power Rangers — This might surprise people, but I liked the Power Rangers movie far more than it deserved. Never a fan of the original, this still brought me in with it intense heart and third act action sequence that dared you not to smile from ear to ear. Oh, and also Elizabeth Banks as Rita Repulsa was a thing of beauty. Say it with me: “Krispy Kreme.”

29. Wind River — Taylor Sheridan knocks it out of the park again with an amazing script about a murder mystery and the intersection of the oil industry and reservation life. How does one get justice in the face of corporate coverups and mixed jurisdiction? The scene with Jon Berenthal is one of the most gripping and brutal things I saw all year.

30. [tie] It Comes at Night — Speaking of inhumanity and suspense, we get a case study in minimalism of just how much a director can do with basic sets and a basic premise: a plague wipes out most of humanity and one family must make decisions about whether or not to trust strangers to guarantee their survival. The title is misleading and don’t get snookered into thinking anything more supernatural is happening. There’s no monsters. Just death. Just people. And that’s the true horror.

[tie] Ingrid Goes West — Again, I hate ties, but I feel like this provides a great counterpoint to It Comes at Night. Except in this case, the monster that haunts us is social media, stalking, and depression. Aubrey Plaza is perfect as Ingrid, who moves to LA and ends up stalking an “Instagram celebrity” played by Elizabeth Olson to try to find her way into her life. O’Shea Jackson (Jr.) shows up as a Batman-obsessed would-be screenwriter. The final reveal of the film almost feels like the end of a slasher movie when we see the killer supernaturally rises from where we thought we had killed it. Fun and thoughtful.

So, yeah, that’s a lot of movies. To be fair, there were a few I missed, so apologies. But what about you? What did I miss? What did I overrate? What did I underrate?

Let us know, and here’s hoping we have as amazing a 2018 as we did a 2017– at least in movies. And from Black Panther in February to Mary Poppins in December with Avengers: Infinity War, Solo, and Incredibles 2 in between, my expectations are set abnormally and unreasonably high.

Let’s see what 2018 gives us.

The Worst Movies of 2017

Welcome to the Worst. 

There’s a lot to celebrate in 2017 that was awful. One of them, however, wasn’t movies (or tv, or video games). So I hesitate to put out a list of the worst of 2017 without a little bit of context.

First, no easy slams. Sure, there were your Monster Trucks and Geostormsbut those films were always kind of destined to be cringy and terrible.

Second, I’m not going to fall for the trap of mistaking something that wasn’t made for me with something being objectively terrible. I actually kind of liked The My Little Pony movie (its strong anti-Trump themes were incredibly refreshing), and while by the end of 50 Shades Darker I really just wanted Christian Grey to have died in that helicopter crash, I recognize there are people who love this story and these characters. And I’m not going to crap all over them just because something isn’t to my taste. And in the year of The Disaster Artistwe can hopefully celebrate the weirdos who put out strange independent films because of their passion.

Third, besides, there are much worse things. And so I’ve tried to concentrate on them– collecting 10 “films” that should’ve “worked” for me. Several of these are big budget movies or done by experienced filmmakers who should know better. Others are by directors capable of much better. In fact, if there’s one common theme for these, it’s the “Spider-Man Rule” of movies– “with great filmmaking power comes great filmmaking responsibility.” So I’m going to hold these people to higher standards, especially if their efforts were backed by hundreds of millions of dollars of budget.

Let’s be clear that what gets produced in Hollywood is a zero-sum game: the money put behind any of these films is money that didn’t go to un-produced films.  And while I’m glad the streaming outlets are putting resources behind great films, let’s also recognize that giving money to Woody Allen or David Ayer (#9 and 10 on this list) is money that didn’t go someplace else to someone more deserving. I can at least give props to someone like David Lowery who put the money he made from Pete’s Dragon into making his passion project (#8 on this list). I only wish it had turned out better for him.

So, then, here you are: the worst of 2017:

10. Bright – Yes, I’m including streaming movies on here (they’re in my best-of list, too, so it’s only fair), especially since this was a BFD that Netflix was making this blockbuster-type movie. I just don’t know what went wrong here, but this is almost incomprehensible. I like the idea of mixing high fantasy and gritty urban, but this was not the way to do it. The attempts at social commentary fall so flat they’re almost laughable. Will Smith, how do you keep ending up releasing movies in December that end up in my worst of lists? You’re on notice for 2018.

wonder wheel9. Wonder Wheel – It’s like Woody Allen is inviting us to say, “Hey, maybe it’s time we talked about how this filmmaker treats his female characters.” Not a good time for this conversation for you, Mr. Allen. And Jim Belushi and Justin Timberlake. I’m just left flabbergasted. And if this ended up on your best of list, I’m even more flabbergasted. Just go read this.

