Author Archives: Andy Wilson

Movie Review: Glass

Anyone who expected better as a follow-up to Split, well, you get what you deserve. While Glass isn’t quite as terrible as that garbage, this is the proof of the adage that you can add as much mayonnaise as you want to chicken crap, but you’re never going to make chicken salad out of it.

Glass tries to borrow from the good will we have from Shyamalan’s Unbreakable by pitting its protagonist David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and antagonist Elijah “Mr. Glass” (Samuel L. Jackson) against The Horde/The Beast (James McAvoy). At the center of all of this is psychiatrist Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) whose name couldn’t be any more indicative of her place in the movie– to staple the disparate elements together. Shyamalan no doubt thinks that this is “symbolic.” It’s about as deep as the film goes in its symbolism.

On the plus side, the film does have both Willis and Jackson. The film even lifts entire scenes from Unbreakable and puts them in this movie. Unfortunately, we get too little of them– Jackson plays catatonic for fully two-thirds of the movie. Willis just isn’t given that much to do, except to play hero.

They’re also joined by David’s son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) and Elijah’s mother (Charlayne Woodard) reprising their roles from the original cast of Unbreakable, and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) returning from Split. These five actually do their best and are mostly watchable. And that is where the good will for this film ends.

For a movie with so many women in it (and Shyamalan pointing out how he oh-so-progressively gender swapped Staple’s character. . . ugh), it’s amazing that the film still fails to pass the Bechdel test. Every single female character in this movie only serves as an adjunct to male characters.

Those who thought McAvoy was good in Split were and still are wrong. Shyamalan learned nothing from the criticisms of that film and, indeed, doubled down on some of the more problematic elements. Since Shyamalan lifted pieces of Unbreakable and Split into this film, I’m going to do the same with quoting my review of Split and McAvoy’s acting, because nothing has changed:

McAvoy’s performance is also. . . just. . . not good. A lot of what he does makes the audience laugh– and not in a good way. Because we are not laughing at a joke or a funny person. We are laughing at a person suffering from a serious mental disorder. That is not ok. And even if it was, so much of what McAvoy is doing is jarring and borrows from the “Master Thespian” school of scenery-chewing “ACT-ING!!!” McAvoy is better than this. And him as a goat-footed faun or a guy who can bend the path of bullets are more believable. At least X-Men doesn’t pretend its superpowers are anything but myth and fantasy.

He does, however, go hard AF in this movie. Some of the scenes where he becomes The Beast, shot in full daylight instead of being obscured by the darkness of Split, are actually kind of cool. If only this movie made a lick of sense on a narrative or thematic level.

Unbreakable was a good movie. It was a love letter to comic books and posits that our stories of super-heroism are based in reality. Glass adds literally nothing to that except to repeat the conceit several times. I also have a hard time taking any film seriously that wants to talk about comics on the meta level who keeps saying “limited edition” in their dialogue when they mean “limited series.” Unbreakable worked, partially, because the superhero explosion hadn’t happened yet. It was a novelty. Glass plays like no one has touched a comic book since 2000 or the world hasn’t changed. Your insights aren’t new or interesting or unique.

Add to that numerous plot holes and a “twist” ending that isn’t really a twist because you see it coming miles away, and this is just unsatisfying. The movie also teases an ending (with a not-so-subtle Die Hard homage) that it then doesn’t do at all. It’s not misdirection. It’s an excuse to do a smaller-scale finale. And actually, the final showdown is one of the parts of the film that works best, but the tease of something else entirely is just annoying.

It’s clear there’s a market for this schlock because so many people went to see (and apparently enjoyed?!?) Split, and those people deserve this movie the same way people who enjoy eating fast food deserve it too. But it’s objectively terrible and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. The nicest thing I can say about Glass is at least it wasn’t as bad as Split.

1 out of 5 stars

Top Movies of 2018

Well, 2018 was quite a year. While I didn’t have a hard time picking my top five favorite films of the year, what I was surprised by was the “big middle” of everything I saw this year. Of the hundreds of movies I saw between theaters, film festivals, and originals thanks to streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, my average for everything I rated was a 3.461765 stars (out of 5). And while I only had a single 5 star movie (spoiler, it’s my #1), my most common rating for the year was a 4.5 (15 films) and a 3.5 (14 films). In terms of raw scores, my #36 isn’t that far off of my #6. That’s all to say we had a lot of really good movies– mixed with a few truly greats.

Because of that (call it indulgent, IDC) I’m giving you my Top 40, just like Casey Kasem back in the day.

The Top 40- 11:
(if you skip these to get to the top ten I won’t be offended)

40. Operation FinaleOscar Isaac leads a Mossad team to take down Adolf Eichman (Ben Kingsley) are you kidding me?!? Had to see this. File under: Jews kicking ass.
39. Overlord – the corollary to #40, but a black paratrooper taking out crazy Nazi scientists doing superhuman experiments. Reminds us Nazis are the bad guys.
38. The Rachel Divide -A Netflix documentary about Rachel Dolezal, mostly in her own words, the activist who claims she is trans-racial. It’ll make you think.
37. Ready Player One – This was my 13 yr old daughter’s favorite movie of the year. It reminds us that fun Spielberg is fun.
36. Ralph Breaks the Internet – It makes the list just for the Disney princess scene and “A Place Called Slaughter Race.”
35. A Simple Favor – Heavy on style, Anna Kendrick plays up the fun angle with director Paul Feig as a mommy blogger whose new best friend disappears. There’s a fun sort of “true crime” type mystery with the comedy here.
34. Mandy – this movie feels like a relic of another time — specifically, the 80’s with definite hints of Heavy Metal — and feels like it was made under the influence of a lot of drugs as Nicholas Cage takes revenge on a crazy cult who murdered his wife.

33. BlackkKlansman – I should’ve loved this movie more, but its weird tacked-on ending sort of blew it, and only in one shot in the entire movie did it feel like this was the same Spike Lee who gave us Do the Right Thing.
32. QuincyRashida Jones gives us the most intimate look at her father, master composer Quincy Jones. A great watch on Netflix.
31. Deadpool 2 – It’s a Deadpool movie. It’s great.
30. Widows – It’s a high stakes, high concept heist movie with an amazing female cast and political intrigue. It’s great.
29. Mary Poppins Returns – I love Mary Poppins. And Lin Manuel Miranda. It’s not as immediately classic as the original, but who expected it to? Emily Blunt is still amazing. And it’s great.
28. Hereditary – This is the movie that stuck with me the longest. Still, thinking about this movie makes me want to turn on all the lights in my house. Also, an amazing acting job by Toni Collette.
27. Number 37 – A movie you probably never heard of! I caught this gem at SXSW and fell in love. A South African slum gangland take on Rear Window by a first time black female director. Yes please.
26. RBG – This was a great year for documentaries. This one on the Notorious Ruth Bader Ginsburg checks all my boxes.
25. Incredibles II – This sequel to one of the greatest animated movies of all time (and one of the greatest superhero movies of all time) did some really amazing things thanks to director Brad Bird,, but the ending took it down a few notches. But the fact that this ended up at 25 tells you just how competitive this year was.
24. BlindspottingDaveed Diggs and Rafael Casal‘s tale of police violence, Oakland, and hip hop was a little too pat in its ending, but was otherwise masterful. A main reason Oakland ended up on my list of “Who won 2018?”

23. Searching – We’ve now seen several of these movies where they’re told only through what we can see on the screen of a computers. Like found footage, there are good and bad, and this is a good one. John Cho and Debra Messing deliver powerful performances in a story about trying to piece together the mystery of a missing daughter through her social media footprint, intertwined with a father losing touch with his daughter in the age of screens.
22. Bad Times at the El Royale – This might’ve ended up higher on the list if it had delivered more on substance over style, but this was still pretty amazing. And that soundtrack!
21. Minding the Gap – An amazing documentary about young adults growing up as friends in a rust belt town as skate punks and how life and domestic abuse has kept them back. Fascinating and maybe a bit too real.
20. A Quiet Place – Wow. Nothing quite shocked audiences as much as this, as well as exposed the worst theater-goers in America. Shut up or the monsters win! One of several reasons why I said Emily Blunt and John Krasinski won the year of 2018.
19. Leave No Trace – Props to writer/director Debra Granik and to amazing performances by Ben Foster and breakout star Thomasin McKenzie in this heartwrenching look at a dad dealing with PTSD who lives a solitary existence off the grid in the woods with his young teen daughter. Of course, when Child Protective Services finds out. . . well, you’re not exactly allowed to do that. And drama ensues.
(18.- tie) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – There’s a debate as to whether this is a movie, as it is currently being presented by Netflix, or a tv miniseries, which was how the Coen Brothers originally pitched it. This is peak Coen in all their forms, but if this is a movie, this is where it would fall.
18. Mission Impossible: Fallout – Finally it feels like writer/director Christopher McQuarrie leveled up his directing to the level of his writing ability. The perfect summer movie, even if I liked a few other movies from the summer of ’18 a little more.
17. Annihilation – Along with Hereditary, this was the movie that stuck with me (in my nightmares). Astounding visuals and an amazing ending, and an amazing cast.
16. Avengers: Infinity War – We knew we’d get to this eventually, right? There isn’t much more to add. Bring on 2019’s conclusion and Captain Marvel.

15. Upgrade – Done on a tiny budget, this movie packs a punch of a $150 million blockbuster. Brutal, fun, and thoughtful.
14. Vice – Dear Writer/Director Adam McKay, Don’t lie– you made this movie just for me to enjoy, right? Built to my tastes? The fact this isn’t in my top 10 (it would be in any other year) says a lot about the other films on this list.
13. The Favourite – Dear Writer/Director Yourgos Lanthimos, Same Question. Also, thanks for bringing back the fish-eye lens.
12. Crazy Rich Asians – I haven’t wholeheartedly loved a romantic comedy like this in ages. Just pure fun, and its stellar cast is amazing.
11. Won’t You Be My Neighbor – The movie most likely to make me cry in 2018. This is just sheer goodness. Again, how is this not in my top 10?

The answer is because those movies in my top 10 are just so great themselves. Here you go, without any further ado:

10. Roma

Roma

“We are alone. No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone.” A beautiful film by one of the best directors working today, Alfonso Cuaron. An ode to his maid, growing up in an upper-middle class house in Mexico City, this has some of the most beautiful and thoughtful cinematography of any film. The fact that it’s in black and white should also be telling. Even more importantly, the fact that Netflix is going to be in the mix for a Best Picture this year should have every movie studio quaking in their boots. If you watch this at home in your pajamas instead of in a theater, no one will think less of you, or at least I won’t. Just watch it.

9. Hearts Beat Loud

Hearts Beat Loud

Without a John Carney movie musical around for me to adopt this year as one of my favorites, I went with this one. Nick Offerman owns a record shop and tries to connect with his daughter who is about to leave for college through playing music together, when she falls in love with her first serious girlfriend. She writes a great song, they put it on Spotify, it gets some notice… and more. Just beautiful performances, great music, and a movie about love and family. Also, Ted Danson as a bartender.

8. Las Sandinistas!

Las Sandinistas!

Wait, what? Who? This documentary about the women behind the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua is one of my favorite documentaries of the year in a year with amazing documentaries. (This isn’t the last one in my list) I first saw this at SXSW and fell in love. You will too if you can find a way to see this.

7. Paddington 2

Paddington 2

There isn’t a better word for this film than just “charming,” or perhaps “nice” or “good.” This is comfort food you didn’t think you needed. It will heal your soul and fill you with good cheer. Also? Hugh Grant for Best Supporting Actor.

6. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse

Dear Sony, THIS is what you should be doing with your extended Spider-Man universe instead of. . . well, Venom. Every single one of your spider-personas in the film was perfect, but especially Spider-Gwen and Miles Morales. Peter Parker means a lot to so many of us. But it’s great that there are others who can take up that mantle: Spider-Man isn’t an everyman unless literally anyone could be him, regardless of age, gender, race, or species. This new, fresh take is so important, but so so is this animation. I’ve never seen anything like this, and I can’t wait to see more. More Miles and Spider-Gwen please! And Spider-Ham and Spider-Man Noir. Ok, just all of them.

5. Eighth Grade

Eighth Grade

This was another movie I adopted as a favorite ever since seeing it at SXSW. I can’t state this enough: as a father of a 13 year old girl, this is the most true depiction of what her life is like that I have ever seen. The rest of my favorites don’t seem to be getting much notice for major awards, so I’ll be pulling heavily for writer/director Bo Burnham and especially breakout star Elsie Fisher.

4. First Reformed

First Reformed

I sadly missed this at SXSW, and only recently caught up with it. I wish someone had grabbed me by the lapels sooner and made me watch it. What I dreaded as homework and maybe another stolid but off-putting performance by Ethan Hawke I instead found a complex narrative about faith, pain, moral imperatives, and a Christian view of our responsibility to take care of the earth. That REALLY checks a lot of boxes for me. “Will God forgive us?” Not if you don’t see this movie, she won’t.

3. Black Panther

Black Panther

Here it is. The big kahuna. The mothership. The single largest, most important piece of pop culture phenomenon in America for 2018. I literally de-friended a few fellow critics on Facebook because they didn’t like this movie, and when I pressed them for why, their reasons were bull$#!t and a cover for racism. If you can’t appreciate the filmmaking prowess on display here by Ryan Coogler, you have no business calling yourself a film critic.No other Marvel film has ever felt so little like it came off the assembly line. No other feels crafted quite so carefully, so deftly, with precision in every shot, in the delivery of every line. And to that, we have to give credit to this amazing cast. Michael B. Jordan is the greatest Marvel villain, and when he demands to see the Wakandan sunset, and die rather than live in chains, my heart breaks every time. “Show them who you are!” You did, Black Panther, you did.

2. Three Identical Strangers

Three Identical Strangers

This documentary came out of nowhere and astounded me. Sold to me as a story of three identical triplets adopted by different families who reunite by happenstance seemed like it would just be a fun little romp. Oh, cool! Nature vs. nurture– look at all the similarities between these boys even though they were separated at birth. And then. . . you find out what’s really going on. There’s a crazy twist that I still won’t reveal because not enough people have seen this. But once you find out, it will challenge everything you think you know about nature vs. nurture, no matter which side of the debate you are on.