8. A Ghost Story – A piece of pretentious nonsense that decides to put its “message” in the mouth of its most abrasive character, a know-it-all drunk hipster, and beat you over the head with it in a ridiculous monologue. Also, that didn’t need to be Casey Affleck under that sheet. It could’ve been literally anyone. And while I didn’t know about the allegations about his treatment of women before I reviewed Manchester By the Sea, I did know about them here. And it’s baffling to me this ends up on anyone’s best of list. Oh, except that scene where Rooney Mara grief-eats a whole pie was legit.

7. The Book of Henry – What the hell was this?!?! This is apparently the movie that got Colin Trevorrow fired from making the next Star Wars, and after seeing it, I don’t blame anyone for making that call. And inexplicable turn takes this from tearjerker over death of savant child to. . . dead child walking his grieving mother through how to kill their abusive next door neighbor and get away with it. Wow. Just wow.

6. Transformers: The Last Knight – We don’t expect much from Michael Bay and his Transformers movies, and this reaffirmed that. We had Grimlock, King of the Dinobots, review the movie for us, and his summary was, “Grimlock small dinobot brain, but even Grimlock know that super dumb.”

Snowman-Poster5. The Snowman – Why, Mister Police? We Gave You All The Clues. When the audience laughs at what are supposed to be tense moments, you know you have a problem. This was supposed to be Zodiac meets Let the Right One In and instead is more Manos, the Hands of Fate.

4. The Emoji Movie – Still unclear why this movie got made, except that somehow it managed to beat the far superior Atomic Blonde (in my top 10) at the box office its first week in release. America, this is why we can’t have nice things. My daughter (the target demo for the movie) texted her friends she’s never cringed so much in a movie. Smart kid.

3. Downsizing – Small review: this movie was b.s. You can read the rest here.

2. Split – This set the bar for bad movies all year long. It was so bad, it actively ruined several other movies for me, specifically in its attempts to tie itself to Shyamalan’s Unbreakable. I don’t expect much from him, but I don’t expect it to be this bad.

1. mother! – throughout this list I’ve gone after a lot of hacks: Bay, Shyamalan, Trevorrow, Ayer. But Darren Aronofsky should know better. This was impeccably shot and put together by a filmmaker who knows what he’s doing. But what he’s doing here is 100% bad.

And there it is. A load of terrible movies.

Agree? Disagree? Did I miss something egregious? Let us know what you think, and may 2018 give us better than these ten sorry flicks.

Movie Review: Molly’s Game

mollys game posterAaron Sorkin‘s newest film (and his directorial debut) is super Sorkin-y. Fans of his previous work will rejoice and enjoy this film, as well as recognize some of his most favorite tropes.

Jessica Chastain plays the eponymous Molly Bloom in this true story of how a former Olympic level skier ended up running one of the most exclusive poker games, first in Los Angeles and then New York. Her clientele included movie stars, tech gurus, musicians, wealthy financiers, and. . .  the Russian mob. This, of course, brings the FBI down on her, and most of the movie is told in flashback as she and her lawyer (Idris Elba) go through the government’s case against her.

This combination of courtroom drama, sports, and emphasis on quick, quippy dialogue is classic Sorkin. In fact, the opening scene that sets up Molly’s story is perhaps one of the most quintessentially Sorkin-y things possible, almost bordering on self-parody. Other of his favorite tropes that show up? Drugs/addiction, therapy, and honor. He did everything but start quoting Gilbert and Sullivan, although he does make several references to Arthur Miller and James Joyce.

Sorkin is a masterful scriptwriter– a lesser scribe might have gotten bogged down in explaining to us all of the rules of Texas Hold ‘Em poker. But because Molly comes in as a neophyte to poker, we get to go on her journey with her. Instead of getting bogged down in the intricacies and odds of each hand, they speed through the more technical aspects with the help of some clever on-screen tutorials. It’s not quite Margot Robbie in a bubble bath explaining the math behind credit default swaps in The Big Short, but almost as good. For an example of how not to handle these scenes, you can see Casino Royale where James Bond’s friend Mathis explains every hand of poker to Vesper, deflating the tension of one of the more intense scenes of the film in what is otherwise an almost perfect film.