1. Sorry to Bother You

Sorry to Bother You

This is the best movie of the year and the only film I gave 5 stars out of 5 to. Is it, in fact, a perfect movie? No. But, it’s so audacious in what it is trying to do that I will forgive any small problems it may have. And what this tries to do is skewer the intersection of class and race, delivering a stunning repudiation of Bay Area neoliberalism and technocracy. This is about the closest we get to Terry Gilliam, Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry doing a woke black power narrative, and it is fantastic. I heard from a lot of folks that liked this movie ok, until the ending, which they hated. To me, the ending was perfect and what made this so audacious– I, usually silent in most movie screenings, literally gasped, “What the f@$%?!!?!” As crazy as it was, it fit with the film’s themes and made me love it even more. For being that willing to reach for it — no compromises — this was my favorite of the year.

Fin.

So, that’s it. What do you think? You may have noticed some pretty big snubs in there. Some of those were intentional, some of those I never got around to see. Tell us what you loved and what you think I missed, overrated, underrated down in the comments.

And also here’s my list of the worst movies, and my Top 5 of Everything, along with “Who Won 2018?”

The Top 5 of Everything in 2018

While I also have a top and bottom list of the movies of 2018, I love things outside of movies, too. Indeed, so much of what has happened in 2018 has been outside of movies, or blurring the lines between what movies and television even are with Netflix bringing us things like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs or Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, the first of whach was originally planned as a tv miniseries, and the latter is just. . . well, what even is Bandersnatch?

So, regardless of medium, here are my Top 5 favorites of everything.

5. Educated: A Memoir

This book hit a lot of lists of the top books of 2018 (including culture critic Barack Obama’s), but it hit especially close to home for me because, like author Tara Westover, I attended Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Her story of growing up kept out of public education was too familiar to me, as survivalism and mistrust of public schools were something I encountered too frequently. This is the same anti-intellectual stew that spawned Glenn Beck and the Bundys’ ranch standoff/takeover of the Malheur Bird Refuge. But Westover’s memoir is a testament to what happens when this is taken to the extreme, to the point that as an adult she had never heard of the Holocaust. It’s a great read and my favorite book of the year.

4. Detroit: Become Human

Ok, there may have been “better” games than this in 2018. (God of War, Super Smash Bros Ultimate, Spider-Man, Red Dead Redemption II) But this story of a near-future where androids begin to gain sentience and their struggle for equality was my personal favorite. It almost wasn’t a video game– it was an interactive movie.

This is one of those games where the choices you make affect the outcome of the game, and you get to choose the fate of a revolution. Will your quest for equality for androids be violent, or non-violent? What are the consequences for the other characters you’re playing as?

This hit me right in my social-justice and robot-loving heart, and also had beautiful gameplay featuring a spectacular cast of actors.

3. Sorry to Bother You

Spoiler Alert: this was my favorite movie of 2018. First time director Boots Riley delivers a searing indictment of capitalism and racial expectations, exposing a sort of gonzo form of racial exploitation that is a perfect intersectional skewering of the nexus of race and class.

It’s very rare for a movie to surprise me, and this made me literally say to the screen, “What the f@#$?!?!

This was the only film I gave five stars to all year, and it’s something you have to see to believe.

2. Hannah Gadsby – Nanette

I had never heard of Australian comic Hannah Gadsby before this year, so imagine my shock in watching a Netflix special in which she announces her retirement from comedy and then proceeds to deconstruct what comedy is, blow it up, and put it back together again– all told against the backdrop of a heartbreaking childhood story of coming to terms with her queer identity. I never thought anything could make me feel such a rainbow of emotions over such a short period of time. This wasn’t just a comedy special — in the same way Childish Gambino’s “This is America” wasn’t just a music videos. Those were pop culture grenades tossed into the heart of the beast that blew everything up.

1. The Good Place

More than anything else this year, The Good Place ruled my heart and mind. I have not anticipated a broadcast television show like this in a long time, and in between seasons and episodes so many binges of previous seasons.

The best thing about this show that is sorta about the afterlife but kinda mostly about ethics but really just about us dirtbags here on earth and how we treat each other is how it keeps reinventing itself almost every six episodes or so. The show’s writers seem to be laboring under the idea that at some point the network is going to figure out the scam they’ve been running and pull the plug, so we’d better get through as much of this plot as possible. Where most shows would drag out their premise, this races through multiple setups in a single season. It’s refreshing, it’s smart, but it’s also stupid.

You put the Peeps in the chili pot and mix it all up, You put the Peeps in the chili pot and add some M&Ms, You put the Peeps in the chili pot. . .

This season’s episodes “Jeremy Bearimy” and “Janets” deserve ALL THE EMMYS, especially for acting from Janet herself, D’Arcy Cardon. If you saw them, you know why. If you didn’t see them, what are you waiting for?! To Netflix! To Hulu! Begin the binge now!

It’s the best show on tv– fight me. It’s the best thing from 2018– let’s be friends and watch it together, will you please? It will make you laugh and feed your soul. Also, it has its own official podcast, hosted by Marc Evan Jackson, who plays Shawn, who ends every episode asking, “What’s good?”

The Good Place. It is good. And the best for 2018.

So, Who Won the Year?

I also like to look back at the year look for threads, throughlines, trends that indicate something. Invariably there are big winners and losers in the year. I want to quickly celebrate the top winners.

Honorable Mention: Nicholas Cage

Despite being somewhere between an internet meme and a pariah, Nick Cage still gets some pretty amazing work this year. His starring role in Mandy is like a cocaine-fueled horror fantasy made in the 80’s and then set to age for three decades soaking in LSD. But then he also showed up in the cartoons in some of the most unexpected places: as Spider-Man Noir in Into the Spider-Verse and as Superman in Teen Titans Go! To the Movies. We’re glad to see him working.

Other honorable mentions: Donald Glover, Streaming Services, Steve Carrell, Mahershala Ali, Dolph Lundgren, Michael B. Jordan

5. Cults

This was a good year for cults in movies and tv. Mandy, Bad Times at the El Royale, Wild Wild Country, and Hereditary. Also, the bizarre stories about real life sex cult NXIVM that involved Smallville‘s Allison Mack. So, way to go, cults? At least you have some diversity here– Jesus, Satan, new age, but all of them were big on sex, So, sex cults. Way to win 2018.

4. Emily Blunt and John Krasinski

These two not only had an amazing year, but they did it together. Blunt killed it as Mary Poppins, Krasinski brought Jack Ryan back, and then you have their on-screen duo in A Quiet Place. That movie was such a revelation– mostly about how terrible mainstream movie audiences are at making noise. But in a year when almost every top-grossing film was a sequel, franchise, or remake, A Quiet Place was a true original. Thanks to both of you. You won the year.

3. Comicsgate and the Alt-Right

Now hear me out. I know this will be an unpopular opinion, but the alt-right actually accomplished a decent amount this year, and it’s completely unacceptable. James Gunn is still fired from Guardians of the Galaxy 3. Chuck Wendig was fired from Star Wars/Marvel comics. And, they raised a lot of money through crowdfunding for various ventures.

These guys aren’t playing around. And as long as they keep weaponizing things like offensive tweets, we will lose great creators from our favorite genres.

2. Asian Movie-going Audiences

Look, America, we need to understand that most movies aren’t being made for us anymore. We can decry as braindead anything like The Meg, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Skyscraper, Aquaman, Rampage, or Venom, but those movies kill overseas. There are very specific motifs and types of shots that work there that we as American audiences just aren’t picking up. This is going to have reverberations for years to come.

What’s the major difference? You can make a strong argument for diverse casts and female leads — giving us hits like Black Panther or The Last Jedi — but those movies generally just sort of do ok overseas while overperforming in the US.

That says something comforting about our country and culture at this time. But it says some things that should maybe be concerning that we won’t get complex stories like these in the future while we spit out more Venoms.

Perhaps the biggest irony in all of this is the alt right crusaders who don’t want diversity in our movies, shows, and comics will find common cause with the globalists who will continue to churn out lots of braindead action movies starring heroic dudes. Sigh.

[tie] 1. Disney

The Walt Disney Corporation had an amazing year, which caps off some pretty incredible past few years and is likely to continue into 2019. Why? Disney+ streaming service. The Fox merger. This isn’t necessarily good news for us, but is great news for corporate profits and creeping oligarchy. But, they gave us Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Incredibles 2, Mary Poppins Returns, Ralph Breaks the Internet. . . even the supposedly underperforming Solo: A Star Wars Story ended up making 393 million dollars worldwide. And that was considered by some a failure, even though 18 of my top 20 films of 2018 would love to have sold that many tickets.

But let’s talk about Black Panther for one moment. It’s arguably the most culturally salient and important piece of pop culture of the year, with Infinity War not far behind. For all their evils as a corporate overlord, we got something truly important for a lot of people to see — an authentically black superhero story that deals with identity, a history of violence and oppression towards the African diaspora, and that leaves us remember that “in times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers.”

When the box office receipts went off the charts, you gave back– founding an actual charity to do the work of STEM education and scholarships like T’Challa and Shuri wanted. Thank you, Disney. For an evil corporation, you sure gave us a lot of what we loved this year. You win.

[tie] 1. The City of Oakland

Speaking of Black Panther, one of the most important pieces of the film is how director Ryan Coogler brought his Oakland roots into the film. That moment when you realize the voiceover from the beginning of the film is of young Erik and his dad N’Jobu (“Tell me a story of home.”) and the entire basis for Killmonger’s wrath is based on the economic oppression of being raised in poverty in Oakland and what he had to do to escape it. It ends with a hopeful note in the same building, that future children will not have to face such hardship. “Who are you?”

I already mentioned my love of Sorry to Bother You, but that film is not possible without Oakland as a backdrop. The same is true of another of my favorites, Blindspotting, which takes a similar look at poverty, gentrification, and violence. And then we have Bodied, the rap battle movie produced by Eminem, which plays a major part in the film, but whose setting is split between Berkeley, Oakland, and Los Angeles. Still, Oakland as a force is in that film.

And then there’s real life. The Golden State Warriors win the NBA Championship. A white woman calls the cops on a black family having a cookout at an Oakland city park at Lake Merritt and becomes known as “BBQ Becky.”

And then heartbreak. The Oakland Raiders plan to leave for Las Vegas looking for more corporate pork and handouts.

To understand what is going on in Oakland in film and culture is to understand a microcosm of what is happening in so many cities across the country facing gentrification and economic pressures that are displacing historically black populations. It is why I recommend to everyone they see each of these films I mentioned here and think about what is actually happening.

To 2018, the year of the Oakland Renaissance.

The Worst Movies of 2018

One of the things I found most interesting about 2018 was it actually seemed like there were a lot fewer bad movies. Instead, we had a big middle of mediocre, forgettable fare.

So several of these I wouldn’t say are “bad,” but merely disappointing. As with my lists from previous years, I’m trying to keep this away from merely being a slam dunk contest, and to ignore films for whom I am not the intended audience. There’s also a large number of films that were never screened for critics and I had zero interest in seeking them out on my own. So I have no opinion on, for example, Insidious: The Last Key, Holmes and Watson, or The Week Of.

However, I’m going to stray from my principles in a few places here because these film are so egregiously, aggressively awful that I can’t help but say something. But I like to think of this more as an exercise on what went wrong in movies in 2018 and what we can do so much better in the coming year that I hope we can learn from.

10. Pacific Rim: Uprising

Pacific Rim: Uprising

There are, actually, worse films out there than this sequel, but it was just so egregiously bad that I had to start the list here. How do you take such a surefire premise as giant robots fighting monsters and make it bad? Step 1: don’t bring back director Guillermo del Toro or star Idris Elba. Step 2: Make Charlie Day the bad guy for some reason. Step 3: End your film with a snowball fight!

It’s not all bad. There is, in fact, a decent amount of enjoyment to be had here if you don’t pay too close attention. Just turn the sound down and pretend you’re watching a better version of the movie.

9. Take Your Pills

Netflix brought us some great things in 2018. One of them was not this documentary, which premiered at SXSW, which was where I caught it and was immediately enraged. Hey kids, did you know that if you’re being treated for ADHD, you’re basically just doing meth? This film takes the overly complex issues surrounding treatment of attention deficit and basically makes the case that not only are we over-prescribing medication, but it’s being used as a party drug, and drug companies are evil and everyone should just stop taking their medication.

This is a complex subject and this documentary offers no solutions, but shames people for having ADHD and suggests we’re better off not being treated at all. Thanks. Thanks a lot.

8. Rampage

Does The Rock really just say yes to every ridiculous movie they pitch him? This film was not at all based on the 1980’s arcade game involving a giant ape, lizard and wolf attacking the city because that game was fun and this was a tedious mess. This film had a great cast — Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Naomie Harris, Malin Ackerman, Jake Lacy — all of whom are just wasted here. As are a giant effects budget and a premise that might have been interesting if they’d done it properly.

PS- Watch the first five minutes of this movie and the first five minutes of Venom and tell me they aren’t the exact same movie. Mysterious goo on a satellite causes a malfunction and it crashes, infecting people while the evil corporation tries to control their discovery. It’s the same. damn. movie.

7. Gotti

Gotti

I just want to know what the hell was going on with this movie. Who told them to make this movie this way? Not only is John Travolta’s hair and makeup somehow even more ridiculous in every single scene he’s in (begging the question. . . why?) but this movie seems like it was made by someone whose only exposure to organized crime or the mafia was by watching The Godfather and Goodfellas. It’s like that fresco painting of Jesus they tried to restore and it turned out looking like some weird deformed monkey. It’s like the cooking disasters you see on Nailed It or Cake Wrecks. Oh, it was written and directed by Kevin Connolly from Entourage. Nailed it.

For a film with so much voice-over exposition and cutaways to the news to explain what was happening and long car rides explaining the structure of the Gambino crime family, this film doesn’t actually make any sense. There’s also no bigger story or theme. Am I supposed to feel some way about John Gotti other than I please want this movie to be over now please? At least Vice made you feel some things about its characters– and managed to coherently explain recent events.

There’s also this weird soundtrack which tries to remind us we’re in the 80’s and 90’s by playing The Bangles and Duran Duran but also this weird hip hop that samples what sounds like the Nina Rota / Carmine Coppolla scores for The Godfather movies.