Chastain and Elba shine with real chemistry, although in some of the longer monologues Elba’s accent come through a little bit. Another standout is Michael Cera, who plays a certain movie star Molly only refers to as “Player X” (one of the key plot points in Molly’s refusal to name the people who played in her game) and has the most interesting character arc in the film. Cera plays one of his fellow actors with a joy and contempt rarely seen, and it makes you wonder what personal interactions Cera may have had with this person in real life to color his portrayal.

Mollys Game book

The actual Molly Bloom and the book Sorkin based his screenplay on.

But what you really get is a slice of just how awful people are in each of these industries. Sorkin skewers the way the rich and powerful all treat people as things, as commodities to buy, as things to be replaced when you tire of them. And as awful as the mobsters in the movie are (actually most of them are nice guys, giving Molly deniability she knew they were in the mafia), it’s the Hollywood and Wall St. guys who are undeniably the worst.

Molly’s Game becomes a sort of populist critique of the 1% voiced by the most hoity of the toity elites, Sorkin himself.  This is neither new nor unexpected territory for him — after all, he gave us President Jed Bartlett on The West Wing as a sort of proto-Obama when Barack was still an unknown state senator and law school professor.

This movie was going along great until its near-climax, when Kevin Costner shows up as Molly’s estranged father to explain the movie. As a trained psychiatrist and college professor, he gives her a “three minute therapy session” to explain her motivations to us in case we weren’t paying attention. The scene is eyeroll and cringe-worthy, immediately derailing this from Oscar-worthy to. . .  “Well, that was really good.” Pro-tip: If you want to take a five minute bathroom break when Molly goes to the ice skating rink, you will enjoy the movie more. It’s seriously that bad.

Despite Costner-interference, this is a sort of “Peak Sorkin” moment. It’s great to see him directing his own films, though one wonders if teaming with a more skilled director would instruct him to tone it down a little (and get rid of the Third Act Deus Ex Therapist). But the rest of the film is amazing.

Fans of Sorkin will enjoy themselves, and other audiences will also likely have a good time. Oscar buzz for this film for Chastain, Elba, and Sorkin himself are warranted. Just beware the Costner.

4 out of 5

Movie Review: Downsizing

downsizing-posterHere’s a tiny review: this movie sucks.

For a movie about downsizing, Downsizing‘s glacially paced and two and a half hour runtime leave you wondering, “What was that?” It’s not a comedy — never funny — and if a drama doesn’t really stir any feelings one way or the other.

You think you know what this movie is about? You have no idea. If you’ve seen the trailers, you know Matt Damon (and a host of other people) shrink themselves to go live in a fabulous planned community where, because you’re so small, your dollar stretches farther.

Yeah, that’s not what this is at all. The entire impetus for downsizing is to save humanity from overpopulation, climate change, scarce resources, etc. But, of course, it gets used in different ways across the world.

Despots and warlords use it as an alternative to ethnic cleansing to get rid of certain populations. And, of course, in America, we turn it into a way for a normal working guy (like Damon) to live an upper-middle class bourgeoisie lifestyle. Once there, he finds an underclass still working there to prop up the rich and goes about trying to help them?

This could’ve been a movie about classism, but it fails miserably at that. There are glimpses of attempts to make small people second class citizens, but they never go anywhere.

It could’ve been a movie about environmentalism, but it fails equally as miserably at that– turning its environmentalist characters into punchlines and doomsday culters. Speaking of punchlines, the film is also filled with too many “we’re small and things are big!” gags.

downsizing saltines

It’s not funny.

downsizing vodka

Here either.

DOWNSIZING

Even Christoph Waltz can’t act his way into being amused by this “giant rose” gag.

Not since mother! earlier this year has an otherwise talented filmmaker made such an incomprehensible mess. I hate every character in this movie. I hate everything about this movie. And its two and a half hour runtime feels almost doubly as long. It’s all very sad, because with more focus, this might have been something worth watching.

Don’t waste your time or money on this.

0 out of 5

Movie Review: Pitch Perfect 3

Pitch-Perfect-3-poster last callThe newest installment of the Pitch Perfect franchise about college a capella competition and the fictional Barden Bellas finds them mostly retreading greatest hits and tapping into the formula that has made the previous two films so charming, but it ends up a little flat in key places.

They simply can’t top the zaniness of part two, making this seem a little more lackluster. It’s still the Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson show, although the film does try to give some extra time to heretofore less explored characters, to varied effect. But the film’s central conceit of “getting the band back together” for a nostalgia-fueled USO tour just doesn’t work except seemingly as a backdrop for our stars to travel through Europe. All of our characters seem to have the same problem– life isn’t working out exactly as they planned one year out of college. While this seems a decent commentary on the plight of the entire millennial generation, it just isn’t interesting enough to sustain itself.

It shines best, as in previous films, in the lavish musical numbers the Bellas put on, this time joined by an all-girl rock group names Evermoist (yes, really), and alt country band Whiskey Shivers plays a group called Saddle Up. All of them are “competing” for a spot to share the stage with DJ Khaled (played unconvincingly by himself) in a final show, and here’s the real showstopper: Khaled is a black hole of charisma, and every moment he’s on screen the film grinds to a screeching halt.

Another problem lies in a strange side-plot involving Amy’s father, played by John Lithgow with a not-quite convincing Aussie accent. Apparently he’s an international arms dealer trying to reunite with his daughter. This allows for a strange third act where Rebel Wilson gets to play action star while the rest of the Bellas perform Britney Spears’ “Toxic” to distract him. It’s fun, and it’s good to see Wilson stretch herself as an actor, but it’s strangely off-tone and just doesn’t work as part of the larger film.

Matt Lanter (Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Timeless) also shows up as a military officer assigned to escort the Bellas, and ends up being a romantic interest. Lanter personally is fine (and indeed charming), but his character has nowhere to go. What’s really missing from this are some of the more interesting male foils from previous films (Adam DeVine, Flula Borg, and Ben Platt. . .  oh, how we miss you, Ben Platt). This was obviously a deliberate creative choice to focus on our female cast, and I applaud that. But compared to their previous films, Lanter and Lithgow just sort of take up space. DJ Khaled takes up negative space and drags the entire movie down.

And, as with all of the movies, I can always use more Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins.

Fans of the franchise will likely enjoy this movie– its script is still chock-full of jokes and the musical numbers. . . err. . .  hit all the right notes. It’s too bad the entire package is not quite as good.

2.25 out of 5

Movie Review: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

JumanjiThe 1995 film Jumanji holds a special place in the heart of many a millennial who grew up on the Robin Williams classic. So, when a sequel/reboot was announced, expectations were rightfully quizzical.

Did we really need another Jumanji movie? Apparently yes– and the biggest surprise of all is how much fun Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle manages to be while also giving a quick, subtle nod to its roots. However, don’t be fooled into thinking this is another kid-friendly movie. It was apparently written to the level of 13 year olds, shoving in as many dick jokes as possible into a PG-13 film. Parents should likely consider the maturity of younger children before bringing the whole family– but there’s also Coco out there if you’re looking for traditional family-friendly entertainment.

A group of high school students find themselves in detention, stumble on to a video game called Jumanji and find themselves stuck inside the game unless they can manage to defeat it. It’s sort of a Breakfast Club meets Tron, with the kids stuck in an Indiana-Jones-type jungle adventure full of the most over-the-top and ridiculous action you can imagine. Apparently all the bad guys in this jungle ride a motorbike and use machine guns.

In lesser hands, this might not have worked, but somehow this cast’s audacity and charm make this a surprisingly fun movie– as long as you don’t think about it too much.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Kevin Hart reunite and prove themselves a sort of post-modern Bing Crosby and Bob Hope (minus the songs). Karen Gillan stretches even more here to reinforce her bonafides as a blockbuster action star with some stellar acting and even more impressive stunt work. But it’s Jack Black who steals the show, playing his role as the popular girl stereotype to its limits.

These four do incredibly well with one another. They have real chemistry, especially Hart and Johnson. The jokes are mostly hits, and there’s a lot of them. But most of them rely on the conceit that The Rock is the nerd, Hart is the jock, Gillan the awkward girl, Black the mean girl, and that does get stretched. However, I could watch Gillan awkwardly flirt with guards and then kick their asses with martial arts all day.

The camera is also an equal-opportunity objectifier in this case, as both Gillan and Johnson are subjected to multiple cheesecake shots of their chests, arms, and other sexy bits. The film also makes a point of playing up Hart and Johnson’s height difference and Black’s more rubenesque physique for laughs. It’s all done so over-the-top and knowingly, though, that it’s fairly clear this is a satire of action movie (and video game) tropes.

However, the film’s opening exposition means we spend a decent amount of time in the real world before the film gets going, and it feels like we spend both too much time with the boring versions of these characters but also not enough to truly develop them into anything more than stereotypes.