This film is also deserving of some special scorn for being financed by MoviePass. At the same time MoviePass was running out of money and limiting the movies you could go see, somehow, you could go see Gotti with your MoviePass. Even for free, this movie was not worth it.

6. Den of Thieves

It’s a testament to what a slog 2018 was that this movie from January feels like it was from eight years ago. Or maybe that’s just because it was so tired and hackneyed it felt like that watching it. Cops and robbers, but maybe we’re rooting for the robbers because the cops are bad guys, too? By the end, I wanted everyone to die and I mostly got my wish. Too bad it took two and a half hours to get there.

5. Sicario: Day of the Soldado

As disappointing a sequel as Pacific Rim: Uprising was, this was far worse. The original Sicario is such a taught, gripping film. And prior to this, I felt like Tayler Sheridan could do no wrong in writing scripts. This, apparently, is what you poop out when the dollar signs are right. The film misses its moral compass in not including Emily Blunt, but it also perpetuates some ridiculous ideas about ISIS terrorists coming across the Mexican border to blow up a Wal-Mart. This is like the fever dream of someone who’s been watching way too much Fox News and doing a lot of cocaine.

And then we get the conflict between Josh Brolin and Benecio Del Toro, and also Brolin bristling at government bureaucrats who won’t let him do his job! (More coke + Fox News)

We deserve better from our movies. We deserve better from our Sicario sequels. (Note: I saw this movie back to back in a double feature with my #1 movie of the year, putting an even better comparison on just how terrible this was.)

4. Midnight Sun

I almost feel sorry for how bad this movie was. A teenage girl is so deathly allergic to sunlight that even a few errant ray can kill her. Spoiler alert: they do. This tragic teen romance is made even more ridiculous by Rob Riggle trying his best as the dad role here.

3. Red Sparrow

Red Sparrow

A movie that glorifies violence against women, has multiple rape scenes, and actually had potential to be the Black Widow movie we all really wanted? It was just terrible, maybe even worse than Jennifer Lawrence’s Boris-and-Natasha Russian accent. In the era of #MeToo, maybe producers would’ve been wise to let this sit on a shelf for a while, instead of explicitly showing on screen how sexual violence is used to subjugate and control women, how their agency is stripped from them in a government-run spy program that is essentially state-sponsored sex slavery where failure to comply means a bullet in your head. It was also incredibly long, which is even more unforgivable, especially given how boring it was.

2. Fifty Shades Freed

Normally I make an exception for the Fifty Shades movies because I’m just not the intended audience. But this year? This abomination came out right in the middle of the #MeToo movement and showed an incredible tonedeafness on the part of the film’s producers. These are a lot of the same problems I had with Red Sparrow, but at least that had a spy storyline going on as well. The best thing I can say about this is I will never have to review another one of these films again.

1. Death of a Nation

Again, I normally wouldn’t include this because I am not the target audience, but convicted felon pardoned under corrupt circumstances by Trump likely in an attempt to suborn perjury or obstruction of justice from his associates Dinesh D’Souza has produced his masterpiece of alt-right agitprop. His major contention is that Donald Trump is basically Abraham Lincoln, and just like Lincoln, those mean ol’ Democrats are going to use violence (including civil war) to overturn a legitimate election.

Death of a Nation

Except a) it wasn’t legitimate, you buffoon, or perhaps you haven’t noticed the increasing number of indictments around Individual 1 (or maybe Dinesh doesn’t think campaign finance law matter, since, after all, that was what he was convicted of breaking) and b) after all of those marches like the Women’s March, March for Our Lives, People’s Climate March, March Against Family Separation we have yet to see any violence from them, but yet we have alt-right violence in Charlottesville (covered in the far better film, Alt-Right Age of Rage) pipe bombs, politically-motivated attacks on synagogues and mosques. If this is a proto-civil war, it is a war of right wing aggression.

And then there’s the weird fascination with Trump being like Lincoln. This is just so baffling on multiple levels.

As a movie, it’s also just garbage. I was not kind to Michael Moore’s latest earlier this year (in fact, if this were a top 13 worst movies list, Fahrenheit 11/9 would be on it), but at least the guy knows how to make a movie. D’Souza loses his narrative so many times, it’s like he’s piecing this together from an underground bunker wearing a tinfoil hat.

But, none of this happens in a vacuum. Whenever I see a movie, I ask myself, “What is this trying to say? How does that add to the cultural conversation we’re having as a society?” This throws gasoline on the worst types of fires, including the beliefs of people who also believe in QAnon and Pizzagate. D’Souza’s films in the past have been terrible and wreckless, but never dangerous. This gives crazy people the fuel they need to commit future acts of violence– in the belief that they are fighting a new civil war.

The First Amendment protects his right to make this movie, and it also protects my right to say this is the worst piece of garbage to be shown in cinemas this last calendar year.

Well, that’s it. That’s the worst. But, I hate being negative, so I’ll come back here in the next day or two with the best of 2018, as well as a look at My Top 5 of Everything and “Who won the year?” If you think it might be the Disney corporation, well. . . you’ll have to read the article.

See you in 2019, where we hopefully avoid these types of awful movies.

Movie Review: Aquaman

Aquaman is a complicated movie. Literally. Its overly complex plot weighs down what otherwise might be an incredibly charming and action-packed film. Like its namesake, it’s also a weird hybrid — not of human and Atlantean, but of what is going to appeal to audiences on both sides of the Pacific. That means spectacular action sequences made for the lowest common denominator between the American heartland and the Chinese mainland. It’s destined to make half a billion dollars — and deservedly so — but more cynical and choosy audiences should maybe gravitate to other films in the crowded holiday-season-cinemascape that includes both Spider-Man and BumblebeeDespite all of that, this is easily the second best film of the DC Extended Universe. That’s not necessarily a compliment.

The film is charming, and we should pause for one moment to sit with that. An Aquaman movie is actually kind of cool. Yes– Aquaman. The charm here lies with stars Jason Momoa and Amber Heard. Momoa is having a lot of fun here, and embraces the film’s camp and hokeyness. He also sells it, helping most audience members swim along with the current. It also doesn’t hurt that in parts of the film he has his shirt off. In an opening scene (shown in the trailers) when he enters a submarine and asks, dripping with ocean water, “Permission to come aboard?” there was an audible gasp and a “Oh, Lordy, yes. Anytime!” in response from the seat behind me. The equal-opportunity-cheesecake here is pretty fun, but does beg a question. . . why does Momoa need to have a shirt on in any of the scenes? (Inquiring minds want to know.)

Heard is the salt and spice to Momoa’s sweetness. Unfortunately relegated to a lot of exposition, having to teach Arthur Curry (and us the audience) about things like Atlantean politics and the overly labyrinthine plot, she has to do more work than anyone else in the cast, but she does it well. And, she does it all while in the most ridiculous outfit and fake-looking wig possible, which is also impressive. Also unfortunately, she and Momoa get set up in the trope of the bickering-will-they-or-won’t-they couple. The romantic payoff in Act III is telegraphed way off, and is also strangely unearned. Despite being weighed down with all of this, Heard actually does a really great job. But so much of her potential is wasted.