Speaking of exposition and plot devices, upon arriving in the video game, our heroes almost immediately encounter a computer NPC (non-player character) played by Rhys Darby who is there to explain the game. It’s essentially a giant exposition dump, and with almost anyone else it might wear thin, but Darby proves himself entertaining as always.

The biggest problem with this version is its slang, mentions of social media, and other things are going to horribly date the movie. Upon meeting Nick Jonas within the video game, our heroes immediately sense something is strange about him by the way he talks. I was a teenager in the 90’s. I don’t remember anyone actually talking like that. This is likely the same for our main cast. Again, they’re stereotypes played for laughs. Oscarbait this is not. But it is otherwise really funny, and the action and pacing keep things moving along.

One black hole of charisma is whenever Bobby Cannavale shows up as the video game’s villain. He’s supposed to be awful, but he’s mostly just unwatchable and every time it cuts to him threatening his minions the film grinds to a halt. This is a waste for the same guy who (rightfully) won multiple acting awards for things like The Station Agent and Will and Grace. I want that Bobby Cannavale back, and I want him in a better role than this.

But other than that, this is a fun movie if you’re looking for a little respite from the stresses of the holidays, and if you show up to the movie theater and can’t get into The Last Jedi or aren’t in the mood for a more challenging film like The Shape of Water, this is a decent consolation prize as long as you can handle all the dick jokes. Seriously, so. many. penis jokes.

Eagle-eyed-viewers can also be on the lookout for a tribute to Robin Williams, whose character Allan Partridge, was stuck in the Jumanji board game for decades. A note carved into a the place Jonas makes his home tells us “Allan Partridge Was Here.” This film can’t replace the heart the Williams brought to the original, but this was a nice nod in what is otherwise a breakneck pace that moves from action setpiece to action setpiece.

One might consider this a successful adaptation of a video game into a movie– an incredibly rare feat for Hollywood. Other would-be adapters should take note that the comedic tone and satire of video game tropes work because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. And neither should we.

3.5 out of 5 

Give My Love to Rose: A Song for Unsung Heroes

[Minor spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi ahead]

Rose (Kelly Marie Tran ) is my new favorite character. And I hope she’s yours too.

Not only is she arguably the true hero of the film, she provides not one but two of the key lines necessary to understand the film. Beyond that, she does something I never thought possible: she turns the entire concept of heroism upside down and reminds us that true heroes aren’t just the ones who get attention and accolades.

The first time we meet Rose she is starstruck by Finn (John Boyega), saying she isn’t used to talking to heroes. Rose works behind the scenes in the Resistance, “behind [the] pipes” as she calls it.

Her sister Paige, with whom she is very close, is a hero in her own right as witnessed in the opening space battle as a gunner in one of the Resistance’s bombers. Through Paige’s heroism and sacrifice, the Resistance is able to take out one of the Empire’s ships. Poe, in talking to Leia, says “Heroes were on that mission.”

“Heroes, but no leaders,” Leia chides him as she demotes him for his insubordination.

Why does this matter? Because the film shows us as important as the heroes are — the Poe Damerons, the Luke Skywalkers — the people who really make things run are the others who are so often nameless and faceless. Finn’s background as a former stormtrooper janitor should also be noted here, and why it’s so important that Finn and Rose get paired up for the better part of the movie.

There has been a decent amount of complaints over the Canto Bight storyline, but it is, in fact, one of the most important in the film. Not only does Rose deliver a strong populist critique of this new hive of scum and villainy — the 1%, war profiteers selling to both sides of the conflict — she wakes Finn up from being dazzled by their surroundings.

“Look closer,” Rose tells him, and he begins to see the people behind the scenes — many of them oppressed or forgotten, many of them children — who actually make everything run.

“Look closer,” as we remember maybe it’s worth staying through the credits of a movie to appreciate all the people who worked on it rather than just to see if there’s a stinger scene to set up the next movie.

“Look closer,” as we remember all of the Star Wars fans who have waited for years to see representations of themselves on screen. Because perhaps even the most important is noticing the actors playing these roles. The fact that both Finn and Rose are being portrayed by people of color adds another layer to the commentary they bring. And especially given the problems of erasure of Asians and women in tentpole blockbusters, Kelly Marie Tran getting the breakout hero role of the film should cause people to take notice.

“Look closer,” at all of the people who never get noticed, but who heroically do their work every day.

A final visit to see the children of Canto Bight at the end of the film puts a cap on why it’s so important we look closer and the importance of heroism to inspire others.