But then there’s the villains. Patrick Wilson is serviceable as the angry King Orm / Ocean Master, but there’s not much more to him than he really, really wants that Atlantean throne. It’s Shakespearean, but sorta dumbed down to a lowest common denominator of the big superhero blockbuster.

And then you have Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), whom you could literally erase from the movie and solve a third of its problems. It’s not that the character is bad — he’s actually really cool looking fully decked out with that crazy helmet and shooting lasers from his eyes. It’s just that in a film this complicated, we didn’t need a second villain, and all he does is pad an already overstuffed film.

And can we talk for a second about the scene where he’s building his helmet and Depeche Mode’s “It’s No Good” is playing? What is he, me freshman year crying about my girlfriend breaking up with me? The song, even this new remix, is twenty years out of the zeitgeist and sticks out even worse than if Pitbull sampled Toto’s Africa and put it in the movie to signify they were in the Sahara desert. Oh wait. . .

It’s these kind of schlocky choices that make this movie more the equivalent of cotton candy than anything more substantive. But, that’s also what makes it a sort of great popcorn movie.

Most of the other DCEU movies sort of falter in their third acts with a big brawl against the big bad. In this one, we get our final showdown, but it takes place against the backdrop of an epic underwater battle that takes advantage of the sci-fi epic setting where you can do anything underwater. This is Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Avatar, complete with sea monsters, battle seahorses, and giant underwater ships firing lasers. It’s a little bit silly, but it’s a lot of fun.

It’s that sense of fun that is this movie’s saving grace. Yes, it’s overstuffed, overwrought, and overlong. But it’s essentially director James Wan doing what he has done previously in directing Fast and Furious, Saw, or The Conjuring movies. Ridiculous, over-the-top action somehow works as long as you don’t take it too seriously and let your stars chew up all the scenery they can. But this time– it’s under the sea!

Just like previous films this year like The Meg or Skyscraper, there are very clearly some things here designed for the Asian movie-going audience. Luckily, many of those things are the same things demanded by middlebrow American audiences as they shovel popcorn down their gullets by the buttery fistfuls. Hence, lowest common denominator.

That still makes it one of the best films of the DCEU. While it doesn’t hold a candle to Wonder Woman, at least it feels like these characters are able to have some fun and not be so dark and brooding all the time. Let’s hope they continue that sense of fun into next year’s Shazaam! and our DC characters get some of the movies they deserve.

3 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Welcome to Marwen

It’s taken a long time to find the perfect dramatic role for Steve Carell, but this is it. Playing real-life comic book artist Mark Hogancamp dealing with the trauma of a vicious hate crime that left him with brain damage so severe he is unable to draw, Carell brings a heart and comedy to what might otherwise be an incredibly bleak and depressing film.

Welcome to Marwen mixes live action realism with a Secret Life of Walter Mitty-esque fantasy life where the poseable action figures and dolls he uses in his photographs come to life and act out the inner feelings of his mind. Their setting is the fictional town of Marwen, a Belgian villa in World War II, under seige by Nazis who no matter how many times they kill them, they always come back.

The city is guarded by “Hoagie,” an American pilot who is an avatar for Carell, and a cadre of powerful women who represent the real-life women around him. They’re also besieged by a witch, another manifestation of Mark’s psyche, intent on destroying Hoagie’s happiness.

The best thing about this film is the true to life feeling of the animated action figures. Using highly detailed motion-capture similar to what director Robert Zemeckis previously used in The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol, the Uncanny-Valley-ness of that technology goes away because they are mapped to action figures rather than real people. The resulting animation is like watching a heartfelt, lifelike Robot Chicken.

It’s good that those portions of the film are so light, funny, sometimes over-the-top violent, and entertaining, because the rest of the story is rather bleak and sad. 

The only real complaint with the film is its lack of a seemingly broader message. While we feel a lot of things, we’re not necessarily left with any sense of what that means. Not every film needs to have a meaning, but it feels like this film should maybe have had one. It’s fine as just a nice character study and fun use of visual effects, but that’s all it ends up being. It just feels like it’s missing something and that leave it on only the cusp of greatness.

The film also has some problematic depictions of its female characters. While they are numerous and diverse, all of them only have an existence around Mark and his trauma. It’s like it would almost pass the Bechdel test, except that every conversation is literally about him. The point of this film is not necessarily to be about the agency and lives of other women, but it is still almost 100% focused on only its singular character.

It feels like somewhat of a waste of people like Janelle Monae to show up and only deliver a few lines in service of a white man’s trauma. Leslie Mann is also incredibly good as his across the street neighbor Nicol. Mann, like Carell, is able to work both the comedy and serious sides of the film to an incredible degree. It is one of the best performances of her career.

But this falls short– when you have other incredibly female forward films in theaters right now like Widows or The Favourite, despite being focused on female leads, they do not present their male co-stars with such short shrift.

Hogancamp is a very broken person still dealing with his trauma. So much of this film is working out his post-traumatic stress and trying to find a normal existence. It’s very heartwarming but also very sad depiction what trauma does to people.

We’re very lucky to have this film so beautifully rendered and have Hoagie looking out for us as a testament to survival.

3 out of 5 stars

PS – There is also a documentary Marwencol that also tells the true story of Mark Hogancamp from 2010. It is available to watch on iTunes and Kanopy, which allows you to stream films through your local library.

Movie Review: Mary Poppins Returns

Mary Poppins Returns is the Practically Perfect sequel in almost every way, but it’s potentially pandering to fans. What is almost a beat for beat and scene-by-scene song by song remake of the original, it’s a remake in sequel’s clothing. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

After all, that is essentially what The Force Awakens was for Star Wars. But there are enough differences and updates to keep it fresh and make it fun and new.

Chief among these is its cast. Emily Blunt is Mary Poppins. Period. And the way she puts an extra bit of pizzazz on so much of her delivery helps set this Poppins apart from Julie Andrews’ performance. Blunt’s is a bit more playful and mischievous, but also at the same time more serious and menacing. Julie Andrews’ Poppins was nurturing, Blunt’s Poppins is just straight badass.

Lin-Manuel Miranda as Jack The Lamplighter falls into Dick Van Dyke’s shoes as the “Bert” of this story, and he’s having an incredible amount of fun here. You can tell this is someone who has dreamed of being in a big Disney musical like this his entire life, and he’s soaking up every moment that he can. Unfortunately, just like with Van Dyke, his American accent bites through the attempt at Cockney, exposing a small gap in the performance. When the songs require Miranda to fall into his rap delivery that Hamilton and In the Heights fans are so familiar with, Miranda’s natural timbre and delivery come out and he’s just Lin-Manuel Miranda — not some cockney lamplighter.

The Banks children are also just perfectly adorable. They couldn’t have been better cast if Disney were to have assembled them in a factory somewhere, which I always, in fact, fear that Disney has done. Little Georgie (Joel Dawson) especially is a particularly great find.

And Ben Wishaw and Emily Mortimer are no slouches as the grown-up Jane and Michael Banks either. Wishaw delivers some of the more tender moments of the film, singing about the loss and grief of losing his wife, the children’s mother. It is with this that Mary Poppins Returns sets itself apart from the original. While Mary Poppins (1964) was morally complex, layered, and beautiful, it never sought to delve into something as emotional as loss of a primary family member. The way the film deals with this is endearing and beautiful, and hopefully will be a salve to any children who face this incredible trauma in the future.

The visuals are also phenomenal. Mary Poppins’ first adventure with the children is to get them clean. In an outing in their own bathtub they swim with playful dolphins and through pirate treasure in some of the most beautiful animation that we’ve seen mixed with live action in a long time.

This continues to crop up throughout the film as the children jump into a china dish and go to a circus and face off against a scheming fox (Colin Firth.who plays a symbolic double role here also as the acting head of the bank where Michael works).

Of course this is all filled with the most wonderful of music as well. While maybe not as polished and classic as the Sherman Brothers songs, these new songs from Marc Shaiman (Hairspray) are still incredibly serviceable. many of them take on an edge of vaudeville or the jazz music of the time period, which is a fun touch. As mentioned before, the theme of loss is what sets this apart, and the songs “A Conversation” and “The Place Where Lost Things Go”are particularly heartfelt as they relate to the loss of Michael’s wife/the childrens’ mother. 

While the film really wants to be its own, director Rob Marshall feels like he’s merely mimicking the original film. It is scene for scene, beat-for-beat, song for song an homage, if not a straight rip-off, of the original. There’s also a turn at the end in service to the plot to tie up all loose ends that I personally had a thematic problem with, but for those who don’t necessarily share my very specific views or head canon of the original Mary Poppins, you will likely not even blink at it.

Emily Mortimer is also tragically underutilized. While they make mention of her labour organizing and a nacent possible romance with Jack, these plotlines are somewhat dropped and underdeveloped. It felt like there might have been more there at some point that was cut from early scripts or versions of the film.

The film is also full of engaging cameos. Don’t let anyone spoil them for you, and don’t even look at the soundtrack listing or IMDb, because when some of these folks show up on screen it is just an absolute delight.

This film will surely entertain parents and children young and old for years to come. Beautiful and emotionally resonant, if a little too formulaic to the original, but if you’re a fan of the original 1964 Mary Poppins and don’t mind seeing an updated version of that, this film is absolutely for you. It’s supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

4 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Mortal Engines

mortal engines poster

Peter Jackson‘s Mortal Engines is a visual and creative feast for those of us who love production design and giant steampunk style machines. Unfortunately, its somewhat predictable plot and characters don’t help it become a more complete film, leaving it as cold and lifeless as one of its giant rolling cities. While this might be one of the best blockbusters you would normally have in theaters at any given time, this has the unfortunate luck of being in one of the most over-saturated and competitive markets in recent memory. It’s not a bad movie, but if someone asked for a recommendation of what to check out in a theater right now, I can’t wholeheartedly endorse this.

Our story, based on the novel of the same name, is about an apocalyptic future a thousand years from now where giant roaming cities practice “municipal cannibalism.” The larger cities find smaller trading posts and villages and consume their people and resources so that they can continue to exist.

Our action centers around one of the largest of these predator cities — London — where we find our hero Tom (Robert Sheehan). He is an archaeologist, meaning he studies “The Ancient Ones” of the 21st century, “The 60 Second War” that created the conditions of their world, where gigantic mega weapons destroyed most of civilization, fractured continents, and nearly wiped out all of humanity. He scavengers through the wreckage of the cities that they pick up looking for artifacts and even fabled weapons so that he can try to destroy them. However others around him may not have such benevolent purposes.

A mysterious scarred woman, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) is picked up in the breathtaking opening minutes of the film in one of these smaller cities, and she seems to have a vendetta against one of London’s most powerful residents, Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving).

This begins a chain of events that finds Hester and Tom outside of the city, chased by a sentient skeleton-like robot, picked up by slavers, and fighting for survival. We find out about much more of her backstory and what Valentine is trying to do in London, when she and Tom must work to prevent a repeat of the previous apocalypse.

Despite the complexity of that story, the plot is a little thin, it features one of the most obvious mcguffins ever, and at least halfway through seems to give up all pretense of even pretending to not just completely rip-off Star Wars. Again, that wouldn’t be such a terrible thing if this weren’t competing against so many other blockbusters over the next month.

However, a lot of the creative and stylistic choices here seem to be made for the entertainment of Asian audiences, (the same way other films like Skyscraper and The Meg were) where this may perform substantially better.

It is a really gorgeous film. And unlike some most of Jackson’s recent outings, this does not feel bloated or overwrought. A lot of the credit has to go to director Christian Rivers, a Jackson protoge who worked in the art department and production design for Lord of the Rings, King Kong, and assistant director on The Hobbit films. But Jackson’s fingerprints are all over this, the same way George Lucas will leave his fingerprints on films. It is well-paced and the performances are enjoyable if not memorable.

With such a rich tapestry, my biggest complaint is wishing that this film had something important to say about the world. A story about a giant rampaging London consuming other cities could have something very poignant to say about consumption or capitalism competition. Instead it’s just very surface, but you really enjoy all of that extra work put into the design of London or an entire city built in the sky, or other really amazing action set-pieces.

This is the same Peter Jackson who brought us Lord of the Rings, but unfortunately he’s not working from a rich world built by JRR Tolkien. This is possibly worth seeing if you love spectacle but care less about story and character and deeper meaning. But there just isn’t much behind the beauty and machinations and technical wizardry of this film. If you do see this, treat yourself to an IMAX or other large-format screen, because at least you can appreciate the art and visuals here.

3 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Green Book

green book posterGreen Book is a relatively simple tail of unlikely people forming a close bond. It’s little formulaic but also incredibly problematic and tropey. However, its two lead actors Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen are undeniably charismatic.

Ali plays Dr. Don Shirley, a classically trained pianist embarking on a road trip that includes stops through the Deep South. Mortenson plays Tony Vallelonga aka Tony Lip, who is hired as his driver and protector of sorts. He is a guy who has grown up in the Bronx and run security at clubs across Manhattan as well as all sorts of low key scams. He is also… er, pretty racist and so is his big Italian family.

The film isn’t shy about its social agenda, showing the unfairness of a segregated South and all of the indignity that Dr. Shirley has to suffer through. But the problem is the point of view character for us is Tony Lip, and we’re still learning in 2018 that racism is. . . *gasp* bad? and still exists! *double gasp*

Well straightforward and easy to follow, it’s a tad long. The “odd couple” pairing works for the most part, though it’s very surface level. Luckily the actors so completely melt into their roles that it makes it all together enjoyable to watch.

With a not-so-subtle subtext of them having to get home from their tour Before Christmas, this is aimed directly at the heart of holiday moviegoers and Oscar voters. Both should find some of what they’re looking for here, but this is nowhere near as interesting as other similarly themed recent films such as Hidden Figures.

Despite this, the film has rightfully been criticized for its “white savior” narrative. While it might be funny or interesting for the streetsmart Tony to teach the fastidious musical impresario various things from how to eat fried chicken to who the popular black artists are on the radio, it really feels weird. I mean, some mook from the Bronx is teaching one of the country’s greatest musical talents “how to be black”? Yeah, not here for this. Also, Shirley’s family has weighed in saying that these things are complete fabrications. Strike One.