And then Rose delivers the most important line in the entire movie during the film’s finale in the battle on Crait, which gives me unending hope in a time of darkness: That’s how we’re going to win. Not fighting what we hate. Saving what we love.

With so much hate out there, we can remember this and brush off the hate like Luke Skywalker brushes his shoulders after a barrage of laser blasts. The love and self-sacrifice and heart that Rose brings to The Last Jedi is one of the best parts of the film.

Rose is my hero.

Movie Review: Coco

Coco-Family-PosterPixar seems to have the magic capable of making children smile and adults weep. And with Coco, they add to that a masterful, universal story about family filled with music and visuals to delight the senses.

And while it is universal, it is also very specifically Mexican, while also never feeling false or like it appropriates their culture. Given our current political climate in the United States where Mexicans are denigrated as “bad hombres,” “drug dealers” and “rapists” (and that’s just by the president), this presents a true representation of a culture where family and remembering your legacy is key. It also ends a long and painful history where Disney has really failed in representing Latinos and Latinx culture.

Our story centers around Miguel, a young boy who is obsessed with music despite it being banned from his family for generations. His nonagenarian great-grandmother Coco was abandoned as a child by a musician father who went off to seek his fortune. Left without a patriarch, the family’s matriarchy learned to make shoes, a trade which is their family’s legacy and heritage.

On the Day of the Dead, they place all of the photos of their extended and departed family on the ofrenda to remember them, including a photo of Coco as a child with the face of her musician father torn out. Miguel comes to believe that this missing great-great-grandfather might in fact be one of Mexico’s greatest singers of all time, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), so he breaks into de la Cruz’s memorial at the graveyard to borrow his guitar to play in a talent competition.

Because of the weakening of the barriers between worlds on Dia de los Muertos, Miguel finds himself transported to the land of the dead where he must find a member of his family to give him a blessing to help him return. Hearing a con artist ne’er-do-well skeleton named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) mention that he knows how to get access to de la Cruz (who is still a hugely big deal in the afterlife apparently), they decide to team up. Hector’s price is he needs Miguel to put his picture on his ofrenda so he can cross over to see his family and loved ones. Having been forgotten, he is in danger of completely fading away, suffering a “second death” from which no one knows where you go.

This brings to the forefront the film’s theme on the importance of remembering your family and loved ones. Perhaps better than any other Pixar movie to date, this has well-developed themes that make it not only entertaining but meaningful.

Also unlike other Pixar movies, this is a musical. But unlike the traditional Disney princess model of musical, here the music is an organic part of the story and storytelling. They sing songs that are thematically relevant, but they always do so because there is a talent competition, a concert, or so on. In this way, it’s very similar to last year’s Sing Street. There’s also an easy comparison to Kubo and the Two Strings, although that film did less with its music as a storytelling device, but both films up the ante with delivering authentic stories about family and loss mixed with a realistic, loving tribute to another culture.

And the music is excellent. One of the recurring songs is de la Cruz’s biggest hits “Remember Me.” This takes on special significance when understanding that it is the remembrance of our family that continues to sustain them even after death. A final version of the song sung at the end with Miguel reunited with his family will not leave a dry eye in the theater.

And then there’s the visuals. Pixar is able to deliver a beautiful, stylized version of the land of the dead that is surreal, vibrant, and beautiful. The use of color, especially of orange marigold petals, brings life to the film in unexpected ways. The “sugar skull” look of so many different faces gives each character a different look and feel.

The most spectacular are some of the creatures that act as “spirit guides” in the land of the dead. Based on dragons, monkeys, dogs, and other creatures they are day-glo, beautiful, and magical. Miguel’s great-great grandmother’s spirit guide is a giant winged cat-dragon who may be the most impressive visual feat of the film.

The music and the visuals brings up one of the more interesting details many will not notice, but when Miguel plays his guitar, his fingers are playing actual chords and his strums and finger picking is correct for the music he’s playing. This is yet another example of a film taking the time to make sure all its details are right and authentic.

A word of caution: don’t go see this movie in 3D. It doesn’t need it. And wearing sunglasses in the theater will only dampen the beauty of the color palatte, as well as making it harder to wipe away tears that will flow from all but the most stone-hearted among us.

This is not a perfect film. The plot twist at the end is a tad predictable, but for a medium whose entire raison d’être is repeat viewings ad nauseum on home video, it doesn’t need to be. Will it hold up over repeat viewings? Absolutely.

With so many families now spending time during the holidays going to see movies together, there is simply no better choice out there than Coco. Make a date to take your familia as soon as possible.

Final rating: 4.5 out of 5

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