Then there’s the question of why Dr. Shirley would tour through the South and play such normally segregated venues. [Spoiler alert: skip to end of the paragraph if you don’t want to know] Near the end of the film, one of Dr. Shirley’s bandmates tells a story of how Nat King Cole played one of the same venues a decade before and after the show was taken out back and beaten. I’m left asking myself, “Why am I not watching that movie?” Strike Two.

And then there’s the not-so-subtle message. Racism is bad. We get it. Segregation is bad. However, in the hamfisted way this film is delivered, it pretends that it’s only the overt racism that is our nation’s great moral deficit. Well, since we don’t have Jim Crow anymore and Jay-Z and Beyonce can stay in any hotel, shop in any store, play at any venue that racism is over. That’s a deeply false statement. And the fact that a movie like Green Book can be made and be seen as racially progressive (“Compared to what?”) when it fails to address so many other subtle forms of racism is, if not a step backwards, at least a jog in place. Ok, maybe not Strike Three, but that’s a couple of fouls into the stands.

In essence, this movie is a perfect film for any number of white liberals. They’re not racist, per se, but not “woke” either. They’re the people who will casually say “All Lives Matter” and who think racism ended after we passed the Voting Rights Act. They’re the family from Get Out. 

All that being said, Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortenson really are spectacular. Even though their schtick can run thin at times, and even though the film’s message has the subtlety of a sledgehammer, it’s still enjoyable to watch.

3 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Grindewald posterFans of the Potterverse can rejoice: you have a great sequel on your hands. While the first Fantastic Beasts seemed more concerned with worldbuilding and funny side-business, this second act of a planned five Fantastic Beasts films goes deeper and darker than we’ve ever gone before. The adage goes that in act 1, you introduce characters; act 2, dig a giant pit and throw them in; act 3, get them out. This is a deep, dark wizarding pit and definitely in my top 3 favorite Potterverse films.

From the get-go, it hits you with a fierce intensity. An opening scene re-introducing our villain Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) and a subsequent jailbreak have more action crammed into the first ten minutes than the entire first film combined.

We also get continued beautiful character development of our hero Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as he is recruited by Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) to try to track the escaped Grindelwald down. Grindelwald is obsessed with finding Credence (Ezra Miller), who against all odds survived the confrontation at the end of the first film and is now hiding in Paris. Dumbledore is hiding a mystery of why he won’t move against the dark wizard himself, but fears the Ministry of Magic’s Auror office, headed by Newt’s brother Theseus, and their heavyhanded tactics will play into Grindelwald’s plans.

There’s another wrinkle, as Theseus is set to marry fellow Auror Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz) who was a Hogwarts girlfriend of Newt’s in the perfect Hufflepuff-Slytherin relationship the fandom has always wanted. Newt, however, is still in love with American Auror Tina who is also in Paris searching for Credence and Grindelwald. So when her sister Queenie and now-fiance Jacob Kowalski show up on Newt’s doorstep, they all head to Paris searching for each other, for Credence, for Grindelwald.

Everybody get that? Sorry, it’s complicated.

The plot is more layered and delicate than a perfect french pastry. Even better, the characters and their arcs also feed in to the broader themes of the film. A big part of this is also about accepting and loving people because of, not just in spite of, their differences.  Expanding the main quartet from the first film to six by adding in Theseus and Leta is a brilliant move that is executed flawlessly. You have a half dozen people who are so incredibly different from each other and they all love one another in very different ways. Whether related by blood or not, they are like family. And so much of Credence’s story — despite him being the macguffin for this story — is very much about his own search for meaning and who his family is.

There’s also great commentary woven in here about how we co-exist with one another. A major plot point revolves around the legality or acceptance of marriage between the magic world and the non-magic world. There’s a complex morality about whether maybe wizards and witches should reveal themselves to the human world in an attempt to help the humans? Or just outright rule them. And ultimately identity and who we love is the main focus of this film. It is heartbreaking on multiple levels.

You also have Dumbeldore and Grindelwald as these perfect foils for one another. While not mentioned in the film, it would be worthwhile to review their early relationship around searching for The Deathly Hallows and the fateful three-way duel between them and Albus’s brother Aberforth which resulted in the death of their sister. (Note that all of those events take place several years before the first Fantastic Beasts film– you’ll want to get your timeline straight when you see this.)

The film also delivers a climax of epic proportions. When I compare this to the artistry and moral stakes of the finale of The Empire Strikes Back, I do not invoke that comparison lightly, but it is the best analog to what we have in this film. There are emotional stakes. There are plot twists. Bring tissues.

Sounds pretty amazing, right? It is. But the film has some other, er. . . problematic areas.

The first is the casting of Claudia Kim as Nagini. In later films/books, we know Nagini becomes Voldemort’s pet/horcrux, and fans have (rightfully) pointed out the racism in casting a Korean actress as a character who later becomes a pet. Rowling also caught justifiable flak for defending her choice saying:

Yikes. Koreans are not Indonesian, Chinese, Javanese, or Betawi. Ok, so this is hella problematic.

Here’s the deal, though: Claudia Kim in this movie is magic– no pun intended. She gives one of the best performances of the movie. Her character is a strong woman with agency, morals, and a personal story arc. She can also transform into a snake and is Credence’s best friend. It’s actually really terrible that she has to be Nagini and not just some other unnamed Maledictus, as she was originally listed in the casting. This is, of course, a problem endemic to prequels.

The other giant glaring problem with this movie is Johnny Depp. I don’t care what you think of Depp as a person or as an actor. But he is garbage in this movie. I haven’t seen someone so clearly just picking up a paycheck and not expending any effort since…  well, Johnny Depp in the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie. I haven’t seen a character so grating and unappealing in a tentpole franchise film since… well, Johnny Depp in the last Alice in Wonderland movie. He is terrible, and Warner Bros need to cut their losses and recast him for the inevitable (and well-deserved!) sequel. He’s a distraction every time he’s on screen, because he is expending so little effort that it’s simply, “Look! Johnny Depp in a platinum wig!”

The film’s saving grace is he isn’t in it very much despite being the title character. The downside is, this character deserves better. Here’s the real deal: Grindelwald has a point. Like Thanos, like Erik Killmonger, like the best baddies of 2018, he is a villain whose logic is sound, whose grievances are real, but whose methods are immeasurably unconscionable.

This is otherwise a near-perfect film– easily the equal of an Infinity War. But Johnny Depp’s magic spell he casts on this film is to drag it down by an entire star just by himself. In a cruel twist of either irony or tonedeaf marketing, most prints are being paired with the trailer for Aquaman starring Amber Heard as Mera. If there is any sense of cosmic justice, Aquaman will kick Grindelwald’s butt at the box office and Warner Bros may wise up that, hey, maybe having Depp star in our tentpole franchise is a bad idea.

Just sort of expend as little effort as possible in paying attention to Depp– at least as little as he is expending in performing– and try to enjoy the film pretending he is replaced by, oh, say, Christopher Plummer– just kidding. But seriously– Ewan MacGregor. Or Russell Crowe. Or Javier Bardem. Or Paul Bettany.

If you can do that, you will absolutely fall in love with this film. It raises the stakes, dashes expectations, and leaves you wanting more. Bring on the third Fantastic Beasts movie — and look for a spoiler-filled article from me later about why Newt Scamander is the hero we all need for 2018.

4 out of 5 stars

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